CRUNCH TIME AT HARVARD FOREST
Now is the loudest time in the woods at the Harvard Forest all year.
The leaves on many trees are down by now, but still dry and crunchy. Kicking through the forest is a percussive pleasure.
Beautiful to watch, leaves are still sailing off the oaks, twirling to ground. They are largely already off the yellow and black birch, striped maples, red maples and sugar maples and long gone from the ash. I can see my tree better now than I have in weeks, with the leaves off the understory of black birch.
Sitting under my tree this week I watch the leaves as they spin through the air, bolting up to catch and gather them before they hit the ground. One of the most lovely aspects of this time of year is the visible wind: the leaves as they cruise and sail on the breeze show us the currents always around us, or nearly so, but seldom so visible. I’ll have to wait for flying snow to see the atmospheric river of our world again so closely.
And fall finally brings the leaves so long out of reach to my view. As I gather them, a close look shows how hard they have worked all year…the surfaces are mined down their vein structure by insects, chewed, and ripped. An insect has spun itself a little cocoon on one underside and the rich, nut brown color of the leaves is mottled with encroaching decay.
Oak leaves are among the last to drop in the forest. Stiff and noisy in the hand, they are the castanets of the late fall and early winter canopy, rattling along with the beeches in the wind. The beeches will hold bravely to their leaves even longer, clear into January and beyond.
Now I can also see that what looks to be a mass of similar leaves from my distance on the ground is actually a very diverse assemblage of leaves on one tree, of greatly varying sizes and shapes.
Leaves from the top of the canopy are small and deeply scalloped, the better to endure the heat of the sun. Shade leaves, from lower down, are larger to gather as much sunlight as they can from their spot on the tree.
Incredible organic machines, these leaves have all season withstood forces of torque and drag, moisture, heat, bright sun and ultraviolet radiation. They have exchanged gas, manufactured sugar, transmitted, and stored food. From emergence to senescence they have had so much to do in a short time: unfurl, harden and get to work making a season’s worth of food in just a few short months. Enough not only to put on growth this year, but store food in the tree’s roots to feed the emergence of next spring’s crop of new leaves.
So I don’t begrudge these leaves their long glissade to ground, where they will add to the soft duff under my feet, useful even in their passing.
Their work is done, but they are already feeding the next generation, in the nourishment they have made and packed away in the tree, and in the enrichment their spent lives now give the soil. Even in the passing of this season is the hope and readiness for the next.
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