The last eight days I’ve been driving through Kentucky and Pennsylvania, two of the most forested states in the Union—in fact, the latter’s name means “Penn’s Woods.”
Seeing the riveting display of autumn’s final shout before giving-in to the inevitable next cycle of life got me thinking…
Last April, these hills became filled with greens, mostly very similar to each other. Young buds of rebirth and youthfulness. As spring evolved into summer, the trees were reaching skyward in their most accelerated time of growth, striving to gain more sunlight than their neighbors. The leaves are nature’s food factories, soaking up water and carbon dioxide to generate sugar. Through the energy provided by light, “photosynthesis” as I recall from my biology classes, there is spectacular advancement.
Besides the warming light, however, there needs to be moisture. It can come via glooming sprinkles, or frightening torrential downpours. It can sometimes hang thick in the air as sweltering humidity. It can appear as clammy, cold dew throughout each evening. What often appears as too much of it can accumulate as puddles, or bogs, or floodwaters overreaching nearby stream banks. Even the freezing snow and ice of the previous winter helped strengthen the roots and hardwood portions when everything else appeared dead on the outside. Unless the water becomes stagnant and inundates a tree, however, there can rarely be such a thing as too much moister. The growth pattern drinks it up, and stores it for future needs.
We all know that water can be a fun diversion for a time—but after a few hours of fun, it becomes a frustration. Often we are more interested in the happiness that it can bring in shorter increments, but forget that the ongoing consistency, even relentlessness of moisture is what is needed, along with the warmth and energy of God’s illumination, to help sustain us in times to come when the inevitable cycle of life will not provide the same levels. Perhaps this is the depth and meaning of joy—the felt knowing that we are being cared for, even when it may not make us happy, or even feels a bit uncomfortable at particular stages.
As winter approaches, there is not enough light nor water for photosynthesis to continue. The trees will rest, and live off the food they stored during the summer. The bright greens fade away, and we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these have been in the leaves all along—we just can’t see them in the summer because they are covered up with green chlorophyll of youth and discovery.
The combination of all these circumstances—when the sun’s warmth and moisture both lessen--leads to a much different kind of blooming—the fabulous fall foliage.
We can see the uniqueness of each type of trees’ transformation. American Chestnuts, six types of Oaks, Aspens, Sugar Maples and four other Maple cousins, Dogwoods, Sassafras, Black Cherries, Choke Cherries, Fire Cherries, Elms, Buckeyes, Ashes, Sycamores, a quintet of different Hickories, and Beeches, to name but a few. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two are alike. And each one is fully realized in its own way. It is as if they are celebrating all that they have learned and endured that summer. Their maturity and character on glorious display.
This final fling of exuberance comes out in scarlet, tope, mauve, royal purple, dandelion yellow, even some like orange sherbet. Hillside mosaics featuring brass, cranberry, blood red, various chocolates, magenta, osage, and a sprinkling in a sea foam tint. Pastiches of burnt sienna, maroon, salmon, lavender, and goldenrod. Fruity pigments like peach, lemon, plum, Granny Smith apple, tangerine, banana, watermelon, mango, and lime. Some licked in flaming yellows with torched, fire-engine red edges. I even saw the Oakland A’s uniforms from the early 70s dappled in some groves. Like a fluorescent Peter Max painting, the kaleidoscope of color pulsates with each gust of wind, and mutates in various hues and combinations with each passing day. If it had been a dry summer, none of this would look like it does now.
This all adds to my pondering about the cycles of my life. Maybe it’s due to the fact I’m about to celebrate another birthday, or that I’ve been working on my Last Will and Testament, or that I am spending the week with my aging father in a retirement community with other souls in their final glory. The wind and cold will finally have their say, no matter how hard we wish otherwise. When we see a few straggling leaves that are hanging on, it is not attractive. By not letting go, we end up embarrassing ourselves and the dignity of our role. In the process, we miss out on the deeper joy that comes from knowing this is all part of the plan.
Even in the regular, tighter cycles of our lives when the winter winds begin to blow, it’s best to bow in humility. And we also need to yield for our cleansing, our scrubbing away. This can only happen when we are stripped. Hopefully, with each new round we learn to acquiesce to the de-clothing with a willing heart. That surrender is part of the joy. Like an infant who often initially kicks and screams before a bath, but then can be cooing as her mother carefully washes and wipes away to prepare for re-dressing.
Soon enough, there will a fresh robing in vibrant greens come next spring. And hence, the cycle continues. So I want to enjoy the colorful celebration of what I’ve experienced this year. Some dark, murky, and even dank colors for sure. But those are the ones that give perspective for the exuberant tones. Beauty, what Aristotle called “the magnitude of truth,” comes from these contrasts. And the deepest joy results in an unmatched vista.