Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunrise, sunset...

Happy Halloween, All Saints Day, Samhain, whichever.

Autumn has long been a favorite time of year, for me; when I was a youngster I would say the favorite; but these days I'm less exclusive. Why would I want, when listening to the first frogs chorusing in just-spring, to wish for something different?

Here in the cold-temperate part of the world, Autumn can be seen as a fading time; the "end" of summer, the "descent" into the dark, cold, death of winter.

Oh, piffle; is my response. The naked limbs of the trees have their own distinctive beauty, invisible most of the year; and the diamond-sharp stars of deep winter nights are worth the frozen nose that goes with them.

Still. While it's lovely to watch the bright leaves fall, it's such an ephemeral thing; I have to admit to a little pang of sadness when they are all gone. I do watch the whole show carefully, each year, even in the hurry of harvest.

When I was a freshman in college, I had a great deal more time than I do now. Probably being away from home made me a bit more sentimental and nostalgic than usual, but I really regretted losing the oranges, reds, yellows.

So I made an effort to find a way to keep them; just a bit longer.

I found a way. I've kept it rather a secret ever since; but the time has come to share it.

I knew that "pressing" leaves; gathering them and putting them in between layers of paper; simply doesn't work for the colors. You can wind up with a nicely preserved leaf, that will show you the shape and all, but the color will be dramatically, or totally, faded if you follow normal procedures. And the pressing process can take a month or so, before the leaf is thoroughly dried and stable. The only method I knew of to save the colors was very messy; involving infusing the leaves with glycerin. Gooey, and not cheap either.

Somehow, I hit on the idea of - ironing - the leaves. I was already enough of a biologist that the idea immediately had some appeal; the rapid heating of the water in the leaf to the boiling point should "denature" the enzymes responsible for digesting the pigments; maybe this could work...

It does work. Extremely well, in fact. The one additional "secret" to this process is that freshly ironed leaves still need to be pressed in paper, or they will curl up. But having been thoroughly ironed, much of the cell structure has now been just a little ruptured, by steam; and the leaf will dry to stability in just a week or so. If you try to iron them hot enough, and long enough, to just dry them directly, there's a very good chance you will cause the colors to fade a great deal; too much, and you can easily scorch a dry leaf.

Use a "hot" iron; lay it on the leaf and let the heat penetrate; move the iron a bit to flatten any irregularities; turn the leaf and iron the other side (seems silly, but seems to matter); then turn and iron again; that's all. A heavily padded ironing board may not work well; I often iron on an old National Geographic, covered with a couple paper towels to absorb moisture.

This is now a rite of passage, for me; as Autumn progresses, I'll make an expedition or two with a loved one to just walk, and discover, and gather some of the brightest and most beautiful leaves. Then we'll iron them together, quickly taking the hot and still damp leaves and carefully getting them, exactly flat, into the old atlas or dictionary. Some of the colors change a little when ironed; dark reds may become even darker; light yellows may get paler still. Or not; this unknown part of the rite adds a little more whimsey to it.

Then, a week or two later, perhaps on a rainy late fall day, the next part of the rite. We meticulously wash a couple windows; the east, and the south, in our case. And using double sided tape, together we put up the leaves, perhaps making swoops and swirls, to look like a swoosh of falling leaves. Yes, they're a little fragile. You have to be careful with them. That's a good thing. If you're not sure your leaves are dry enough, try a few. If they start to curl away from the glass in an hour or two, they need to stay in your book press for a few more days.

Often after the late fall rains, the woods will be bare- and gray. It can seem just a bit dismal, if you let it. But as I drink my morning coffee, whatever morning light there is comes through these saved bits of the brightest days. And when the sun hits them- it's nature's own version of stained glass.

We'll usually leave ours up until New Years, at least; then the snow gradually asserts its own authority, and eventually makes the bits of Fall seem out of date. We take them down; burn them in the woodstove, re-wash the windows, and move on; knowing we'll do it again next year.

It slows the speeding days, just a little.


Give it a try, if you can; even here where "all the leaves" are down, you can still find fresh bright leaves in odd places. You do need freshly fallen, or picked off the tree; leaves that have been off the tree for just a day are already faded, and brittle. Often young tree seedlings in the woods keep their leaves long after the grownup trees have shed theirs. Scrounge around; with a loved one (or two), if you can.

So far as I know, I "invented" this process. I see looking on the web that some people iron leaves- but as far as I can tell, they do it only between pieces of wax paper, counting on the wax to "fix" the leaf. I'd never heard of that before; and I can assure you, you don't need the wax. Just ironed and book pressed, the colors will stay completely fresh for 4-6 months; they will, of course, gradually fade after that.

Let me know how it works for you.



wendyytb said...

Just lovely! We ironed the leaves between sheets of waxed paper when I was a child. This post brought back memories... Thank you!

Sparkless said...

You can also cure your leaves in water and glycerine. It works great and the leaves last for a years because they become soft don't curl. The color did fade a bit but you can use the leaves for decorations for years.

knutty knitter said...

I'm definitely trying this one - that's brilliant!

Now I just need a handy Autumn - say in about half a year .....:)

viv in nz

Sharlene T. said...

How clever! I've got to try this... Thanks for sharing...

By the way, I've tagged you because The Mom Chef tagged me with eight tortuous questions, that I've answered, and now I can torture you and seven other of my blogging friends with eight new questions. You'll find it all here on my other blog, Rockin' Chair Reflections

Looking forward to your answers!

Matriarchy said...

We ironed ours between sheets of waxed paper, too. All this time, I thought it was the wax that preserved them. I am going on a leave walk tomorrow!

Lesli said...

I love this idea, thank you for sharing!

Char said...

Lovely thing to do, and wonderful memories to make each year. My (now 30ish) daughter, at age 5, fell in love with the fall leaves when we moved to Baltimore from south Florida. She thought they were so beautiful she put up a "leaf" stand and sold them for a quarter apiece. The neighbors were wonderful about buying her beautiful leaves. Of course we had to save so many of those beautiful leaves, and we always ironed them between sheets of wax paper. Now I know - my grandson and I can just gather and iron. I'm sure he'll get a kick out of pasting them to the windows.