Fall’s first chill swept across the south last night; the news from my friends in Texas is the same as in my own backyard. The mercury fell as the night slipped by. The season promised by the early-turning dogwoods is on its way.
There are so many reasons I love the fall, and they last clear into winter. The leaves turning color and then spinning down into the yard like so many tiny kites; the cool morning runs that crank up your heart and your spirit; the fires burning deep into the night, with starlight and moonbeams for cold competition.
Of course, the joys of autumn have been with us all along; just covered over in green and heat and humidity.
As naturalist Janet Lembke explains in her book Shake Them ‘Simmons Down, “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, you’ll recall, is key to the photosynthetic process that lets plants generate 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 reminds me 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 ….”
That’s right. At the heart of things, we and the trees have much more in common than we might think.
It makes me wonder if there is an autumnal effect for we humans. What is the equivalent for us, of chlorophyll dropping out of the leaves, and revealing our truer colors, the ones that have been there all along? Beneath the overwhelming wash of what and who we think we are — do we have truer colors? And if so, what are they?
My guesses would be the colors of deep awareness … spookily brilliant insight … oceanic compassion … bright laughter … and love. Passionate, shameless, let-righteousness-and-peace-kiss kind of love. (Psalm 85:10.)
What else? Is there anything hiding under your skin, or the skin of those you care about? What else could we see, if we weren’t blinded by the heat and hopes of summer?
Of course, if our truer colors are revealed by some alchemical awakening, that doesn’t mean we stop being who we’ve been. It just means we are becoming truer, perhaps, to a wider and deeper sense of what it means to live in and through the prism of God’s love … in all its — and our — glorious colors.
As your hazy green fades, what will your true colors be? What grace might come to light, growing up from your roots, lying under your falling leaves? What bare truth will you lift to the heavens, like so many branching trees, barren of leaves, beloved of sky?