“I’m not sure if my sense of the beechwood’s watery aura was just an aesthetic conceit, or whether I was subconsiously beginning to glimpse something fundamental about how they worked -the slipperiness of life inside them, the glacial quality of their familiars as they unfurled themselves in the shadows and merged into the slow flowing rythms of the wood. There seemed to be nothing jagged about beech life. Sometimes I felt like a beech-creature myself, slipping through this deep ocean of sinuous shapes and muted colours ….”. from Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings, The Narrative of Trees.
Richard Mabey talks about a dialogue between his naturalist and romantic selves. Speaking in the former capacity he reminds us that autumn is time of furious activity, not a slow winding down. Trees probably shed their leaves to minimise water loss during the winter, but the blaze of autumnal foliage is also a cathartic detox -the level of toxins in leaves can apparently increase a thousandfold. They’re also breaking down chlorophyll and sugars in the leaves, and withdrawing them into their woody flesh. As the green fades, its replaced by orange, brown, and yellow anti-oxidants, which are thought to bind with the toxins. So the spectacle of autumn colour is ‘a sign of rude health.’
I’m a confirmed romantic and something of a ‘tree hugger’, but its good to know a bit about the metabolism of these wonderful senior citizens of the woods.
Most of the beech leaves have fallen now. The nights are drawing in. Once again we can see the tracery of branches. Somewhere beneath the moist earth, thousands of forgotten bluebells sleep. Flocks of fieldfares, redwings, and bramblings will soon be arriving to feed on the beech mast and berries.
Richard Mabey, Beechcombings, the Narrative of Trees, Vintage Books, 2008.