An Autumn Day

October 26, 2009

The word “glorious” is not a word I use lightly or often. Yesterday was a glorious autumn day in northern New Jersey. After an utterly miserable Saturday, muggy and rainy, that concluded with a tropical downpour, complete with lightning and gale-force winds, I awoke yesterday morning and got ready for church. In driving west, on a bright, clear morning in which the roads were still wet, it struck me that the western hills, with their variegated foliage, seemed to be covered with a kind of multicolored quilt, or perhaps with one of the afghans that my great-aunt used to crochet, in this case one made out of orange, red, yellow, and green yarns. And, as my Aunt Anna made such blankets, not merely for the utilitarian purpose of keeping warm, but from other motivations as well, including a love towards her family, a desire to make something beautiful that would be preserved by succeeding generations, and probably also out of an implicit or explicit gratitude to her Creator who gave her this gift, so similarly the beauty of an autumn day seems naturally to involve deeper factors besides merely the biological mechanism whereby the trees annually lose their chlorophyll.

So far as I know, there is no other area in the world where the trees put on such a spectacular autumn display aside from the Northeastern United States and Southern Canada. (It is not for nothing that the maple leaf is on the Canadian flag.) I don’t know what was the reaction to it of the people who first came to settle here from Europe where, by and large, autumn foliage is more subdued; I can imagine that, at first, their minds were focused on the much more immediate business of survival in a harsh and unfamiliar world. But, at some point, they must have taken notice of it and reflected upon it.

In the book The Botany of Desire (2001), the author, Michael Pollan, presents a kind of thought-experiment in which he argues that plants may be less completely passive in their relations with the animal kingdom than we usually give them credit for. As flowering plants decidedly employ colors, scents, and nectar to entice insects to perform for them the work of pollination, so (the author argues) plants may deploy similar qualities to induce other animals — human beings — to cultivate them.

As an instance of this, Pollan gives the example of the apple tree and how it came to be cultivated in North America by a nineteenth-century entrepreneur named Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), who planted thousands of these trees and turned a handsome profit from them, capitalizing upon the human desire for sweetness and intoxication (apples were consumed, at this time, mostly in the form of hard cider). The author’s thesis seems to demand that this transformation of the American landscape be seen less as the clever business practice of a personally eccentric entrepreneur than as the apple tree’s own biological cunning in inducing the human species to propagate it.

Presumably, that argument fails in the case of the autumn spectacle of the American Northeast. For, although it is certainly true that some people plant trees because of their autumn foliage, it nevertheless remains true to say that the autumn spectacle of the American Northeast is in no real sense the result of human cultivation. The trees were here putting on their annual show before anyone, Yankee or Amerindian, was here to take notice of it. Nor does the changing of colors of the leaves have any immediate function to play in the trees’ propagation, comparable to the role the coloring of flowers plays in the natural propagation of flowering plants. From a strictly biological point of view, it is not clear what function such a fiery display of color fulfills; trees elsewhere seem to get along quite well without it.

If one is going to apply the thesis of a botany of desire — the thesis, that is, that plants act in such a way as to induce animals, including man, to do for them what they cannot do for themselves — to the phenomenon of the Northeast’s autumn display, it seems to me one will be forced to attribute to these plants something like foresight. The maples, oaks, birches, elms, etc. of the American seaboard must have gotten wind from their brethren in the Old World that a human tribe was eventually going to arrive that, of all human tribes, was utterly unique in its shortsightedness and destructive potentiality; in preparation for this future event, and to avert impending disaster, the trees learned to clothe themselves in fiery apparel before the winter set in, so that, when these newcomers would arrive and would begin denuding the landscape for winter fuel and for other purposes, at least some of these human beings would remember the trees’ beautiful, fiery clothing and would take care not to cut all of them down.

(On the other hand, in the article Autumn leaf color in the Wikipedia, I read of certain more prosaic explanations for the phenomenon: one possibility being that the brilliant red colors are meant to discourage aphid infestation; another, that they are supposed to outfox the camouflage mechanisms of herbivores — although why then wouldn’t the herbivores have adapted to the adaptation? — another, that anthocyanins, responsible for red-purple coloration, protect leaves “against the harmful effects of light at low temperatures” — although this raises the question of why trees should expend so much biological energy upon protecting parts of the organism that are about to be dropped. Another point made in the article is that the extreme variegation of the North American tree landscape, relative to that of Europe, has to do with the fact that, in North America, more tree species were able to survive the ice ages by emigrating south in advance of the glaciers, whereas in Europe, pushed to the Mediterranean, many species simply died off.)

Whatever explanation one adopts for the phenomenon of autumn leaf color, it seems to me that the most obvious and, in some ways, rational account for the changes in autumn color is that this spectacle of nature is, like all beauty, natural and moral, a declaration of the glory of God; it is a gift of the Creator, a ray of his own perfection, and is meant to draw the creature back to him in love, thanksgiving, and contemplation.

Postscript: Also, yesterday, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant, which is another good reason for people in New Jersey to give thanks.

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