from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
October 14, 2001
YELLOW LEAVES/ CHLOROPYLL & CAROTENE
Since last weekend many leaves around my camp have become yellow or yellowish, though the forest remains basically dark green. These occasional yellow leaves are on Sweetgums, Pecans, Sycamores, Hophornbeam -- nearly everything except the Waxmyrtle. Sometimes a leaf even falls, but it is as likely to be green or brown as yellow. By no means is our forest bright with fall colors and by no means is this a general leaf-fall such as is being experienced farther north.
Seeing these yellow leaves encouraged me to spruce up the page at my nature site explaining why trees change color in the fall, at http://www.backyardnature.net/lf_color.htm It's good to reflect on this growing yellowness around me. Here's my line of thought about it now:
In tree leaves, two main pigments are involved in converting sunlight energy into carbohydrate during the magical process known as photosynthesis. If you are a bit rusty about what photosynthesis is you can read about it at my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/photosyn.htm#p
The two pigments mainly involved in photosynthesis are chlorophyll and carotene. You know that sunlight is made up of all the colors of the rainbow. However, chlorophyll absorbs only light in the red and blue part of the spectrum (and therefore reflects back to our eyes the color green, which is "left over" once the red and blue lights are absorbed). The second pigment, carotene, is something of a "chlorophyll helper" in that it absorbs light in the blue-green part of the spectrum (and therefore appears yellow or orange to us). Carotene passes on its captured sunlight-energy to chlorophyll, for only chlorophyll can photosynthesize.
So, tree leaves always have chlorophyll and carotene in them. It happens that the chlorophyll molecule is very large and somewhat unstable, so it constantly disappears because sunlight breaks it down. Continually it has to be remanufactured in the leaves. However, lots of sunlight and warmth are needed for making chlorophyll, and at this time of year ample sunlight and warmth are ever-diminishing commodities.
Therefore, my tree leaves are yellowing now because the green chlorophyll in those leaves is breaking down faster than it can be replaced; chlorophyll no longer masks the more stable yellow pigment, carotene.
Carotene is interesting stuff. Humans and other animals need it. When carotene is eaten it's converted into vitamin A. Lack of vitamin A causes scaly skin, easy infection, night blindness and an eye disease called xerophthalmia. Once I grew a particularly good crop of carrots and ate so many of them that the carrots' carotene made my skin bright orange. In the old days the cheapest baby food was mashed carrots, and among the poor in Appalachia sometimes you saw babies with orange noses and ears.
Some people have told me that knowing such "whys" of nature causes nature to seem less majestic, less mysterious to them. For me it's just the opposite. Understanding how things work gives me a real buzz, and knowing that we animals require carotene, even though it's made only by plants, reminds me of how intimately Earth's plants and animals have co-evolved.
To me, this co-evolution is a kind of dancing by plants and animals with one another through time, and I find that notion as beautiful as any yellow leaf glowing in October sunlight.
GEESE JUST BEFORE DAWN
Friday morning, about an hour before the first hint of dawn, I heard a large number of Canada Geese flying overhead. This species spends its summers in Canada and the US Northwest, and it overwinters in the southern US and farther north along the coasts. Their overwintering habits have actually changed during recent history because so many manmade lakes have been built, and people feed them through the winter. All winter I'll hear and see them here, for St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge, once part of Laurel Hill Plantation, now occupies the land between the plantation and the Mississippi River, and that refuge is a wonderland of swamps, streams and flooded fields -- prime habitat for Canada Geese.
Lying snugly within my Kentucky quilts, Friday just before dawn I tried to detect what emotional state the geese were expressing in their calls, though I'm not sure at all that a human can do that. I could certainly imagine how beautiful it must be to be a goose flying high inside a great V in the black sky, the fellow members of my family/flock/tribe sailing with me, the silvery Mississippi slowly gliding by below and on my right, the air around me suddenly growing balmy and friendly after flying for so long in the biting chill behind the cold front that at that time lay just to the north of us.However, it seemed to me that what I heard in their voices was anxiety, a certain nervousness. It was very dark, with clouds masking the moon and, really, it's hard to imagine that they could even see the Mississippi. Being so high and needing to land, but not being able to see much of what lay below...On the web you can read all about Canada Goose behavior and natural history on a page sponsored by the University of Michigan at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/branta/b._canadensis$narrative.html
HOT WATER & CHINESE
The next morning, Saturday, at the same time as on Friday morning, I was awakened by a nearby flash of lightening and subsequent bone-jarring thunder. Maybe the arrival of the geese a day before the cold-front was no coincidence.
All day Saturday it stormed and rained here, dumping over 3 inches (8 cm) of rain on us, in addition to the inch of rain the day before. Once I'd managed to prepare my campfire breakfast during the deluge, I found the storm much to my liking. For, it provided an unexpected quiet period for me.
Most people seem to think that here in my little camp I must spend a lot of time "hanging loose," just goofing off. In reality, each day I spend mornings working in the gardens and nearly all the rest of the time developing my Internet projects. I suspect that my days are at least as structured and intense as are the days of those of you with regular jobs. This is because I believe in what I am doing, and feel an urgent need to press on exploring the potentials of this life, especially now that it is clear that human society on Earth will never be the same as it was before.
So, Saturday morning I couldn't garden and there was too much lightening to have my computer on. Therefore I did what I often do in such enforced rest periods: I fixed a big mug of hot water, and studied Chinese. People in our culture underestimate the pleasure in drinking simple hot water, especially steamy, pure rainwater. During my recent travels I as struck by how people often habitually sipped liquids -- coffee, sodas, Strawberry-Kiwi herbal tea, beer, whatever. To my mind, these people focused so exclusively on titillating their taste buds that they overlooked the more fundamental pleasure of simply refreshing the body with pure water.
Tickling taste buds and gratifying the body with exactly what it needs are unequal pleasures. The one, though certainly having its place, is superficial, fleeting, and often damaging to the body or even addictive. The other is a natural and necessary maintenance, and when the water is hot on a chilly, stormy day its drinking satisfies in a deeply, perhaps atavistic, manner. Drinking hot water on such days has calmed the spirits of a million generations of our ancestors in their caves and dark lodges. Drinking hot water can be a kind of communion with them, and with the spirit of simple survival in a hostile world.I also find studying Chinese to be a deeply satisfying experience. I am afraid that people nowadays have forgotten that learning, by itself, can be gratifying.
So, as rain tapped on my roof and I drank steaming hot water from my mug in this drenched little corner of the forest I wandered into the psychology of Chinese people as manifested by how their written language has evolved. The Chinese character for "good" consists of the symbol for "woman" next to the symbol for "child." How can you but be impressed by a culture that expresses itself in such a simple but profound manner? And what pleasure it is for the mind to be reminded on such a morning as Saturday's that the Chinese character for "fragrant" is nothing less than the symbol for "grain," such as wheat, set with the symbol for "sun."
Thus -- the sun warming a field of wheat produces a fragrance. The glow caused by these insights harmonizes beautifully with the glow brought by steaming water on a rainy morning.