Cells Breaking Down, One Way or Another

Who can be a wild deer among deserted mountains

satisfied with tall grass and pines…

Han-shan Te-ch’ing, from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now ed. Red Pine & Mike O’Conner. Wisdom Press

*

Who is this old image-maker

wrapped up in pristine forests and trampled leaves?

This week I took a walk in local park shortly after a band of rainy weather passed over the island. In the park a one-way, 2.3-mile road shared by foot and car traffic loops through thick forest with brief views of the water beyond. The 15mph speed limit discourages car traffic; most people walk. I like to drive part way around the loop, park at a pull-out, and take trails through the forest, which I did that afternoon. When I came back out onto the road I admired a bright spot where maple trees interrupted the evergreen parade. Pale gold leaves were falling to the ground, making soft layers in the woods, but all the leaves that had fallen on the road were trampled flat by the tires of cars. The leaves’ cells were breaking down in progressively ruined stages: just-crushed, flat and thin enough to reveal pavement bumps, becoming translucent, losing edges, skeletonized – many stages of decomposition were on display.

I wavered about photographing the leaves on the road. Part of me was drawn to the way the splayed and flattened shapes recalled graphic depictions of a maple leaf. Another part of me was repulsed by the dirty, crushed plant tissue. The textures were interesting but the colors had lost their life. I turned away, then turned back. The sun was disappearing and there was no time for second guessing. Photographers know that the phenomenon we view at any given moment won’t repeat itself: the smashed leaves at my feet would never look quite like they did that afternoon. So I made some photographs and I’m glad I did.

1.
2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.
10.

11.

I’ll look for the Bigleaf maples the next time I go to the park. Whatever I find it will be different next time, and the next. That’s part of the magic of walking outdoors. I’ll also be more likely to consider the aesthetic possibilities of crushed plant material the next time I come across it. That’s part of the magic of human imagination.

About the Bigleaf Maple

We are predominantly coniferous here on Fidalgo Island but we have our share of deciduous trees, trees that are mostly golden now as they work through the annual task of releasing their leaves. A standout among our deciduous trees is the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a well-named tree that’s hard to miss. With the largest leaves of any maple tree, it spreads its branches wide in the forest and frequently hosts copious amounts of moss on its trunk and branches. Happiest in moist climates that don’t get too cold, it ranges up and down America’s West coast where the weather is moderate, into the mid-elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and through coastal British Columbia.

Bigleaf maples turn yellow, gold and brown in the Fall as they cease food production and lose their chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment that green plants use to make energy from light. The same reduction in daylight hours that has me complaining prompts these trees to make layers of strong cells at the junction of each leaf stem and twig. The thicker cells allow weaker cells above them to break, severing the leaf from its home. The prodigious effort of food production that occupied the tree for the last six months or so is over; thousands of frail factories are floating down to the ground to gradually decompose. The process has its own intricacies; if you’re so inclined, here’s a study to about the mathematics of leaf decay from MIT.

Each spring before the leaves get started, male and female flowers share space on pretty, pendulous cascades that hang from branch tips. If there aren’t many other flowers out, the bees that visit Bigleaf maple flowers for nectar will produce a hauntingly fragrant honey. Last year I bought Bigleaf maple honey from a vendor at a farmers market and I savored every last drop until it was gone. I have to wait for another spring when I might be lucky enough to find it for sale again.

The flowers turn into winged maple seeds that ripen in the fall and are carried away by the wind for months afterwards to germinate in a moist, partially shaded spot when the time is right. A cut stem will sprout readily too. The little saplings are munched by deer and elk, birds and rodents eat the seeds, and various parts of the tree host a variety of insect life. Humans make use of the wood for furniture, veneers, musical instruments, crafts, pulp, and firewood.

The Bigleaf maple is an epiphyte paradise, gracefully supporting moss, lichens and ferns in great abundance. One study found that the trees carry an average of 78 ponds (35.5kg) of epiphyte biomass. They can actually grow small roots along epiphyte-covered branches to burrow into the rich substrate for nutrients captured from the atmosphere by the various epiphytes. Bits and pieces are always falling to the ground, enriching the soil.

