The millpond oaks have lost all of their brighter autumn colors and resemble thin leather with the same polished sheen. As the winter wears on, the reddish tones will fade to grays.
Mighty oaks received the moniker due of their size and stamina, but some varieties have another stalwart trait: Their leaves remain aloft through winter months. That has intrigued me. Botanists call the retention of dead plant matter marcescence. The closely related Beech trees share this trait but their leaves are pale and papery.
Michael Snyder, Chittenden County Forester in Vermont, provides several possible reasons but no definitive answer. After reading his article, I can think of alternatives he doesn’t mention: By retaining leaves, the ground beneath the trees is exposed to more sunlight and probably stays slightly warmer on sunny winter days. Unlike most, oak leaves are tough and leathery. They don’t decompose quickly. They don’t rot until late spring after the ground thaws. Bare ground warms more quickly in spring sun so the growing season might be extended a few days or weeks each year. But the opposite might also be true: Dark fallen leaves might collect winter sunlight and warm the ground beneath their protective layer. The leaf layer would retain heat longer each day than exposed, bare ground. It’s a mystery I’ll never solve.
Photographed on October 21: The changes in color of autumn leaves seems so capricious yet I’m sure most patterns like these can be explained by botanists. This one looks like someone spilled coffee on it (above), let it dry, then glued it back onto its original branch (right).
No matter how it acquired its array of colors and patterns, it’s a joy to the eye. Too bad such beautiful things are too small to be noticed by everyone. If leaves were as large as humans, we’d be confronted by their fleeting fall colors and probably spend more time staring at them. Unless we were overwhelmed by the task of raking them up.
We’ve had calm days. The millpond is smooth. The only ripples are from the stirrings of ducks and muskrats. The turtles, frogs, and insects have vanished. On crisp mornings, mist hovers above it. The glassy surface is dotted with gatherings of leaves, predominantly oak now, in various arrangements as they gradually drift toward the dam where their interactions will be abruptly altered.
My flash illuminates their subtle color variations and unique, yet similar, shapes at night. The gatherings are silent, visual poems the trees have written with their shed handiwork replacing the words.
While YOU may be tired of seeing muskrats at Words4It, I never tire of shooting them. It’s always a challenge because, if I make the slightest noise or movement, they dive in the blink of an eye. And they are a moving target. I have about 1 second while they are in the range of my flash and, during that time, I have to aim, press the shutter, and wait for my camera to decide the light conditions and distance before it snaps the picture. I’m not complaining. I think it’s great fun to nab the critters with my camera. It’s hunting with the game having an even chance and nobody gets hurt.
Japanese Maple doesn’t fare well in our northern climate. To survive, they need to be protected from cold winter winds and sub-zero temperatures. I found this beaut beside a garage while walking in downtown Brighton. None of its leaves had dropped yet and more were brilliantly colored.
I’ve posted two photos of the millpond dam recently where it was jammed. Here, an oak leaf is just about to tumble down the waterfall on its way to the Huron River and Lake Erie. I think it’s a beautiful shot, a balance between dark and light neutral tones with lots of texture and just one lone leaf, dead center, adding rich color.
In looking at the upper right corner of the image, I liked the painterly textures. So I cropped out that section and rotated it 90 degrees counter-clockwise. By applying some basic Photoshop filters and changing the colors, I turned it into a digital painting (below) that has a Willem de Kooning messiness that I like. Can you find the exact section of the photo I used? Although it’s not obvious, you can still see some of the waterfall’s ripples and swirls. Click both to see them larger. They’re large enough to use as desktop patterns.
The water enters the millpond through a culvert at the north end. During the wind storm, I watched a steady stream of leaves float into the pond there. They were colorful notecards sent from plants and trees upstream that had surrendered them. They slowly paraded past the elevated boardwalk reviewing stand shifting their positions from minute to minute like an addled marching band. Showing no signs of the marauding gusts as they floated by, they were mesmerizing and peaceful to watch.
