In my neck of the woods we’ve just entered the brief moment when the world goes gold—and maroon, intense purple, scarlet, deep umber, canary yellow, and many shades of complex orange and brown. Although it’s a careen towards winter and a time when many plants and creatures prepare to hibernate or hunker down, October is also somehow one of the most lively times of the year. These intense colors suddenly appear, enveloping us and bringing with them a sense of both crescendo and conclusion. Whatever has grown in the garden has grown; we aren’t planning new plantings but harvesting the fruits of spring’s plans. Just as painters place the darkest darks next to the lightest lights, autumn gives us an abundance that gives way to scarcity—we may be swamped with tomatoes now, but we know that by the end of the month the first frost will be nigh, and those bright red spots of color in our gardens nearly gone.
So for this month I revel in the colors, and I think about both their chemical causes and their expressive effects. The chemical processes which give us blazing red maples and bright yellow hickories don’t actually represent an addition of color, but a draining away of something to reveal what was already there. The “something” that breaks down at this time of year is chlorophyll; because the production of that chemical is linked to hours of daylight and temperature, trees stop producing it as the days grow shorter and the air grows cool. The green color associated with chlorophyll drains away, exposing the fiery, intense colors which were there in the leaves all summer, but which we simply couldn’t see. I think of this as an evocative metaphor for changes in our own lives: We take left turns, we turn over new leaves. Do we change, or has something fallen away to reveal what was always there?
Our stories not only as individuals but as the inheritors of this complicated country are shot through with instances of greens giving way to golds, scarlets, mauves, and bright yellows. I read often about the intersections of ecological and social systems, and one anecdote from my recent reading that sticks in my mind has to do with the response of European settler colonialists to North America’s autumn color storms. Because North America and Asia have much more intense fall color than Europe, early European arrivals here were stunned by those flaming red maples and bright yellow hickories blazing against the shoreline. As historian Nathaniel Philbrick notes in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, the people we call Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth Harbor in the early 17th century hadn’t seen such colors before. What Philbrick describes as a “history dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion” is also defined by intense emotional responses to ecological and chemical processes.
Europeans were so enchanted by North America’s fall colors that those colors became one of the “new world’s” assets. One of the reasons that John Bartram, whose legacy continues to inform Bartram’s Gardens in Philadelphia, became such a popular horticulturalist is because he sent specimens of many of the most colorful autumn trees back across the Atlantic, bringing fall color to people’s gardens. It’s difficult to imagine from this 2019 vantage point what such ecological encounters must have felt and looked like, but I especially wonder whether Bartram or his customers knew why we have more intense fall colors here in North America—and that some scientists suggest that the answer has to do with our mountains. Recent researchers hypothesize that it’s the north-south orientation of the Appalachians (unlike the east-west-running Alps) which ultimately led to the evolution of our fiery color palette. In a mountain range like the Appalachians, plants can march up and down the north-south corridor as temperatures and pests or predators change, and so they develop different sets of protections. One of the ways North American trees evolved to protect themselves against a changing torrent of temperatures and pests was to develop new chemicals—chemicals which at this point in our co-evolution with plants are intricately, intimately linked to the ways we feel at this time of year.
As I take walks through pastures and drive the country roads this season, I want to challenge myself to imagine these intersections of plant propagation and colonialism; of geography and notions of beauty; of 17th-century indigenous Americans and settler colonialists; of our interior and public lives. And, as the leaves change and fall, to keep tracing the blazes of scarlet and orange which connect these disparate histories.