Monday 23 October 2017

A romantic season of blazing palettes

Blaze of colour: Poet John Keats took comfort in Autumn
Blaze of colour: Poet John Keats took comfort in Autumn

Joe Kennedy

It is startling to see leaves swirl and fall from temperate trees in sunshine that is almost tropical.

The days blaze, a night of rain keeps down the dust, and evergreens essentially keep the green patina of the countryside intact.

The calendar shows October and so the seasons amble along on schedule, as they should. Darkness falls earlier, gradually, the leaves bundle underfoot as if defiantly asserting their autumnal rights. It appears incongruous, as if a giant hand had been at work behind backs, stripping and tearing dying growth, even those early fading leaves with signs of remaining life.

This is not an Irish picture where autumn weather is as 'normal' as can be expected.

From Kashmir to Connemara, the northern hemisphere enjoys a symphony of foliage that North Americans feel is unique to them. But now is a month sooner than the time of the technicolour splendour of New England and the Maritimes.

I am two-and-a-half flying hours south of Ireland, on the Iberian Peninsula, where thousands of Irish people travel backwards and forwards regularly on breaks. (All that advertising in the Sunday Independent's holiday supplements has been effective!)

That copper-tinged, yellow-flecked gorgeousness which brings a swirling scattering of autumnal colour can inspire romantic imaginings. Some are profound.

An anthropologist and poet named Loren Eisley considered "if men could disintegrate like autumn leaves, fret away, dropping their substance like chlorophyll ... suppose we saw ourselves burning like maples in a golden autumn would not out attitude to death be different?"

The naturalist Richard Mabey says we all find auguries in the blaze of autumn - prophesies of winter, reminders of mortality or, like the poet John Keats, some comfort in mellow fruitfulness.

He found it uplifting at a bad time, 'To Autumn' (1819), when he was dying of tuberculosis.

Why do trees change the colour of their leaves only to dump them?

We may say that it just so that they can endure, get through the viciousness of winter - but we really don't know the complete story.

The reason temperate trees shed their leaves may be partly because the roots don't easily absorb cold water, the need to reduce moisture lost through leaves, and also to get rid of toxins.

But what happens before the great shedding is a transfer of sugars and nutrients back into the branches for storage.

What is left after the chlorophyll has gone are the natural antioxidants, yellow and orange carotenoids, and another protector, the tomato-red anthocyanin, making a special autumnal appearance.

The season's high colour then is a not a sign of deterioration but of detox vitality, not about decay but more about ripening and preparing for a new beginning in spring. The ripening of tomatoes, source of antioxidants, may be analogous to what is happening to leaves.

George Orwell, in Keep the Aspidistra Flying has a couple wading through woodland leaves, "fairy gold, the colour of tomato soup".

All plants have to survive winter, some with seeds, some with ground buds, trees keeping theirs high for the new leaves of spring

Now and in coming weeks is the time to enjoy the colour changes of the countryside and its harvest of haws, sloes, elderberries, hazels and crab apples, heavily hanging and slowly dropping to the ground below.

Sunday Independent

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