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AMONG AUTUMN LEAVES
THE deep woods catch all the rich colors of the autumn sunsets in their foliage. The dull reds and the vivid ones, the maroons and the scarlets, the golden yellows and the wondrously soft and mellow shades of tan and brown they hold till from a hilltop you see the forest afire. Flames flutter, embers glow and fall, and brown ashes and cinders remain.
Yet, if you walk far below the fire, in the forest aisles that are beginning to crisp under foot with the fallen embers of this conflagration, you are conscious of but one color sensation. A subtle glow pervades all things, — an atmosphere that is a yellow from which the sap has run, a very ghost of color. The domes of the hickories that grow in the open pasture are a rich brown, a most lovable shade; those hickory saplings that are rooted in the shade, and wait so patiently for fate to carry off the big trees that they may take their places, take an autumnal tint of this ghost of yellow also, and all the leaves of the wood ferns are pale with it, — a paleness that becomes with the more delicate an almost transparent whiteness.
We may ingeniously say that the reason that these leaves are so anæmic is that they grew in the shade and had not in their veins the good green blood of those that flourished in the open and absorbed from the sun and wind of summer the burn and tan that were to show in autumn. Yet, how can we be sure of this when those leaves which grow side by side on the same tree vary so in their autumnal tints?
Here upon a maple I find leaves that are still green, while others just beside them are scarlet. From the hilltop those maples which show the fieriest flame are the ones that on close inspection show leaves where the green and red mingle either in the same leaf or contiguous leaves. Perhaps the green, complementary color of the red takes the part of shadow background and throws up the more vivid color in greater prominence.
The swamp maples are unique in their way of taking on autumnal tints, anyway. In common with all trees that stand with their feet in the water, they lose the rich green of full summer growth long before the frosts touch them, and long before similar trees standing on upland slopes have any idea that autumn is approaching. Occasionally a maple branch growing on some swamp tree, bowered in a little cove of woodland greenery, will flame up in early July, as if some ignis fatuus, wandering in by ghostly moonlight from a near-by ditch, had touched the bough with strange fire that crimsoned but did not consume.
There is nothing the matter with the tree; it is well nourished and of vigorous growth, yet it flares this early signal that winter with her train is sooner or later to whistle down the tracks of the great northern road. Such a maple is like an over-zealous flagman who stands on the crossing and waves his signal before the train has even started from the distant city, I do not recall seeing this trait exhibited by other trees.
Again, individual trees of many species will show ruddy tints in the swamp, sometimes in early September, before other trees of the same species, standing near by, have even a suspicion of it. Yet this rule holds good; the swamp trees color first and lose their leaves first, the maples first of all. Sometimes by October first precocious specimens are bald, their gray polls conspicuous spots among the surrounding greenery. With their vivid colors, their premature baldness, their usually smaller size, and a generally devil-may-care air which, perhaps, is only seeming because of these facts, the swamp maples always appear to me like swashbucklers, roistering young blades in whom riots the wine of life, whose red faces early in the morning of the autumn and whose premature baldness both hint of dissipation. Their roots are deep in the richest of mold dissolved in the water of copious springs. The most bounteous of banquets and the warmest of wine is continually at their lips, It is no wonder if their youth is tempted to excesses.
Most of the lady birches stand aloof on the upland slopes; I notice not far enough away to forbid the handsome young maples from climbing out of their mire of dissipation to nibble the dry husks of gravel-bank breakfast food and drink dew among them if they have the courage. But not all thus withdraw in whispering groups. Down into the swamp others have stepped and stand, erect and dainty, among the rubicund roisterers. Social workers these without doubt, missionaries of the Birch C. T. U., who thus give their lives nobly to teaching by example.
Among the same temptations they stand, their shimmering green skirts drawn slimly about them, their slight forms erect, the very visible essence of virtue. The fervor of autumn touches them only with a pale-yellow aureola, which marks at once their freedom from taint of temptation and their saintliness. There is not much to prove it in a bird's-eye view of the swamp this October, yet I can but feel that these pure lives radiate an influence among the sensuous swamp maples.
