The Thinking 


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Leaf and Mind

November 10, 2011



Morning Mist Rising, Plymouth, New Hampshire; Thomas Cole, 1830

THE phases of deciduous trees correspond to phases of the mind. The embers of autumn are the embers of memory. A child walking through a pile of new-fallen leaves, the crumbling fires flaming and crackling as he steps, may have the strange sense that he is walking through his future memories, with the written pages of his life burning and smoldering at his feet.

The leaves are gold and scarlet. Inside the hearth of illuminated foliage, we momentarily glimpse our lives as a unity. What we were is what we are and what we will become. We remember what we have forgotten. We see in the fading sparks what we will forget again.


Winter in Autumn

November 5, 2011


THE NORTHEAST storm I wrote about earlier this week was unquestionably one of the most unusual weather events in recorded history of the region. As a reader describes here, some people have been without power for the entire week. The heavy snow destroyed or damaged many trees.


The Brief, but Interesting Life of an Icicle

February 20, 2010



Even as the remnants of the record snows in the Mid-Atlantic corridor erode day by day, they continue to yield a spectacular harvest of icicles, in all likelihood one of the region’s most abundant ever. I saw one yesterday that appeared to be about 25 feet long, extending from just beneath a third-story window to the top of the snow pack. 

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The Fugitive Leaf

October 26, 2009

                            Membland Tile

The band of deciduous forest which extends roughly from the Blue Ridge Mountains to northern Quebec is unusual in the world for its autumnal color. The only other extensive swathe of forest that rivals it stretches across parts of East Asia. Deciduous trees elsewhere do not exhibit the spectacular mixture of reds and yellows. In Europe and midwestern United States, trees typically turn only yellow.

The reason for this geographic difference remains a mystery to scientists, though there are intriguing theories. The appearance of yellow leaves is understood. With the diminished light of fall, the green chlorophyll in leaves departs, allowing existing yellow pigment to appear.  Red autum leaves are the consequence of a different process. With the drop in chlorophyll, anthocyanin, a red pigment, is produced in the leaf. This is a relatively new discovery and has led to several theories about why trees use energy to create red pigment when they are shedding their leaves.

According to an hypothesis published recently in the journal New Phytologist and discussed in this ScienceDaily article,  the different climatic conditions during ice ages 35 million years ago are responsible. The bands of forest in North America and Asia developed red pigments to ward off insects that were unable to survive the harsher conditions in Europe and other parts of the world where deciduous trees also evolved.

A recent headline in a Vermont newspaper said, They Came, They Peeped, They Left.  As the “leaf peepers” who crowd New England’s backroads know, these trees are beautiful in panorama. But the greatest effect is from inside, from within the woods or even a small stand of maples and poplars.  The golden pillows, Persian carpets, and  glowing lanterns of  leaf have a singular effect on the human heart. They create a mixture of nostalgia and anticipation. They speak to the fugitive within, as Robert Frost noted in this famous fall poem:

A Leaf-Treader

I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.
God knows all the color and form of leaves I have trodden on and mired.
Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.
I have safely trodden underfoot the dead leaves of another year.

All summer long they were overhead, more lifted up than I.
To come to their final place in earth they had to pass me by.
All summer long I thought I heard them threatening under their breath.
And when they came it seemed with a will to carry me with them to death.

They spoke to the fugitive in my heart as if it were leaf to leaf.
They tapped at my eyelids and touched my lips with an invitation to grief.
But it was no reason I had to go because they had to go.
Now up, my knee, to keep on top of another year of snow.

                                              Membland Tile

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