I went on a walk around our neighborhood this morning, taking time to to truly look at the fall color. Who says we don't experience autumn here in Northern California? We may not see the drifts of color that New England is famous for; but we certainly have single specimen examples. Our everyday sweeping and collecting of leaves tells me that winter is not far off, though the days might still be warm.
When I was a Sophomore in high school, this time of year was filled with longing. If I close my eyes I can still see myself sitting in the bleachers in my band uniform, clutching my clarinet, watching the football game unfold. I can still feel that desperate wish to have a boyfriend sitting by my side, wearing a cable-knit sweater, holding my mittened hand in his, as the chilly wind blew leaves through my hair.
Never mind that by the following year, I would be a completely different person, leaving that wistful girl behind and becoming a little more realistic. Never mind the college years when football season was a joke to me, and all I cared about was finding the next party. Never mind the early work years where this time of year only meant one thing, that I would get a four-day weekend at Thanksgiving. Never mind the years of my children's early childhoods, raking, jumping into, and kicking leaves and laughing. Never mind my middle-aged grumpiness at early nighttime, frustrated by the lack of light with which to get things done. The thing I most clearly feel, this time of year, is that 15 year-old self, filled with a 'something's coming' sort of feeling, and not yet having the words to name it.
I feel this same ennui whenever I hear the song "Autumn Leaves." It was originally a French song, written in 1945, and the title meant "The Dead Leaves." Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the tune in 1947 and it was perhaps made most famous by Nat King Cole in 1956.
Today, however, I am feeling quite clearly that I need to get as far away from the media as I possibly can. I've done my civic duty, so there is no need to sit and watch the TV anxiously. Much better to get out in nature, and see some tangible, ancient results of the season.
The scientific explanation of the falling of leaves is rather fascinating. Here's a passage from the USDA: "The process that starts the cascade of events that result in fall color is actually a growth process. In late summer, the days begin to get shorter, and nights are longer. Like most plants, deciduous trees and shrubs are rather sensitive to length of the dark period each day. When nights reach a threshold value and are long enough, the cells near the juncture of the leaf and the stem divide rapidly, but they do not expand. This abscission layer is a corky layer of cells that slowly begins to block transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch. It also blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves. Because the starting time of the whole process is dependent on night length, fall colors appear at about the same time each year in a given location, whether temperatures are cooler or warmer than normal."
Here is more romantic version of the process, from Native American lore: "In ancient times, three young men, the bravest hunters in the world, set out with their dog to track a bear at first snowfall. The bear had made crisp paw prints in the cold, fresh crystals, leaving a trail that the hunters could rack with ease. Each print pushed deep into the snow and covered a wide area; this bear would be a huge, worthwhile catch. After months of following, the men began to lose confidence. The bear had led them across the globe, from the east where the sun rises to the west where it sets. All of the best hunting techniques had failed them, and eventually, they realized the bear was leading them up into the sky. The hunters called out to each other and tried to turn back, but it was too late to return to the ground. All they had left was the hunt, so they vowed to catch the bear. After days of fatigue, never stopping to eat or sleep, the hunters were on the brink of collapse when they finally caught up and killed the bear. It had been almost a year; autumn was upon them again. They skinned and cleaned the bear, laying it on a bed of oak branches. Its blood stained the leaves red, and this is why leaves turn red in the fall."
I hope that you can find some time today, wherever you are, to get outside and enjoy the autumn leaves. The election will still be going on when you come back inside, and you'll be calmer and more ready to weather the political storm after your moment with the trees.