- Foliage dimming brown, bare branches evident, this is the week when the bulk of the drying leaves come down. Each gust of wind brings another shower of gently floating detritus. Each morning, no matter how spotless the evening before, ground is covered as if with dust or brown frost. Sometimes capricious winds will sweep one area bare, pile another corner high.
- I have always considered fall named for this unavoidable shower of vegetation. Now I refuse to look up the true etymology_ sometimes it is nice to hold on to personal myths if they bother nobody else. I think, at least around here, I remain one of the few people who think a few leaves on a lawn enhances it and makes it real _ spotless is for sterile indoor malls or obsessively clean rugs, not nature. However tame we try to make it.
“Again,” wife insists.
- Classical European landscape artists rarely depict autumn. In backgrounds of Italian Renaissance painters, it’s always summer. The Dutch and French occasionally portray winter, but even there the greatest _ Ruisdael, Hobbema _ stick mostly to the times when green fills their worlds. On the other hand, almost the first American landscapes are of color-draped Catskills or Long Island farms after harvest.
- Europe has colorful trees _ my wife and I have seen them in Paris in October, walking through Pere Lachaise. Rather the explanation is convention and opportunity. Until the 1800;s, painting had to be done in studios where paints could be prepared and mixed. Summer was for sketching outside, then the real paintings were done over the winter based on the drawings. Only with the advent of factory colors did artists venture outside, and even then most of the impressionists found working in autumn wind and rain a bit too challenging. Anyway, I enjoyed remembering all this as I strolled through the Metropolitan museum yesterday, while heavy drizzle brought down the leaves outside in Central Park.
“You sound too much like my wife,” I grumped. More leaves swirled down on a stronger gust of wind.
- A few days of rain, a few nights of cold, a few more days of wind and the landscape is new. Ground spaces previously cleared are filled once more. Trees have lost at least half their canopy, some branches stripped bare. While the leaves remain wet, it’s a waiting game because dry stuff is a lot easier to clean up, blow, bag, and carry.
- For me, this is the heart of autumn, past the fairy tale colors and suspicious warmth. A season has arrived for real, and there will be cold and there will be precipitation and there certainly will be increasing darkness. Our sun sets at four thirty, and even the mornings are grey and mournful. In a few weeks, all the foliage will be cleaned up, all the winter clothes on display, and soon yard lights will futilely try to add cheer to arriving solstice.
- Raking leaves, one thinks of the carbon cycle we all learned in elementary school: animals eating, breathing oxygen and churning out carbon dioxide while plants turn CO2 into food and oxygen. Visible sequestration of carbon seems to swirl all around us at this time of year, the end result of the mighty lungs of the huge forests of Eastern North America.
- If we worry about climate, it tends to center on carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in prodigious quantities by industry, or perhaps by the destruction of lung forests such as those of New York or the Amazon. What will happen as our air goes increasingly out of balance?
- But, like many things, these ideas are far too simplified. The leaves sequester carbon for a while, of course, but rapidly decay on forest floors, often consumed by microorganisms that release carbon dioxide more efficiently than the larger mammals. Volcanoes and forest fires can release amounts of CO2 that dwarf anything produced by human activities, at least for a while. And much of the carbon cycle is actually accomplished by things much less obvious than broadleaf deciduous trees.
- We easily realize that grasses and shrubs do their part, and with a little effort will admit that algae and seaweed do the same. Perhaps we do not quite understand how much of the balance is done by those less obvious plants, but at least we respect their efforts. Even there, we may not realize how much of a part in the cycle oceans and their inhabitants play, making most of the land efforts puny by comparison.
- But the truly astonishing thing is that much of the oxygen in the atmosphere is accomplished by oceanic viruses. Science still struggles to understand it all. Surely that matters a great deal to the health of the planet, but who wants to see viruses as necessary and good (especially since we cannot see them at all)?
- Leaves are useful obvious metaphors for the interconnection of life on earth. Like so many of the metaphors we love they are incomplete and almost, but not quite, so misleading as to be wrong. Consider that the next time you brush one off your shoulder in November gusts.
- In less than five days this year just about everything is on the ground. Oh, the more stubborn leaves will hang on for a few months, trickling down to annoy those who prefer spotless. Only the hard freeze has held off, so there are still ragged spots of brilliant color in some gardens. Anyone outside today knows this is the end of the year.
- I’ve seen roses right up until Christmas, in sheltered locations. A few trees remain green turning yellow, as if they are the last poor victims in a plague ward. But there is no doubt that this was a good week to dub the heart of fall.