Monday, September 17, 2007

The turn of the year

There's a special autumn event I look for every year. It doesn't have a name.

Actually, I've never met anyone else who has seen it, or heard of it. A fact that makes me think, and wonder if that should worry me. Us.

It's quite a spectacular thing, when it happens. Spectacular as it is, though, it goes unnoticed; partly because at the best, it can only last for a half an hour. No more. And it doesn't happen every year, either.

It used to happen most years, at least in part. Now it happens less. That worries me, too.

In a good year- meaning one with good rainfalls, good growing weather- we go into autumn with the trees having their year's work fully completed. The leaves are drying, getting ready to drop; all the nutrients that can be recovered already pulled back into the tree for storage. That's what the fall colors are about, of course, the leaf machinery has been shut down; the nutrients sent back for recycling.

Several species of trees, particularly those with "compound" leaves; walnuts, hickories, ashes- often reach a state where few leaves have fallen yet, color is rather minimal, yet the leaves are finished, and the "abscission layer", the exact area where the leaf is attached to the tree, is fully mature; the leaf is separated, but still, just, hanging on because of a little residual "glue". A compound leaf, you understand, is one that has a central rib with maybe 5 to 9, or more, leaflets on it. It's really one leaf, cut up by nature; and the whole thing is shed when it's time.

Then comes the first frost.

Here, that almost always means a day when a fierce blustery cold front has been moving in, rattling branches, leaves, and teeth, all day. Like magic - year after year- the wind dies to dead calm exactly as the sun goes down; leaving the crystal blue autumn sky fading through all possible blues to black. The stars appear, almost unblinking in the winter-like clarity; the wind stays still; and we know, going to bed, that there will be frost tonight. We usually don't light the woodstove, but just put on sweaters and extra blankets; we know the heat of "Indian summer" will certainly follow this day or two of winter previews.

I make it a point to be up before dawn on these days, because of what happens when the rising sun just touches the treetops, instantly melting the frost that's grown slowly all night long. The frost in the abscission layer; in-between the leaves and the branches. Millions of leaves are now attached to their parents not by glue, or tissue; but only by a tiny thin layer of lacy ice...

You have to be IN the woods to see this. And you have to be up before the sun. And you have to watch every year; because sometimes- it doesn't happen at all.

The air, typically, is still dead calm. The stars are starting to fade as the sun, still below the horizon, brightens the eastern sky. No red in the sky- no clouds to make it. The coffee in my hand is hot; and welcome because it's cold, since I've stubbornly refused to light the fire. The sky gets steadily brighter.

Then- the sun touches the highest leaves.

Nothing happens. Well, the ice has to melt, you know; it doesn't happen instantly. How cold is it? 33°? Should melt fast. The leaves get colder than the air, as they radiate their heat to the black cold of space. This is true- the air temperature can be 35°, even; and if the air is still and the sky clear- it will frost. Or is it colder? 26°? It will take longer to melt if it's cold.

Will it happen? Or is this not the right year?

Then- in the right year- from the very top of the tallest ash tree- an entire compound leaf detaches; in the totally still air- and drops. Sails, is more like it. They can float down like kites with broken strings, shifting, drifting, changing directions- and bumping other leaves. Then another. And another.

The sun only moves up; the warmth only increases, the ice melts faster, the leaves let loose in great shoals, schools, flocks.

Sifting down through the branches; knocking some non-participant maple and elm leaves off, too.

All in total silence; no wind, no sound. Except the sighs of the descending leaves. In my memory, even the birds are silenced by this astonishing forest-wide event. Everything stops to watch. And the whole woods whispers.

For perhaps a half an hour, the sky rains leaves. Quietly, with only the occasional drip of melted frost to accompany the swish of the sailing leaves. What happens when some compound leaf loses a leaflet or two on one side? Unbalanced, they twirl, and swirl, and... well, dance is the only word. Each an individual; a sky full of brilliant, flashing, variations.

Walking in it is transfiguring. Walking through it with a loved one- moreso. Walking through it with a small child- neither you, nor they, will ever forget.

It's a throat-hurtingly beautiful thing; a rite of change I've shared with my loved ones whenever I could. This is IT; the exact instant of change, from summer to fall- the world has turned, successfully, once more. That "successfully" bit is not a given, you know.

I hope you can see it; a little, here. And I really hope you have the chance to see the .. hm. The Last Dance? in real life, someday. It's not easy to do; you can't sell tickets to the leaf peepers, the actual event is far too unpredictable. If you don't actively seek it out, you'll never see it. I'm sure ash trees in cities do drop their leaves this way sometimes- but it's not the same as walking through a forest, where it's all happening at once.

It didn't happen, this year. We got the frost; and the clear clear night; but the trees were oddly on both sides of the equation; the walnuts had all dropped their leaves weeks ago, when drought turned to flood. And the ashes. But hickories, strangely, are still brightly green. Even if the hickories decide to drop at a later frost, the "whole forest" thing can't happen. Of course, I'd been looking forward to showing the Smidgen. Watching her watch with her wide, wide "2 anna HALF" year eyes. Chasing leaves. Seeing the world turn.

Not this year. I'm not greatly disappointed- I'm pretty sure there will be other times. But I do wonder, and worry. When I first lived here, this was something that happened pretty reliably, 2 years out of 3. But in the last 10 years- it's only happened twice, I think. Too many climate signals drifting away from their original settings? It's not just me, the real old-timers here notice the changes, too.


One of the points this leaves me pondering is- how much of our world do we miss- or misunderstand- because critical pieces of it simply go unseen?

Any student of human behavior will tell you that humans mostly see what we expect to see; what we're taught to see.

I don't know anyone else who's ever seen, or noticed, this Last Dance; spectacular as it is. I HAVE had a couple visitors who were here during one- and still didn't SEE it, until I pointed it out.

I doubt the Last Dance has any particular environmental significance, on its own; but-

What else, on this earth, have we just never seen? Never noticed? We humans are so short lived, really- and so self occupied. And still we assume, even the most careful of us, that we have a reasonably good idea how "things" work here.

I have my doubts. And some evidence. And how do we learn; and how do we teach- how to open our eyes?

It's important.


Anonymous said...


Thank you!

Lisa said...

I sounds amazing. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Oh Greenpa, you're a poet! Beautiful, reminded me of that part in Bambi a little bit - I hope next year little Smidgeon will get her chance

Anonymous said...

Beautiful...and yes, I could see it, just a little.


barefoot gardener said...

You have the magic...

Ooohhhh, I saw it. It is beautiful.

Thank you for sharing.

Theresa said...

Greenpa - that gave me goosebumps just reading about it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Smidgen will still love it when she's 3 -- or 4 -- or 5.

Thank you for sharing. This shows what we miss in our busy world - our lack of community. And when someone points it out just once, then you can see it ever after. Thanks for the gift.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for leaving this bit of shimmery magic on the web. I'm a subscriber now.

I love this season!

Anonymous said...

Reading this, I greatly miss the north woods of Wisconsin...
Thank you for the 'vision'
Carla in north Idaho

Chile said...

Magical, Greenpa. As an outdoorsy child, I was lucky enough to occasionally observe little magical moments like this in the mountains. In fact, I left one job in a natural setting when "management" was taken over by 'blind' people who could not see the magic and managed to destroy it for others. I cried on my final hike to say goodbye to the special and magical places.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most beautiful texts I've ever read. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

*sigh* I can see it. I really can.

I'm at a loss for words, this was just too lovely.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

beautiful. thank you.

rebecca said...

Truly lovely - I've never witnessed this phenomenon, but thank you for sharing it.