These trees can live to be 300 – nothing compared to an ancient redwood, but an impressive number of seasons on earth. A photo of the biggest Bigleaf maple tree in the U.S. can be seen here. A person standing next to it makes the scale clear.

And here’s a photo of me holding an impressive leaf on a Bigleaf maple tree in July, 2012.

12. A BIG leaf.

70 comments

  1. Lovely to see a slightly different view of autumn Lynn. As you say, in photography (and in many other areas of life too) we have to seize the opportunities when they present themselves – we rarely get offered second chances…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve made many beautiful photographs with leaves, and you teach me to look carefully and go slowly. #4 was processed after most of the others, beginning with a color infrared, I think – it definitely began a bit further away from the original. I need to do that more often. There are a few people who could pick me out from that last photo. My son, for instance. πŸ˜‰

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  2. your photos are as wonderful as ever. The maple is my favorite tree, it’s also the tree of “The Dog and the Baby”, it’s the tree I planted where I buried my Dog; is a mountain maple, typical of the Italian Alps. I was very moved to see your post.Can I make an illustration inspired by one of your photos?

    Liked by 1 person

    • πŸ™‚ How good of you to compliment that segue, Steve. Maybe let’s think of “old” this time as an attainment to be appreciated, by oneself and perhaps by others. In that respect, I’m OK with being old. But I appreciate your effort to keep me young and to add a nice aura to my photographs.. πŸ˜‰

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    • One thing I see about #2 and #10 is that they both include an odd leaf of a different color – the orangish bit of Redcedar leaf on the right in #2 and the little green leaf on the left in #10. But maybe you focused on something else or nothing in particular. In any case, I’m glad you like the images. Yes, that leaf was fantastically big! The photo was made when this tree was still pretty new to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • To be honest, I can’t say I had really analysed the content. I think I go more with an intuitive initial reaction. Looking again, I can say that I’m drawn by the textures and composition.

        Looking from left to right in #10 there is a clear progression from leaf form, with the realtively intact leaf with its prominent veins, to increasing stages of leaf formlessness as the leaves transition into a more amorphous pulp. Symbolic of decay and impermanence. πŸ™

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    • Something I see a lot here that I don’t remember seeing much in the east is those “shadows” of leaves, like prints, that are left on sidewalks even after the leaf itself blows away. Sometimes they persist for months. Do you see that where you are? I’m glad a certain someone took that last photo as I was playing around – it does illustrate the size pretty well, right? πŸ˜‰

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      • When my neighborhood was built many of the big old oaks were left in place, miraculously, and over the ensuing 50 years many other trees were planted. I’ve noticed that we have a lot less wind and higher moisture levels than outside the neighborhood, and so when it rains and leaves fall to the sidewalk, the conditions seem to be right to create these after-images.
        I’m glad, too, both for the “certain someone” and for the cool picture! πŸ˜‰

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    • Thank you, Alison….you never know what you’re going to find, and often, you don’t know what something might evolve into. We were just up your way, visiting the Museum of Anthropology and taking a walk through the botanical garden with someone who works there – a very quick trip or I would have gotten in touch. The rain held off, yea!

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  3. I have a hands-down favorite this time, and it’s #4. Love those colors and the composition. Close seconds are #s 6 and 7, the first mostly for point of view, the second for its glowy look. You talked about big-leaf maples in earlier posts, but I never appreciated just how big those leaves are until seeing one beneath your hand. It’s huge! (The leaf; not your hand.) Oops, just noticed that Melissabluefineart said “huge,” also. Oh, well, that just makes two of us. Thanks for that illustration, and thanks for all the other information.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting that you choose that one, which, other than the black and white, was changed more than the rest of them. I was happy with what happened there too. I think I began with a color infrared effect. Interesting too that you and Melissa both remembered this tree but said you hadn’t realized how big the leaves really are – nothing like getting a human in there, right? πŸ˜‰ Glad you enjoyed the post, Linda…thank you. πŸ™‚

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  4. Oh yes, I like these images – and I take your point about those leaves crushed by cars, but the images are still beautiful. And its very good to at long last see some sort of picture of you, albeit incognito!!! A πŸ™‚

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  5. I love these leaf pictures. Patterns by chance – the result of wind and rain and air currents. The leaves land and create their own compositions. I have been doing much the same this autumn but on pedestrian paths.

