Autumn Leaves, Cycle of Life and Consciousness - Facts and a Poem
Many people find late autumn a depressing time of year, unlike the start of the fall season. The early autumn burst of color is glorious as leaves change from green to vivid yellow, orange, purple, red, and russet, and - best of all, I think - a mixture of different colors in the same leaf. The ripened fruit is celebrated in harvest festivals and there are still occasional days that are warm enough to remind us of summer.
As autumn progresses into winter, though, it may seem as though death has the upper hand. Leaves are shed and begin to decay, many plants die, and dried, shriveled and inedible fruits hang on bare branches. Most animals disappear and bird song is silenced.
Where I live the sky is frequently grey in late fall. Dampness fills the air and soaks the ground. There is often a cold rain which penetrates inadequate clothing and can make a walk miserable. The days are short and color seems to be draining from the landscape.
To me, however, late autumn isn’t depressing at all. Most plants are dormant, not dead, and I know that they will produce new leaves in the spring. The bare trees have a beauty of their own, and evergreen plants maintain some color. The bright red holly berries are a special treat in late autumn and winter. New catkins emerge before the year is even over. Even when death has occurred, the nutrients in the decaying bodies will be recycled and will enable new plants to grow. The soil is rich with potential.
The annual plants that have died have left their seeds behind to start new lives. Flowers will reappear in the spring and summer and fresh fruits will form. Animals will return - and in my area some never leave - and birds will sing again. The cycle of life will continue.
Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?
Fall Colors and their Causes
There are three categories of pigments in leaves - chlorophyll, carotenoids and anthocyanins. The relative amounts of these pigments vary throughout the year and determine the color of a leaf.
Leaves appear green in the spring and summer because they contain a green pigment called chlorophyll. Pigments of other colors are present too, but they are usually masked by the chlorophyll. There are two main types of chlorophyll in a leaf - chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b. These absorb light of different wavelengths, or colors.
Chlorophyll plays a vital role in the life of a plant. It absorbs light energy, which the plant uses in photosynthesis. During this process carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil react to produce a sugar and oxygen. The sugar is the plant's food.
In the fall, chlorophyll breaks down, revealing the pigments that give leaves their traditional and often very beautiful autumn colors.
The yellow and orange carotenoids in fall leaves were present during the summer but were hidden by the chlorophyll. The carotenoids helped photosynthesis by absorbing specific wavelengths of light and passing the energy to chlorophyll. The red anthocyanins were made in the late summer and early fall, however. The color of anthocyanins depends on the pH of the environment, so they sometimes look purple instead of red or pink. There are several theories that attempt to explain why anthocyanins need to be produced in leaves that will soon die, but at the moment there's no definitive answer to the puzzle.
For a few wonderful weeks the beautiful fall colors of leaves are visible. Eventually the leaves are shed and the plant uses stored food to stay alive. In the spring the amount and intensity of light will increase, chemical reactions in the plant will increase in number and new leaves will develop, allowing more food to be made.
What is Consciousness?
The poem below describes a tree losing its leaves in late fall. In the poem I imagine that plants and the elements of nature have consciousness and feelings, an idea that has supporters, although not amongst most scientists.
Consciousness is a mysterious phenomenon that is still not understood. In general (although there are exceptions), scientists believe that consciousness is created by processes occurring in the brain. Once the brain ceases to function at death, the person's consciousness no longer exists.
Some people have different ideas, however. One theory is that everything has consciousness - even the cells that make up the bodies of living things and the atoms that make up matter. Another is that there is one universal consciousness and that our brain accesses this consciousness during our lives. We may influence it just as it influences us. According to this view, consciousness is still present after our bodies die.
Vivaldi's "Autumn" from The Four Seasons, played at the National Botanic Garden of Wales
Reflecting on the Loss of Leaves
The cold wind plays around the tree,
bound by ancient duty and desire,
and secret knowledge of the Earth,
her powers and her needs.
The golden canopy responds
with joy and thrilling sympathy,
and branches sway in partnership while
leaves vibrate excitedly.
The strengthened wind works on with glee
and leaves shake wildly in return,
yearning to cooperate, and
sensing wonderment near by.
At last the bonds begin to break
and leaves detach triumphantly,
then frolic in the boisterous wind
to celebrate their victory.
The leaves fall far away, in grace,
and join the carpet on the ground
where understanding slowly dawns
as decay produces clarity.
Freedom from control reveals
a world much wider than before,
awareness stretched a billion fold,
discovering all that is.
Then slowly memories fade away
while insight clouds and shrinks,
atoms pulled to recombine
as nature builds again.
So now the cycle starts anew,
formation and decay,
forgetting then remembering
until the end of time.
© 2011 Linda Crampton
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