More Than Meets The Eye

As a child I was told a story about how the changing leaf colors of autumn came about. It was fascinating to me. It was perfect for my particular view of the world at that time. Although I believe the story to be carried down for generations from my Abenaki ancestry that was never directly mentioned. The story went something like this.

The Pursuit of the Great Bear and How It Changed the World.

Many years ago a group of hunters came upon a set of amazingly large bear tracks left behind in a fresh autumn snow. They were so large that the hunters vowed to track the bear for as long as it took to harvest the great beast. At first the hunters were confident and felt sure that they were close behind the bear but after several days the tracks began to fade indicating that the pace of their hunt was lagging behind the pace of the bear. Their village needed food badly and defeat was not an option so they decided to carry on. There pursuit went from days, to weeks, to months. This led them from one side of the earth where the sun came up to the other side of the earth where the sun set. Eventually the trail led them to the north and up the tallest mountain and into the clouds. The clouds were thick and they realized they were at the ends of the earth and had somehow wandered into the sky. There was no turning back. They had no choice but to continue. The chase lasted so long it took them into the next autumn of the year. The hunters were weak and tired and about to give up when they came upon the great bear. The bear seemed willing to give up his life. It was if this entire hunt and chase had a greater purpose. They slayed the bear and its blood fell to earth and landed on the leaves of some of the trees below turning them crimson red. The bear also leaked bile and this fell to earth turning other tree leaves to brilliant yellow and orange colors. All of the meat was harvested and the bears spirit led the hunters back to earth so the bounty could be shared with their village. The skeleton remains in the northern sky and can be seen at night. The constellation “The Great Bear” is also called “The Big Dipper” by Europeans. To this day we have the colors in autumn and a constellation that can guide us to any destination while here on Earth and to the heavens when our time on this planet has ended.

As the length of day diminishes and the warmth of summer fades into a distant memory we are all basking in the very temporary glory of a New England autumn. Like the last embers of a camp fire in a night time breeze the end of the growing season does not subtly disappear but rather goes out in a blaze of glory. There is nothing quite like the nearly indescribable beauty of a clear autumn day in New England. Blue skies, glorious hillsides of bright reds, yellow, and oranges in the distance, and perhaps a vibrant green field with a flock of wild turkeys, their iridescent tail feathers raising with each gust of breeze, grazing in the foreground. These nearly unparalleled experiences should not be taken for granted.

This autumn seemed to come late. And when the colors did appear most noted that many sugar maples were rather drab. A cool, wet spring and early summer acted as a great host to septoria leaf rot-a fungus infection that allows spores to infect leaves with multiple brown spots. The end result is that the leaves turn brown and fall off early. The good news is that it can only be replicated if the next year has similar conditions. The bad news is that this can occur. Trees have evolved and are capable of withstanding multiple years of less than perfect foliage. Most of us will remember the huge gypsy moth infestation that overtook our area in the early 1980′s. Thousands of trees, mostly red and white oaks, were defoliated by the gypsy moth caterpillar for two years in a row. Worse they were defoliated early in the growing season. Only the weakest of trees perished.

Despite the lack of color from sugar maples there were beautiful areas of red maple, white birch, poplar, cottonwood, and basswood that could be found ablaze in pockets of the New England countryside. Reds and yellows were vibrant this year. Orange colors not so much.

The fact is that we are incredibly fortunate to live in a part of this planet that experiences these dramatic color changes. The main ingredients in this delicious recipe are a changing and lessening length of day and the arrival of cooler temperatures along with a very large side of evolution that enables hardwood trees to adapt to a varying climate where temperatures can range form 40 degrees below zero to 100 degrees above zero. A 140 degree differentiation in temperature can easily be considered to be extreme. Living creatures, particularly plants who are not mobile, have to adapt or perish.

Our deciduous trees, those that lose there leaves each autumn, are uniquely adapted to survive such environments. In the autumn shorter days and less available light triggers a chemical reaction within the leaf structure. This change in light causes a chemical reaction where abscisis acid is formed. This changing agent results in new cells forming near the base of the petiole (the stalk on a leaf that joins the leaf to the stem). These cells are short and weak and is referred to as the abscission layer or separation layer. The weight of the leaf, combined with autumn winds and heavy precipitation events causes the leaf to break away or “fall” off of the tree. This is a distinct advantage for trees in the winter. Although the trees energy supply (leaf photosynthesis changing sunlight into sugar) has been cut off for the winter the tree has no significant energy requirements while it is dormant. Energy is stored within the roots and will be summoned by the awakening tree as days warm up and the sun rises higher in the sky during the upcoming spring.

And what about the beautiful color of autumn leaves? As it turns out when the separation layer forms the leaf stops producing chlorophyll because the tree not longer requires the energy. The reduction of chlorophyll in the leaves allows the carotenoid pigments to remain and become more noticeable. These are the yellow, orange, and brown colors. Meanwhile some trees produce anthocyanins within the leaf structure as the result of excess sugars left behind within the leaf. These produce the glorious red colors. Their are few experiences more gratifying than to behold a hillside of red maples in the fall.

Despite this simple knowledge of how autumn leaves fall and why they have colors I often still revert back to and reflect upon the “The Pursuit of the Great Bear and How It Changed the World” story. Why? Because it holds wonder. The kind of wonder that can inspire all those who are free thinkers to follow a trail and seek new adventures.

And without wonder and new adventures what would any life be?

Written for the Heath Herald in October of 2017.

  • Ratty

    The Pursuit Of The Great Bear story makes me feel a little better about fall. Usually when fall gets here I feel a bit of depression for some reason. I try to shake it every year but it always happens anyway. This year it was particularly strong. This time I just decided instead of a futile attempt to fight it I would kind of ride it out. That seemed to help a bit, but I also stayed away from nature more than I like. Now with the first hints of winter, as usual, the depression is magically vanishing. But I always remember stories like this Great Bear story. I think next year I’ll think of this when fall comes. I think it will help me enjoy the time of year a bit more. It’s things like this that I have always liked about your blog more than many others. I’m really glad I read this one.

  • Wild_Bill

    This is the highest compliment anyone could give me Ratty. That this story might help you makes me feel good about my writing. Thank you and be happy this winter. Although the woods are quiet there is still much that we can observe and learn about. Soon each day will be getting a little bit longer. Enjoy each and every day!

Nature Blog Network