As the air grows chilly and the evening shadows grow long, a familiar whisper floats between the trees: “Fall is here!”
In the state of Michigan, each of our seasons covers a wide range of scenes. Our winter is cold and snowy, though long and lately very drizzly. Our summer is hot and humid, but not scorching. Our spring, though muddy, is quite vibrant – but our fall is beyond compare. It is bright and cool and crunchy and haunting and wistful. Our fall is worth love songs and racing hearts and ghost stories.
But, perhaps the most obvious feature of a Michigan fall is its colors.
As you walk across campus in the coming months, you may find yourself, like me, smitten with the bright warm tones of the leaves, staring at them through windows wistfully as you wait for fall break to arrive.
The Albion autumn is something to behold – but where to begin? As a self-certified treehugger, it is my duty to provide you with some of my favorite trees on campus – the ones you should visit, get to know and simply adore this fall.
The Beautiful Bobbit Maple
If you have a class in the Science Complex, or perhaps in the Bobbit Visual Arts Center, then you may have met this fiery individual before. Here, on the corner of Hannah St. and what was once Perry St., you will find a sugar maple tree, solitary and somewhat small in stature, but dramatic in personality.
The sugar maple, or Acer saccharum, named for its role in the creation of maple syrup, is one of the most brightly colored characters of a Michigan autumn, being one of the first trees to change colors with the turn of the seasons.
In his book, “Around the World in 80 Trees,” Jonathan Drori mentions the sugar maple as one of the trees most characteristic of North America. He writes that their bright colors happen partially due to the cold nights and warm days of the fall season.
According to Drori, “As deciduous leaves die, especially maple leaves, sugar that the tree hasn’t yet absorbed from its leaves turns gradually into bright-red anthocyanins.”
So, as you pass by this magnificent maple in your day-to-day, make sure to appreciate the anthocyanins, who work so hard to lend us their saturation to brighten our day. We too, in our most stressful moments, can find in ourselves a deep well of beauty we might never have known before.
The Gentle Ginkgo
Outside of the Counseling Services building, on the corner of Michigan Ave. and Ingham St., stands a broad and friendly ginkgo. On my walk every morning from the doors of Wesley Hall to campus my first year, I found myself greeting the tree as I passed. Often I would stoop to pocket one or more of its most unique feature: Its curving, fan-like leaves.
The ginkgo, or Ginkgo biloba, is unique in more than just the shape of its leaves. The ginkgo tree has no living relatives – all of its evolutionary brethren are extinct. According to botanist and Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Peter Crane, the tree is a “living fossil,” with its earliest known record dating back 200 million years. Even the creatures evolved to disperse its fruit – which is known to smell like vomit (thankfully none of the trees on campus fruit) – have long since gone extinct.
Knowing this, one might feel a little sad for the ginkgo. What must it be like, to stand alone where your neighbors are all so much younger than you? I like to believe that the feeling is more akin to wisdom than to alienation, like having an old soul but a young face. To me, this ginkgo certainly enjoys listening to Nat King Cole’s “Tis Autumn” and sipping tea while it watches the world go by.
In terms of its color, the ginkgo is a late bloomer, only beginning to change its colors from a soothing gray-green to a light sunny yellow a month or so into the season, its fans waving at passers-by.
So as you come upon a ginkgo, consider waving back. After all, we should show respect to our elders.
The Wistful White Pine
As I arrive at the bridge between the Mudd and Stockwell Libraries, I find myself looking for one specific seat at a table where I can see my friend, the white pine, through the glass. Just off of Cass St., nestled in the corner between the back side of Stockwell and the bridge, this pine boasts broad branches clustered with soft, blue-green bundles of five needles, characteristic of the white pine. In autumn, the needles turn a light red-brown and fall, forming a soft bed around its roots ideal for the weary autumnal traveler.
The eastern white pine, or Pinus strobus, might be a tree you’re familiar with, if you hail from the state of Michigan – it is our state tree, after all. Fond memories of the white pine towering in my backyard come to mind, building pretend nests out of the fallen needles and climbing its smooth, sturdy trunk far above the roof of my house.
Even in the winter, the white pine is a source of comfort and fun – branches weighed down with snow, forming effective ceilings for snow forts and springing back satisfyingly with a strong shake.
Yes, the white pine is an old friend of mine – and one I look forward to seeing in my visits to the library.
Further back, however, it has been used for more practical purposes. Both ecologically and culturally, the white pine has made its mark on the landscape of American history.
In Drori’s chapter on the eastern white pine, he states that “The tree has become a symbol of American independence, both for its role in colonial history and because it is a favorite nesting place for bald eagles.”
Drori adds that beyond being important for the advantage white pine masts gave the English navy’s ships in the 17th century, it was originally used by the native peoples of North America for other reasons.
According to Drori, “They made an anti-scurvy tea from the needles, which contain vitamin C, and used the soaked bark to soothe wounds. Resin was used as an antiseptic and also a caulk for cracks and joints in their canoes, which they made by hollowing out smaller trees with fire.”
If you happen to meet a white pine and, in awe of its towering glory, you find yourself inclined to climb it, know that your hands will be sticky with sap and your heart will be filled with autumnal bliss. For the sap, in my experience WD-40 and hot water will do the trick – for the joy, there is no cure.
The Vibrant Vulgamore Maple
In perhaps the most high-traffic location of this list, around the front corner of Vulgamore Hall, along Cass St., stand two hearty sugar maples. As compared to their smaller counterpart behind Bobbit, these trees reach high into the sky, stained-glass leaves peppering the view from their neighboring path.
These trees are my top pick for leaf collecting – an activity that could be as intense as dedicated sessions of searching through their colorful gifts or as simple as looking to the ground as one is walking by.
As you’re walking, lend your attention to the ground for just a moment and one (or many) will strike you. Be it a soft watercolor leaf of orange, pink and green, a bright red leaf with lightning-like yellow veins or any other of the infinite variation these maples have to offer, a leaf given by one of these is a gift that is both free and priceless. Be sure to blow away any aphids looking for a ride on its underside though; you don’t want your pockets to be full of little bugs!
The hue of the maple leaf, as with all fall colors, is beautiful while it lasts. It’s always sad to see it go. If you’re like me and your favorite season is fall, then the coming winter months can seem doubly dreary, mourning the loss of the most beautiful time of year and all its gifts in addition to the dread of the oncoming Seasonal Affective Disorder.
As we barrel towards the end of the year, I find myself comforted by the fall leaves, despite their brevity. The trees themselves are preparing for a barren, gray season, but in doing so, offer us a souvenir.
“Here are my colors, here is my sweetness, here is my joy – it’s a long journey ahead, and we need each other,” they say.
“After all, who else will appreciate me, the way you do?”