Fall Leaf Fall

image copyright Fred First

It fascinates me that a leaf knows when its time has come to fall. Perhaps some combination of day length and temperature gives the signal. But maybe it’s just the good taste to abort, an inner sensitivity to the needs of the whole that gives its parent tree a chance to hibernate with its blood gone underground for the winter, safe from freezing. Whatever the signal for the moment of leaf launch, I’m glad they don’t all get the same idea on the same day.

First, the walnut and basswood and spicebush leaves fly in the first winds of tropical storms or sudden thunderstorms in late summer. The poplars and hickories, cherries and sumacs have the good manners to wait a while, until after a leaf has had the proper opportunity to strut its chameleon color changes during October before finally falling, drab and shriveled, in a north wind on a bleak November day.

An oak leaf will refuse to let go until December, clacking and waggling brown and brittle in the cold breeze. The serrated leaves of a smooth-boled American Beech turn almost white and become so thin and light they hang like feathers and seem to move on their own, even on a still January day. This year’s beech leaf may stay on the twig until next spring’s tiny new leaf evicts it, finally, pushing it out and away, off into space, down to the black soil among the first of the spring mustards and violets.

Leaves enter my fantasies this time of year. I have wondered about them, individually, and as a race. If all of the leaves from the countless trees on our acres here fell and did not decompose by the following spring; if this happened year after year, how many years would it take to choke off all growth along the forest floor? Should our woods remain alive after even one year of such a calamity, which is doubtful, how many years of leaf-fall would it take to completely fill the bowl of our valley to the rim?

If all these same leaves from our small valley could by some fairy-industry be stitched together, edge to edge, would it make one huge leaf, big enough to dress all of the New River Valley or Virginia?

And if a curious person was to lie on his back in these woods for a day, could he learn to tell all the leaves to species merely by the pattern of their falling from the tree when the air is still? My hypothesis is yes, and I gladly volunteer to undertake the research.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. First to visit the new site! It is looking good, a shame that you have to go through all this again.

    As soon as I started reading this post, I recognized it from your book, you do have a beautiful way with words.

    Good luck getting up and running in your new corner of cyberspace, good luck with book sales, and try to keep warm there in the holler on Goose Creek.

  2. Once I saw your new place was Blogger my immediate thought was that now I can add you to my Bloglines, but for some reason it was slow and wouldn’t let me…maybe that’s part of the dust.

    It’ll be fun for you setting up house here; can’t wait to see what you do with it.

  3. Yes, Deb, I’m still in transition, but once set up, EVERYTHING should run as it’s supposed to again, and that will be a great relief.

    Thanks Susan and Deb for being the first two to stop by and say hello. The best is yet to come!

  4. Fred, I haven’t liked not having a voice at Fragments any less than you! I want to hear more about the switch to Blogger. Was your other site just too big? Are you going to allow non-blogger comments? I can comment only because I set up a dummy account that does not go to my blog.

  5. Hey Fred, you can try enabling anonymous comments to allow folks who don’t have blogger accounts to post comments. I enable them on my blog and I haven’t see any spam appear. You can also enable that little thumbnail image with the psychodelic letters and numbers to further prevent robots from leaving junk comments. But I’d try just enabling anonymous comments first.

  6. Hey, Fred: welcome to your new blog-home!

    Sean mentions word-verification as a good way to avoid comment spam, and I’d agree. I have various Blogger sites in addition to my main blog, and requiring word verification has eliminated spam comments, even with anonymous comments enabled.

    Since I’m guessing many of your readers aren’t bloggers, allowing anonymous comments enables them to comment without registering for a Blogger account.

    All that being said, I love the new template: very clean & simple, which allows your photos to “pop” off the page.

  7. Good day Fred, Had to come over and say I really love the photo. You’ve had some nice shots up lately and I’ve missed being able to congratulate you on them. Enjoy making the new site home, I know it’ll take a while to get the fit comfortable but the effort is worth it.

  8. Well, Fred, if the leaves did not decompose, at what point would the forest die for lack of recycled nutrients?


    p.s. I was back down on Fires Creek recently. Explored a whole lot more of it than ever before. Unbelievably colorful this year.

  9. Well, Fred, if the leaves did not decompose, at what point would the forest die for lack of recycled nutrients?


    p.s. I was back down on Fires Creek recently. Explored a whole lot more of it than ever before. Unbelievably colorful this year.