Small stream along Trace in Tennessee
©Bert Gildart: Along the Natchez Trace National Parkway* few seasons are more spectacular than fall. All up and down the highway the subdued colors of spring and summer change, rushing finally to a magnificent crescendo of reds, yellows, and oranges. At times, these profusions rival the diversity of colors found throughout the seaboard states of the northeast. But regardless of degree, the colors along the Trace offer a variety that satisfies the most jaded of spirits, for the colors can be profuse and varied; at times they can be intense.
Just what purpose this brilliance of color serves, no one really knows, and in the biological world that is peculiar, for color usually accounts for something: to provide protective coloration; to serve as a warning to other members of the animal world to steer clear; to attract insects to insure pollination. But not so with fall foliage, which seems to serve no purpose other than to satisfy the needs of the soul.
Not only is the purpose of the season’s wonderfully diverse variegations not clearly understood, but worldwide, fall color is unique, confined as it is to but a few specific areas of our globe. Why were we so blessed? No ready answer comes to mind.
Fall color is the result of a gradual diminishment in the amount of light, inaugurated June 21sth, the day of the summer solstice, or that period when the sun has reached its northern zenith and is poised to commence its return south. At that time, light is intense, but as the alignment of the sun and earth gradually changes, the chemical reaction of light striking various pigments in the plant slows. The result is that chlorophyll, the dominant pigment so vitally important to the plant — indeed to the very air we and most other forms of vertebrate life breathe in its byproduct form of photosynthetically produced oxygen — is reduced.
Tobacco Farm Along Natchez Trace
Throughout the summer, chlorophyll has masked three other pigments, xananthophyll, carotene and anthocyanin. As the important role of chlorophyll concludes, these other pigments begin to emerge, and does so in a manner that suggests they are making up for lost time, demanding the attention of all by boldly exhibiting a palette of brilliance. Xanthophylls produce yellow; carotines, orange; anthocyanins, red, and by the month of the autumnal equinox, their time is neigh! Literally, it is time for their place in the sun; time for their displays, which are made with a genius acquired through millions of years of dedicated practice. Singularly, they produce pure colors. Together, they produce blends, so that often, leaves assume the color of burgundy, ochre, blood… mahogany.
Because botanists know the types of pigments that predominate in specific plants, they can, in some cases, predict the hues the leaves of certain species of plants will assume. For example, blackgum, dogwood, sourwood sumac and some of the maples and sassafrasses contain much anthocyanin, so color them reddish on the easel of your mind’s eye. Birches, aspens and tulip poplar contain xanthophylls, so color them yellowish. Other trees such as the red maple, sugar maple and some of the other sassafrasses, contain a combination of all of the pigments, so envision for them a meld.
Sometimes trees along the Trace don’t assume any real brilliance, metamorphosing almost overnight from green to brown, as with some of the oaks. Oaks have one more compound, tannin, and that substance produces the color brown, particularly when fall is dominated by rain and leaden skies, denying the other pigments their chance to assert themselves. And, so, we have another factor influencing color: the weather.
Weather undeniably influences the manifestation of pigments. Clear, cold days seem to intensify brilliance while prolonged rain subdues it, though even then there is a consolation. Often associated with dampness is a profusion of fungi, brilliant in their own right. Look for the coral-colored Indian pipes. Look for them almost anywhere, for they run the slopes flanking the Trace and dot their woods.
Look as well for the ripeness of fall as seen in the branches bent with berries and nuts. Muscadines and persimmons exhibit such ripeness, though not in the ridiculous way of some. Dogwood leaves droop from the clusters of small red berries, while the branches of sumac sag from sheer gaudiness.
One more component of weather influences fall’s proliferations and that is frost. Frost seems to accelerate the disturbance of chlorophyll, thereby hurrying the appearance of color. What’s more, frost, when it rims the edge of a leaf or sparkles over a field of wind-incised leaves, combines to produce a beauty that is a photographer’s delight. It is yet another player on the stage of the seasons’ major opus, so exquisitely acted out along the Natchez Trace.
And so the Trace can, and usually does, provide travelers with one of the nation’s most spectacular fall drives. And like other places in America, this caste serves no purpose other than to proclaim that fall is not the prelude to a great sleep, rather it is a time of great ripeness of which we are the benefactors.
Fall’s richness, northern Alabama
But why were we so blessed?
Still, no answer comes, only the echo that viewing such ripeness is beneficial to the soul.
*The above is in part from my book The Natchez Trace: Two Centuries of Travel–and though I am far removed from the Trace at this moment, an inspiring photo blog created by Kimmy (We seem to share the same concerns) shows me the beauty of fall in Tennessee hasn’t changed–and suggests that you’re not too late to enjoy it.