This year the Japanese maples (generally Acer palmatum species) have had an extraordinary fall. Because the weather has been warm and wet, the Japanese maples have hung on even past the emptying of the foliage on the pecan trees - usually the last to drop their leaves. Their spectacular color, combined with the fact that only they, the crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) and some oaks are still hanging on into the first days of December, helped me pay particular attention to them this year on my walks around the neighborhood in the morning with Luna the dog. Scientists say that most trees are photoperiodic - the length of the day relative to the night rather than the temperature is what triggers the changes in metabolism that begin the process resulting in the spectacular colors that we see - yellow, orange, red, purple. Japanese maples are typically small trees, sometimes very small in the case of the "dissectum" varieties - the cutleaf Japanese maples. All of them have lovely shapes, and this year luminous red or red-orange color. I have several varieties in my small yard. The winner of the eye-popping color contest this year is a purple-leafed maple (Acer palmatum atropurpurea) whose leaves come out purple in the spring and gradually fade to a dark green/red before transitioning to a dazzling scarlet this fall. The other surprise was a small seedling of the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum Sango-kaku) whose normally bright yellow fall leaves have a decidedly red-pink cast this year, unlike its parent tree. I feel fortunate to be able to see this - fall must be an entirely different experience for people who are sight-impaired - and even more fortunate to have noticed this and paid attention to it over the past few weeks.
We move at a rapid pace through our world - on trains or buses, but mostly in this country in our cars. The amount of time we are not either flinging ourselves headlong through our network of highways, or moving back and forth in a small space in our offices or workplaces or homes is small. But if you choose to spend more of your day moving through the landscape at a walking pace, so much more is revealed that would otherwise have been a blink in passing through the windshield at 40 or 50 miles per hour. For me, the revelation at this pace this year has been the proliferation and immense beauty of the Japanese maples planted in people's yards along my path through this part of Raleigh. The richness of their color and the emphasis it brings to the shape of the tree against what is otherwise now a dull green or brown landscape is dramatic, and I feel as if I've been given a gift because Luna pulls me out on extended travels at walking pace in my world. I am reminded of my experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, where this gift was drawn out over 5 months in a journey that led through the mountain chain from Georgia to Maine, from winter to spring to summer to fall. Almost all long-distance hikers struggle to describe the experience after they've returned to the life of fast and slow, driving and sitting. An extended experience at 2 miles per hour is an opportunity to see what you have never seen before - the wildflower called a showy orchis hiding in a wedge of rock at a switchback, the particular color green that the forest takes on in April that can only be described as early spring green, as the buds on the deciduous trees slowly unfurl into leaves, the quick movement that turns what appears to be a twig into a swift litlle lizard, dashing for cover. It is hard to explain how much more detail is available in the landscape at walking pace, and how repeated experiences with it teach us things. I hiked the AT at a time before access to hand held communication devices kept us connected wherever we go. We found that over time walking in the forest we developed a sensitivity to our surroundings, particularly the weather, that was nearly as accurate as we could have accessed via smartphone today. The smell of the air, the color of the sky, the clouds and how they were changing would tell us a lot about what the weather was to be like the next day. I can still recall the deadness of the air, the immense stillness, that preceded the remnants of Hurricane David before it slammed into us in New England. I also still recall the absurdly good-natured group packed tightly into a three-sided shelter that night as it rained sideways, our tent flys and ponchos strung across the open side of the tent in a futile attempt to keep it from raining inside. One hiker pulled out a harmonica and launched into what would become the improvised "Leaky Shelter Blues".
Humans were designed to move at walking pace, and I am reminded of the observation skills we are born with as I spend extended hours at this speed. Our bicameral vision gives us perspective, shape and spatial awareness, and a sense of distance and movement. We also hear more and can look at and listen to longer something that might catch our attention in the landscape. I like operating my automobile as much as the next person - a road trip is more fun for me than for my wife Loretta, but I would never have noticed the Japanese maples this year at 60 miles per hour. Safety requires that we scan the landscape ahead of us quickly when we drive - looking for hazards. If we're lucky we can glance at something along the way, but it is gone before we get a chance to really LOOK at it.
I look forward to seeing what the winter will bring. With so many trees around here, the summer obscures much of what we've built, and in the winter a lot of how people have chosen to live in this place is exposed. Luna and I will set off at our two, maybe three mile-per-hour pace and watch for it as we go.
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Daniel Howe lives in Raleigh, NC. He's interested in a lot of things so this blog is all over the place.