by J.C. Elkin
The leaves look sick, chartreuse as Grandma’s tumblers. For three glorious days we have seen no autumn colors but safety-yellow as we drive through Pennsylvania, the Catskills, and western Vermont, our bags heavy with flannels we do not wear. The fields glow with the golden harvest, but there are no reds against the lapis sky: only boughs of russet among the green, a hint of their lifeblood remaining. By the time we reach Robert Frost’s Stone House in Shaftsbury, Vermont, the area is so rife with leaf peepers that the “no vacancy” signs outnumber the squirrels, yet the forests scrolling past our windshield continue to disappoint.
“Beautiful sunset,” my husband says. It’s a true sky-blue-pink under a full moon with the horizon split vertically between both hues, a phenomenon I have never seen before. The Green Mountains in the distant haze look smoky with humidity. Stunning, but where are the oranges, maroons, and purples?
The guy at the tourism bureau apologizes. “It’s the drought,” he says.
“It’s the temperature!” his coworker says, removing her sweater. “Come back next week when it’s cooler. It’ll be beautiful then.”
Her easy reassurance makes me feel like one of those pitiful tourists from my youth in New Hampshire. All I want is a piece of my past. All I get is vague promises.
I thought the colors were caused by waning sunlight. That’s what we learned in biology, along with the tidbit that sugar maples are brightest of all. Good, we are headed to Canada where the maple leaf is the national symbol. Surely it will look like fall there with their Thanksgiving harvest just two weeks away. But no; when we get there, Quebec is a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with trees that continue to disappoint. We distract ourselves with artisan boutiques, the walled city, and Acadian cuisine, the mystery of the missing foliage coloring the whole vacation.
As we head south two days later, though, one glorious orange tree on the edge of town tempts me to stop for a photo, but I don’t. That would be pathetic, given my heritage, especially for a monochromatic orange tree. I want the autumn reds of memory, from the deepest magenta to the palest pink, colors that have nourished my soul in all my life’s Octobers. I am starting to fear they are a thing of the past, a victim of global warming perhaps.
I search online for the science of foliage and find that it depends on all the factors we’ve heard discussed: temperature, moisture, and daylight. All summer, leaves convert water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis, making the tree grow, flower, and reproduce. Then autumn signals a time to store those carbohydrates in the sap for winter nourishment.
It sounds not unlike my youth, ushering in winter with binges of Halloween candy and sitcoms.
As days become shorter, the chlorophyll of photosynthesis wanes, taking with it the green of summer and unmasking the yellows and oranges of carotene and xanthophyll, which were there all along.
How like my years upon the musical stage, I think. It was always such a relief to remove the makeup after a show and let my natural glow shine.
Meanwhile, anthocyanins, which give maples and sumac their characteristic reds and oranges, build up in the sugary sap. The colors are there long before they become apparent, masked by the chlorophyll’s green.
Just like my writing voice of which I was unaware until a midlife illness impaired my singing voice and my creativity found a new outlet through the pen. It had been there all along, just waiting for a reason to step from the shadows.
The brightest autumn colors result from dry sunny days followed by cool dry nights—unless the health of the tree is compromised by drought, in which case a corky barrier grows between the branches and the leaves.
And there it is: the reason for the vast forests of chartreuse and russet I have been seeing. Those trees never achieved peak color before they died.
It seems to me that too many of us live like that—never singing upon the stage, penning our thoughts, climbing those mountains. We remain on the couch, noshing on Snickers, withering into the winter of our lives.
Driving home, via the eastern auto route this time, we see more blushes of hope as we approach the Vermont border: a twig of persimmon here, a touch of cranberry there, immature maples turning pumpkin. The small new-growth forests bordering the road are suddenly flush with color while the towering forests in the distance remain muted. Our spirits lift even as the atmospheric pressure drops, darkening the countryside in a shroud of patchy clouds with pockets of coral and tangerine popping from patches of sun. It rains that night and into the next day, but we don’t care because the woods are aglow in cantaloupe, persimmon, beet, and pink grapefruit.
I consider all those muted trees among the radiant and ponder the aging process. There’s so much going on that sustains the life cycle as we grow, flower, and reproduce. But what’s left after we are no longer green? If aging is the process of exposing what lies beneath the youthful glow, do we wither straight away or glory in talents that were perhaps masked by our green phase?
I am a tree in autumn with bursting myriad talents. My children have grown but I now run on reserves of inner nourishment. I am that maple with six shades of red, four shades of orange, and two shades of yellow. One day, of course, I will turn russet. To see an autumn forest afire with color, you’d never know it was dying unless you’d seen it happen every brown November of your life. Today, though, I am early October, and winter feels a long way off.
This essay was previously published in Topology Magazine.