By SARAH HATFIELD
Leaves crunch under foot, the earliest casualties of the season. Other leaves drift and tumble from above as I meander through the woods.
Thoughts of autumn and leaves are virtually inseparable, like high school sweethearts celebrating 60 years together. It would be hard to define the season without referring to the color of leaves, the falling of leaves, the raking, crunching, and crackle of leaves.
Photos by Sarah Hatfield
Fall colors are seen everywhere, including, above, the Adirondacks or, below left, walking through woodlands.
The sumac bleeds crimson as the poplars catch it in a cradle of yellow. The light dances through blushing maples like ballerinas on a backlit stage. Like alter-egos, each leaf takes on a double life, one glowing with fire and passion and brightness, one giving way to dullness and fading into the landscape. Together they form a kaleidoscope of color that transfixes.
The change we see, the progression that marks the passage of time, is written in the formal script of chlorophyll, xanthophyll, anthocyanin and carotene. This complicated cast of characters replaces each other and acts together to create the greens, yellows, reds and oranges linked intimately with fall. Harvest gold and rich amber, ravishing crimson and delicious orange kiss the landscape, making this season one of unparalleled beauty.
A maple leaf catches my eye. I lean to pick it up, to examine the outline of pink around the veins, the hint of yellow surrounding that, green points that give way to tan, then brown. Reluctant to let such beauty go, I carry it with me.
Children pick up leaves. It is instinct, raw and unbiased, that causes those small hands to seek beauty, pick it up, hold it close and never want to let it go. Fistfuls of painted foliage - this may be their first lesson in fleeting beauty. So momentary, so ephemeral is the life of an autumn leaf, it seems fragile. Once in the car, or the house, it isn't near as brilliant. We try to capture the color, the radiance, press it between the pages of a book. They retain the memory of their color, but not the truth.
Leaves are the powerhouse of the tree. They spend spring and summer capturing sunlight and using the above mentioned characters, and convert it to sugar - food that will fuel the tree not only through times of plenty, but the lean times as well. A tree can be identified to species with a single leaf, like a botanical fingerprint.
Pick one up. Is the edge of the leaf smooth (entire) or jagged (toothed)? Does it have lobes? Do the veins look like fingers, all spreading from a common point? Identification is a science, it asks questions and answers them, and as a result, you will be holding in your hand one piece of a Sugar Maple tree.
It doesn't answer why you picked it up in the first place. Science can never answer that. Was it the pink? The yellow? The shape? The pattern of color, the absence of color, the difference from the leaves around it? All those things may have made you stop and choose that leaf. Emotion was the driving force that brought your hand to the ground, to grasp between your fingers a single leaf - whether it was wonder, curiosity, appreciation, awe or something even more powerful.
A child picks up a leaf because he thinks it is pretty. There is no greater reason to do so. That urge to hold it, to look more closely at it, to take it home and try to keep it is to believe that beauty can last forever.
Collectively, leaves have the power to amuse, entertain and spark imaginations. Huge piles of them invite youthful play. Thrown in the air, they are better than snowflakes and shooting stars, for they fall over and over again, to smiles and laughter, the soundtrack of innocence. Buried within them, the earthy, moist smell envelopes and surrounds and a deep breath evokes a feeling of connection and permanence. Jumped in, amazement shows in their eyes as they realize the world is actually a soft place to land sometimes. Such an impact for such a simple thing, a leaf.
To celebrate the autumnal equinox, a friend asked for a phrase about fall that began with an "L." So I replied "laughter as the leaves fall, for the Earth is looking forward to creating new life under a blanket of snow." Leaves are the garment of choice for our vast northeastern deciduous forests. From a new spring green to the vibrant sumac red, leaves dress and make this area what it is. Leaves feed the ground-dwellers all winter long, under a blanket of snow, keeping them alive with simple cell walls and leftover sugar. Leaves feed the trees as they are broken down and their nutrients seep into the soil to reach the hungry roots. Leaves feed the souls of people as we amble through woodlands, marveling at colors with a fistful of beauty in our hands.
Leaves crunch as I walk through the woods and I stop. I can hear them hit the ground with a whisper, taking a greater role in the world. I smile, look at the collection in my hand, and let these ones flutter to the ground as well. To release such beauty back to the world makes me lighter, and I continue my trek laughing with the leaves.
Audubon is alive with color right now. Come and visit us at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The center is open daily for a few more weeks, from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., except Sundays, when we open at 1. The trails and Liberty viewing are open daily, all year round, from dawn to dusk. Call 569-2345 for more information or visit our Web site at www.jamestownaudubon.org to find out about fall events and happenings.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon. She believes that the smell of autumn is the smell of home.