Monday, 19 October 2015

Autumn Leaves. And God, obviously.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

It's not New England, but our pleasant corner of Nottinghamshire has been amazing recently for Autumn colours recently.

I was so struck by this that although the minutiae of such things usually eludes me (unless the kids have it for homework) that I wanted to find out more. And I got my question answered. (But ultimately, as most things do, it led to more questions!)

Just look at the detail...

So apologies to the experts out there, but in simple terms, in transpires that trees use their leaves to breathe - that is, to absorb the carbon dioxide they take from the atmosphere. They are designed and positioned for the optimum absorption of the light that they need to enable the process of photosynthesis. (Even on Wikipedia they blind me with words like stomata and phyllodes - not necessary for my understanding, although it did remind me that phyllo or filo pastry is named for leaves, as are the delectable milles feuilles we ate in Paris recently.) (Unable to think about anything unless it has a food connection, me.)

And then the leaves fall. On an annual basis, parallel to our liturgical year. Unless I'm very much mistaken, however, we don't celebrate the trees becoming bare during Autumn; instead we give thanks for Harvest. And it's only because I live in temperate Europe that I see this, where many of our trees are decidious and so undergo the process of abscission. Which basically means they die because the bad weather is coming. In fact it seems that the cold and the reduction in sunlight is what causes the leaves to lose their green pigment, and become discoloured.

So here is where the more metaphysical questions come in. I personally look on in awe and wonder as the leaves transform in colour, even to a mucky brown. The various shades of yellow, orange and red present a cornucopia of visual delight, striking just the right chord to elicit an emotional response when I look at them. This is first and foremost a visual response - wow, colour!! - but also a response to the wonder of God's creation. It draws my attention to the beauty of God's works, and to the intricacy of a system that is part of a wider system, sustaining and perpetuating all of nature. But primarily, it elicits in me a response that says - this is awesome. In the very end and death of something, in the leftover bits, the pouring out of colour, humans are programmed to visually appreciate this process in an extraordinary way. (There is also pondering in this process that can be given to regrowth, resurrection and perpetuity, if you want more theological food for thought.)

The fact that we react to leaf change in a deeply sensory way however is the question I simultaneously do and don't want answering. Just as we have an innate capacity for spiritual connection with the universe around us, we are finely tuned to aesthetically engage with the processes of nature. This bonds us to what is going on around us; reminds us that the world is turning, changing and growing, and we with it. As the leaves colour and fall, ending one aspect of each tree's development, we can read into this not only on a lifecycle basis, but also one of pure beauty. Can this be an accident? Like the joy of viewing a rainbow or hearing the splendour of a symphony, we have within us the ability to appreciate what is in the world at a higher level. We are uniquely able to comprehend aspects of nature at a physiological and emotional level. I won't discuss here how far we see this as purposeful design by the creator of a universe - but personally, I see it as just one strand of God's amazingness. I am still left questioning - like with much of my religion, there is an element of mystery and supernaturalness that surpasses my understanding. But sometimes it is just enough to remain awestruck and amazed, in a state of wonder. Setting one's mind adrift, idly pondering the universe, gazing at the beauty of the colours of leaves.

How wonderful, O Lord, are the works of your hands! The heavens declare your glory, the arch of the sky displays your handiwork. In your love you have given us the power to behold the beauty of your world in all its splendour.
(Jewish prayer, in David Adam 'The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayer.)
Further links: - Brilliant on colour. (And admits scientists can't explain the how and why either) - Thinking through this in light of the Jewish liturgical year (Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, takes place in Autumn) - says that it's no accident why leaves fall!

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