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    • Chance is a good partner, isn’t it? I’ve enjoyed the way leaves fall too, especially those that are caught midway down by a branch and hang there until they’re moved again. But I hadn’t really looked that carefully at the leaves that get run over before. πŸ™‚ Thanks Andy, I’m glad you like the photos.

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  6. Nr. #1-5, 9+10 are very beautiful. To me, especially the first one, looks like stars in the sky (do you really say starry sky?)! Leave-stars πŸ™‚ The mixture of pattern, the ground and transitoriness is very appealing, because the pattern or structure of the ground fits so perfectly to the leaves. I am so glad you went back and took the chance! I think I haven’t ever seen this combination of leaves fading on a street like this. So very well captured from your special view on things! The fallen leaves are a wonderful kind of carpet which I see here too, though I find it difficult to make pictures of it. I love the glow in Nr. 8, which is a bit mystic and so autumlike (I wanted to write glue, haha!). Nr. 11 is fantastic again with the small needles that complement the mapleleaves perfectly πŸ™‚ By the way Bigmapleleaf! That is incredible! Wow, what a size! You can eat from them, right πŸ˜‰ Beautiful. PS: I hope you get the tasty honey again – sounds so good πŸ™‚

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    • We do say starry sky. πŸ™‚ I guess it’s kind of funny, isn’t it? I like your idea, but it would be leaf-stars, otherwise, they would be left behind. πŸ˜‰
      Maybe it’s unusual to see leaves crushed just like this because there isn’t much traffic on that road and cars go very slowly. On a normal road maybe they just disappear quickly. I never thought about it, but now you’ve made me wonder.
      You say you find it difficult to photograph the carpet of leaves, but I really like the way you photograph them. It’s quite different from this way. Th difference must be at least partly because the leaves themselves are different, and they look different when they fall. And also because of the unique way we each see the world, right?
      I’m glad you pointed out the autumnal glow in #8 – I like that, too. I might have reduced the clarity a little there – I don’t remember. I noticed the needles, too – their orange color jumps out and they have a nice look themselves, even though they are so common that normally I don’t think about them – or I’m annoyed with them because let me tell you, they are everywhere! πŸ˜‰ And the stems of these leaves have a beautiful pinkish-red color. Yes, you could eat from the leaves. The books say the leaves can get as big as dinner plates, but I thought this one was bigger. It was fun to play with it. The honey has a subtle, really beautiful taste. From what I understand, the availability of Bigleaf maple honey depends on what other flowers are out at the same time, which varies a little from year to year. If stronger-tasting flowers bloom at the same time then the honey would not have the subtle Bigleaf maple taste. Thanks Almuth, and have a good week! πŸ™‚

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      • Starry sky sounds strange in my ears. Like I am staring in the sky πŸ˜‰ Okay, leaf-stars, haha! – Your are probably right and the leaves would disappear quickly on a normal road. So coincidence was playing in your hands. – I like the orange needles. They are the icing on the cake πŸ™‚ Not for you of course. Everywhere, I can’t imagine it πŸ˜‰ – I didn’t think about the effect from the different leaves falling differently! You may be right. But then I think you used manual settings? I find it hard to photograph them without sun!
        I wish you a good week too. I will write to you next week!

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        • πŸ™‚ So many things…the orange needles land on everything because Douglas firs are extremely common here, and I guess this is the time of year that they drop some needles to make way for new ones in the spring. They can be irritating when they are on a mushroom you’re photographing because the color and shape are strong and draw the eye away from the mushroom. I’m sure you understand. πŸ™‚ When I said the leaves look different when they fall I guess I really meant that the whole forest looks different. The quality of the light also seems different in your photos. I think it’s a little darker here for some reason – the trees here are very, very tall – maybe that’s why. Even in sunlight here, since there is less open space because of so many tall trees, there is less light? You will just have to come over and investigate for yourself. πŸ˜‰ As for camera settings, I have to photograph in low light a lot these days. The manual setting I use most is probably a wider aperture, which brings more light to the camera but doesn’t keep everything in focus.

