Saying Goodbye to Phyll

You know, chlorophyll!

This is the time of the year when we occupiers of the upper Northern Temperate Zone bask in a riot of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns as green fades away—as the food factories in the leaves of deciduous trees, the chloroplasts, go the way of our savings: they die and plummet downward (“The falling greenbacks drift by my window”—). Now if we could only depend upon our financial institutions to ensure that next spring our accounts will be up and flourishing! Fortunately, nature has a much more consistent CEO— One who enjoys giving more than taking. His promises you can take to the bank.

Okay, enough of that! (My botanist friend Lytton Musselman, of Bible Plants fame, could extend that metaphor and add a dozen puns to it!) As awesome as autumn colors are, I was surprised to learn the other day when reading an essay on autumn by Thoreau, that folks in his day and region seldom took note of them. He wrote, “I remember riding with one such citizen, who, though a fortnight too late for the brilliant tints, was taken by surprise and would not believe there had been any brighter. He had never heard of this phenomenon before. Not only many in our towns have never witnessed it, but it is scarcely remembered by the majority from year to year.” Now, Henry David is talking about New England, the world capital of fall colors! Frankly, I think he was exaggerating (not an unusual thing for him). How could his fellow New Englander,  Longfellow’s blacksmith in his shop “under the spreading chestnut tree,” not notice the beauty outside his door each autumn? (Nor could the blacksmith have believed that in 60 some years, those common beloved chestnuts would be extirpated from the country.)

Here in Michigan in 2010 you cannot escape the botanical wonder of chlorophyll receding in order to reveal the brilliant pigments below its green layer. If it were not for the conifers (evergreens), by the time the blanketing snows arrive, about the only green we would see outdoors would be what’s painted on human artifacts. This change of seasons actually gets in your blood as a native northerner. We lived in California first for seven years and later for five years, and I have to confess that one of the things I missed the most was this seasonal change. That does not mean, however, that after three or more months of snow cover one does not pine for green (How’s that one, Lytton?). Those extremes actually work their way into your psyche making the pleasant seasons of spring, summer, and fall even more appreciated.

This bit of ambling is for the purpose of sharing with you some of the kaleidoscopic visual wonders created by the disappearance of chlorophyll from our foliage, beginning with the subtle edge fade of wild ginger—a phenomenon I just noticed after all these years of wandering in the autumn woods.  In order after that are maple leaves on a mossy stone (clearly not a rolling one), leaf strewn trail to the Thornapple River, sumac “flames,” and aspens, which if seen in video would indeed be quaking.

[Click on the photos to see them larger.]

See you outdoors,