Linda Crampton is a former teacher who enjoys reading and creative writing. She likes classical literature, fantasy, myth, and poetry.
The Magic of Autumn and Twilight
The leaves of the maple tree in my front garden have beautiful colors in the fall. I enjoy examining the leaves that are dropped by the plant and those that remain on its branches. In autumn, I often stand or sit near the tree shortly before darkness falls. I stay there as twilight arrives. Twilight, or the transition from light to dark, is a special time for me.
Autumn can be a meaningful season. It's a time to celebrate the harvest. Traditional foods and drinks can be an enjoyable part of the season. In addition, the last wild flowers of the year are lovely to see. The colors of leaves are another beautiful component of autumn. In this article, I discuss fall colors and twilight. I also include a poem about my maple tree and its surroundings as I observed them during an autumn twilight.
Autumn is the second spring when every leaf is a flower.
— Albert Camus (1913–1960, author, journalist, and philosopher)
Beautiful Autumn Leaf Colors
My maple tree drops leaves with multiple colors. I prefer the attractive mix of red, purple, yellow, and green in a leaf to the fiery red of some maple leaves. Some of the leaves dropped by my tree are green, as they were in spring and in summer. All of them served the plant well. The sugars that the leaves made nourished the plant and were used to make other chemicals that it needed.
Pigments in living things can be fascinating to study. In general, though they may make the organism attractive, that’s not their primary job. Occasionally, a pigment is due to a genetic problem and has no particular benefit (like the blue protein in some lobster shells), but pigments usually have important functions for plants and animals.
Functions of Leaf Pigments
The green pigment in plants is chlorophyll. It’s a vital chemical for a plant and for life on Earth. Chlorophyll absorbs light energy. The plant uses the energy to create sugars and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water during photosynthesis. We benefit from the sugars and the molecules made from them when we eat plants or use them in other ways. Another advantage of photosynthesis for us and other forms of life is the addition of oxygen to the atmosphere.
Carotenoids are yellow-orange pigments that are present in leaves throughout the year but are normally hidden by the chlorophyll. They absorb light of different wavelengths from chlorophyll. This light is used in photosynthesis. Carotenoids are also found in carrots, corn, and oranges (for example) and in flowers such as daffodils and buttercups.
Anthocyanins are red or purple pigments in leaves that are produced near the end of the growing season. They are found in beets, strawberries, plums, and other food items in addition to leaves. It’s not certain why anthocyanins are made in leaves that will soon be dropped from the tree. Several theories attempt to explain their production. The leading one seems to be that the pigment protects cells in the aging leaves from damage by sunlight and enables photosynthesis to continue for as long as possible before the leaves are dropped.
Definition of twilight
1: the light from the sky between full night and sunrise or between sunset and full night produced by diffusion of sunlight through the atmosphere and its dust
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary
The Nature of Twilight
Twilight is the time between sunset and night or between sunrise and morning. At night, it’s sometimes referred to as dusk. In the morning, it’s sometimes called dawn. The change from day to night or vice versa is an interesting time and can be an impressive sight. The pink sky that sometimes develops is attractive.
Twilight at night has always seemed like a magical time to me. Some people use the word to describe the last part of a person’s life, as in the phrase “twilight years.” That’s not the image that the word creates in my mind. Twilight at night is followed by darkness, but as morning approaches the phases of twilight shown in the illustration below occur in the reverse order and the light reappears. That seems like a sign of hope for me, as does the fact that the word "twilight" is used to describe dawn as well as dusk.
Twilight can be explained scientifically by the movement of the Earth around the sun, the angle of the sun's rays as they reach the Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere. Officially, three types of twilight exist based on the angle of the sun below the horizon: civil, nautical, and astronomical. The illustration shows the types and the transitions between them very well.
- Civil twilight begins in the morning or ends in the evening when the geometric center of the sun is six degrees below the horizon.
- Nautical sunlight begins in the morning or ends in the evening when the geometric center of the sun is twelve degrees below the horizon.
- Astronomical twilight begins in the morning or ends in the evening when the sun is eighteen degrees below the horizon.
- When the sun is at the same level as the horizon, sunrise or sunset exists.
The official explanation of twilight is satisfying, but only up to a point. Some questions about the universe and the laws of nature remain unanswered. The poem below is based on a twilight that I experienced by the maple tree in my garden.
Twilight - a time of pause when nature changes her guard. All living things would fade and die from too much light or too much dark, if twilight were not.
— Howard Thurman (1899–1981, author, philosopher, and theologian)
Twilight by the Maple Tree
Light begins to fade
in honor of the dark,
and leaves drop to the ground
like an evening song,
with colored notes of praise
amplified by rain
and gifted to the soil
in thanks for nourishment.
The moon behind a cloud
can still express her power
as daylight disappears.
The tree becomes a silhouette
that seems to stretch towards the sky,
perhaps in hope of being blessed
by lunar majesty.
Light and dark connect
as twilight casts her spell.
Those leaves still attached
move gently in the breeze
till silence stills the air.
The mystery of the dark
entwines belief and hope,
abscission for the leaves
and wonderment for me.
The scent of supper spreads
from evening ritual
as darkness settles in.
Nature’s colors disappear
and human ones prevail
reminding me of joys to come,
good food and company
to celebrate the Earth
and humanity as well.
- Science of fall colors from the U.S. Forest Service
- Leaf pigment facts from Harvard University
- Types of twilight from the National Weather Service in the United States
© 2020 Linda Crampton