Friday 18 October 2019

Country Matters: Taking leaf from trees' yearly detox

Seasonal colours are not signs of deterioration but of detoxing and preparing for a new beginning
Seasonal colours are not signs of deterioration but of detoxing and preparing for a new beginning

Joe Kennedy

Autumnal shades are all around mainland Europe, the great leaf-shedding in silent fall oblivious of temperatures.

I sometimes feel I am in Cloud-cuckoo-land, what German philosopher Schopenhauer called "Wolkenkuckucksheim", a landscape of dream and delusion. (This may be a result of too much Alan Furst World War II spy thrillers.)

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Aristophanes coined the phrase in his comedy The Birds, circa 414 BC, in which a couple of Athenians decide to persuade the local bird population to build a city in the sky.

We won't go into that now but each day seems to reveal a thicker carpet of foliage as shade is sought from temperatures in the late 20s.

Underfoot there are large spatula-shaped crinkly flakes like dried seaweed, from the bases of palm trees, odd debris mixed with the maple and birch leaves with fading green tinges among the dead and dying.

An operative-with-broom gathers them in piles. Ireland, Erin, or Ierne, which the Romans believed was the last outpost of the inhabited world, it is not. Autumn's daily passage is minus chilling gusts scattering the copper-tinged, yellow-flecked markers of time change.

A symphony of colour is swirling across the northern hemisphere from Kashmir to Kennebunkport - New Englanders see it solely as theirs - regardless of temperatures. A sugar surplus has built up in leaves, roots don't absorb winter water easily, so dropping foliage gets rid of the moisture and built-up toxins. The nutrients have gone back into the trees and what is left after the chlorophyll goes are natural antioxidants- yellow and orange carotenoids and tomato-red anthocyanin.

Seasonal colours are not signs of deterioration but of detoxing and preparing for a new beginning. All plants have to survive winter. Annuals live on as seeds, perennials keep their buds in or near the ground and trees keep theirs on high where there is light for new leaf life in spring. Autumn tints have been led by beeches, sycamores and hazels, following the ash. The mighty oak drops its acorn bounty for mammals and winter storage by resourceful jays.

The naturalist Richard Mabey says we all find auguries in the blaze of autumn, a time to prepare for a new beginning. Camus saw it as a second spring, while John Keats - dying in Rome - found some comfort in "mellow fruitfulness", more warming than "the chilly green of spring".

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley asked if our attitude to death would be different if we could disintegrate like leaves "burning like maples in a golden autumn". Writers of popular songs, as well as poets, have been moved by seasonal change. Johnny Cash saw the leaves falling at his door but he "never got over those blue eyes". Walter Huston, Anjelica's grandfather, croaked about the weather turning the leaves to flame and not having "time for the waiting game" in September Song (notable versions from Sinatra and Nat Cole).

Cloud-cuckoo-land was and is a chiding phrase for children the daydreams blown away with the bric-a-brac of autumn.

Joe Kennedy was reporting from the Algarve, Portugal

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