“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” – Khalil Gibran
My father died last week after a short illness, and the loss is still in the forefront of my mind. Death for many allows time for preparation, and for many it is unexpected. Regardless of its methods, death reminds the living of the beauty of life and the importance of living each day to its fullest.
Growing up in Arkansas, maple, oak and elm trees displayed an array of fall colors in reds and
oranges. However, when I came to Colorado 26 years ago, nothing compared to the brilliance of the aspen trees at their peak. My father shared this awe, and every year made a pilgrimage to Colorado to visit in the hopes of getting it right. Last year, he was spot on, but many years, he would miss it. I thought it was fitting that Sept. 30, the day he died, the trees suddenly were ablaze with color.
If we watch the leaves turn yellow and begin to fall, or watch them get stripped from their branches as they did in recent hail storms, we yearn for some final days of summer and reflect on the things we meant to do and didn’t. Warm days are fewer, and we greedily try to pack in some final hikes, bike rides or afternoons spent outside. But the cycle continues. The leaves blaze golden before they fall to the ground, making way for the next generation of new growth that eventually will follow.
What I like to think about when it comes to leaves is that aspens do not turn golden; they actually lose their green. Just as youth fades to reveal the true beauty within a person, the green of leaves disappears, uncovering the gold within. All the pigments that give rise to these glorious colors can be found in the leaf from spring all the way through fall.
When leaves appear green, it is because they contain an abundance of chlorophyll. There is so much chlorophyll in an active leaf that the green masks other pigment colors. Light regulates chlorophyll production, so as autumn days grow shorter, less chlorophyll is produced.
As summer begins to end and overnight temperatures drop, the aspens begin to first break down the green chlorophyll molecules that dominate the spring through summer color. Carotenoids, the other pigment molecules – there all summer – then become more and more visible. This process reveals the golds, yellows and reds allowing aspens to really show their stuff until their leaves drop.
We see this process all the time in everyday activities. For examples, in the grocery store, green bananas don’t turn yellow. Once the banana is picked, it stops producing chlorophyll, and the chlorophyll that already is in the banana starts to break down. As it does, the yellow carotenoids that have been there all along eventually show through.
As with winter, death requires grieving before the spring comes again with new life. However, the magnificence of the golden aspen trees are a reminder to me of the beauty of a life well lived and the choice to make the most of the time we are given.