James Pinsky: Fall, Mother Nature’s winter bedtime story

James Pinsky

Fall is best described as Mother Nature’s best impression of one of her most colorful children, the peacock.

For the next few weeks the very proud parent of all living things will reward its onlookers with a parade of warm colors we only get to see once a year. The overwhelming sight of her once-a-year kaleidoscope of her wonderful yellow, red, and orange peacock feathers has left many a jaw dropped as we fawn over our planet’s new wardrobe.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that the color palette Mother Nature seems to dip her landscaping paint brushes in isn’t new at all. The colors have always been there, and our fall color parties, scientifically anyway, aren’t celebrations of the new colors coming to the trees, but more accurately explained as a celebration of life well lived.

You see, tree leaves don’t actually change colors. No, what actually happens is the environmental spring and summer tree leave tourists known as chlorophyll packs their bags, shuts down their tree-tasty buffet line and leaves, taking their bright green colors with them. As the green colors leave, the tree leaves other colors, which have taken a warm weather back seat to the everyone-look-at-me green, and they finally get their time to shine. More accurately stated by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry,  leaves change their colors because “the chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible and give the leaves part of their fall splendor. At the same time, other chemical changes may occur, which form additional colors through the development of red anthocyanin pigments.”

Weather also makes a difference as to just how bold our fall colors are. Again, our northeast friends, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, help explain it scientifically: “Temperature, light, and water supply have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the brilliant red color. Rainy and/or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. The best time to enjoy the autumn color would be on a clear, dry, and cool (not freezing) day.”

Explaining our fall colors doesn’t have to be complicated. I just explain it to myself more simply by saying our good friend chlorophyll is nothing more than an all-organic snowbird and like many New Englanders I know, when that first cold spell comes, they pack up their bags and head south.

Still, Mother Nature loves all of her children, even the ones who refuse to do winter. Like any good mother though, she doesn’t forsake the living things left behind to bear the full brunt of winter’s often harsh rite of passage. I think Lewis Carroll knew this too when he wrote about it in his book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” when he said, “I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”

As fall takes hold of us around Shenandoah Valley, find yourself a nice, cozy spot with some family and friends and enjoy what may be a long, cool conservation dream as Mother Nature tucks all her children, including us, in for the winter.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org. Visit us at www.lfswcd.org or follow us on Twitter https://twitter.com/lfswcd