Autumn Leaves and Other Musings


I’ve always loved fall. Smokey dusks turning tree lines a subtle purple.  The leaves of ash, elm, maple, pecan, and gum turning their fall colors, backdropped by green aromatic pines, their brushy limbs cleaning the air and the tens of varieties of oaks (Hundreds? Thousands?) squatting down restraining the earth with their roots – trigger my emotions and memories – both sweet and bittersweet.

The fall is when I most often turn my eyes to the sky, looking for birds of prey, those magnificent hawks falcons and shrikes, who tarry here for a while before they begin their journey along the Gulf Coast to Mexico and parts south. They spiral along thermals, or perch on their own lookout station, waiting for an errant mouse or foolhardy rabbit to stray from their warren.

The hawks like to take the long road…as opposed to the millions of hummingbirds, who, like so many of us, head due south across the Gulf and reaching the Yucatan exhausted, to rest on the edges of the quiet jungles before heading southward again.

In the spring, the hawks will again follow the coast from their southern wintering grounds and then turn north when they reach the central flyway, seeking the bounty of the Midwest. Their trip is rather leisurely, as they take time to hunt along the way. The hummingbirds however, will come ashore at High Island and Bolivar Peninsula, exhausted perhaps from a headwind slowing them down or a storm barring their way. No food and a longer than expected trip will leave them winded and hungry.

But this year feels different. I haven’t seen many hawks. Usually they are hulking around promising hunting places, hungry and ready to swoop down for a kill. I have been seeing an aggressive hummingbird recently (she must not have read the notice that they were to fly south months ago).

A very aggressive one has been hovering around what’s left of the flowers on my Turk’s Cap throughout the fall. It’s getting late. As far as I can tell, she has no plans for a winter vacation in Puerto Vallarta.

The native trees aren’t the only ones flashing color. The ubiquitous Chinese tallow, also called Florida aspen (sarcastically, I’m sure), sports brilliant fall hues. This insidious tree is everywhere. In people’s yards (they planted it for the fall color), in tree buffers around commercial buildings, along fence lines, anywhere they can grow.

These vampires of the tree world produce so many seed, grows so fast and spread their roots so quickly that it can outcompete any other tree in the forest. In south Louisiana it has become the dominant tree species, replacing pine and oak forests. The fact that the seeds and leaves are poisonous and the roots put out an allelopathic chemical that discourages other plants from growing around them goes a long way in their invasion. These destructive trees are the gift of beloved Ben Franklin, who imported them from the Far East in 1776, thinking the berries could be used in to manufacture soap. And they can. However, Ben’s idea never took off, but the trees did. Then, during the Great Depression, the trees were planted in the South in hopes of spurring the  idea of creating…you guessed it…a soap manufacturing operation. I haven’t seen many soap factories in my wanderings around the South.

There are other signs of fall and the coming winter. More rain. Cooler weather. Lots of leaves on the ground for the compost bin. Cabbages, carrots, beets, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Swiss chard are filling up fall gardens. Warm clothes are coming out of storage. The sweet smell of wood burning in fireplaces. Gray skies and chilly northwest winds chugging down from the Artic. It’s a magical time for me and for many of my friends.

 

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Bob Dailey

Bob Dailey is a garden writer, lecturer and gardener living in southeast Texas.

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