Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Abscission Wind

For several years, now, I’ve been trying to think of a good name for it, that wind that comes and sweeps “autumn” off the trees and gives us the winter landscape.

It doesn’t arrive at any set date—although around here it happens in late October or early November—but when it happens, it’s usually a distinct and noticeable event. It’s that cold front that drives through, with wind and rain, that puts an end to “fall color” and knocks off nearly all the leaves.

Other times of year, and other distinct seasonal weather events, have special names. We have the “dog days” of summer and “Indian summer” in fall. Of winds, there are Chinooks and siroccos, mistrals and haboobs, Santa Anas and williwaws . . . and many more. And then there’s that occasional, deceptive “January thaw,” giving us a taste of sweet warmth only to crush us with more grim winter.

But I haven’t found a name for this cold front that usually, and cleanly, divides autumn and winter. And I think we need one.

So I have some ideas I’d like to propose.

How about “the Exfoliator”? I know, I know: An exfoliator is something—a goo or an abrasive—used to remove dead skin cells, and it has little to do with tree leaves. Yet the “leaf” root word is there, and because it has to do with sloughing off structures that are already dead, it is better than “the Defoliator.” Defoliation has to do with leaves, but then it also implies a chemical that dispatches leaves before they’re ready to die. It’s a leaf-killer. So “the Exfoliator” sounds pretty reasonable, don’t you think? Especially if you capitalize it to make it look official.

Do you think we should add a word to make it clearer? The Autumn Exfoliator? The Exfoliating Wind?

Or what about “the tree sweeper,” “the branch cleaner,” “the canopy clearer”?

Or we could focus on the action on the level of the twig and leaf stem, the break that occurs when the leaf is ready to let go, and the breeze or the rain that catalyzes the separation. Maybe we could call it “the leaf render.” Or, from what happens when the leaves go flying, “the scattering wind.”

Or we could be a bit nerdy and use some slightly fancy botanical lingo. There’s a precise name for that stiff bit of tissue that develops between the base of a leaf stem and the twig it’s growing from. This tissue is called the “abscission layer.” As it develops at the end of the leaf’s “life,” it cuts off nutrients to the leaf, and the leaf “dies.”

(Realize: leaves aren’t organisms, so they don’t die. Yes, unlike our hair and fingernails, leaves are living tissues, but they’re meant to be sloughed off at some point. Even on evergreen trees, the leaves are expendable. Perhaps a better mammalian metaphor would be the process of menstruation.)

Abscission. Per Webster’s: “the act or process of cutting off: REMOVAL”; “the natural separation of flowers, fruit, or leaves from plants at a special separation layer” (meaning the aforementioned abscission layer).

I kind of like the word; despite the fact that you don’t hear it used much, I think it’s perfect. And it’s not a tough word to learn: “ab-SIH-zhun.”

We’re talking about the cold front, the wind and rain, that makes the leaves become abscised. So how about “Abscission Front”? Or “Abscission Wind”?

Let’s try it out in some sentences.

“Well, the Abscission Front came through last weekend, and now the leaves are mostly off the trees.”

“The Abscission Wind usually blows around Halloween, giving a stark and spooky look to the clawing branches of trees.”

“The Abscission Wind opens the canopies, making for sunnier woodland hikes.”

“Don’t put off enjoying the fall color—you know the Abscission Wind is just around the corner.”

What do you think? Start using it!

Let’s see if we can get it adopted into standard American English!


whalechaser said...

I like it! Being here in Arkansas, I guess we are sharing the same cold front and I can really understand your comments. When I lived in NJ we always had a driving rain, not cold usually, that would strip the area of its beautiful color and set us up for the gray of winter.

whalechaser said...

...and hey! are those ginko leaves I see?

BonnieChasteen said...

The abscission wind is freezing my buns off!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi! Yes, those are gingko leaves! And a redbud leaf, and a bunch of mostly oak leaves . . . and the lone little exfoliated red maple grows along the sterile industrial drive where I used to work.

Arkansas: seems like you give us unbearable heat in the summer! But we repay you the favor by passing along to you the wintry blasts from the Dakotas. So there!

Bonnie: sorry about your buns. For me, it's always my fingers that get cold first! Ha ha ha.