A Stone’s Throw: A Series on Race and Place in America
A withered leaf is not death alone nor emptiness nor an end. It is one point in a cycle of survival in which living and dying are two sides of a bright edge. Henry David Thoreau noted, in an essay published months after his own death, that fallen leaves teach us how to die. He wondered, too, if a time would come when we could “lie down as gracefully and as ripe.”
My house sits in a field cleared more than two centuries ago, and is bordered by patchwork woods, weathered stone walls, and a rutted dirt road. Beyond the road sits Long Hill, a mound of schist that is the top of this small world. Often I climb through its hemlock and hardwood cover to watch days end from the rocky southern clearing. In the turn of August to September, fully leafed branches and trunks bent to storm winds. Leaves in motion with rain would then flash in waning sunlight. On quieter days leaf rustle hinted at spare breezes that revealed deeper layers of brilliance and shadow. And to the south weather-worn, creased ridges rolled together into curving distance. These hills wore early autumn’s multicolored mosaic in the first weeks of October. Now in winter’s ebb the landscape edges are pastel and fluid.
These woodlands of western Massachusetts, a short journey from Thoreau’s Concord home, are a zone of transition between the spruce-fir-deciduous forests of northern New England and Canada and the temperate deciduous forests extending southward along the continent’s eastern edge. The mixed forest is home to sugar and red maple, northern red oak, American beech, white, yellow, and black birch, big tooth aspen, shagbark hickory, eastern hemlock, white pine, and other species. But the woods beyond my door are also a patchwork, part relic and part alteration, reminding me of a long history of human presence and changes in this land.
When Thoreau died in 1862 most of Massachusetts had been cleared of its forests, repeatedly in some places. Although indigenous peoples had burned and cleared forests to create open, wooded parklands, meadows, and planting fields, the widespread deforestation was accomplished by European colonists and their descendants for settlement, fencing and agriculture, and timber. More recent shifts in land-use practices have allowed a “native” woods to return since the 19th century, albeit in altered form, and much of the region is now covered by stands of younger-growth forest.
Unimagined aspects of these woods stand out when viewed from the air, from a vertical perspective unavailable to observers a century ago. What struck me most on a late summer cross-country flight was not the sweep of color but the opaqueness of the forest canopy covering North America’s eastern third. And when I returned to New England in late autumn, on a flight into dusk, the same deciduous patchwork, stripped of ornament, had become nearly transparent and muted against evergreen. I imagined I could truly see into the heart of the forest, and wondered what should be remembered of mechanism and meaning in its seasonal motion of color, life, and decay.
This wonder has become an urgent need to know in the three years since my mother’s death. Her winter passing left both parents gone and removed any illusory buffer between death and me. An only child, I entered a different relation to life that still unsettles: no longer any living person’s child, seemingly rootless with no chance to return to a familial home. Like Thoreau, I knew I had to become a student of leaves.
When very young I thought the autumn sun painted leaves to remind us of its former brightness and to say “Don’t forget me!” as it took its southward journey toward winter. But all of the varied tints and hues are the display of unstable pigments, and the responses of trees to felt changes in temperature and sunlight as season yields to season. In life, leaves are arranged in sunlight by patterned branches. As one end point in the tree’s circulation system, the leaf machine works by photosynthesis to fuel the tree’s growth. Biochemical processes associated with photosynthesis produce the pigment chlorophyll in leaves, source of the growing season’s greens. Chlorophyll continually breaks down in summer’s heat and light, but it also is continually being replaced. With shortening days, and autumn’s cooling and drying, chlorophyll production eventually ceases. Other pigments like the carotenoids, which were present but masked by outer layers of chlorophyll in the growing season, then appear. Carotenoids are the source of deciduous leaves’ yellows, oranges, and browns, and they also give color to corn, squash, and carrots. Anthocyanins, pigments responsible for the striking reds, purples, and blues in fruit, flower, bud, stem, and leaf, are largely produced in leaves at the end of the growing season as veins connecting leaf tissue to branch and trunk close, trapping sugars. Anthocyanins are responsive to light and their production varies year to year, depending on autumn weather. With cold nights and warm, sun-bright days in New England, red leaves become flame and flash. There is fierceness in the glow.
The spread of color begins almost secretly in broad leaves of hardwoods in September. Bronze, umber, and sienna in oak, beech, and hickory; gold and yellow in birch, aspen, ash, and hickory; orange and scarlet in maple and some oak. All of these colors initially share space with green in freckled leaves, but spread purposefully and completely into October. The pigments, unstable to different degrees, eventually break down through decay. Then the color-brilliance in leaves, whether on the ground or still attached to trees, recedes and fades, leaving at last a rich brown world.
The eventual fall of leaves is a seasonal design in the annual cycle of trees in temperate regions. When ground freezes, winter becomes a water-scarce season, and roots aren’t able to absorb much water. Since food production and growth associated with photosynthesis require huge amounts of water, these processes must now cease. Also, the tissues of thin deciduous leaves are easily damaged by freezing and, if not shed each year, they would expose much of a tree’s surface to desiccation in cold, dry months. In response to autumn’s shortening days, leaf fall begins with the formation of an abscission zone, a series of fragile cells at the base of the leaf’s petiole, and the slow closing of veins linking leaves in the tree’s circulatory network. Much of the sugars and nutrients are then rerouted from leaves to other parts of the tree.
As autumn passes, enzymes weaken the abscission zone, and leaves become airborne with just the nudging suggestion of wind. A type of corky material forms protective scar tissue sealing the exposed tree surface and preventing excessive water loss and exposure to harmful microbes. Conifers, here hemlock and white pine, also discard many of their oldest needles in autumn, even though narrow needles, thick cuticles, and waxy coatings provide some protection from water loss and freezing.
Unleafing is restlessness. Branches clad in brilliance let go in fall winds to motion in all possible directions. Leaves glide, rise, drift, flutter, fly—but always eventually yield, in successive showers, to the downward pull. On sun-filled late afternoons I’d lie on cushioning mats of newly-fallen leaves and imagine my eyes the eyes of Earth. I could see the woven fabric of a once green canopy slowly unravel. Each leaf seemed a song of color and sun, each leaf a solitary flyer—and these eyes embracing all.
Leaf fall continues into November here in western Massachusetts, although beech and some oaks keep their dried and crinkled leaves attached through winter. Already present in tiny form in winter buds, are next year’s leaves. And after the unleafing? Although one small leaf is light enough to fly with a small breath of wind, the collective weight of all leaves discarded in fall is great enough to fuel nutrient flow in forest soil. Decomposition of leaf litter—accomplished by the determined work of fungi, insects, worms, and various microorganisms—accumulates nutrients to the region’s
acidic soil. The setting of one season in preparation for another is a fragile return.
It is almost midnight in early March. I miss my mother. I miss the sun. Through my breath stars have become night-leaves, giving outlined shape to trunks and branches that trace infinite paths across the sky. I know the invisible boundary between living and dying is always near. In the brief span of life left to me I’d like to ripen into a patterned fabric of giving and return before I, too, lie down.