Autumn is a-riot in the woods around me, here in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. As if I was not in love enough with these trees, now all the woods have gone to town with their lipstick on and their hair hanging down. Just a stroll down our tree-framed driveway is overwhelming; to walk around Mount Occoneechee is almost impossible, with the red flame-tongues and orange jack-o-lantern leaves and gold-coin yellow sprays that stop you in your tracks, with their glinting and glowing through the evergreen of the pines.
In Shake Them ‘Simmons Down, naturalist Janet Lembke speaks of this eruption of color in the trees: “The colors seen in fall have always been present in the leaves, ever since they began to unfold. The yellow pigment, carotene, and the pigment for deep reds and purples, anthocyanin, lie beneath the green chlorophyll.” Chlorophyll, we all know from junior high science, is key to the photosynthetic process whereby the tree generates energy. But, in the fall, as the weather cools, the tree begins to shut that process down and, as Lembke explains, “the connections of leaf stems to tree are sealed off. Deprived of its own supply of water, the chlorophyll disappears. And the underlying colors blaze.”
Which makes me wonder. What if our pigmentation had an autumnal effect? What if, in various seasons of our lives, our external colors faded, and what was hiding underneath all along – our true colors – blazed through?
Is this such a far-fetched idea?
I am reminded of another writer on the oddities of chlorophyll. Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that “If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood ….”
My sense of kinship with the trees begins to make more sense. The life essence of the tree – chlorophyll – and the life essence of me – hemoglobin – are only one key atom apart.
There have been times I have sat, lost in thought before the trees, seeing one, and then another, watching the breeze move this one, while leaving those untouched … wondering how they communicate, on what time scale, with what stories. I have thought to learn stillness, and a freer dance. I have hoped to learn – if not patience – to operate with a longer sense of scale and timing. I have considered perspective: seeing the broad and changing tapestry of color on the hillsides I drive by, and looking, too, at the particular beauty of one red maple leaf, dotted with black and speckled with yellow.
A seasonal turn to my true colors could be another lesson I can learn from my tall sisters, the trees.
Maybe it happens for some of us: we get to a certain point in our lives where the externals matter less and the eternals matter more. Maybe, as women, we get tired of the roles we were taught as girls, to keep the men and boys around us happy at all costs. Maybe, as white people, we get tired of the ways we are separated from the people around us, by white skin and its privileges and blinders. Maybe, as gay people, we get tired of protecting straight people from having to deal with their biases and fears.
I am 47. For some years now, my favorite saying about my age has been “Old enough to know better, and young enough to do it anyway.” I could change that: “Old enough to know better, and almost brave enough to do something about it.”
My hero Audre Lorde had something to say about that, in an essay from Sister Outsider; it’s worth quoting at some length. I need the reminding.
“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Bravery. Courage. Maybe a side order of willingness to take risks, to be foolish or a failure in the world’s estimation. To see what needs seeing, and say what needs saying. These sound like truer colors for this season of my life. I’ll make the resolution now; it may take me until 2010 drop my protective coloration.