Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Autumn leaves


At the present season when, turn which way we will, we are so strongly reminded that the year is in its sere and yellow leaf, it is impossible to view these autumn leaves without remembering Mr. Millais’s beautiful picture of their dying grace. And then, because all art tends to call forth solemn emotions, and is not indeed worth the name of art unless it implants in us higher thoughts and calms the world-wearied spirit, we naturally fall into a few serious reflections respecting the withered leaves which strew our path. The first which strikes us is perhaps one which is as old as Homer—that is, coeval with Western civilisation, and as old as the hills on which the trees that furnish the comparison themselves flourish. Just as the generations of men rise and decay, says the poet, so do leaves appear yearly, and wither and perish. We will leave the reader to follow out for himself the inferences to which such a simile must lead, and content ourselves at present with a few remarks on the first clause of it—the defoliation of trees, as botanists term the loss of their leaves.

Although with us it is in autumn that our shrubberies lose their beauty, we are not to suppose such is the case everywhere, or that the same tree drops its leaves simultaneously in all countries. Many trees lose their leaves in spring, and the approach of winter is but a secondary element, so to speak, in the complicated list of causes which seem to operate in the fall of the leaf. In some tropical countries the leaves fall during the dry season which answers to our summer. Again, as the elm, for instance, is earlier in putting forth its leaves at Naples than at Paris, and is some fifteen days earlier there than in England, so it retains them proportionably longer. Balfour informs us that the apple-tree, the fig-tree, the elm, birch, and different kinds of oak, which in Paris lose their leaves in the beginning of November, do not drop them at Naples till the end of December. Of course with us most forest trees are stripped by the end of October.

It is often said that the cause of defoliation in trees arises from a deficiency in the leaves of the power of absorbing moisture. The delicate pores by which the life of the leaf, so to speak, is sustained, and which ought to be vigorously inhaling carbonic acid and giving forth oxygen, alternately receiving and yielding moisture, become clogged, and the leaf fades and falls, just as a human being dies when his respiratory organs cease to act healthily. The diminished light and heat of the shortening days is at the root of this derangement of the leaf’s vigour: but the latent process (as Bacon would have said) which develops itself from the very unfolding of the leaf till it drops from the tree, and acts in subordination to the above causes, is a problem physiology cannot easily explain. However, winter, with its high winds, frosts, and sapping rain, soon practically decides the question, by removing the decaying leaf. The scar left by its withdrawal gradually heals up, and from the axil of the leaf that is gone a bud may be discerned, which will swell through winter and expand in spring into another. Many of the characteristic markings on the stems of palm-trees and tree-ferns are due to the permanence of these scars, where their fronds have decayed and dropped off.

The above remarks only apply to our deciduous trees. Evergreens retain their leaves till those of next season succeed. In the case of evergreen firs, so many varieties of which are to be found in our ornamental grounds, leaves of one, two, and even more seasons, may be observed on the same branch, so exhaustless is Nature in her expedients and resources.

Just as the eye is charmed in spring with observing the different tints of the opening leaves, so in autumn a similar variety of colours may be noticed, one tree varying in shades of the same hue from another of a different kind, even if they do not differ more strikingly in utterly diverse hues. Frost is undoubtedly the chief agent in working those marvels of distant colouring which light up our autumnal woodlands, though with us the effect of such a prospect is said to be as nothing compared with that season in the American woods known as the Indian summer. Still there are few who do not enjoy the pleasant quietness of October’s fortnight of fine weather known as St. Luke’s summer, that lull in which all the characteristics of the three sunny seasons linger awhile about their old haunts, as though unwilling to resign in favour of winter, when

The air is damp, and hush’d, and close,
As a sick man’s room when he taketh repose
As a sick mAn hour before death.

When autumn’s fiery breath has scorched vegetation, and yet, as Wordsworth beautifully expresses it—

Departing summer hath assumed
An aspect tenderly illumed,
The gentlest look of spring;
Unfaded yet prepared to fade.

The moral of which seems to be that just as we admire the unclouded calmness and honour which attends that man’s old age who has lived well, so our feelings are insensibly tinged with some such tender regard for dying Nature, and the certainty that we shall lose in a short time the green foliage makes us cast more lingering glances at it while it yet stays. Most people, however, are contented to admire the colours of leaves when massed together, and rendered more effective by distant haze. Yet, without being microscopic, much beauty may be discerned in the fading hues of each tree. Thus the lime once so green invariably changes in autumn to a deep uniform yellow. The leaves of the mountain ash and elder are curiously bronzed and reddened before they fall. The walnut turns black and yellow where the early frosts have nipped its delicate green. The sycamore also turns black, and the leaves curl up and wince at autumn’s approach long before they drop off. Yellow and brown are the prevailing hues amongst ashes. Such are the most striking colours that fleck the general duskiness of our autumnal woodlands, harmonising well with the yellow stubbles hanging, as it were, in patches over the hills purpled with evening, to which, if a fine sunset be added with its brilliant bars of colour paling into the track of an October moon, few lands can show a more delightful scene. The horse-chesnut, with its deep yellow foliage shading off to red and brown, especially if it be growing near the water’s edge, must by no means be omitted from our enumeration, as those will readily allow who have seen a fine clump of them in October near Croxby Lake, Lincolnshire, or who remember the banks of the Isis.

