Outdoors Columns

Up Moses Creek: The Red Maple

The leaves of a red maple tree in the fall can vary from lingering green to yellow, gold, orange and red. Fred Coyle photo. The leaves of a red maple tree in the fall can vary from lingering green to yellow, gold, orange and red. Fred Coyle photo.

The air was still and frosty when I started up the trail that November morning to watch Black Mountain light up in the sun.

Black Mountain forms the long dark ridgeline on the western side of our valley, opposite the side we live on. The mountain rises in four prominent knobs. From south to north they are Hooper, Middle, Parker and Black, each one rising higher than the one before. With each knob the mountain takes a step up to join the highest summits of the Great Balsam Range.

I was walking fast, full of expectation. Clouds, fog and drizzle had blocked the view for days, but overnight a dry cold wind had cleared the sky and thinned the forest leaves, making it the perfect morning for me to stand on the ridge behind our house and, looking west across the valley, watch the order in which Black Mountain’s knobs begin to glow. The sunlight falls on them differently over the course of the winter. It was early November, and based on what I’d seen in past years, Middle Knob would light up first.

But it’s not the order they light up in that I most wanted to see — it was the light itself. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, as if coming to life, the top of one of the dark knobs will show a rosy blush that, slowly concentrating and growing stronger, spreads out and down over the mountain in a warmth that’s more than autumn gold.

To be accurate, I don’t see the sunlight “fall” on the mountain. As the great globe of Earth spins east on its axis, so astronomers tell us, Black Mountain rises into the sun’s constant rays.

As I neared the fork in the trail that led up to my lookout spot, a young maple — a slender understory tree about 30 feet tall — released a leaf.  Sheltered from the wind by the taller trees, its crown had not been stripped. I watched the leaf slowly descend in circles and settle gently on the trail.

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Then the tree released another. This leaf circled too, but in a tight spiral, stem-first to the ground.

It was a red maple, acer rubrum, but the leaves weren’t red.  Red maple leaves tend to redden when the tree is open-grown. But this shaded tree had lemon-yellow leaves with rusty tints. Old leaves on a still-young tree.

Other leaves took flight. One, like a kid’s paper plane, sailed on a long, straight line to the ground. Another rocked from side to side like a cradle. “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” Walt Whitman says of the whispering sea. But that leaf had mere seconds to rock. Other leaves rolled or somersaulted or did cartwheels. Some darted here and there as if the tree had released swallows.

The leaves had just the right wing shape in their pointed lobes, the right length of stem and weight to set them into infinite paths of flight. There was the canoe pitching end to end in waves, the ballerina’s pirouette, the airplane’s barrel roll, the parachute, the ticking pendulum. Spiral-flutter-plummet-glide — some leaves tried to do it all. Still others twitched and flipped so crazily I could not see a pattern, except that like the others they too were going down. 

Each falling leaf, I realized, must be responsive to the faintest change in barometric pressure or temperature or humidity.  The way a leaf’s edge has been eaten away by a summer caterpillar or has a hole chewed in it or moth eggs laid on it — all these would affect its flight.

A leaf stopped mid-fall and slowly twirled at eye height. Caught on a spider’s strand?

I saw a falling leaf clip a branch and ricochet off in the opposite direction. I saw one leaf land on another and set it falling too, both twinning down together. I couldn’t tell what was going to happen until a leaf’s fall was past.  

One leaf went round in an upward spiral, as if about to soar, until it crashed into a yellow poplar tree trunk with an audible hit and dropped.

I was shaking the tree to make more leaves fall when, glancing around — there stood Black Mountain, head and shoulders in the sun!  Turn to watch one thing of beauty and another happens at your back.

I resolved to hold a steady course tomorrow for the main event, if the day dawned clear.

(Burt and Becky Kornegay live in Jackson County.)

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