- In slow-motion video, sports stars float serenely, suspended between jump and the certain knowledge that they will eventually succumb to gravity. Suspense builds as to just how long the action can continue. And so it is now with the foliage and flowers. Just how many days can a given sugar maple remain fluorescent orange, how long can lingering roses resist frost? Mid-October is nothing but hang time, gasping at spectacle, awaiting the inevitable return to earth.
- Each morning, the light radiating off our backyard trees has a different hue, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically different than yesterday. Each leaf remains poised to color vividly, turn brown, or dry. Asters and goldenrods fight the golden brown tide surrounding them, but we know that is simply a valiant rear-guard action. Still, we hope the loveliness will last at least another day, perhaps another week, even longer, who knows? Meanwhile, this moment hovers, as all moments must, between the past and future.
Everything green changes hue
Bees find that flowers are few
Sparkles are bright
But it’s freezing at night
And I’m not quite sure what to do
- Roman historians reported that among the Teutonic tribes it was a crime _ sometimes punishable by death _ to fatally injure a tree. Early Americans, confronted by the same dark forests, decided that it was worse to leave forests standing unimproved and unused for growing crops. Almost all the magnificent autumn displays throughout New England come from second or third growth woodland, the original having been logged off long ago.
- We still reserve our respect for historic or magnificent specimens, sometimes for overwhelming spectacle. But for the most part we cut trees for furniture and lumber, or mash it into paper. I am not saying such is wrong _ at least it is biologic and recycling, since trees will grow back eventually. As many homeowners around here ruefully find out, maples and hickories actually grow back a lot faster than expected, shading flowerbeds, draining water from lawns, showering cascades of thundering nuts, and threatening houses with heavy overhanging limbs. We still need to prune or remove these giants once in a while, but we should always approach them _ even just to admire their foliage _ with a degree of humility.
This time of year, I am easily mesmerized by one branch or twig surrounded by its colored ensemble. Or, especially, by a single fruit, one brilliant leaf. I am paused in reverie staring at a particularly lovely specimen when John passes by and calls. “You know that’s poison ivy. Look but don’t touch!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I laugh. “Learned that the hard way. Still, loveliest display along this route today.”
“There’s a moral there somewhere,” he suggests.
“Oh, there’s a moral in everything. Many morals. The one we select always turns out to be something that supports our current agenda or mood.”
“So what’s yours today?”
“The transience of everything, I suppose.”
“Ah, romantic deep melancholy. Too bad, with the day so lovely,” he critiques.
“No, no,” I insist. “Transience in a good way. This is the time to enjoy this particular leaf. Tomorrow it may be brown or fallen. Right now it is a marvel.”
“Like you, I suppose.”
“Well, OK. But mostly, I want to take advantage of the micro-views of the world. The pretty leaf right here, the flaming tree over there,” I gesture across the harbor, “no need to travel to far away destinations to take advantage of what is being offered.”
“Today only! Don’t miss out! Hurry!” he mocks.
“If you will. Anyway, isn’t this nice, all red, orange, yellow, spotted and shiny? Here, I’ll pick you a bunch if you want….”
“Fiend!” he yells dramatically. “Begone! I walk in beauty, I do not drink of it! Although,” he adds slyly, “you are free to take as many as you want for yourself. “ He continues on his way, whistling.
I try to get back into my study, but the spell has been broken. Anyway, there are more things to see, and tomorrow will surely offer others, certainly different.
- No matter what, triggers have been fired. Even if days remained extraordinarily warm until Christmas, leaves would brown and fall, perennials would dry and hibernate, annuals would not sprout. Everything now awaits the new triggers of cold and damp, and goes about its business of dismantling. Leaves and nuts will cascade down everywhere, inevitably.
- Sometimes the differences of a mile or so can be disorienting. Drive down one street and the scenery remains that of late August. Take another route and crisp golden orange leaves everywhere herald the imminent arrival of November. Unlike Robert Frost, I have the pleasure of being able to take each road diverging in these yellow woods, and enjoy whatever unique perspective and thoughts they inspire.
- Way back when biology was simple, many of us received our first lesson in environmental ecology and recycling from the story of our northern forest. In the spring, roots would send water to buds to swell manufacture, and start using chlorophyll. All summer long, roots continued to draw water and raw nutrients from the soil in exchange for the carbohydrate food sent back by the leaves. In fall, shorter days made the leaves stop producing food, so the roots stopped sending water, the leaves dried up, decayed, and fell to the forest floor. All winter that biomass decayed, leaching raw materials back into the soil, ready for the roots to repeat the cycle next season.
- Neat, simple, made sense, and although true in a grand sense, also wrong in details.
- In the fifties we constantly tended to underestimate natural biology. We thought of most of it as at best machinery, at worst a mere extension of basic laws of, for example, evaporation. We were sure we could do just as well, in almost no time, with our scientific medicine. We had yet to discover almost anything about life, but were nevertheless sure we knew the big things and would soon control all there was to know.
- Now the complexity of even the forest has been revealed, although not completely understood. But one thing is certain: the fall ritual of dropping leaves is a lot more complicated than we thought. After various triggers are associated and set off _ in itself somewhat mysterious _ hormones are released and active deconstruction and storage of leaf materials begins. The components of chlorophyll and any trace elements and chemicals that are hard to come by are not abandoned in the leaves, but rather carefully removed, broken down, and shipped to the roots for storage.
- What remains are primarily stiffening compounds _ silicates and such _ used in veins to provide shape and easily recovered from groundwater next year. And carotenes, which provide more structure and incidentally a nice red orange yellow color. That color, we all know, only appears when the chlorophyll is gone _ not destroyed, but deconstructed and shipped out.
- That’s why you can’t recreate autumn the rest of the year by picking a branch and letting it dry. All you get there is dead brown decay. Marvelous colors are hardly the sign of the tree giving up and going back to sleep, but rather the result of furious activity actively heading into hibernation and a planned renaissance when the next cycle occurs.
- I suspect our current visions of some simple deeper universe or reality are just as naïve as our former visions of forest cycles.
- An afternoon of cold rain, a night of howling north wind, and landscapes are green again. Any brilliantly colored foliage has been stripped off, what remains are still undead verdant leaves merely tinged off-hue. Weather forecasters have expanded their realm and now predict when “peak color” should arrive in any region. Fortunately, they have a better chance of getting that right than they often do the track of storms.
- From experience of other years, I believe that peak color has already passed many of the places I most visit. From here on there will be shades of yellow gradually mellowing into browns which will lazily drift from sky to ground. Besides, there are at this late date sure to be more savage winds and harsh heavy rains. My task now is to seek out whatever small highlights I can find, and like everyone else around here, start to clean ongoing accumulations from the yard.