Thursday, September 15, 2005

Keeping with the autumn/nature theme this week, I would like to share with you the following article that will be published in LAKESTYLE magazine in the coming weeks:

Sunny Days and Cool Nights by Lee Hoedl

It happens to be the second most asked question by children, bested only by the more frequently asked question, “Why is the sky blue?” Why and how do autumn leaves change color? It was this arboreal inquiry posed to me on a late autumn afternoon by my then six-year-old son Leo. Why and how do autumn leaves change color? What a wonderful conversation to have between a parent and a child; the glorious exploration and discovery of the seasons’ change! So there we sat, amidst a heaping pile of autumn’s dressing… and we wondered. Ultimately our discussion and exploration would not only make us a little more appreciative of the biological miracle and mystery of autumn, but it would also serve as a poignant reminder to me of the blessings of Life’s connection during our

Sunny Days and Cool Nights

It is no easy task to fully explain to any child the annual symphonic dance between pigment and environment which results in the glorious autumn canopy. So please bear with me as I attempt to reconstruct our conversation concerning this magical process. It went something like this:

“Dad, why and how do fall leaves turn color?”

“That’s a great question to ask and a difficult one to answer. Do you want the simple answer or the more complicated answer?”

“Whichever one you think I’ll understand, Dad… maybe do a little of both?”

“Well Leo, the why is the simple answer. Most people think that leaves change color and fall begins because of a quick and early winter frost. A frost is when the temperature reaches near or below freezing. But many leaves begin to turn color before there are any frosts. The leaves change color because of a chemical process that occurs as the seasons change; the days get shorter and shorter and there is less sunlight for trees to receive their nourishment. Now here is where it gets more complicated. Are you ready for the how leaves change color?”

“I think so, Dad, but I might have to ask you again later for the answer.”

“Fair enough, Leo. As the days shorten and the nights get cooler, a chemical clock kicks in and releases a hormone that slows the sap flow to and from each leaf on every tree. Eventually, each leaf is sealed off from the branch and the green chlorophyll – the pigment that gives leaves their basic green color - fades away to reveal other pigments that provide such bright fall colors. The other two prominent pigments are carotenoids and anthocyanins. Carotenoids are the pigments which produce yellow, orange and brown colors in things like corn, carrots and bananas. Anthocyanins are the pigments that produce red and maroon colors in familiar things like apples, grapes, cherries, strawberries and plums. When the green chlorophyll starts to disappear, you then begin to witness the wonderful yellows, reds, oranges and browns of autumn. Are you still with me, Leo?”

“I think so. So leaves change color because they know that winter is coming soon?”

“In a way, Leo, yes. It’s Nature’s way of beginning to store food for the long winter ahead. So it shuts down all of its machinery and prepares to go to sleep for nine months.”

“How come this fall is not very pretty, Dad? Where’s all the colors?”

“Another great question, Leo. You see the most spectacular color displays in autumn are when we have a number of days that are warm and sunny and the nights are cool and crisp. The nights can be around 45 degrees Fahrenheit, but they can’t be freezing. When the temperature reaches freezing, there is a frost and this can cause the leaves to wither more quickly and drop to the ground.”

“Dad, I wish we had sunny days this fall. I would have liked more colors.”

“We know that autumn is always going to occur, Leo. The earth tilts 23 degrees away from the sun at this time of the year and the days get shorter… so autumn will always arrive and winter will be close behind. But every fall season is just a little bit different from all the others. That’s one of the miracles and beauties of Nature. And you know what, Leo? Human beings are a lot like trees when it comes to autumn.”

“How’s that, Dad?”

“We too tend to show one particular pigment of our personality to the world during the majority of our days, while several other shades, hues and colors rest just below the surface. Through many of our days, we are busy tending to our daily life – we get what we need and we’re satisfied. We remain green – like the tree leaves – for the majority of our days.

But we go through our own seasons. We have times in our life where we need to rest and relax, like trees in winter. We have times in our life where we need to wake up and get excited about life – like trees in spring. We have times in our life where we need to grow and be productive – like trees in summer. And we have times in our life where we need to shine in all our glory – like trees in autumn.”

“What makes us shine, Dad?”

“In similar fashion as the forest canopy, to shine in our most brilliant glory and to be the very best person we were designed to be, we also need sunny days and cool nights.

“Sunny days and cool nights?”

“Yes, sunny days and cool nights. Our ‘sunny days’ are the warm friendships and relationships that surround us and nourish us. It is the deeper meaning we find for our life; when we start living our life for more than just ourselves. It is the purpose we accept for our life; when we set the limit of our purpose beyond must making a living. And our ‘cool nights’ are those moments we find to just reflect and focus on how grand Life is and how fortunate we are to be alive. It is the gratitude and compassion and patience we bring into each day. These friendships, this meaning and purpose, this reflection and compassion are what allow us to let the everyday green of our personality explode into the reds, yellows, oranges, crimsons and browns that make each of us unique. It is these shades and hues that make each of us special and rare.”

“Dad, do we have times when our leaves are not that bright?”

“Yes, we do, Leo. When our days are cloudy and we momentarily take for granted our friendships and relationships, our shades are less than brilliant. When our meaning and purpose is simply to secure that next dollar or just make it through today, our hues are less than bright. It is when our compassion is replaced by complacency that our nights get very cold – too cold – and our colors are less than majestic. But be assured, there will more autumns in our life; autumns of rich golden deeds of kindness and charity and majestic crimson acts of compassion. The autumns of our life will most assuredly come and go, but we must decide the intensity of its colors. As your grandfather said so many times, ‘Life just gives us time and space, it’s up to us to fill it.’”

“Dad, there is a lot more going on during fall than I thought, isn’t there?”

“Yes, Leo, there most certainly is. And that’s why we need to go out to the woods and forests and celebrate the beauty of the season – regardless of whether its colors are bright or faded. For this particular autumn won’t pass this way again. And rest assured, we can rest easy knowing that eventually another spectacular autumn season will emerge in Nature and in ourselves… we just have to wait for the sunny days and cool nights.”

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