As we say slide towards winter, we are remembering the beauty of bright leaves on shiny roads and all the mysteries of the forest coming to the surface.
Laurelhurst Park is, of course, my favorite place in Portland. As cool and busy a playroom as it is in summer, it is a place of small life in fall.
Last year, around this time, we saw a fellow raking leaves into heart shapes and appreciated his art for art’s sake. Yesterday I may have seen his work again, as this wonderful “Yellow Brick Road” leaf installation greeted us uphill from the lake.
Walking today, I saw a plaque near the Pine Street entrance to the Park. It commemorates the planting of this huge oak tree in 1932 by the Wakeenah Chapter of the DAR (The Daughters of the American Revolution) to celebrate the 200th birthday of George Washington.
In a funny way, all the leaves falling reminds me of a speech from The Merchant of Venice, where Portia talks about mercy “blessing both he who gives and he who receives”.
Having given up their leaves, the trees show their beautiful branch structure, allowing us to see beauty that is hidden in summer. It also makes the ground more beautiful, blessing both the tree and the ground.
Yesterday I got out for two walks, one in the morning with Grandpa Nelson, and one in the afternoon with Auntie Bridgett. It was cold and wet but not raining, and both walks went through our favorite, Laurelhurst Park.
Grandpa Nelson’s walk was quick. He was still “at work”, at his office downstairs, but he needed to stretch his legs and clear his head. We covered ground, enjoyed the thousands of leaves floating on the lake, and saw dogs running full speed just for the joy of doing it.
My walk with Auntie Bridgett was less hurried. We saw some fine mushrooms.
We talked about how different kinds of trees are changing at different rates. Most of the maples are pretty bare, but other types of trees still have quite a few green leaves.
Looking up, she said, “For example, this one.” We stopped beside a tree we hadn’t really noticed before. It was some sort of conifer (there were small green cones under it) but had clearly changed color and was getting ready to lose its leaves. “This tree isn’t well,” was my assumption. When an evergreen goes yellow, it’s near the end.
We took pictures of the tree and leaves, tucked the location into our memory banks, and continued our walk.
On the other side of the park is a ‘tree map’, showing what sorts of trees are growing where in the park. Once we got oriented, we saw that our mystery tree was listed as a Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as a Dawn Redwood. Dawn Redwoods are deciduous conifers, meaning they have cones like evergreens, but lose their leaves every fall. A rare thing, indeed.
Dawn Redwoods are really special trees for other reasons, too. They were alive 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were around. Scientists have found their fossils in North America, China and Japan. A Japanese paleobotanist (person who studies extinct plants) named Shegeru Miki found fossils in Japan and called it “Metasequoia”, meaning it was sort of a grandmother to all other redwoods. He assumed the tree was extinct.
At about the same time in China, a forester named T. Kan found a living grove of the same kind of trees. Because this all happened in the middle of World War II, it took years before they learned about each other’s finds.
When the seeds and other parts of the plants were sent to botanists at Harvard University, the tree was called a “fossil tree” and a seed gathering expedition went to China. Thousands of seeds were sent to different places around the world, including the Hoyt Arboretum and Laurelhurst Park here in Portland. The next year, the tree in the Arboretum bore cones, the first tree of its kind to bear cones in North America in 60 million years, or so they all thought.
It turns out there were, and still are, Dawn Redwoods growing wild here, in forests, the Gorge, as well as parks. They weren’t extinct, we just hadn’t found any as of 1941. Now we have. It seems there are always new things to discover!
I love what this story tells me about curiosity, problem solving, and serendipity. The same kind of trees grew in China, Japan, and North America, for millions of years. How did the seeds travel so far? Were the continents closer then? What if that scientist hadn’t send those particular seeds to that particular guy?
So much is going on here in Portland! The rains have started for sure, with two and a half inches just this past weekend. As the leaves fall in Laurelhurst Park, what was the darkest part of the park is becoming the lightest, with a thin veil of yellow leaves creating a wonderful light.
The weather is getting colder, hovering about 48 degrees at night and 55 degrees during the day. All this means adjustments have to be made.
The city is keeping up with the leaves by using giant, ride-on lawn vacuums to clean the paths in our Laurelhurst Park, because all the leaves get slippery and really dangerous to walk on when they start to rot. This picture shows the difference between a clean path, and a not-clean path.
There is also a truck that drives through Lone Fir Cemetery and blows the leaves and chestnuts off the paths, and ride-on mowers that mow the grass and vacuum up the leaves off the graves.
At our house, we are getting ready for colder weather, too. We found some big saucers to put our potted geraniums on inside, because the freezing weather that is coming will be too cold for them to stay on the back stairs. These are Great Grandma Billie’s geraniums, and I love them very much and want to protect them. We have also put matches, candles and flashlights on the counters, just in case we have a blackout from trees falling on power lines.
Plants and animals are adjusting, too. The old Labrador down the street is spending less time on her porch, ferns are growing out of the bark on almost every tree, and moss is blooming on stone walls, sidewalk cracks, and tiny libraries. Mushrooms are springing up at the bases of trees.
Oh, and remember the linden trees? They smelled so pretty and gave us shade? Well now, they are making berries for the birds. The petals, instead of falling off, have become thick and waxy, with beautiful blue berries in the center. Amazing!
All these changes are fun to watch, because I don’t know what’s coming next! But I will tell you about it, whatever it may be.