Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Flowers of Fall

There are some things in life that even the most sheltered, sedentary person cannot avoid. I have one of these things in mind.
Here in Fall, the great pivot of the year, as skeins of geese flood southward, shores become ice-choked, and squalls push down the Appalachians, we are, for the most part, oblivious to it all. We are too busy to possibly have time to consider the great forces that drive our planet, we are too busy skirting the sidewalks of our concrete jungle, stressed out, face down in our cellular devices.

But there is one aspect of this great shift that you cannot avoid, that you can see by lifting up your head while sitting on the john, looking out the window, seeing the tree beside your house swirling in the wind. A tree that is green no longer.

Perhaps there is no greater alteration to our visual landscape than the fall leaf change. Winter is gray, summer is green, fall is... red, yellow, orange, brown, purple, whichever you need. Such beauty in the name of death.

What is going on? Why do tree leaves change color in fall? As with most scientific questions there is a simple answer, and then the seriously too complicated answer that is impossible to grasp. I'll bridge the gap for you.

In the summer, chlorophyll(the plant's food factory) is so concentrated in the leaves that its green color hides the yellow and oranges of other chemical compounds present. As chlorophyll begins to disappear at the onset of the cold season, the oranges and yellows are revealed. And what about the leaves that just turn brown? The brown is tannin, a waste product of the tree's life processes.

But why do the deciduous leaves die and fall to the ground to begin with?

Here in the temperate deciduous forests of North Carolina, the main reason is temperature. Growth only occurs during the warm summers and leaves drop during the fall so that the trees sit dormant during the cold winter. The loss of leaves helps conserve water that would otherwise be needed to maintain the leaves. And even though this system requires the tree to regrow new leaves in the Spring(a taxing chore), it is still more favorable than having to maintain functional leaves in the depths of winter.

SO ENOUGH OF THE TALK ALREADY... I'm sure you're starting to feel a bit too nerdy, so let's get back to the artistic, pretty side... LET'S TAKE A VISUAL TOUR!!! I've spent the past couple weeks accumulating some photographs for this article.. whether from backpacking in the Smokies to just poking around Chapel Hill.

Above and below, photos from the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC in mid-October. The vividness of this scape cannot be captured with a lens, it is too expansive... but I tried.

Above is the normal sight along the parkway, where the road is lined like this all day. Ever wonder why the Blue Ridge Parkway is the most traveled road in the country? This is perhaps the biggest reason of all.

Above, we're back in Orange County, outside of Chapel Hill. While meandering through Duke Forest today 10/29, I sat still and took stock of what was around me. Without moving I collected the following leaves. Note the different colors... Clockwise starting in the top left: Red Oak, Dogwood, Hickory, Grape Vine, Sassafras, White Oak, Red Maple, Beech, Tulip, Sweet Gum, Black Cherry, Willow Oak, Winged Elm.

Above is the winning leaf so far. Red Maple from Great Smoky Mountain National Park sitting on my desk. It looks like burnt earth splitting along veined fault lines, revealing the magma beneath.

And finally, the most decorated, flamboyant leaves of all belong to the Sugar Maple... Above is one floating in a creek in Battle Park, Chapel Hill.

I'm sure most of you have spent moments admiring the trees around you. But for the readers out there who are in the East, take another moment to truly appreciate it. Feel sorry for those scrubs out west(female or not) who have to deal with evergreens and deserts. We've got it best. And I guess Germany does too.

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