“All of Nature is God’s Art” Attributed to Dante Alighieri.
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A local townsperson from forty or so years ago in Mount Vernon, Maine, taught in the English Department at the University of Maine. She grumbled to us once at one of her parties that the brilliant fall gold and red display of maples and birch and poplar was disturbingly garish, a vulgar excess that lures the tourists. The leaf peepers travel by the busload to northern New England and upstate New York each year to gawk and to raise the rates in the hotels and restaurants, filling the hospitality business gaps between the summer lakes splendor and the ski season. The leaf colors are enabled by the slow final ruin of the chlorophyll [ii]at summer’s end. The splendid trees benefit the local economy, but their beauty backs up the lines at the breakfast haunts of the regulars, so I understand her peevish response. Small inconvenience, really, though, and a good trade off anytime.
I have come also to appreciate more the muted burnt umber and crimsons of the late oaks and the more refined yellows of the beeches of late fall. The maples, ashes, birch, and poplar have abandoned their now brown leaves to lawns, gutters on our house, and forest floors. The oaks too slowly give up their summer, and the winter branches appear with their intricacy, delicacy, order, design, and strength displaying ever more clearly. The latent beauty in the structure of the tree emerges, the form developed year over year, cell by cell, a miracle of biology and geometry and design. Rarely in nature are purpose, structure, and function unrelated; what serves beauty, serves also for essence, form, and survival. The winter sky provides a perfect backdrop to feature the winter bare tree branches. As much as I take delight in the fragile spring green and flowers, the lush summer foliage, and the autumn brilliance, the spare precision of the naked branches is most welcome. Their quiet and deep peace signal the annual winter retreat.
“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” Galileo Galilei
It has been written that the Holy Spirit is the Love proceeding from the Father and the Son within the Community of Love that is the Trinity of the Godhead. One of the key stories in the Christmas narratives occurs when Mary comes to help her also pregnant cousin after Mary began carrying the Christ child within her. In the presence of the baby Jesus, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; she was participating in the mysterious inner life of God. Human beings as their most noble calling possess the capacity to share in that inner life.
So how do these seemingly unrelated thoughts connect to the fall displays in New England and our capacity to be taken by them? I suggest this: that human beings possess the power of creating beauty and appreciating natural beauty by the same capacity that was imbued in them as being made in the “image and likeness of God.” This capacity is not simply a function of neurons and synapses but is spiritual in its origins; our relation to beauty is miracle.
An eleven-year-old girl[iii] has the same spiritual capacity as Michelangelo or Da Vinci or you and me. None of us likely has the same degree or skill or eye, but the capacity for beauty exists by our nature. Imago Dei, in the Image of God, are undeserved gifts to us in our nature and our souls. The senses are there; the mind is there; the heart is there; the soul is there for all of us.
Let us rejoice and wonder and be grateful as our eyes, our hearts and our souls are full.
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl”
[ii] As the days shorten and the nights lengthen at the end of the summer, this signals the trees to create an abscission layer which hardens the tender ends of the twigs to protect them when the leaves finally fall. This response to the diminishing light cuts off the supply of nutrients necessary to replenish the chlorophyll in the leaves. When it stops replenishing, the leaf begins to die. Chlorophyll constantly breaks down as it participates in the photosynthesis that produces nutrients for the tree and remarkably replenishes the sweet air that we sense near them as the photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and water on the input side and “exhales” pure oxygen along with the glucose that provides the tree with all its energy. Chlorophyll also makes the leaves green. As it breaks down toward the end of the season, the carotenoids and anthocyanins show forth. Carotenoids were present all summer but were masked by the power of the green. In the fall, they get to show off their stuff before the leaves wither and fall.
[iii] Drawings by Elena Barek, who is eleven. Granddaughter with an eye, a heart, and a soul. Winter tree in pastels and Chipmunk in pencil.