Finding Beauty in Nature Through the Year
“October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes around the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, to the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.” From the essay “Autumnal Tints,” by Henry David Thoreau, 1862
Today’s column is the first in a monthly series about discovering beauty in nature. My intention is to share the beauty in nature that I encounter each month as we pass through the four seasons of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor together. I hope these monthly columns help you consider what beauty in nature means to you, and I invite you to share them with me. I start this series with the month of October, the most intoxicating time of the year when autumn air turns crisp and hills sparkle with the magnificent colors of muted greens turning gold, yellow, orange, red and brown.
Like Henry David Thoreau 158 years ago, our region still experiences October as the month of painted leaves. Our region is more than 77 percent forested land with deciduous trees representing the majority of tree types. These are the species that put on Joseph’s multi-colored coat when the air turns chilly in sudden announcement of the autumnal equinox.
It is with our trees that I encounter beauty in October. Time and time again, they catch my attention and hold my gaze. Many of the tree species I find to be the most colorful in October are all within eyesight of my house. They’re like old friends I visit frequently. Here are three of my favorites.
Our region is known for its numerous oak trees, notably red oak (Quercus rubra), white oak (Quercus alba), black oak (Quercus velutinazz) and my favorite the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea). Scarlet oak can be identified by their deep “sinuses” with seven sharp bristle-tipped lobes. The leaves are thinner in appearance and seemingly undernourished compared to the heftier red oak leaf. Among the oaks, to me, the scarlets really stand out in the fall when they turn a deep red and mahogany shade. A Thoreau journal entry in October 1858 describes the scarlet oak as “huge roses with myriad of fine petals” and in the fading light, scarlet oaks seem to “borrow” red fire from the setting sun.
In our region the red maple (Acer rubrum) and the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) are the most common. The red maple is one of the first trees to bloom in the early spring with crimson red clusters of flowers, and the first to show brilliant red as summer turns to autumn. Despite its role as the arboreal harbinger of seasonal change, the red maple comes in second place to their sweet cousin the sugar maple when it comes to color variation. The fall foliage of the sugar maple provides a combination of red, orange, yellow and gold, and my guess is the tree is the most photographed by the “leaf peepers” traveling our region to marvel at our autumnal splendor.
There are three sugar maple trees I make a pilgrimage to visit each October. Planted by my grandfather at his home in New Hampshire in the early 1940s, the trees are about 4 to 5 feet apart in a straight line. My father and his two brothers served in World War II, Dad and his brother Allen in the Navy and oldest brother George in the Army. Transplanted to honor their service almost 80 years ago, their trunks are now three or more feet in diameter. The branches barely touch and are not intertwined, yet still appear as a single large canopy of green all summer. In the fall their remarkable foliage displays different colors with one tree a combination of green and orange, the second more sunshine yellow and the third a combination of pinks, yellow and orange. Like the individual personalities of the men they were planted to honor, the leaves of each tree are a bit different than the other, until as if in synchronized unison they turn a dull yellow and drop to the ground to scatter in the November winds.
About 250 feet from our house in an open field is a shagbark hickory tree about two feet in diameter and reaching upwards of 70 feet in height. The trunk of the hickory is straight and stretches for the life-giving sun with a full crown of branches and leaves. It appears to be in good health with a canopy of large healthy leaves, and about every three years it produces an abundant amount of hickory nuts. The tree has an eye pleasing symmetrical shape and is the most beautiful tree on our property. It receives frequent visits by me and, at least every three years, a contingent of squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and the occasional fox.
It is in October that the shagbark surprises with stunning soft yellow foliage. The east rising sun shines through its yellow leaves, making the tree literally glow in morning light. It glows both “coming and going” with glancing sunlight from the late afternoon sunset splashing the upper branches and tips of the leaves in a golden hue.
One needs to be quick to catch the beautiful color of the hickory leaves for their glamorous look is fleeting. I think Hal Borland described hickories in fall the best in his book “A Country Man’s Woods.” “In Autumn the leaves turn a bright yellow before they begin to rust with patches of brown. Their bright color does not last more than a few days. Then the leaves come down in a thick shower and the trees stand in winter nakedness.” I need to keep a watchful eye on our shagbark hickory and hope not to miss the show this October.
We live in a stunningly beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I look forward to a monthly visit with the beauty of our natural world. I hope you’ll share it with me and together we can enjoy it, care for it and pass it on.
A final note about Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tints” is that it was delivered as a lecture shortly before his death in 1862. It is an ode to autumn not as the season of death and decay, but of ripeness, fullness and maturity. It is one of the best essays written on the topic of the colors found in the changing leaves of autumn.
Several books were used as reference in writing this column, and I suggest each to readers interested in trees. These included include “A Countryman’s Woods,” by Hal Borland, “Thoreau and the Language of Trees,” by Richard Higgins, “Circle of the Seasons: A Journal of a Naturalists’ Year,” by Edwin Way Teale and “Autumnal Tints,” by Henry David Thoreau.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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