A Fall Retrospective
Updated: Feb 12
We're well into winter now, but I think fall is a timeless season, worth celebrating any month of the year...
Now that things are all brown and a bit white out, it's time for a little "Fall Retrospective"...looking back to the peak color days of 2020. Part 1. It was a tough year for everyone here--the plants that is-- with about half the normal precipitation across a lot of the West..."Extreme" to "Exceptional" drought. Moisture-wise, we haven't seen anything like it since 2018. This was the year they also announced we'd been in a 20 year megadrought, with all indications that it will only get worse. In spite of everything, some of the plants pulled off a good color show. So let's celebrate their resilience, admire their optimism, and indulge in some Nature eye-candy. After this year, we've earned it. Kicking it all off with a gorgeous mountain hunk (part of the Raggeds Range) clothed in robes of golden Gambel oak and beaked sedge, beautifully contrasting against the dramatic autumn sky.
Part 2 in "A Fall Retrospective". It went so fast, the bright-leaved part of fall. The days had been getting shorter ever since Summer Solstice, at first by a few seconds each day. then subtly speeding up to more than a minute in July, and reaching a peak of two and a half minutes less sunlight each day by Autumn Equinox. It all added up to the sunlight going from 14 hours and 47 minutes a day down to 12 hours, and then even less as September wore on. The earth and the trees were taking note--the earth passively growing colder, layer by ancient metamorphic quartzite layer. And the trees responded by actively decommissioning their chlorophyll. At least the deciduous aspen were getting started on it here at the Animas River Canyon. The evergreens? They had other plans.
Part 3. I have 7 more days 'til the official start of winter, so there's still time to reflect on the brilliant colors of September. Here's a Wood's rose that knows how to have a party.. What's going on? Chlorophyll, anthocyanin, carotene, and xanthophyll, in four words. Chlorophyll, the life of the party, normally the center of attention, is having a breakdown. Yes, that chlorophyll: the magical molecule that lets plants photosynthesize by absorbing all the blue, red, orange, and purple energy from light and bouncing back the green. The Wood's rose having sensed the days are shortening and the nights are getting really cold, has informed the chloroplasts of this problem, and they're starting to dismantle the chlorophyll in their measured way, turning it into a molecule that's transparent. As the process proceeds, the yellow xanthophylls, and the red and orange carotenes are revealed, and in some plants, purply anthocyanins are even produced. In this plant, there's a biochemical fiesta breaking out, with all kinds of atoms being swapped around. In some rooms, the party is well on its way, in others, it's just getting started, but the decorations look awesome everywhere. Ole!!
Part 4 "Fall Retrospective" Here it is, Winter Solstice, and I'm still stuck in fall. The first few weeks of it anyway, back when aspen hillsides shone fiery gold in the afternoon sun, and conifers were cast in a velvet light. In Nature, nothing stands alone, autumn leaves included. They wouldn't look nearly so colorful without the low angle, late season sun that makes their colors pop. Its golden light gives everything a nostalgic glow, all the more intense because it's such a short season before the leaves come crashing down. Is it beyond poignant, or just plain physics? The physics of a spherical (+-13 miles) planet careening through space around a life-giving sun, our place on it growing more oblique to our star with each passing day, Earth's atmospheric veil stripping away ever more of its bluer wavelengths the more inclined things become? Well, physics or not, that's pretty poignant too. And now, physics will start running this whole process back in reverse...Happy Solstice! Here's to circularity!!
Part 5 Remember the riches of fall littering the ground like gold coins? An entire season ago those aspen leaves dotted the trail, with more falling each day to brighten the ground again. They were so quick to fade and turn black once off the tree, another note of sadness added to the poignancy of fall. A reminder of life passing by, youth fading, beauty so quick to vanish. But that's just sentiment, a metaphor for a human obsession, not Nature's reality. What's really going on is way more profound. It's all about recycling Earth's elemental wealth so it can be used again. And by wealth, I'm not talking gold, but something of real value to life here. I'm talking nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and all the other nutrients we living things depend on. Just look at that dark, rich soil--that's the bank where aspen makes its deposits and earns big interest!
Part 6. And from the depths of winter, it's time to wrap up this remembrance of fall. In dwelling on it, I realized it was a complex subject with many facets to be explored, more an event than a simple concept. The most obvious expression of it is through the plants and their color changes that light up the landscape. But there's an orchestra of organic molecules that pulls off this show--it's playing behind the scenes, in each chloroplast, in every deciduous leaf. And while the individual plants are the immediate conductors of the orchestra, their strings are being pulled by planetary phenomena. That's a whole 'nother realm, populated by moving, spinning spheres, lightwaves, and the physics behind it all. This part of the world experiences the choreography with shortening days, a growing frigidness, and low angle sunlight that's diminished in strength and turned a glorious golden color. At last, as the color falls from the trees and carpets the forest floor, it doesn't signify an end, but more of a renewal, an investment in the future.
Even though this brief and riotous color display goes on year in, year out, with or without us, our own biology completes the show. I'm thinking about those color-sensing cones in our retinas, tuned in to the red, orange, yellow, and purple wavelengths. Add in our endocrinal system that's responding to daylength, tampering with metabolic and sleep hormones without us even knowing. The limbic system responds with pangs of emotion, and our complex neural networks process it all, finding great metaphor, artistry, and a deep ancestral memory in the phenomenon. In short, it's us that completes the event and makes this concert rock.
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