Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Last Dance

We've moved on in our harvest work to the next crops- which does not mean we're any less busy, alas.  Busy is an understatement.

Amid all the noise in the news, I thought you might like a little respite.  Here is a re-cycled post from last September, which folks liked.  It's in time, I think, for folks to put to good use, and maybe be on the lookout for this event in your own neighborhood.


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...

I just read the posting from a few weeks ago, about the last election.
One TED talk helped clarify the differences between Liberals and Conservatives. Four years ago I was struck by how some students of mine simply did not consider Kerry at all. It hung on their religion - he was not a Christian; could not be one and therefor could not be voted for. The invasion/occupation and torture of Iraqi's (Canadians, Germans and who knows who else) but the US under the watch of Bush was like water off a ducks back. He surely did the best that he could given the information he had - and it's not our position to judge him based upon current information.

Anyways - this TED talk is neat:

Lastly - GreenPa, you're an inspiration. My family spent a week working at an off-grid organic farm (more homesteading actually!) and it opened our eyes a bit. I'd setup a sawdust toilet lickety spit though - no smell and you can have it inside.

Zabetha said...

Wow, beautiful! Amazing! Thanks for this.

homebrewlibrarian said...

We have something similar happen here. On winter nights when it is dead still and a light snow falls so that it lies gently on every branch, if the next morning is crystal clear and still, you'll see a dance of sorts. When the sun begins to touch the branches, it will release a fine dusting of snow. As the sun gets higher, more snow is released. It's almost like tiny little snow fireworks going off randomly. Standing amongst a bunch of trees while this happens takes your breath away. It is absolutely silent; no wind, no birds, just little puffs of snow off the branches. Magical is the only way to describe it so I totally get the Last Dance imagery. I've experienced this in Wisconsin as well as Alaska but not often. The conditions have to be perfect and that's rare these days.

Kerri in AK

WILDBLUESbysus said...

My eyes opened. My imagination could see the swirl of leaves. My ears almost heard the Fall.
Thank you.
The hickories and ash are still green here but I'll keep watching.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Beautiful post.

This reminds me of when we get our first snow in CT. I can smell snow coming, and so can my brothers. We can go outside at night and smell it, and know that it's going to snow and we'll wake up to a white blanket.

When I've mentioned to people that "it smells like it's going to snow" they look at me like I have two heads. I hope I can pass this on to my children as you have passed on the leaf dance to yours.

I've never seen this leaf dance, but I'm sure I have a while here because we've got time until our first frost. I'll be on the lookout this year.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if its related but I recently passed a tree which had lost a very large number of leaf clusters but other leaves were still attached. I could not imagine why so many clusters could have fallen apparently all at once. I will check out the kind of tree and see if compound leaves might be part of the answer. No frost here yet. Thanks for the botany lesson!

Anonymous said...

Breathtaking. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for writing this. My four-year-old and I were walking to preschool this morning (a lovely clear morning after the first really cold night here) when we watched a beautiful golden maple start doing this, just a few minutes after the sun reached the top branches. It was really beautiful, plus even more fun for me, because I understood what was going on!