September 29, 2002

A Time to Fall

image copyright Fred First

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found; Now green in youth, now withering on the ground. Another race the following spring supplies: They fall successive, and successive rise.

Alexander Pope (1688–1744)

It amazes me how a leaf knows when its time has come to fall. Perhaps some combination of day length and temperature gives the signal. But maybe it's just the good taste to abort, an inner sensitivity to the needs of the whole, giving its parent tree a chance to hibernate with its blood gone underground for the winter, safe from freezing. Whatever reason and whatever the trigger for the moment of leaf launch, I'm glad they don't all get the same idea on the same day.

First, the walnut and basswood and spicebush leaves fly in the first winds of tropical storms or sudden thunderstorms in late summer. The poplars and hickories, cherries and sumacs have the good manners to wait a while, until after a leaf has had the proper opportunity to strut its chameleon color changes during October before finally falling, drab and shriveled, in a north wind on a bleak November day.

An oak leaf will refuse to let go until December, clacking and waggling brown and brittle in the cold breezes. The serrated leaves of a smooth-boled American Beech turn almost white and become so thin and light, they seem to move on their own on a still January day. This year's beech leaf may persist on the twig until next spring's new baby leaf evicts it, finally, pushing it out and away, off into space, down to the black soil among the first of the spring mustards and violets.

Leaves enter my fantasies, I confess. I have wondered about them, individually, and as a race. If all of the leaves from the countless trees on our acres here fell and did not decompose by the following spring...if this happened year after year, how many years would it take to choke off all growth along the forest floor? Should our woods remain alive after even one year of such a calamity, which is doubtful, how many years of leaf-fall would it take to completely fill the bowl of our valley to the rim?

If all these same leaves could by some fairy-industry be stitched together, edge to edge, would it make one huge leaf as big as all of Floyd county?

And I wonder: If a fella were to lie on his back in these woods for a day, could he learn to tell all the leaves to species merely by the pattern of their falling from the tree on a still day? My hypothesis is 'yes', and I will likely undertake this study soon, purely for the sake of science, you understand.

Posted by fred1st at September 29, 2002 08:36 PM

to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What hart hard of, ghst gussed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

-- Gerald Manley Hopkins

Posted by: Pascale Soleil at September 30, 2002 02:09 PM

Gee...this is the second GMHopkins quote I have gotten in comments in the past week.

I was not familiar with this one, Pasquale. Very appropos.

Fall is, paradoxically, my favorite season. I will have to ask myself why. And, you can be forwarned, I will probably put the answer in a blog entry.

Posted by: fredf at September 30, 2002 06:37 PM

Fall is the season for the melancholy and the contemplative, for those who are inclined toward introspection. It is our time of the year. In a paradoxical way, it refreshes us...perhaps because we are reminded by our surroundings of the importance of change, and how something within us has to die before we can be revived and born anew.

Posted by: Curt at October 1, 2002 07:56 AM

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