Chris Smith: A costly education heightens color-viewing pleasure

Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2018 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

In a society where disagreeing is a sport, when was the last time you had something in common with everyone? Maybe at a rally against root canals, or a parent support group about the video game FortNite. But what about regionally? Nationally? It just doesn’t happen in any well-intentioned democracy, with one exception — the fall color season.

Have you ever heard someone gazing at a far-off stand of magnificent maples and mutter, “I’ve seen better”? Nope, nada, never. Last October, while standing in an aspen clone waiting for the bell on a buddy’s Brittany to fall silent, signaling a woodcock point, I had a moment to admire the Lord’s handiwork, mentally checking off the series of dendrological occurrences that led to the brilliant sugar maples on the far hill before me.

Armed with Fish and Wildlife degrees, classmates landed jobs as biologists with private companies and the state, but I used mine for wildlife art. While providing what I’d need for that next step in life, those classes stuffed me full of relatively useless information that has done little over the last 30 years except helped me win an occasional beer at a bar or convince my kids that Dad really does know everything.

But to be honest, the minutia about our outdoors does enhance the experience. Like the wood duck I shot on the opener last year, with iridescent colors more at home in the tropics than a northern Michigan marsh. Once in hand, I recalled its genus and species, Aix sponsa, meaning “duck in wedding dress,” when most normal guys would have been thinking how it would taste grilled next to fresh asparagus and wild rice.

Or sneaking to my bow stand one afternoon and stumbling upon a hollowed-out stump completely filled with pine cones, a sure sign of a red squirrel midden. Did knowing that put a buck in front of me? Hardly. In fact, I can’t even remember if I saw a deer, but I remember that midden.

In the same way, understanding how that stand of trees first got there, and then what happens in the leaf itself to make it so colorful and eventually fall, paints an even prettier picture.

Those maples didn’t begin as maples; rather they are the result of a several-thousand-year process after the last glacier receded known as “ecological succession” — beginning with a series of grasses and sedges that turned into low shrubs; then conifers, oaks, hickories, pines; and finally culminated, in some cases, as a beech-sugar maple climax forest.

Strolling through such a forest is enchanting — like a colorful hallway — given the sparse understory. Due to shade intolerance, little else grows under the canopy of these magnificent monarchs except other beeches and maples, although they’re stunted because of the lack of sunlight. Maples only several feet tall are old trees simply without the chance to sprout yet, so they lie in wait for an opening to appear, typically resulting from the toppling of an old, neighboring giant. Incredibly fast (for a tree), the smaller ones race to the sun through the canopy hole to gain a height advantage until one wins and begins its real ascent evermore skyward.

As September and October roll around, shorter days and cooler nights slow nutrient flows from the roots to the rest of the tree — in this case, leaves. Cells in each leaf’s stalk — the petiole — form what’s called an “abscission layer,” a corky substance that prevents water and nutrients from getting to the leaf. Fewer nutrients — especially water — means a reduction of chlorophyll and subsequent less green color. In some trees, pigments like carotene and xanthophyll are now more visible as chlorophyll production decreases, giving the yellow color to leaves such as birches and elms. In other trees, like maples, stored sugars from a summer of photosynthesis react to form anthocyanins, causing leaves to turn red. When the abscission layer disintegrates, the leaf falls.

So there you have it, a painfully brief CliffsNotes explanation of forest succession and how leaves turn color. If this information heightened your color-viewing pleasure this fall, then I can finally tell my father that the $30,000 university ball cap I bought him on graduation day was worth it.