The Mamas and Papas had it wrong when they sang, "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray." Sure, some leaves are turning brown, but others are coming into their prime—and vive la différence! Across a good part of the U.S., Canada, and Europe, billions of leaves are transforming into a symphony of color that simply takes my breath away. Emily Bronte described it well: “Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.”
I’ve always loved the fall, even if it does carry the underlying chill of winter days to come. It’s the season for leaf peeping, bonfires, jack-o-lanterns, and hot apple cider. Where I grew up in the Midwest, fall—or “autumn,” as my British husband prefers—was signaled by dried cornstalks, bumpy globes of osage orange, cigar-like pods of catalpas, and the vivid blue skies of what we called, with no thought of political correctness, “Indian summer.”
The harvest moon always seems huge in October, and the air is filled with the sharp crackle of leaves crunching underfoot. I can’t imagine autumn without the changing color of leaves, and the scores of tourists pouring into New England right now attest to the attraction of this annual event. If you live in an area where the
seasons change, you can bring fall color to your own landscape by selecting trees and shrubs that have reliable autumn colorations. The quality of the leaf color can change from one year to the next, even if you make the wisest choices. This is because temperature and other conditions can affect the color from one year to the next. When my kids were in school, teachers were quick to jump on the falling of leaves as an opportunity to introduce their students to this aspect of nature. October was the time of the leaf projects (my kids both had the same teacher for this one and he took the project quite seriously.)
The kids were given a list of a LOT of native trees, and they were instructed to collect, identify, and display leaves from each of these trees. We’d trek over to the Cincinnati Nature Center and collect as many of the leaves as we could find. We’d scour our neighbors' yards (and our own backyard) for others—and, let me tell you, this is not as easy as it sounds. Their teacher and I both knew our trees, but some of those leaves had us stumped. This was partly because the collected leaves weren’t always pristine. A leaf that might have had seven leaflets when it was attached to the branch often had only three leaflets left by the time one of the kids scooped it up. That caused more than a little confusion, on more than one occasion.
Our leaf identification books now have worn, dog-eared pages, and I still have those huge leaf collections stored away. The memories of our leaf collecting expeditions will be with us always. The leaves the kids collected were set on sheets of construction paper that were then covered in wax paper and pressed with a warm iron; holes were then punched and the book of leaves was tied with string. Often the identifying labels were replaced several times before the kids felt confident they’d made the correct decision.
The kids learned something, we had fun as a family, and their teacher was happy with the results of their efforts. And, to this day, I still know where to find the best assortment of native trees in the Ohio River Valley. Why not take your own kids—or grandkids—on a leaf-hunting adventure. Put together a list of common, and not-so-common, trees in your area; get a tree identification handbook and set off into the woods. It's a fun way to take advantage of fall's beauty and savor the last few weeks of temperatures that are warm enough for outdoor adventures.