Another customary study in our autumn walks is to observe the order in which the trees lose their leaves. The willow is often seen looking ragged and forlorn even at Midsummer. This, however, is due to the fact that it has then ripened its buds, and the leaves which have hitherto sheltered them, having performed their main functions, then drop off.

So in such trees as the beech, which produce two sets of buds during the season, those leaves which were formed during spring fall some time before those of the summer growth. In young beeches these wither, but remain on the tree during the winter, adding much to the picturesqueness of a coppice, till displaced by the buds of the following spring.

White of Selborne remarks that all lopped trees, while their heads are young, carry their leaves a long time. In the garden, currant-bushes and laburnums decay first, even while the foliage round them is still green. Indeed, most fruit-bearing trees and bushes begin to lose their leaves as soon as the fruit is mature. Apple trees, however, are an exception, the young summer shoots fluttering their bravery of verdure through all the early frosts until quite the end of November. When these leaves fall the pruner knows he may use his knife. The first appearance of autumn in the orchard is invariably among the walnut-trees. The mulberry, which puts on its summer foliage latest of our familiar trees, and is generally supposed to lose it at the first frost, is even stronger than the walnut, and waves a beautiful head of the deepest green leaves long after that tree has become ragged and unsightly. The ash, if it bears many keys, is perhaps the next in succession to lose its leaves. Many ashes bear no seeds, and then they abound in foliage, while their more fertile brethren look the picture of misery. The high winds, which generally set in with the end of September, soon cause the acacia to be in distress; while even at the end of August the white poplars have lost all their beauty, and many of their leaves. As an ornithologist can, within a very small margin, tell the exact day of the year by noting the arrival and departure of the migratory birds, and the botanist construct a floral time-piece by remarking at what hours of the day the different flowers close or expand, so a lover of the country might almost exactly hit upon the precise period of spring’s approach or autumn’s decay, by observing what hues were predominant in the foliage around him.

Very sad in October are the retired woodland glades. The plumed ferns, but lately so light and green, are now clumps of blackened lonely fronds, hanging over the stones whose nakedness they covered so tenderly during summer, dripping with morn and evening’s mists, and looking like the Dryads of Greek fancy, weeping with dishevelled hair for their ravaged habitations. Still moss and ivy are putting on their greenest tints on the banks, while the holly-berries overhead are reddening; and, if some solitary mullein, with its tall spire of yellow flowers, keeps its melancholy watch over the dell, reminding us of the lost wealth of summer, we have a contrast in the clumps of butcher’s broom, gladdening our eyes with their deep green. These skirt the moor to where brown sheets of decayed heather-blossom are flecked by the white wiry lichen, that so often shelters under its tufts. Such uplands as these are far more cheerful, and when enlivened by a hawk skimming over them, or a long line of hunters sweeping to a distant cover, are very pleasantly associated in most person’s minds with the presence of autumn.

Autumnal scenes are not great favourites with our painters. Their beauties change every day, and are so fleeting, that the utmost industry of the artist can hardly stay their tints and reproduce them on canvas. We have many studies of trees, or clumps of trees, in their fading dress, but it is not every one who will set himself to cope with the deeper shadows and softer lights of the shortening days, and paint the versatile foliage of large woodland pieces, when

Barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

In America, because there is a longer interval between the end of summer and the violent setting in of winter, there is also more opportunity to gather up the effects of the fading leaf into a large composition, as Mr. Cropsey has done in his “Autumn on the Hudson River,” which was in last year’s International Exhibition. It has always been a favourite season though with poets, who can affect the imagination by a few vigorous touches of word-painting, and brings in a fertile harvest of reflections for the moralist. We have sought to show that under every aspect it has something noteworthy, something of interest in every shade of its waning beauty. Autumn brings back most people to work; from Swiss mountains and Norwegian fiords, from glen and corry of Scotland, from the well-laden apple orchards and lovely combes of the west. And, doubtless, the sober reflections with which we began this paper, come home to us with tenfold force as we leave the scene of our summer holiday; so that unpleasing as is the moraliser generally, his trite wisdom harmonises well with inclination, when he says:—

Yet wait awhile, and see the calm leaves float,
Each to his rest beneath their parent shade.