Falling Leaves


“Autumn’s the mellow time.”

William Allingham – Irish Poet

Autumn is the “mellow” time, I suppose, because it is the time of nature’s dying. No, that’s wrong. It is the time when nature prepares for a long, winter’s, rejuvenating slumber. It is a time when spring, with its eternal hope making our hearts light, fades into long ago. It is a time when summer, with its lazy, hazy, crazy days, has closed the door.

It seems odd, in a way, to ascribe “mellow” to autumn. After all, it is a time when forests are ablaze with color. The reds, yellows, browns, purples, oranges, and even the greens are breathtaking. Traveling anywhere in the northern tier of states in September and October is a magical experience. Contrary to “dying,” autumn is a time when the trees become truly alive. Fall is when the trees reveal their true colors.

All that green between April and September? Well, begging your pardon, let’s call that Fake News. Scientists tell us that one of the four primary pigments that create the colors in leaves is chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green. In the spring and summer, chlorophyll is the heavy hitter and overwhelms the other pigments, which create all those beautiful colors we see in the fall. Thus, budding leaves turn green.

But, alas, chlorophyll is a sprinter, not a marathon runner. By September and October that pigment runs out of gas, fading in the long hours of summer sunlight. Furthermore, trees are smart. They know when winter is coming and when it is time to get ready for that long slumber. They, in effect, say to chlorophyll, “Sorry, pal, the party’s over” and  block the flow of water and other nutrients to the stems of leaves. The green pigment can’t replenish and fades from the scene.

Here’s how the NOAA website describes what happens next.  “The fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage.”

Maybe that’s why fall feels mellow. That’s such a awesome process, happening year after year for eons and eons. It’s nature taking care of itself, on its own, without any meddling from the homo sapiens on this big blue ball of ours. Yeah, its awesome.

Let us not forget another phase in this circle of life. All those pigments in the  kaleidoscope of fall foliage suffer the same fate as chlorophyll, only a little later. Without nutrients living organisms die. Eventually leaves, of all colors, in fall, fall.  Maybe that’s another reason why autumn feels mellow. Death is never a jubilant event. Even the lyrics of the famous tune written by Billy Talent, “Fallen Leaves,” have a melancholy flavor to them:

“Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”

But, let’s take heart. The leaves may be dead and dying, but not the trees. The trees, like bears, are soon to hibernate. Most of them, anyway.  They’ll come back in the spring. They always do.

So, leaves on living trees fall when it is their time. But, what about non-living trees? Dare I say, Fake Trees? We have something of a tiny mystery around our house. The other night, my wife and I distinctly heard the rustling sound of falling leaves…inside the house. Upon investigating, we discovered the scene in the photo above. This is one of those silk plants. Not a real tree. Not a real plant. Not a living organism. Its an ornament, right? It has no chlorophyll, no nutrients, no circle of life to worry about. It’s a man-made object. So, why does it have falling leaves?

We  like to believe it is a matter of empathy. Sympatico. There must be some mysterious, inexplicable, incomprehensible connection between this “tree” and its brethren outside our windows in the woods behind the house. Nature has it’s secrets.

At least it’s more fun to think that than to concede the thing is just old. Right?


Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

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