Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Autumn’s Progress

I usually equivocate when asked to name my “favorite” of anything, but I can safely say my favorite season is autumn. At least, here in Missouri. (See, I just equivocated again, didn’t I.)

One of the big reasons to love autumn in Missouri is the fall color. I feel sorry for children who grow up in parts of the country where the local trees are just firs, pines, and aspens, so that “autumn” to them is only big patches of yellow interspersed with the ubiquitous, “ever” greens. Those children read books about “the seasons” and see pictures of deciduous trees in a riot of what we would call “fall colors”—and they must feel out-of-touch, if not outright deprived.

If you live in the Midwest, it can be easy, sometimes, to take our four true seasons for granted. But autumn usually makes itself hard to ignore.

As Pulitzer Prize–winning natural history writer Edwin Way Teale showed in the third volume of his American Seasons quartet, Autumn across America (1956), great pleasure can be gained from tracking autumn’s progress across the continent. It glides in a band southward, like a magically drifting rainbow, its spectrum enveloping the tired greens of late summer and leaving husky browns and tans in its wake.

Here in Missouri, autumn is delivered to us from Iowa and Nebraska, who got it from Minnesota and the Dakotas and ultimately, like all cold weather on our continent, from Canada.

In our state, fall color usually starts becoming visible in the northern counties in about mid-September and moves southward to finish completely in southern Missouri by the middle of November. The central counties (on a north–south gradient) are about one week later than the northern third, and the southern counties are about one week later than the central ones.

The peak of fall color usually occurs in the northern counties during the first third of October, in the central zone in the middle of October, and the southern counties in the last third of October. Again: generally speaking.

The timing can vary from the average, mainly due to vicissitudes of temperature—but the amount and types of color can vary drastically because of many additional factors, including timing and amounts of moisture during the summer and fall, whether drought was an issue, problems with any number of tree diseases and parasites, and more.

Each year, there are some trees, shrubs, and vines that are usually the first to change color—harbingers of autumn such as Virginia creeper and poison ivy, black walnuts, and dogwoods. And the trees that are the last to turn include the oak trees, for instance. In our state, like most of the eastern North America, fall color is said to reach its climax when the sugar maples are most colorful, with their fiery oranges, opulent golds, and glowing reds.

But even the sequencing can be thrown off by various factors. Also, most years there is at least one species of tree that fizzles out like a damp firecracker. This year, for instance, a lot of oaks are affected by a parasite called “jumping oak gall,” so we can’t expect to see much of their deep maroon this year—many oaks will be going straight from green to brown. Woolly oak leaf galls can have the same effect.

“Leaf peeping” is a big part of Missouri tourism; even when it’s not the sole point of the travel, fall color adds greatly to our enjoyment of our outings, whether we’re heading out on a weekend day trip to a church supper or an afternoon hike, or planning a more involved “staycation” down at Branson, or camping at Bennett Spring State Park, or bird-watching or hunting at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

When I was a teenager, back when I was under the influence of Leo Buscaglia, one of my sad attention-getting behaviors was to designate some random autumn day as “Leaf Day” and make my own little holiday out of it. I showed up at school with a bag of fresh, gorgeous fall leaves, arrived at all my classes early, and placed a leaf on each of my classmates’ desks. It often started conversations about the beauty of the season and the wonderful structure of leaves, and even the miracle of our ability of perceive—or construct—the idea of “beauty.” (Well, in my honors classes it did.)

At this point in life, my habit is not to “twirl buttercups,” waxing on the sheer loveliness of nature—but today’s an exception. My sole motivation is a hope that I’ve caused a few people to stop and be aware of whatever beauty may come.

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