I grew up in a house without air conditioning. In central Texas. No window AC unit, no central air, no nothing – unless you count the ceiling fans and the attic fan outside my bedroom that sucked in allergens and spit them out into the house. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, as I am certain my Midwestern parents chose not to install AC in our Victorian house because life without AC was a character building experience (but really Mom and Dad – WHY??). Perhaps this is not on the scale of walking 12 miles barefoot in the snow to get to school, but for three months out of the year it was rough. I am forever scarred by the sensation of stifling air while in bed at night, the memory of laying with all limbs splayed, focused intently on breathing as little as possible, because even that movement made me hotter. Staring up at a fan that spun furiously and flung hot air down onto my sweltering body. I spent those hottest months sucking popsicles at the San Gabriel park pool down the road, or holed up in my friend’s house on the corner who had an oversized AC window unit. We’d close all the curtains so no hot sun could sneak into the living room, blast the icy air on high and sip Kool-aid while watching Coal Miner’s Daughter repeatedly. Those were the dog days.
But suddenly, without warning, I would ride my bike home from her house late some afternoon and notice the crunch of just-fallen leaves beneath my tires. A slice of Northern wind would whip up against my back in contrast to the months-long- heat and then – just then – while pedaling along the curve of our street, the distinct smell of Mom’s homemade soup and bread would fill the neighborhood, savory fingers of the stuff wafted out of our open windows slowly motioning: “Come….back…home…”
That is exactly, precisely, clearly, what I always picture the moment the weather turns: that sensation of a bike ride home towards the warm scent of Mom’s cooking. Talk about comfort food. Scents are evocative in this way, and for me particularly, they serve as the most reliable place holders in my memory. And up until three years ago, only a cool breeze and the smell of fresh bread and soup could conjure a perfect picture of early fall. Then we moved to the farm. Now it is entirely different. Here, early fall comes covered in Eau de Buck in Rut, an acrid musk that sits heavy on the porch out of nowhere, like it marched up from the buck’s pasture down the hill and stood waiting. It is the deeply pungent green odor of manure and bedding that rots quietly in the inevitable September storms.
But it also is woodsmoke as folks come from hiding to burn piles of trees and brush. It is the scent of crisp leaves releasing a dry, spicy aroma when crushed beneath our feet, beneath the hooves of all our beasts. And here – fall is auditory, too. The wailing of goats in heat, the low mooing of cows that chase through trees, suddenly active after summer hibernation. During the night, fall sounds like tribes of coyote moving, their howls call out like voices of the damned from all directions in the hills. Then the deep growls and barks of Great Pyrenees who stand guard in the dark, patrol the perimeter with hackles raised, teeth bared – waiting. It is howl and answer, howl and answer, howl and answer – until the wee hours. Until December.
Before the move here, I wanted to return to those best memories of childhood, pedaling like mad towards the scent of this season and home. But it occurs to me today, under a morning sky streaked red, against the backdrop of hills harboring countless predators, breathing in cool air pricked with musk, surrounded by the raw and wild soundtrack of fall: I am home.