Along among naked residents, a young oak clothes itself in crimson raiment(Published in the Gettysburg Times, 11/8/2013)

Click thubnail for enlarged leaf detail

Most of the color is gone along the creek, save some chicory-like bushes with red  berries, and the occasional pin oak (I think). One crimson-plated youngster, an American Chestnut, maybe, or a Chestnut Oak or even a Big Tooth Aspen, stands alone among lesser, already nude specimens.

Though I spent my childhood years wandering through the thousands of wooded acres around my parents’ home, I am only beginning to recognize the trees by their leaves. I can tell by the bark, but I never paid much attention to leaf forms, satisfying myself with being amazed merely by the diversity of shapes and shades.

I have a book, “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees,” but Mother Nature is too busy writing and doesn’t always read the books. Like people, skin and leaf features come in varied guises, close enough for scientists to identify commonality within the species but not so close as to perfectly match the only plate in the book. And in many displays, a tiny leaf is the same size as a large one, further obfuscating identification.

And red leaves, said to require cold nights and warm days, could lean to orange, depending on how cold the nights and how warm the days. Yellow shows up when the chlorophyll’s green runs out and no longer hides colors that have been there all along. I remember back in Spring, when the leaves were more pastel shades than the bright green they eventually became, as they filled with that life-giving chloro-substance.

This season’s fall of oak leaves rustle underfoot. Grady, the Golden Retriever who accompanies me on these wanderings, lopes among them, always in the lead, always easy to track by sound. He is not concerned with quiet as we move from one area to another.

But when I choose a place by the stream to sit quietly and just listen, Grady changes his mode. He slowly – carefully, it seems – tiptoes in his search and cataloging of his immediate surrounding. It takes him 20 minutes to examine an area I could cross in one or two steps. I sit and watch him, and wonder what aromas he is picking up from beneath the duff – the detritus of this year’s flora.

On a walk here this spring I found a goose egg half buried in the sand where it had rested when a spring flood washed it from its nest. Jack-in-Pulpits stood fourth in small groups in the damp turf, and huge wolf spiders tried to hide in the grass. A stream-side shrub opened pods at its branch ends, exposing trios of leaves.

Now the flowers are gone, spiders have given way to pods full of eggs of the future of their species, and the leaves have fallen from that shrub, leaving behind buds for next spring’s leaf pods.

It’s a magic show. I know trees become larger by adding gazillions of cells each year, the exact number depending on weather patterns and availability of food and water. But I still wonder how they do that.

The Summer Solstice – the day the sun rises in its most northeasterly position and sets at its maximum northwesterly position – occurred at 11:04 a.m., June 21, and gave us a 15-hour day. Now, the day is less than 10 and-a-half hours, as the earth tilts and the sun appears to move southward.

At 4 p.m., Old Sol is nearly gone from the waterway. The breeze that has cooled the day, finding itself unnecessary, has taken slumber, leaving Grady’s breath turning to puffs of steam in the nearly still air.

It’s time to go home to supper.