Sep 29, 2017 | Along the Byway

Fall foliage is the subject of a lively botanical debate these days. The hum is that trees are shedding their leaves with devious intent. Some botanists claim that trees stockpile harmful chemicals in the leaves they drop each fall. If this is true, as the fallen leaves breakdown, these stored chemicals are released and seep into the ground, damaging the roots of nearby, competitor trees.  The term for this chemical sabotage is allelopathy.

There are many renowned botanists who refute the veracity of this claim, but few dispute that the forest is an arena of competition in which relatively few win the race to survival. Competition in a forest is unrelenting.

Though, when I am in the forest, looking up and down at the life within, I find it difficult to think of this slow moving battle.  I am guilty of personifying my landscape, making my natural surroundings my companions, and often finding friends in trees.  Trees that grow together in the forest from tiny seeds and sprouts.  As they spring towards the light, I know that they are stretching their branches upward and spreading their leaves out as wide as they can energetically afford.  But I choose to think that these trees are putting in a day’s work growing, truly the life pursuit of a tree, not reaching to shade the leaves of the neighboring beech.  They are simply working to gather the light.

At the end of the day in my friendly vital forest, the trees clock out and stand beside each other with roots intertwined and branches interlaced.  This is the highly rose-tinted view of nature that I am choosing to embrace. I know that it is committing the double crimes of ego-centrism and anti-realism, but it makes it enjoyable to take a forest stroll on a brisk and breezy fall afternoon.

It is through this lens that I look at fall foliage and see, not warfare, nor splendor, but the slow and quiet preparation for a winter slumber.  The newly-hued leaves have worked hard for months, capturing energy from the sun to fuel life on Earth, reforming chemical elements, and reflecting sun rays back into the atmosphere.  These leaves have worked dawn to dusk, through the light of each day.  They are heavy, and showy, and a tad dangerous in the face of snow and ice storms on the horizon, and so they are shed over the course of a week-long yawn.

Whether or not the trees are spreading toxins with their fall abscission is not a debate in which I am qualified to engage. This year I choose to see the fall’s finale of colors, not as the vibrant artillery fueling the fierce battle for survival, but instead as the first step in the creation of a winter cloak, whose purpose is not to snuff the roots of its neighbors, but to create and maintain the longest, coziest shared blanket, draped over the roots of so many sleepy fall trees.

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