I barely made it.
I mean, there’s a pandemic.
The election’s weeks away.
The world’s a mess.
Who’s got time in the middle of the week to drive to the Rim in hopes the maples are still clinging to their flushed red leaves.
But here I am — bless the Creator — on a hillside graced by maples. A carpet of rust-red leaves crunches underfoot, brittle amidst perhaps the worst drought in centuries.
I’m just off Forest Road 300 on a little side road with its rare scattering of maples, the crowning glory of fall in the Rim Country. I try to find my little maple grove every October, but nearly missed it this year — what with the family funeral, the pandemic and the rush of election news.
But when a friend warned me the maples were well past their prime, I took the midweek morning and made the trek. So now I’m standing on a hillside in a warm breeze, watching the red maple leaves flutter to the ground.
Ah, leaves — the blessing that made the rest of us possible.
Plants hit upon leaves some 380 million years ago. The innovation supercharged plant growth and evolution. Bolstered by leaves that can effectively pump water out of the ground to the tallest treetop, plants thoroughly colonized the land and changed the composition of the atmosphere. This made possible dinosaurs, mammals and other hangers-on. Leaves turn sunlight into energy through photosynthesis. The green chlorophyll in the leaves helps transfer electrons from water to carbon dioxide molecules, producing the carbohydrates that fuel plant growth. The process absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, making all us air breathers possible.
I spent most of my life in California and then Phoenix, before pin-balling to Rim Country a decade ago. For the first time in my life, I lived in the midst of the change of the seasons.
I did not consider that any particular advantage when I washed ashore here — bruised and sputtering.
Now, I find the slow, graceful round of the seasons essential.
Not sure why.
I mean, I’m old.
The turn of the seasons should unnerve me — a reminder of mortality piled on like drifts of red and yellow leaves on the floor of a looming silence. Winter cannot be far off, when the leaves flutter from the aspen and the maples and the ash and the oak and the walnut.
I sit on a log to ponder the question. The twist of wood emerges from the sea of red leaves like some ancient, gnarled creature. The elves surely knew a spell that would enable this weathered angularity of wood to sing the maple song. Alas, that spell’s lost even to the longest of memories. Still, I can almost hear it in the rustle of the wind through the leaves clinging so stubbornly to the overarching branch of the maple.
Deciduous trees like maples grow this profusion of bright green leaves in the spring, gorge on sunlight through the summer, then shed them in the fall — fearful of the onset of winter. The leaves turn from green to yellow as the thrifty trees pull back the green chlorophyll in the face of frost, saving the resources for the hard time ahead. In leaves that turn red, trees actually pump frost-resistant chemicals into the leaves, buying a few extra weeks of energy production. But it’s a risk — like anything — since a too-early frost will damage the leaves, leaving the tree vulnerable to bacterial infections.
The watching ponderosa pines don’t bother to drop their needles. They harvest sunlight year-round, but rely on needles proof against the frost. They trade off slower growth and greater resistance to drought and time.
I justified the midweek splurge of time on a drive to the maples on the Rim by thinking I’d get there in time to urge my beloved readers to do likewise. Alas, by the time you read this — most of the leaves atop the Rim will lie piled in drifts on the ground. Better for you now to hike See Canyon Trail at the foot of the Rim, with its own heart-stopping smattering of maples. You might also wander down the East Verde River or take a jaunt down to Fossil Creek, now that the Forest Service doesn’t require reservations and permits. Lots of aspens and cottonwoods and sycamores there.
As for me, I’ll just sit here awhile and savor the maples and the inexorable turn of the seasons.
I think fall’s my favorite season now, with so many years piled up. Fall’s like my life — a great wheel of change of breathtaking beauty in the shadow of winter. I just got back from my wife’s aunt’s funeral. She died in her kitchen on the Nebraska cattle and corn farm on which she spent every one of her 91 years. We buried her in the family plot, then went back to the farm to move the cows to another pasture. She never faltered. Never complained. And then sat down at the table in the kitchen where she reigned, slumped forward and died without a fuss. I hope to do as well.
And I know the pandemic continues apace, and the drought lengthens, and people I’ve loved all my life are all but calling one another names.
But sitting on this log, all that doesn’t much worry me. For the seasons have changed, the maples have dropped their leaves and winter beckons — as it has for every turn of the planet going back before the dinosaurs got ambitious.
I have found my way to my maple grove one more time — to sit and marvel at the flutter of leaves, each one red as my heart’s blood.