Yesterday was the last one yet we’ve had an autumn filled with hurrahs in Michigan. The past three cloudless, crisp, and calm weeks were a welcome gift to offset the gloomy economy. It’s not officially Indian Summer although it’s had all of the trappings of a glorious one. With no killing frost, each species of trees has determined its own schedule for changing color and releasing its leaves. Half of the trees are bare now and the other half will lose theirs as high winds and descending temperatures roll in tomorrow. The orange-to-peach leaves (above) and the multicolored collection on the pond’s surface (below) are the last of the season. But you’ll see more autumn photos at Words4It in the months ahead. I’ve saved some fall foliage photos to spice winter’s monotony.
Like the maples, the oaks join the color explosion in autumn, but their colors are more sedate. Their reds never blare, their tans never ignite into garish golds. Instead, the colors simply fade to leathery browns. Some oaks refuse to release their leaves until after the spring thaw. Their dried leaves hold tight and rattle in winter winds.
Above, an oak with half of its leaves still green in the first week of October. Below a mirrored pattern created in Photoshop from a tree farther along in the process. As I’ve previously stated, something wonderful happens when ordered symmetry is introduced into a tangle of leaves and branches.
Aged greens, reds and golds in veined patterns grace these sassafras leaves and remind me of the Southwest for some reason. Their color won’t get any better than this. As you can see, their edges are turning to brown.
I posted another sassafras map of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula a month ago from the same tree, but this one is much more colorful. I removed some distracting branches and leaves behind it but the color hasn’t been altered.
It’s easy to be seduced by color. Especially now. The millpond path is awash in them. I started with a very ordinary photo of mulberry and wild grapes leaves (right) to create these two images. Neither image involves any digital “painting.” All I did was manipulate layers and colors in Photoshop.
I’m very aware of color and pattern this year. It’s because I usually have a camera hanging from my neck and I’m an indiscriminate marksman with it. I shoot everything and decide what lives and dies when I get back to my computer and see the images on screen. In a way, I view the images as paint, raw material I can add to future projects.
By autumn, the pure spring colors are gone. Leaves that were once clean greens have been starved of long sunlit days and ravaged by weather and insects. Now they contain delightful imperfections: scars, specks of unexpected colors, and torn edges as the low-angled, late afternoon sunlight filters through them. Instead of being “green,” they are now “sage gold orange blood rust.”
I like jumbles of leaves and twigs. Autumn enhances my interest in them since the brighter colors make each plant species more distinct. The original image(left) is of Virginia Creeper. I created a kaleidoscopic image with this original so four identical copies mirrored (horizontally and vertically) made a wreath, of sorts.
I duplicated that image three times in Photoshop then rotated and superimposed those images on top of each other to create the finished image (below, lower right) using Photoshop’s “Layer Modes” to alter the image’s original colors. Though it sounds complicated, anyone with basic Photoshop skills can do it.
The other three images (below) are details snipped out of the finished image and hold up well as separate works of art. To enjoy their color and details, click these links: One, Two, Three, and the Kaleidoscope. The original image is 5 times larger, more than 4000 pixels square. Wish monitors and web browsers could display it in its full glory.
I’ve created similar kaleidoscopic images at Words4It here and here.
Tourists laugh at those of us who live in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan because, when they ask us for directions or where we live, up pops our right hand and we point somewhere on our palm. It’s a very handy map if we don’t have a Sassafras Tree nearby.
The leaves of sassafras come in three shapes: unlobed, mitten-shaped (both right and left), and trilobed. Both of these photographs are of the same 6′ tall tree that grows beside the millpond boardwalk in Brighton. The bottom photo was taken two weeks ago while the top one was snapped last night. It shows more fall color. Normally, sassafras leaves are an even medium green like the two smallest leaves (below). Either this tree isn’t getting enough sunlight or the soil lacks an important nutrient that has caused the distinctive veined coloration. Otherwise, it looks very healthy.
Following a windy, mid-day rain, fallen leaves ringed a puddle on an asphalt parking lot. The reflection of nearby trees caught my eye. While the reflected trees are in focus, the leaves around the puddle are fuzzy. I’m going to attempt this again during the autumn season because I like the idea.
Another example of the how the information packed within buds creates leaves, flowers and seeds. The seeds look like strings of peas now, but they’ll soon open to release their seeds suspended beneath a puff of filaments similar to those on milkweed. Leaves on Eastern Cottonwood are similar to those on Aspen.
