Nearly sixty years ago, a romantic ballad, with words penned by Haven Gillespie and music by Beasley Smith rose to the top of the day’s charts, with such voices as those of Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Phil Harris flowing from juke boxes everywhere. “The old master painter from the faraway hills” they crooned; “painted the violets and the daffodils. He put the purple in the twilight haze, then did a rainbow for the rainy days . . .”
Each Fall as I cruise the highways and back roads – especially the back roads – of North America, I often find myself soundlessly humming that tune, for at no time is the handiwork of “the old master painter” so vividly on display. From the oak forests of my birthplace in the Mid-Atlantic states, through the opulent hardwood-thatched hillsides of my growing-up years in New England, to the aspen-speckled grandeur of my adopted home in the Rocky Mountain west, I have welcomed with open heart and soaring mind the sheer magnificence of that season we call Autumn.
In parts of the country, legions of “leaf peepers” take to the field bringing more than a billion dollars of welcome income to a dozen states whose coffers ring with a salutary jingle every September and October. What makes their eyes do a double-take and their camera shutters chatter is actually a chemical-driven transformation taking place on a grand scale, as the production of chlorophyll which makes the leaves of deciduous trees green in the first place slows, and finally ceases.
It is a combination of warm temperatures, sunlight and plentiful supplies of carbon dioxide which nurtures the growth of chlorophyll atoms in tree leaves in the northern hemisphere beginning with spring and extending through the friendly days of high summer. As fall approaches though and the hours of sunlight decline, less chlorophyll is available and other chemical pigments in the foliage which have been cloaked from prominence begin to assert themselves, with carotene bringing out the golds and yellows and anthocyanins the reds and scarlets. As the production of natural sugars slows with cooler temperatures, a dry corky substance develops where leaves are joined with branches and stems, further cutting off the flow of sap, eventually leading to defoliation aided by wind, frost and stormy weather.
Even without a knowledge of the scientific phenomena behind it all, enjoying the magnificent transformation we call Autumn has the power to fill one’s soul with an ineffable appreciation of the handiwork of the Old Master Painter.
Back-lighted oak leaves show off the intricacies of veins and membranes designed to convert stored energy into sugars and starches and transport them as life blood throughout each leaf. Some scientists believe that the chemicals which produce the deep red color seen here might actually play a role in discouraging certain insect predators or even competing plant life.
Frost-covered orchard grass and fallen maple leaves highlighted an early morning stroll by the author in the early days of a Vermont autumn.
A kaleidoscope of colors march across a New England hillside as the reds and golds of maples alternate with the yellows of birch, poplar and ash, against the ever-present backdrop of deep-green conifers. Since this color change moves southward at a rate of 20-25 miles per day, one could start a “foliage vacation” in the Laurentians of eastern Canada, and end up 30 days later in the hill country of the Carolinas and Georgia.
All photos by Al Cooper