Reality is sometimes far more fantastic than the wildest of our myths and fables. During ancient times, Alchemists sought the Philosophers’ Stone – a substance that could change lead into gold. Later, in Grimm’s Fairy tales, an impish creature named Rumpelstiltskin could spin plain straw into pure gold. But the magic described in these tales seems amateurish compared to the genuine miracle we call photosynthesis – the process by which green plants change golden sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into the material of their bodies and, in so doing, have created all the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. It is beyond being simply interesting. It is an absolute marvel.
But the shortening days of autumn signal the coming of winter, and trees have evolved several strategies to survive the darker, colder days of that season. Evergreen trees and shrubs have sap that is resistant to freezing and a waxy coating on their leaves that prevents them from losing water; water that cannot be replaced due to the fact that most of it is frozen.
But while the pines, firs, and other evergreen trees look much the same in winter as they do during the summer months, deciduous (or broadleaf) trees, drop their summer leaves in response to the coming of winter and appear to change into something entirely different. Something austere and pensive.
Throughout the spring and summer, the leaves of deciduous trees are colored green due to the chlorophyll they contain. This is the pigment that allows plants to absorb sunlight and turn it into the nutrients that power the growth of the tree and produce the flowers we love and the fruits we savor. This process is called photosynthesis. Interestingly, chlorophyll cannot use green light very well, so while it absorbs the other colors found in sunlight, it reflects the green part of that light. And this reflected light is what colors so much of the natural world during the warmer seasons.
As the days become shorter and there is less sunlight available for photosynthesis, the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down and is drawn back into the tree. This material will be conveyed to the roots where it will spend winter below the frost-line – the depth beyond which the ground never freezes. There, safe from the cold, this vital nutrient awaits the call of spring when it will return to the surface to become the first leaves of the year.
With the chlorophyll gone, the other colored pigments it had hidden come into view. This creates the riot of reds, yellows, and other colors of the leaves that are the very hallmark of autumn. It is what inspires thousands of fall-color tourists (also known as leaf-peepers) to take to the road and add upwards of $30 billion to the economies of two dozen states in the eastern half of our country. And who can blame them? As the French author, Albert Camus, once said, ”Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
Next, the passages between the leaf stem and the twig are sealed, and the connecting tissue dries and frays until the leaf’s attachment to the twig becomes too weak to support its weight. Then, the leaf drops to the ground in the descent that gives this time of year its most common name: Fall.
Falling leaves have long been a source of enjoyment and inspiration, for each one follows a unique course from its twig down to the ground; a path that is defined by the shape of the leaf and the strength of the breeze. Try naming, explaining, or humming a tune to describe how a leaf looks and moves as it descends. Some travel in a straight line from twig to ground (high divers), others seem to move in fabulous flutters (twirlies) or charming pirouettes (ballerinas), while the long, compound leaves (those having a long stem with several leaflets on each side) sometimes travel towards the ground looking like Viking longships caught in a whirlpool. Try this with some children, and in moments you will learn who is practical and who harbors a touch of the poetic.
You can also have the kids try to catch the leaves before they hit the ground, construct a crown of fallen leaves (see earlier entry in this blog link), or just gather up a huge pile of leaves for the children to jump on or burrow into. This last activity is always a favorite with the younger ones.
Forty years later, every one of my children can vividly remember playing in the piles of leaves I had raked up on a crisp, autumn afternoon. Heck, it’s been seventy years, and I still remember my kid sister and me jumping into the leaf piles our father had raked up. He was happy to see us having such fun, but not so overjoyed by the fact that he was going to have to rake the same leaves up a second time. It’s one of the perpetual paradoxes of parenthood.
The fall foliage can arouse all of your senses. Along with the strong visual experience and a sense of passing time, our ears and noses also play a part in how we feel when the leaves change color and fall to the ground.
At this time of year, the wind sounds different as it passes through the bare branches and our footsteps are muffled if the carpet of leaves is wet or amplified if they are dry and crisp. Then there is that wonderfully, sweet and slightly fermented fragrance coming up from the leaves on the ground: a scent that often arouses vivid recollections of earlier autumn days.
There are few things more enchanting than a walk in the woods of autumn. It will calm you, inspire you, and resurrect memories of times long forgotten. To miss an opportunity to enjoy this simple pleasure is to forego a joyous sensory experience and a chance to revive your spirit. Choose not to do that. The rewards are too great (and the housework will still be there tomorrow).