In high school I avoided chemistry as much as I refused to eat kale. But most teens don’t understand what’s good for them. I guess I couldn’t get past the chemistry of Scarlett and Rhett. What I never knew was how the falling leaves is all about chemistry. The glamour, God’s beauty pageant displayed by trees, is all about dyeing leaves.
We deal with chemicals all the time: Zoloft; Omega 3 s or is it Omega 9s? A friend of mine died attributing some of it to being exposed to Agent Orange in the US against Vietnamese war. Some chemistries we love. One is the changing of the chlorophyll in our trees each fall. My friends parade around the open market with bright scarves tucked under their hair; my son flips across Harvard Square the street on his skateboard. At the end of October we garnish our bodies with body paint and wear outlandish costumes. At the end of winter we have Mardi Gras and carnivals sprayed with sequence and sparklers.
But none of this awes our soul as much as the beauty of a gum tree or maple in the fall as the leaves change. Did you ever learn how the colors change? Chlorophyll uses summer sunlight to manufacture sugars to eat. Chlorophyll is green, and works with 2 other pigments in nature’s palette. The leaves have carotenoids which produce yellow and orange. Carotenoids are also found in carrots, corn, daffodils and buttercups. Anthocyanins are the reds and live in the watery liquid of leaf cells. Anthocyanins inhabit red grapes, plums, blueberries, strawberries, etc.
Rainfall, temperature and food supply can influence the multi-colored fanfare. But the color change is mainly dictated by the increasing length of night. As night grows longer and cooler, the biochemistry begins. The veins that carry fluids into the leaf gradually close off and a layer of cells form at the base of the leaf. The clogged vein traps sugars in the leaf and anthocyanins produce. With warm days and crisp (not freezing) nights, the most exhilarating colors emerge. During sunny days lots of sugars are produced in the leaf, but the closing of the vien prevent the sugars from moving out. Once the cells form a wall, separation is complete. The anthocyanins can’t escape, tissues that connect to the branch are sealed, and the leaf is ready to fall.
And to think that it’s all due to chemistry. If I were the leaf, would I be so happy with my fate? Would I primp and puff out my anthocyanin each fall? Nay. I’d probably be like my teenage self in complete protest each year. “I don’t want to give all my sugar to the tree every year. Why do I have to fall to the ground and replenish the forest floor.”
Even now, I try to be a follower of nonviolence. That means I’m willing to sacrifice my individuality for the benefit of the whole. It may seem for a time that my leaf is getting all the acclaim. I’ve lots of sugars stored in me that are walled off from the tree. But I won’t last long if I’m cut off. Without connection I fall. I think the lives of glamorous rich, Christy Walton (wal-mart) or Kamprad (Ikea) are like shining anthocyanin. As the nights get cold, even the brightest leaf falls.
How can I live gracefully, willing to contribute, not taking offense if my sugars are walled off earlier than others? Biochemistry doesn’t explain everything. I’m still stretching as I live and live beside others. Nurturing a human life seems more complicated than a flashing bright leaf tumbling down. But then, what do I know about Divine Chemistry?