This fall has been so beautiful — one of the best yet! Peak color is past now, but in mid-November, many of our trees were still gorgeous. It is consoling to know that we here in the Southern Appalachians enjoy a longer “leaf season” than New England and other northern realms. Growing up in northeastern Ohio and living in Vermont gave me my love of autumn, and living here enhanced it. The website for ncnatural.com explains the difference between here and there. Theirs is more “intense” because they have pure stands of species such as maple and birch. Their shorter season means the big blast of colors comes all at once. Our amazing greater tree diversity and longer season spread out all that variety of colors.
In the title poem of her book When the Leaves Are in the Water, North Carolina poet Maureen Ryan Griffin writes of the Cherokee belief that “it’s a time of great power when the leaves are in the water.” Another wonderful poem included about the season is “Cover Me with Autumn.” It made me laugh even though it describes her desire to have her body covered with leaves in a place as serious as her coffin: “Rest me in their brilliance.” The poet gets mischievous about saving piles of leaves “in the dark of night … from the city leaf truck.” Basically, “Cover Me with Autumn” is a praise poem of her love for the astonishing beauty of the leaves. Best-selling author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer laments that so many of us suffer from “plant blindness.” We just don’t notice plants. Not Ms. Griffin — she writes of being caught on a city sidewalk with her face “buried in huge handfuls of sugar maple leaves.”
When you’re driving in our mountains to enjoy the color, don’t miss the road names. One reason I moved to the South was to live where so many fine writers grew up or lived. Thomas Wolfe, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Wilma Dykeman and Carl Sandburg are just a few of them, and then there are our present-day writers. After researching trees for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers fell in love with trees and couldn’t resist getting his own place near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He knew a great place of forests when he saw one!
Our native Southern mountain people are no slouches with language, either. It can be at least as colorful as the autumn leaves. Here are some local road names I’ve observed: Bear Wallow Road off Route 19; Lickskillet Road near Burnsville; Plum Nearly Lane in Maggie Valley; Singing Frogs Lane off Pisgah Highway in Candler; Wits End Way in Waynesville; Way Up Yonder Road on Route 176 between Cruso and Waynesville; Forces of Nature Trail in Mars Hill; Shake Rag Road off Route 19 near Burnsville; Elf Way off Pisgah Highway; Ban the Blues Lane near Mars Hill; and Carrion Lane in Candler.
In Hidden Valley of the Smokies, Ross E. Hutchins writes about the distinctive patterns that falling leaves take upon the air. He writes that he can usually tell what species a leaf comes from by the way it descends. Big sycamore leaves sail relatively gently. Maple leaves spin down. Oak leaves swing from side to side in quick zigzags. Willow leaves “spin rapidly on horizontal axes.” He also mentions the sounds of leaves on the trees: “I feel sure that I could tell in which part of the world I was, merely by the sound of the local forest.” Leaf lovers would love the chapter “Leaves in the Sun.” And tree-huggers with a naturalist’s bent would love the whole book, published in 1971.
A short perusal of Douglas W. Tallamy’s book The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees will convince you to plant oaks. Or I say, better yet, preserve the mature trees that we have — and not just oaks, but all of our many native species that we are blessed with here. Keep our mountains beautiful for all of our seasons.
Remembering the joy of seeing autumn’s falling leaves helped me feel better about the season ending. Leaves are still flying now, lifting my spirit as they go. In my 70s, I still chase and catch the leaves just for the fun of it (and maybe to prove I can still do it). A spark of childhood with leaf and heart flutterings.
— Carol Diamond
Carol Diamond has lived in Western North Carolina for over 25 years.