Colors on Water

Colors look the best when seen above and reflected in water. If that weren’t true, why would people line up in their boats each year to view the July 4 fireworks here on Birch Lake? Of course there’s another annual (though quieter) explosion of color over my lake and yours: The turning of the autumn leaves. The color change has been late this year. Usually we start to see maple leaves turning red as early as mid-August. This year, until the past weekend, we still had just a tint here and there at what in other years would close to peak time.

We knew that ultimately the yellows, reds, oranges and russets would emerge. It’s as inevitable as the cooling of the nights and the progressive shortening of daylight. And yesterday Noelle and I  treasured the colors that recently exploded as we took a slow pontoon lap around the lake. Up here we don’t so much observe fall color as live inside it, the trees surrounding and over-arching the house and my office attached to the garage. Seeing the color on the lake is different; its reflection in the water adds a dimension, a richness to the scene. Just exactly when is the moment of peak color?  That’s hard to specify. It’s as if through the late days of September a celestial hand takes hold of a dial and ever so slowly cranks up the color, as one might have done years ago with TV set.

Day by day, the colors deepen, brighten, until they almost glow, and we look on in wonder. But that peak radiance seems to last only a long moment, or at the most a day. We go down to the lake one morning, scan the shoreline, and while the colors remain, they’re just a tiny bit muted. The peak has passed. The brilliance is gone. In the succeeding days the leaves fade, turn brown, and spiral down to the water, rafts of them floating in the shallows, their delicate remains lying on the stairway and on the path we follow to the base of the pier.

It’s a miracle of biochemistry, this autumn display. It’s not that the colors miraculously appear. They exist from the moment the leaves burst forth in spring. It’s just that the green pigment, the chlorophyll by which the trees make energy from sunlight, masks all else. As the days turn cold and the sunlit hours shorten, the leaves stop making chlorophyll, and the green color fades. And now the other pigments in the leaves take the stage. Carotenes give us the orange tones, xanthophylls the yellows, anthocyanins the reds.

Ultimately those pigments also fade away, the leaves drop, and the trees stand bare in the austerity of approaching winter. As the autumn fireworks fade, there’s no lingering smoke in the sky, no applause, shouts and honking of boat horns. It all ends as quietly as it began. But there’s no dispute: It was great while it lasted, and it looked spectacular over water. (Photo by Noelle Rulseh)