Deciding to let go in autumn

Until just a few days ago, the fall foliage season around Boston has been largely in our heads. Normally we think of the colors of autumn as hitting their peak around Columbus Day. (Wasn't it convenient for New England's tourism business that Christopher discovered the New World on the second Monday in October of 1492? That ensured that the commemorative federal holiday would fall in a way that gives people an extra day off to go leaf-peeping.)

But this year, continuing warm weather and what has seemed like about three weeks of drenching rain have the color calendar running somewhat late.

Unable to mobilize a real foliage expedition, I've been thinking about how the trees decide to let go of their leaves, and what lessons may be learned from this.

To decide is, etymologically speaking, to cut off. This literal-minded deciding is more negative than positive; it's about what one turns away from rather than turns toward.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," the familiar poem by Robert Frost begins. Note that it's autumn, and at a point in the year when the leaves have actually turned.

The poem doesn't include the word "decide" in any of its forms, but the concept is there implicitly. And the poet acknowledges that choosing "the road less traveled by" will almost surely preclude - cut off, we might say - the option of the other road:

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.

It's a little sad, isn't it? And yet we must decide, and let go of the options that aren't right, or are no longer right. We progress through life continually exchanging the many things possible for the single thing fully realized.

This may be especially true of creative processes, which are often subtractive, and begin with the carving away of the marble that doesn't look like Moses, as Michelangelo is memorably said to have put it.

Trees that let go of their leaves every year are said to be "deciduous." The word appears to be a cousin to "deciding," but my sources tell me otherwise. "Deciduous" derives from Latin words meaning "falling away." But the notion of "cutting off" is definitely part of the process here. Trees shed their foliage by what's known as "abscission," a Latin-derived term that means essentially "cutting off."

It's a lot of effort for trees to maintain their foliage in extreme weather, and so, as winter approaches, they simplify by closing down, as one closes down a summer cottage for the season. Chlorophyll is broken down and its elements reabsorbed into the tree. This disappearance of green lets yellow, red, and orange show through. Nutrients are also reabsorbed from the leaves, and a little "separation layer" forms at the base of each leaf, and detaches it.

When the brilliantly colored leaves fall away, they make room for another kind of beauty, that of the bare trees themselves - graceful, balanced, strong, ever striving upward to the sun, ever rooted deeply in the earth.

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