Fall is a time when the parade of life comes full circle. It is a season of retreat, a gradual return to the era of empty nests, faded flowers and looming silence. But the irony of fall is that even in passing it grows bigger and more beautiful.
It all begins with a change in light and temperature. With shorter days and cooler weather, the chlorophyll that paints life green in spring begins to break down. As the chlorophyll fades, other pigments in the leaf become visible: the yellow of carotene and xanthophyll, the red of anthocyanin, and brown of tannin.
The pigments combine to create a spectacular array of fall colors, including the crimson of Smooth Sumac, the bright yellow of cottonwood, the golden yellow of American Elm, and the dappled bronze of Box Elder and Green Ash.
The flaming colors announce that the leaves are dying. Sap flow is cut off, a seal is formed at the base of the leaf, and a vital bond is broken. Nudged by wind and frost, the leaves are sent fluttering to the ground.
Soon the trees are reduced to leafless skeletons and new vistas appear in the landscape. The world becomes bigger almost overnight. Though it happens every year, the sudden change comes as a surprise. Hills appear out of nowhere and you see depth where there was none.
The horizon behind the trees becomes clearly visible.
Overhead, a tangle of twigs and branches opens into blue sky. Instead of giving shade, it is creating light.
At night the view expands far into the depths of space. The trees are lit up with starlight and the firmament shimmers in unobstructed majesty. Now you have to stretch your mind along with the eye. Looking at the Milky Way arching over the autumn sky, you have to remind yourself that you are seeing a glow created by stars that are many thousands of light-years away.
To stretch the eye and mind even farther, take a look at the Andromeda Nebula on a clear October night. This nebula, which is actually a spiral galaxy much like our own, appears as smudge of light just south of the W in Cassiopeia. At 2 million light-years, it is the most distant object visible to the naked eye.
Along with space, the perception of time also changes. As nature’s last act draws to a close, the tempo slows down and the actors fade out. A deeper silence hangs in the air, and even the wind has a softer tone. Free from sensory clutter, you can see clear into spring. You see evidence of the living bond that runs unbroken through all the seasons.
You can see that what looks like the end is just another beginning. That the leaves of another summer are tucked safely away in the bud, that tiny eggs are lying in crevices waiting to be hatched, and that hibernating ground squirrels are sleeping soundly in their dens, their alarm clocks set for March.
Autumn has a dimension that can‘t be measured. It is the beauty of color, the serenity of Indian Summer, the nostalgia of wood smoke. It is the quiet of an evening, and starlight in trees. It is a hound baying in the light of a Hunter’s Moon. It is space that invites exploration, and the urge to explore it.
The wonder is not only that the season has such depth and beauty, but that we are so deeply moved by it.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast from Ellis County.