Colors—they existed in creation before man gave them names. Walking through the chilly Southeastern woods on a quiet November morning makes you keenly aware of their presence in the plant kingdom--bright yellow hickory trees, soft red sourwoods and brilliant orange sugar maples shade the forest canvas in ways that man could never reproduce with artificial dyes.
Their silent but powerful ode to autumn doesn’t happen overnight. Science has its hand in this vivid work of art. As the amount of sunlight available for photosynthesis decreases, the chlorophyll-laden leaves halt food production, causing the green pigment to diminish and allowing the ever-present yellow pigments to shine forth instead. Chemical changes are responsible for the brilliant reds, oranges and purples. Acidic soil types create the lighter shades, while more basic (or alkaline) soil types produce the deeper shades. Warm sunny days with night temperatures below 45 degrees tend to increase the potential for red, as the cool night temperatures force the hard-working leaves to lock in the sugars produced during the warm sunny day.
Red and silver maples, flowering dogwoods, sweet gums, black gums, sumacs, red oaks and scarlet oaks are a few of Alabama’s trees that prefer to paint with shades of red. Sugar maples sport a blaze orange hue, hickories color with yellow, and oaks opt for a modest reddish brown to brown tone.
This color explosion creates a sense of awe and curiosity in man and stirs our souls to both marvel at the natural work of genius and attempt to master its processes. We can whittle its wonder down to something scientific that we can understand fundamentally, but something more inherent is at work during this sensational season.
As is the case with most fine paintings, you have to read between the colors to absorb the creator’s message. Those reviews can be as varied as the art critics themselves.
For some, it might be a divine dichotomy—the death of one generation giving way to the life of another. The circle of life, present in all facets of the natural world, provides hope that things will not remain static. The promise of a new beginning accompanies change. Another viewer may interpret the brilliant color parade as a sign to live life intensely, even until the end of your time on earth. Yet another may see the act of falling as a final release from labor and structure.
Whatever your interpretation of autumn may be, it is important to remember that receiving such enlightenment is difficult to obtain unless you fully immerse yourself in the masterpiece itself.
We are blessed with more than 300 different tree species in the Southeast, and the majority of those love to color. I encourage you to escape the madness of manmade civilization and descend into the autumnal artwork that brilliantly marks the transition to another season.