Here and there you will find one of these the rich green of whose summer leaves turns to yellow hue at this time of year, though it is a creature-comfort yellow compared with the soft ethereality of the birches. Such, I believe, are on the road to conversion. The spirituality of their neighbors has touched them and they are beginning to be conscious of the beauty of temperate living and strive toward it.
Perhaps some autumn we shall note the presence of a great revival and the October swamp will he all one pale, misty nimbus of spirituality, a soft yellow radiance of saints who have spurned riotous living and glow with ethereal fires of renunciation. Then will the Birch C. T. U. hold a praise service.
On higher ground another maple which from its autumn coloration as well as other characteristics is a very near relative of the swamp maples is the white maple, sometimes called the silver-leaved maple. This, too, turns a vivid red in early October, though it holds its leaves a little longer than the red maples of the swamp. On the other hand, the imported Norway maples, more shapely and stately trees in their full growth than our own, line our streets and parks with noble round heads that are still green except for a slight frosting of bronzy yellow on top, giving the tree a richness of dignified maturity that is beautiful to look upon. There is nothing of the missionary about these; they simply stand serene, placid reminders of the value of noble example.
Like these trees in the formation of symmetrical, rounded heads are the chestnuts, which are still green when the other deciduous trees of the wood have been caught in the conflagration of autumn coloring. Now, the first week in October being past, they show a certain yellowness of foliage which is enhanced by the yellow-brown of the ripe burs which throng the tips of their upper branches.
Twice during the year does the rich green of the chestnut leafage bloom with a richer tinting, — first in June, when the long staminate blossoms seem to pour in cascades from their billowed tops, and again at this time of year, when the ripened nuts push open the green burs of September and the failing sap leaves them at first a yellow-green and later a golden tan-brown. Walking beneath the trees to-day you are likely to get a rap on the head from a solid seal-brown chestnut, or even find your neck full of prickers where the fretful porcupine of a descending bur has jabbed you.
Already the ash trees, whose foliage has passed with much rapidity through olive-green and olive-yellow to tan-brown, which still holds a little of the olive tint, stand bare and gray against the sky, like the red maples, sure prophets of winter. The ash is never profuse of leaves, It drops them first of all in the autumn and is among the latest to put them forth in the spring. Even in the height of summer you cannot say that its foliage is dense; and when the slender brown leaves lie upon the ground they do not make a thick carpet. They merely crisp under foot instead of rustling.
Under a Norway maple the ground will later be half-leg deep in dense curled leaves that rustle and swish under your stride. You plough through them and they leap up and dance away from your progress, a splashing, undulating brown tide. Under oaks, much later, you find a similar sea, though its flood does not rise so high and there is a crisper rustle that is yet a large-hearted and generous sound. Under willows there is a silky crispness that is quite different from either.
So, blindfolded and led from one part of the forest to another, you might tell every tree under which you passed by the sound of its dead leaves under foot. So, too, knowing your tree, you might tell with accuracy the time of the year, the definite week of autumn in which your pilgrimage was taking place. Under the oaks to-day, though but a few leaves are yet on the ground, you would feel the round acorns under foot, and you would know that these were not chestnuts because of the lack of burs; so, too, you might know that you were under the white oak instead of the black by the different shape of the acorn.
If your foot-sense were not sufficiently subtle to note this difference — though if you were much addicted to life in the open woodland it would be — you still might, blindfolded, know the white oak from the black by the sweetness of its acorns, I sometimes think they are more pleasing to the palate than the chestnuts, though they have a slight astringency. Yet their meat is sweeter and, aside from the slight bitterness, has more of flavor, as you will see if you will test first one and then the other. I think you will agree with me that the chestnut flavor is pale and insipid in comparison.
