Leaf fall at Little Owl Gully: Part Two
All summer [a tree] feeds [its leaves] so they can process sunlight, but in the dog days of summer the tree begins pulling nutrients back into its trunk and roots, pares down, and gradually chokes off its leaves. A corky layer of cells forms at the leaves’ slender petioles, then scars over. Undernourished, the leaves stop producing the pigment chlorophyll, and photosynthesis ceases. Animals can migrate, hibernate or store food to prepare for winter. But where can a tree go? It survives by dropping its leaves, and by the end of autumn only a few fragile threads of fluid-carrying xylem hold leaves to their stems.
“Why leaves turn colour in the fall” (from Diane Ackerman’s book: A Natural History of the Senses)
I was surprised, when I felled some poplars for firewood in early autumn, that they had already lost most of their leaves. I scarfed and back-cut, checked on the line of fall, stepped back as a tree began to fall, strode here and there sawing off side branches and cutting the trunk into manageable lengths for lifting onto the trailer. All the while, I was crushing a flaky, layered confection of leaves under my steel-capped boots.
The leaves no more than background to the earnest task at hand. Similarly background when, in late autumn, I cut lower branches off a couple of oak trees and three silver birches.
Again, for firewood. But with the oaks one side of the long, winding drive and the birches the other, the revealing of the clean lines of the trunks was pleasing to the eye.
Most of the leaves of the oaks, in late autumn, were still on the trees in hues of green and brown. Although the birches’ shedding had dappled the drive, the number of leaves still on some of the trees displayed a profusion of rustic gold.
Once again, little attention paid to the leaves: my need to provide fuel for winter fires uppermost in my thoughts.
A few days after dropping the oak and birch branches, I put the cows on the drive ‘paddock’ to chew down the grassed centre strip and wide verges before winter set in. Only then did I think, that’s great – they’ll eat the oak leaves and twigs. Good roughage and nutrients for them, and devoid of leaves, easier for me to trim off the twigs and cart the branches away to stack in a seasoning pile of firewood.
It’s the beginning of winter now and the birches have lost virtually all their leaves, while the oaks are still very leafy. A couple of mornings ago the day began with sunshine and blue sky; I walked down the drive to open a roadside gate so that the cows could graze the roadside verge that I have fenced off with temporary electric fencing: affectionately known as ‘the long acre’. Walking back past the oaks and birches I glanced up through the silvery branches of a birch which were in vivid contrast to the blue of the sky. I noticed the oaks not at all.
Why the birches and not the oaks? The leaves still on the oaks concealed or blurred too many of their secrets. Whereas the bones of the birches, seen in such clear light, revealed the extent of the grey, coppery, and silver patternings on trunks and limbs.
I stood beside a trunk and craned my neck to look at the bare branches, stark in contrast to the blue sky; the ‘negative space’, as they say in art, around and between the branches highlighted a pattern of thick, charcoal lines radiating out from the trunk.
No two lines were directly above each other; all branches grew out from the trunk in such a way as to maximise the amount of sunlight that would hit the upper surface of each and every leaf.
I see that I have paid attention, over the last few days, more to the tree without leaves than to the leaves themselves. But isn’t that the way “being attentive” works?
That’s all from Little Owl Gully for this week. It snowed a couple of days ago, not a lot, but enough for me to want to tell you about it next Monday.
Bye for now. Thanks for your company.