Autumn's breezes are a breath of fresh air

Joyce Pemberton
Guest columnist

Finally, Autumn is here, and you know what that means – time for our annual happy dance among the fallen leaves!

I thought autumn would never arrive. Summer outstayed its welcome like an annoying relative, didn’t it? But finally, after weeks and weeks of going shoeless and having our fans going full blast, we are wearing our favorite woolly socks and flannel shirts, sipping hot cider, eating candy corn and staring wistfully at the fires glowing in our fireplaces.

The leaves in the trees around Lake Tomahawk are blazing with color right now.
Joyce Pemberton

Like a lot of people, the reason I packed all my belongings and headed north a few years ago was to get out of the relentless Southern heat.  After 25 years of living in perpetual green and having hot air blowing in my face every day, I longed for something different.  Something unpredictable. I wanted to experience seasonal colors and cooler temps. And I wanted the wardrobe expansion that came with it.

As I write this, the leaves seem to be taking their time and have just started showing a hint of color. I remember the same thing happening last year. The changing leaves held out a little longer than we hoped, but then, as if in agreement, they all let loose their splendor at once in the brightest and richest colors imaginable. It was spectacular.

I’ve heard a lot of predictions on what our autumn will look like this year and how vibrant the colors will be. So, out of curiosity, I did some research on exactly what determines the intensity of the leaf colors and just how long they will stick around. Turns out that what determines the colors of the leaves each autumn is something that we women can totally relate to – an internal chemical imbalance.

I’m being totally serious. Most people think that the changing temperatures or cool weather causes the leaves to change color. And while all of those things do play a role in our fall color scheme, there is also a fascinating process that happens inside each tree from the time they take root. It has to do with their growth and the length of our days.

I’m about to give you some very fascinating information that you can impress your kids with. Stick with me here.

Here’s what happens. In each leaf, there are pigments called chlorophyll that causes the green color. It takes a lot of sun and energy to make chlorophyll, so in the spring and summer, when we have lots of sunlight (and longer days), plants make lots of chlorophyll, which is why the leaves are green. Then, starting in late summer and early autumn, our days begin to get shorter. And as the days get shorter, plants are not able to make as much chlorophyll, so other pigments start to show their colors. Which is why we see yellows, oranges and reds.

And because the starting time of this process is impacted by the length of our days, fall colors will happen the same time every year in the same location, regardless of the weather or temperature.

Which explains why you still see leaves changing even if the temperature stays warm.  It also explains why the leaves don’t change their color in warmer climates, because the sun is relentless in its determination to stick around, resulting in longer days, which means trees can continue to make the chlorophyll needed to have green leaves year-round.

So now you know why you live here.  As if you needed reminding.

Biology lesson and chemical imbalance notwithstanding, I’m just happy to live in an area where there is variety in seasons. And if it happens to come with an array of color every year, well that’s a bonus I can live with.