With Thanks To Effort

I can’t think of many things that look beautiful before they die, but leaves are the exception.

If we could all look like a sugar maple leaf before we glide gently away from our perches.

October is the month for painted leaves.

The best fall foliage is found in just a handful of places in the world, and we’re one of them.

There are people everywhere who have never seen the yellows and the reds of the woods in October, and a lucrative tourism industry has existed for more than 100 years that caters to folks who simply come to see a tree turn red.

I have taken these people on tours and they stand along the road looking deep into the New England woods and they say “Wow,” in a way that is usually reserved for pretty girls or great dessert menus.


The writer Henry David Theroux had friends visit from Europe sometime in the 1860s, and they had never in their lives seen trees that changed color, or the ripe fruit of our fall. And if “wow” had been a word then, that’s what they were trying to say.

If we were to be totally honest, the green leaves of summer form a somewhat muted backdrop. It’s nice to have them back when winter ends, but we’re not apt to pull over and gaze adoringly at a green tree.

It isn’t until the autumn sky is full of something crisp and the fields turn a deep green that every tree in your visual landscape turns an impressive and individual luminous hue. Suddenly, every winding road and little hill is awash in something special.

Short of thinking that trees do this to be cute for us, science, of course, has set out to discover what, in fact, trees have to gain by turning some riotous color of yellow. It is the job of science, of course, to turn the majesty of fall into some sort of logical scientific process.

The fact is that the truth eludes them.

We do know that a red leaf, for example, was born red, but its true color is covered up by summer’s abundance of chlorophyll. So, in the fall, each leaf gets to shine as the color that it truly was all along (and without counseling).

But here is where the mystery deepens.

In order for the leaves to sit there looking pretty, the tree must continue to send food to the leaves at a time when it should be saving its energy to get through the winter and to perform well the next spring.

The colorful display isn’t really benefiting the tree; it mostly just benefits us-the observers.

“This can’t be,” scream the scientists, who firmly believe that everything in nature occurs to benefit the organism.

So, they keep probing deeper, hoping to prove that beauty has a reason beyond the human being’s appreciation of it.

One of the latest theories is that leaves turn certain colors so that bugs will stay away from them, but that’s been rather hard to prove. Red leaves may not have certain nutrients that attract bugs, but then why don’t they gravitate to the nutrient rich yellow leaves?

And the mystery deepens even more: Some trees really go to town and with considerable effort manufacture a chemical called anthocycanins, which bring about the oranges and reds that we see in the northeast.

And because we have the perfect conditions that encourage these anthocycanins, these trees change with great flare.

Other trees in other regions produce these chemicals, but it doesn’t amount to much.

The climate and soil aren’t just right.

The trees in the northeast expend a tremendous effort to make this all happen, and as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter why.

Be sure to pull your car over on the side of the road at least once to look up the hill and admire that hard won perfection.