“Lobooooooo,” I holler, as a breeze swirled up the East Verde River, setting the yellow cottonwood leaves a flutter.
I stand silent, listening intently, peering through the gold-green-yellow quiver of cottonwoods and sycamores making a brave show on the edge of winter.
Off through the trees I hear the crackling of fallen leaves, marking the still invisible return of my wayward companion.
A moment later, Lobo bursts out of the forest, bounding through the drift of fall with joyful abandon.
Lobo gets all worked up in the fall, even by his generous standards of physical expression.
Of course, so do I, although I can’t quite account for the sensation. Maybe it’s the crisp air. Maybe it’s the shadow of winter’s visual austerity. But I kind of think it’s actually all the red and yellow.
Now, I know the trees don’t care a whit. They’re busy minimizing the biological downside to winter. They seal off their frail solar panels on the brink of the onset of leaf-damaging frost. The green chlorophyll breaks down quickly, leaving behind an assortment of other longer-lasting compounds. Previously masked by the chlorophyll, those elements now dominate. Some turn the leaves of sycamores and cottonwoods yellow, mostly carotenoids. These anti-oxidants apparently prevent some of the byproducts of photosynthesis from damaging the leaves. The red color that dominates in maples comes from anthocyanins, which the leaves actually produce as the days grow shorter. Research suggests the red compounds protect aging leaves from sun damage, giving the trees a little more time to soak up sun and withdraw useful nutrients from the leaves.
So, I understand why the trees get all shimmery and gorgeous as they batten down for winter. It may seem like they’re intent on stupefying me, but I know that they’re just fiddling with the carotenoids without the slightest interest in my chromatic contact high.
So why does fall get Lobo and me so jazzed up?
I’ve read lots of stuff about research on the impact of color on emotion. Supposedly, red colors get us all emotionally charged up. They’re associated with dominance and strength. Now, I read where pure yellow makes us twitchy and uncomfortable. OK. I can buy that. But yellow-greens is very, how did they put it — oh, yeah “arousing.” It’s a fine line between twitchy and aroused, I guess.
Lobo comes crashing through the leaves, clears a fallen sycamore trunk with a single bound and slides to an exuberant halt at my feet.
He cocks his head and looks up at me, white accented eyebrows raised, tail curled in joy over his back, and pointy ears so alert I’m afraid they’re going to pop right off his furry head.
He indulges me by coming when called, knowing I need intermittent reassurance that he hasn’t gotten into some pointless argument with a pack of javelinas — or doubled back down the trail to the neighborhood to stir up a dog-barking contest.
I look up across the creek to where a trembling Arizona walnut tree has gone luminous yellow. The leaves don’t flutter like the swiveling extravagance of cottonwood leaves, which are poplars related to the similarly fluttery quaking aspen. The walnut simply shimmers with drunken photons.
Lobo follows my gaze alertly.
Dogs do that. No small accomplishment. Some alert German researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology indulged their helplessly human curiosity and tested 20 chimps and 32 dogs on how well they could interpret human pointing gestures. The experimenter stood in front of a sequence of dogs and chimps and pointed at various objects. The dogs directed their attention at the object. The chimps showed no interest at all.
Lobo looks at the walnut tree, then up to me, then back to the walnut tree.
Next thing I know, he launches himself into the creek, splashing happily into the chilly, belly-deep water. I would worry that he thought I wanted him to “fetch” the walnut tree, but Lobo doesn’t do “fetch.” Oh, he’ll go after a ball once or twice when he’s in a certain mood, but I don’t think he sees the point in it. Lobo and I have a voluntary association: I try not to presume on our relationship.
He splashes through a swirl of mud until he converts to dog paddling across the center of the pool. He emerges on the other side, gives himself a good shake, then charges off into the fall foliage.
He just gets so revved up in the fall: Can’t hardly help himself. But who can say what’s really going through his furry brain. Supposedly, dogs have fewer color receptors in their eyes — so fall must look muted to him. But then, his sense of smell is about 10,000 times better than mine — so maybe he’s totally high off some root fungus.
Stanley Coren, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, recently published a summary of other studies that concluded the average dog ranks with a 2- or 3-year-old human on our human-tilted intelligence scale. Most dogs can learn about 150 words — although some brainy types have mastered as many as 250. This far exceeds my own dog vocabulary. I get lost after “hungry,” “time for a walk,” and “gotta pee.”
Heck, Coren even demonstrated that dogs will lie with a perfectly straight face when trying to mislead other dogs as to the location of a hidden treat. I knew that. Lobo always acts exquisitely nonchalant when I’m about to leave the room, forgetting some tasty food item in the kitchen sink.
The crashing recedes, as Lobo hurtles through the lilt of littered leaves.
I settle myself on a grassy hummock with a clear view of the reflection of the conga-line of cottonwoods across the way, all crazy with carotenoids.
I do wish I could smell the mushrooms that Lobo can. Maybe then I’d finally truly understand autumn.
Ah well: Guess I’ll settle for this extravagant scattering of photons — and just thank my visual receptors.