By Clint Calhoun
I hope those who follow my writings have enjoyed my little series on the seasons. This article is the final one in the series as we finish up with a discussion on Autumn. I call this one “The Business of Autumn” because there is a bit of wordplay that I find very appropriate for this season. From a human standpoint, at least here where we live on the edge of the Southern Appalachians, autumn is big business. It’s a wrap-up to the tourist season as leaf-lookers come from all over the country to see the show that our deciduous trees put on. Leaf season means revenue as hotels fill up and crowds come to shop in stopovers along what we could call the Autumn Leaf Trail which basically constitutes every highway and byway that people can get to just to see leaves.
From another perspective, we might say that business refers to busy-ness when we look at all that’s happening. Autumn represents harvest. Fruit trees such as apple trees are being relieved of their crops. In the forest, trees such as oaks, hickories, and beech are bearing the nuts that will ensure the survival of their species. At the same time, wildlife such as deer, bears, squirrels, wild turkeys and other birds are eating those nuts, building the fat stores that will be necessary to sustain them through the harsh winter months.
Here in Hickory Nut Gorge, we have several plant species that produce red berries. Red is a very noticeable color to lots of different wildlife, but especially birds. Some notable examples of these red fruit bearers are holly, flowering dogwood, Fraser magnolia and cucumber tree. These berries are incredibly important for migratory birds flying south for the winter. Loaded with antioxidants, lipids, and carbohydrates, these berries give the birds the energy needed to get some of those birds as far as Central and South America.
By this time of year, the last of the monarch butterflies are heading to Mexico. Honeybees and native bees are making honey which they will need to sustain their hives through the winter. Reptiles such as timber rattlesnakes and copperheads begin to sense the cooler temperatures of evening and morning and the shorter photoperiod and start spending more time closer to their hibernacula. The woods are alive with activity during this time of year. For species such as whitetail deer, the rut (breeding season) starts in early autumn, so bucks begin marking territory, fighting with each other, and looking for receptive does with which to breed. So, there is quite a bit of busy-ness during autumn.
By this time most flowering species are preparing for dormancy. This includes the trees that will provide us with the autumn color show. For trees, the business of autumn is almost a sense of urgency as the tree stops making chlorophyll, the chemical necessary for sugar production. All through spring and summer, sugars were being manufactured and used for every life function of the individual. Those same sugars are responsible for the pigments we see in the autumn leaves; pigments that have always been there, but just weren’t evident because they were covered up by chlorophyll. As those sugars are used up by the tree or are transported to the roots for storage (winter and spring energy), the leaves turn brown and fall off. Some species that lose their leaves in late fall make deep red pigments that act as a type of antifreeze. Trees such as oaks, which are the last ones to put on leaves in spring, and the last ones to lose leaves in autumn, require these antifreeze pigments because it is likely that most of these leaves will still be on the trees well past the first frost of autumn. The whole process is necessary to prepare for the reset that will occur during the winter.
When I think about the seasons, each one offers something different for me. Through the restfulness of winter, the awakening that occurs during spring, dealing with the heat and just surviving through the summer, culminating with the busy-ness that is fall, we can see the circular nature of our environment. We witness the ebb and flow, the push and pull, the mystic rhythms that are the driving force of this mysterious blue planet on which we live. If I want to feel small and insignificant, I give a lot of thought to this concept, because the rhythms of nature remind me that while I may be in control of the role I play in nature, I am not in control of the processes that bind us to nature.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.