The black-oak acorn is a different fruit. Like the tree it seems to have absorbed all the bitterness of the wood. The white oak always seems to me to glow with the generous hospitality of the sunshine, the black oak to be morose and vindictive, a tree of dull days and shadow, I have little excuse for this feeling, unless it is because of their fruits.
The two trees grow side by side in the woodland, the black, if anything, the more vigorous in growth, yet the scaly whiteness of the bark of the one always seems hospitable, the rugose blackness of that of the other unfriendly. So with the fruit; the rich flavor of the white oak acorns is inviting, the meracious bitterness of the others is repellent. Out of the fact of this palatableness on the part of the one and repulsiveness on the part of the other has grown a singular condition in the southern states, where the trees as here once grew in equal profusion, side by side in the forests.
There it is the custom, and has been since the days of first settlement, to turn swine loose in the forests, where in the autumn they fatten on "mast," which is an old English name still in use there, but little known in New England, It means forest nuts of any kind, but especially acorns. These southern, forest-feeding swine have so loved the white oak mast that they have in a large measure kept the trees from reproducing by eating all the seeds. The black-oak mast, on the contrary, they have rejected, as any wise animal would, leaving the seeds to be scattered about in profusion and reproduce more black oaks. Hence a scarcity of white oaks in southern forests where they would be welcome.
The oaks are more tenacious of their leaves than any other deciduous tree, though they are fairly early in showing autumn tints. Long after the reds of other trees of the wood are buried in the brown drifts that cover the roots from the too fierce frosts of winter the rich deep crimsons and red-browns of the oak remain. Indeed, the leaves of some species hold on all winter, and let go their grip only reluctantly when pushed off by the swelling buds of next spring's growth.
Their rustle, as they cling to the twigs in December, makes the wood vocal as the winter winds sift the snow softly down among them. Oftentimes before you see the first fine, far-apart flakes of the coming storm you may hear them pat here and there on a resonant oak leaf, and their presence makes the winter outlook more perfectly and comfortingly bleak as the fine flakes whirl through them. Snow amongst perfectly bare twigs fails of its full effect. You need the shiver of its sifting among the dry, persistent leaves of the oaks to realize all the beauty of its bleakness.
Now, however, the rich wine reds, the vivid crimsons, and the deep maroons that deepen on the one leaf into bluish purples and on the other into violet-browns mingled, as they are yet with the vigorous chlorophyl-green of the untinted leaf, these all are beginning to make up the more permanent glory of the full tide of autumn color. Come with me, if you will, at sunset to the scrubby hill where three years ago the woodchoppers swept through like locusts, devouring every green thing that lay in their path.
They left behind them only gray stumps, dead limbs, and devastation. Yet hardly were their backs turned before the surgent vitality of spring swept upward from the earth-sheltered roots and burgeoned from the gray stumps in adventitious shoots that flushed purple with the excess of young blood in them. Four feet they grew, these new shoots, that year, and as much more the next, and now another forest of young oaks, black, white, red, scarlet, and scrub romps where the elder forest stood in majesty, Its leaves are fewer in number, but of enormous size and full of the riot of young life, with all the vigor of the parent tree sent up from the great deep roots.
Now their tide of sap is flowing back and the deep bronze-green is turning to the richest crimson and lake. Through these the golden radiance of the sun is drowned in a sea of bacchanal glory that makes the eye drunk and bewildered with its wine of crimson fires. To look toward it directly is to face a furnace of vivid liquid flames that makes the whole world green with flying blots of complementary color as you look away. Looking north or south to relieve the eye, you find that the rich color is still caught cunningly in the curves and facets of the leaves that glow like fire-rubies set in mosaics of chrysoprase, almandite, garnet, and carnelian. Turn again so that your back is to the sun and your eye rests among soft depths of umber lighted by rich reds that do not dazzle and flanked by tans and beryl. It is a world of glow and warmth and color that will long outlast the scarlets and yellows of the other deciduous trees, and even in the dead of winter the sunset fires will glow and flare in remembrances of these colors in the still-clinging leaves.