When visiting my grandparents in Illinois, we found a chrysalis for a Monarch butterfly hanging from the underside of a milkweed leaf. We put it in a jar. A few days later, we watched the fully formed butterfly emerge, spread its wings and fly away. Less dramatic, but no less miraculous, is the bud popping that happens all around us each spring. Within days, dormant buds become bundles of flowers, seeds and leaves when something signals that it’s time to happen. Above: oak leaves and seeds. Below: boxelder leaves, seeds and flowers. More tomorrow.
Sarah McLachlan expressed these miracles better than I ever can and the scenes from the film “Charlotte’s Web” are delightfully sappy and fun:
Walking through a dense Michigan forest in early spring, one is immediately aware of young American beech trees growing in the understory. They retain their leaves throughout the winter and the leaves bleach to a light gold-white which stands out in this shadowy world. They look orange in this image because of the setting sun.
I know it’s strange, but I could look at leaf litter for hours. Fresh leaves often glow with autumn colors but even in spring after the leaves have been compressed by heavy snow and remained moist for months, they have interesting muted colors, patterns and textures. These have a tar-like sheen and a burgundy tint to them. Sprinkled on top are clustered pink catkins and bright red coverings of burst spring leaf buds. Next fall, the fresh leaves will join those of past years on the forest floor.
Some oaks, I don’t know their names, don’t drop all of their leaves in autumn. The dead leaves spend their winters aloft and even storms don’t shake them loose. When spring arrives, those steadfast leaves drop to the ground in a couple of days. A tangle of twigs on the surface of the millpond has caught may of them in this mid-March photo. The flash of my camera brings out their gold color and the dark water enhances their lobed shapes. Note the smattering of bright green specks surrounding them. They are more evident in the larger version. Those specks are tiny plants and you can see some are clusters of four leaves. That’s duckweed in its first bloom, early this year.
When conditions are right — temps just below freezing, still air, and sunshine — leaves resting on fresh snow slowly sink. Each dark leaf acts as a tiny solar heat collector that warms the snow crystals touching its underside just enough to melt them. Down goes the leaf a fraction of an inch. The melted crystals help melt more snow below them as the leaf slowly drops. The holes are the exact shape of each leaf including the stem. Above are 2 shots of the same leaf: a top view and one from the side so you can see that the leaf is about 2″ below the snow’s surface. Note how the stem slices through the snow as it sinks; you can just barely see it. Click the image to see a larger version. A desktop pattern (1920 x 1200 pixels) of the top view in very crisp focus is also available.
I’ve got this fantasy: I’d rent a big truck with a huge crane on it. I’d put a long beam on a hook and hang a stupendous black-velvet-on-one-side/white-on-the-other-side drape on it. Then I’d go around the country suspending this drape behind Historic Trees and take their portraits. Too often, their photos are marred by things behind them.
I’d use this same drape for images like this one of leaf litter submerged in a shallow pond. The colors are obscured by the reflection of the gray sky on the surface of the water. The small detail is how the original looked. The best I can do without a black drape is fudge it in Photoshop. Oak leaves retain some browns throughout the winter; they gradually turn gray. Willow leaves blanche quickly and turn almost white. Twigs are interesting, too, as they shed their bark and expose raw wood that grays with time. Only the small fish and tadpoles see this happen unimpeded.
At the still point of the turning world. … <snip>
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
— T.S. Eliot
Humans created constellations in the sky to satisfy their need to find order even when none exists. The momentary pause of these leaves suggest notations for an autumn ballet to me.
The millpond bench seats are closely spaced rods so rain doesn’t puddle. but they act like strainers when it comes to oak leaves. You’ve seen one of these benches before and you’ll find them a major prop as Words4It grows.
Note: The format of this blog doesn’t lend itself to vertical images so, when I post one, it will usually be a thumbnail linked to a larger, more detailed image that opens in a new window.
There are thousands of pictures and stories about nature at the Brighton, Michigan millpond. Use the links at the bottom of all pages to see "Older Entries" and "Newer Entries." Use the Search feature (top right corner of all pages) to find specific topics.