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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Fickle autumn

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Glowing Blackjack Oak leaves

I sit at the dining room table watching the yellow of elms and orangish brown oak leaves blow in the breeze, fluttering into the holly bushes, covering the sidewalk and coating the birdbath.  Twenty-five years ago, two days before Veteran’s Day, my dad died.  That autumn was brilliant, the trees so rich and vibrant.  Each time I’d drive to see my dad in the hospital in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the roadsides were bathed in rainbows of color. In his small room, my father insisted one of us stand at the bathroom door to watch ‘the hill’ for incoming tanks. During WWII, my father was in the 14th Armored Division of the US Seventh Army.  His Field Artillery service included being the Forward Observer who directed and provided information to US Sherman tanks (1944-1945) in the Alsace, France area, often under heavy fire.  He was awarded the bronze star.

The foliage took its time turning into tomato reds, banana pepper golds, tangerine oranges and lemon yellows.  After being stabilized, my father was sent home.  The trees around the house he and his brothers built were still beautiful.  On his last night my dad sat upright in the bed of my brother’s room.  My sister and I were nearby in chairs while Georgie, the white German shepherd, laid quietly under the bed.  Out of the blue swirled a tremendous wind in the center of the room.  The door slammed shut as the bookcase opposite the door fell across to the wall, effectively forming a barrier to the hallway.  Georgie spun into a panic, bumping her head up and down under the bed.  All the while my father sat motionless, quiet, staring straight ahead.  

Ginkgo Tree

You know the feeling when you walk into an old church and sense the presences of others, although only you are there.  Tones and currents in the air you feel but cannot see.  During the wild commotion, I got the distinct impression there were, how can I put into words, spirits standing beside my father?  One seemed very powerful, accompanied by two others. The charged atmosphere then vanished in a split second.  We heard pounding on the other side of the door.  “Are you okay?” yelled the nurse and my mother from the hall.  My sister and I picked up the books, moved the bookcase and opened the door.  Georgie flew out of the room.  My father had not moved, his breath shallow.  

After the last person fell asleep, my father left. The nurse told me this was not unusual.  They wait until their loved ones are asleep or not present, and then they go. At the funeral my two sons played “Taps” on their trumpets as the color guard folded the flag draped over the coffin and gave it to my mother.   My dad couldn’t have planned a grander exit.  To this day I still wonder what happened in that room.

Possum grapes in rat's nest

It took the rodent one night to assemble a warm, cozy nest under the hood of the Subaru.  The soft mound of cloth and plants was removed the next morning.  Two nights later, it tried again, but this time decided the Aerostar would be an excellent choice.  I felt a little twinge as I pulled out some hard work on the animal’s part.  It had collected handfuls of possum grapes and acorns, buried them deep in the engine compartment and covered the food storage area with soft plant material and leaves.  Quite a nice winter home, but not in the best of places.  Many vehicles in my neighborhood now have their hoods raised when not in use.  Time to decorate with moth cakes and Irish Spring soap.  The animals aren’t so fond of these two aromatics.

The hunt was on for grass-fed beef versus beef finished at feed lots on grain.  It’s more than that.  Humane treatment of cattle.  Feed lots are more like torture chambers.   Someone in my family really wanted to cook out steaks to go with the sprouting organic potatoes in the cupboard.  Calls to various stores netted zero results.  The last store replied their beef had no hormones or MSG (Monosodium Glutamate). They didn’t sell grass-fed beef because the meat would be green!

Sugar maple

Education needs to become a top priority in this state.  Grass-fed beef was indeed sold at the last store we found.  The steaks were not green, cooked to pink perfection, served with mushrooms, mashed potatoes and a salad with some of the last remaining tomatoes from the garden.  

Green leaves, on the other hand, caused way too many problems late October. The frozen rain enclosed green leaves before they had stopped food production for this year. Oklahoma City area had 40,000 trees affected or destroyed by the historic autumn ice storm.  Ice accumulations up to three inches were seen in western and central Oklahoma. Record low night and day temperatures aided in the destruction. Two weeks later, although power has now been restored to most areas, broken trees and debris are still commonplace.  

The best of the Bradford  Pear leaves

What happens to green leaves in fall?  Leaf colors are initiated by decreasing hours of daylight and dropping temperatures.  The bold green chlorophylls from spring and summer begin to break down.  Red colors appear as the chlorophyll levels drop and anthocyanin pigments increase, stimulated by sugar accumulations in the leaves.  Check the maples, dogwoods, sumacs and Bradford pears.  Xanthophyll pigment in Ginkgoes is responsible for the intense yellow leaves (and egg yolks).  Various combinations of chlorophylls and pigments produce a wide range of oranges, yellows and reds…or exciting browns.

The ice that cloaked leaves and branches speeded up color production post de facto.  The oaks had a few days of orange glow, especially when hit by rays from the setting evening sun, but quickly turned rustic brown.  The elm leaves briefly switched to bright yellow before immediately hitting the ground.  The Bradford pear had spent most of the season losing leaves to fungal infections.  After the ice, it simply gave up and turned the rest loose. The only crimson foliage my trees produced were tiny bits of color hidden under piles of gray-brown leaves on the patio.

Baby Bur Oak catching some sun

My autumn foliage tour took place in Tulsa last weekend.  Subdued oranges, yellows, greens and browns lined Turner Turnpike.  Many city streets had brilliant red maples, bright yellow Ginkgoes, yellow-orange sweet gums, purple red crepe myrtles, pink azaleas, of all things, and chrysanthemums in various shades.  Yards were still gaily decorated with election placards and flags.  

Get ready for winter.

“Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year.”  Chad Sugg.