"Autumn tints" are an old theme for poet, painter and moralist, and yet, as we stand in the woodland or the glades of the forest each fall of the year, there seems to be a newness about the scene, so beautiful are the colors, so rich are the harmonies, and so glowing is the glory of the splendor. We almost forget to be philosophical and to ask why there is this change from the sober green to the often brilliant hues of autumn. We lose sight of the fact that the leaves have done their duty and run their course, that the tree cannot afford to feed useless members and, therefore, cuts off the supply of food, that the chlorophyll can no longer effect oxidation by means of its vitality, and that consequently the cell contents appear in their native color, the color which they presented to us in spring as they came unfolded from the bud before oxidation set in. All this is forgotten as savoring too much of the pedant, and we revel in a vision of beauty. None the less is it charming, though shorn of its philosophy, and happy is he who can surrender himself up to the enjoyment of the simply glory of the woods. Among many a passage in which was appreciation of autumn scenes I do not recall one which appeals more forcibly to the lover of plants than the following by the Rev. Hugh Macmillan, the well-known author of Footprints of Nature. When I Was Young Sunday
Among the happiest memories of my boyhood are those connected with the gathering of the fallen leaves of autumn each year. It was the custom in my native village to bring such leaves home to form bedding for the cow or pig. It was delightful to go into the woods on the Saturday afternoons in October for this purpose; for, un
like the practise at the present day, we were always at school on the Saturday forenoons. Sometimes a holiday was devoted to this task, and often we made one when it did not otherwise happen. The labor was always regarded as a pastime and not a burden, and there was usually everything to make it a pleasant variety to one's ordinary life. The golden sunshine of those faroff days illumined hill and vale with a peculiar quality of brightness about it, as if it were now free, after having ripened the crops and fruits of the earth, to gladden the landscape for its own sake, and not for any utilitarian purpose. Sometimes a luminous transparent haze lay on the woods, through which the sun struggled with beautiful effects of light and shade; and the waters of the woodland burns twinkled, as the poet says, in the smoky light, and you could hear, in the universal stillness among the listening trees, the sounds of creaking twigs and falling nuts dropped by the squirrels overhead.
A mystical charm the faded leaves themselves possessed. There was something that appealed to an imaginative boy in the contrast between their decay and his own fresh young life, beginning to unfold its living interests. It seemed to enhance the joy of existence, to make life more beautiful by this melancholy shading, as a clump of young ferns in May seems more beautiful by the contrast of last year's faded fronds still clinging to them. Young people have a sentimental pleasure in sad things. They love to dream of an early and lovely death, and of the tender sorrow which it would inspire in sympathizing friends. Then, too, how much pleasanter were the free romantic glades of the woods than the close confined schoolroom, and the task of gathering the leaves into heaps and packing them into bags, than poring over books or reciting with fear and trembling our memory lessons to the teacher. How well do I remember setting out on such occasions, with rake and barrow, and three or four bags, to gather the leaves! What a perfect godsend in those days was a storm of wind, or a sharp frost which divested a tree of all its foliage at once, leaving it bare and disconsolate amid its own yellow ruins I How eagerly we took advantage of such occasions! How delightful were the revelations of the naked trees with their intricate lacework of branches and twigs, letting in the blue sky and the warm sunshine, and disclosing some cunning nest which the summer leaves had hid! Such leafless trees, I used to think, were often more beautiful and spiritual than when clothed with their full foliage. The remarkable individuality of each tree was fully brought out. All the trees seemed alike in their summer dress, round masses of green billows without any character, but the autumnal bareness revealed their distinctive mode of growth and the peculiarities of their nature. The trunks of some were ragged and covered with gray mosses and hoary lichens, giving them a venerable appearance; others were smooth and clean, giving no hospitality to lower forms of vegetable life.
The smells of the woods, arising from the decaying leaves that strewed the ground, were different, and each smell was characteristic. Oak leaves, when withering in the sun, exhaled a sharp keen odor which was altogether peculiar, and seemed to be the vivid essence of the strength of the tree, so that, in turning them up with the foot, you had, in the pungent smell emitted, a feeling of the enduring character of the tree itself. Ash leaves and elm leaves in their decay create an odor which has a special power of calling up pictures of the places where these trees grow. I used to know, from the smells of the different faded leaves on the ground, without looking up at all at the trees from which they fell, what kind of tree produced them. These autumnal odors touched the spirit in a wonderful way; and even in the hard streets of the city, when one catches them from the withered spoils of the over-arching trees, they bring dreams of dim forest haunts far away.
The shapes of the leaves were always a source of great interest. I remember vividly the first
time the long, tongue-like leaves of the sweet chestnut met my eye. I could not understand where they came from; they were so different from the other leaves with which I was familiar. But though I could not name the tree I greatly admired the leaves; their simple feather-veined blades, their rich brown leather-like texture and color. Why is it that broad simple leaves appeal more to the imagination and heart than muchdivided ones? Their very simplicity charms us, and they remind us that they are grown in calm regions where the winds are low and sweet, and where there are few storms to comb their tresses. Among the most abundant leaves were those of the sycamore whose palmate blades occupied considerable room. Ash leaves usually fall all at once in heaps to the ground, and as they were the last to expand they are the first to fade. They had none of the brilliant hues of the autumnal sunset of the woods, but simply turned to a dull brownish-green, curling up as if scorched by fire, and falling from the tree together, so that the branches were entirely denuded in a day or two. The leaves of the birch are small, but they are very beautiful in their bright golden hue, contrasting strikingly with the long black tresses and intricate witch-knots from which they have fallen and the clean snow-whiteness of the trunk. Like coins of gold are the aspen leaves that lie motionless on the ground, and are at rest from their incessant tremblings; graceful and delicate are the thin linden leaves that are blown about by every puff of wind, and speak of the delicate wood fiber that nourished them.
When I raked the withered leaves together, what wonderful sights I often disclosed that had been hid underneath them!—little rocky places covered with hoary lichens; fragile coral-like tufts, like the frost-flowers on window-panes in mid-winter; little goblets with scarlet edges, like drops of sealing-wax which the fairies might have used; mosses with braided stems or dense tufts soft as velvet, covered over with lovely seedcapsules; tiny mushrooms of varied hues and sizes and shapes; myriads of beech-burrs opening theit smooth shining valves, empty or filled with brown plump three-cornered nuts which were so toothsome to the schoolboy taste; oak apples and pretty embossed cups filled with polished acorn nuts, each of which filled its own cup exactly and no other. On the leaves themselves which covered these vegetable curiosities were strange markings. The sycamore leaves were covered with great round wrinkled spots of deepest black which had their origin in a curious parasitic plant of fungoid nature, while the under-surfaces of the withered oak leaves were jeweled with the rusty little round disks of the oak spangles, that looked like the "fairies' money" or the seeds of a polypody fern. Each of them was so perfect that it seemed as if cut out of a piece of velvet, and might be worn as miniature buttons by Titania herself; and there was always a scarlet mushroom, with its snowy gills and stem, and little white scales upon its resplendent cap, with the sun shining full upon it in the aisles of the golden birch woods.
Current Literature, Volume 31
edited by Edward Jewitt Wheeler