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        • I can see what you say about the needles and their color. I like them, probably because they are uncommon for me πŸ˜‰
          You told me of the dark fir woods. They are green through the whole year, right? Here many trees have lost their leaves already, some still have them. The wood is not so dark, but of course, when the weather is like nowadays grey and foggy, there isn’t much light either. But I believe you that our woods are different. I really have to find out for myself πŸ™‚ I think th manual settings make a big difference with the low light now. That is what is “bothering” me at the moment, that I can’t take pictures with automatic adjustments right now. Or not the kind of pictures I would like to make. But I can enjoy your photos πŸ™‚

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        • Yes, the dominant conifer trees, Douglas fir and Western Redcedar, are green all year. Most forests around here don’t have very many deciduous trees. There are some, but it’s a small percentage, so in winter it’s especailly dark under those trees. The mushrooms like it though! There must be some adjustments you can make on the camera that will help. When I first moved here I found the darkness difficult and didn’t like it but I’ve gotten used to it. With my camera, digital noise can be a problem in low light, but it can be removed, up to a point. For now, I know you’re busy making things to sell but I think the ideas you have about the kinds of photographs you want to take will percolate in the background, and when the time is right you’ll find a way. πŸ™‚

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  7. These images reveal the wonderful details that go unnoticed by our eyes every day.
    Some are authentic paintings of nature, its shapes and textures.
    Thank you so much for sharing such beautiful photos, your knowledge of nature and your look at the colors and beauties of the fall that surrounds us.
    I wish you a nice week!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t really think of that, but now that you mention it, it’s like an extra bonus. Odd little phenomena like this are always around us – we just have to be open to seeing them and taking advantage of the possibilities. Thanks for commenting, Alex, and have a good week!

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  8. Hi Lynn – I’m really taken with your post, one of most interesting ones of 2019. This has reminded me of exhibitions where the artist was expressing, or preoccupied, or absorbed (not sure what term to use) by death, disintegration, and decomposition. Sometimes I cannot get past the instinct to shrink from their works, or be repulsed, as you said – especially when installations incorporate bones, blood, taxidermied animals in poses, decaying meat, etc. Or, as with a display I saw in an old greenhouse, where the artist had applied urine to metal plates, and presented us with vivid patterns of oxidation and corrosion – – interesting, but seemed trivial. Other times, just as in a beautiful old burying ground, or a picturesque ruin, or the weathered wood or stone that you’ve sometimes photographed – seeing it is a great, positive experience, and without any conscious effort, helps puts us in a contemplative mood.
    Well, that’s a very long preamble to say that I enjoyed this post very much. It really did remind me of a poem we learned in school, that began with fall leaves β€œβ€¦the leaves dead/Are driven…Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red…” These images you’ve presented here are just great. The melancholy wreath in #4, the faint embossed patterns in #5, β€œthe party’s over” atmosphere in 6-8. I read that a sugar maple usually carries an acre of leaves, and when you’re raking them all up, and dragging them to the compost heap, you believe it, it feels like an acre’s worth – – and then by spring, almost all that mass of stuff has almost completely disappeared. Poof. Seeing these rich colors and shapes fade away – – skeletonized, translucent, colorless, or just plain squashed and dirty, is kind of hard to accept, but when you can visualize this enriching the soil, and with no effort, you can just dig your fingers into soft loam, full of humus, from all the decayed leaves, it makes it easier to wait for spring. (Even though in Wisconsin, winter showed up early! 😊 )

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    • I think I caught you in a very receptive mood, Robert, and that’s lucky for me because your associations are so interesting. I too have been repulsed, bored and inspired by different artworks or objects that are in the process of decaying, all depending on the circumstances, and in the case of art, the skill of the artist. Lots of work is done for a quick shock these days with little lasting effect – just another clever idea for the Insta account. πŸ˜‰
      The words you use to describe the photos bring another level of insight (“the party’s over atmosphere”). Thank you for that. πŸ™‚
      It’s so difficult to be cognizant of the soil and what’s going on there – out of sight, out of mind. Here’s to digging our hands into the rich, loamy soil and smelling that life-giving aroma….but not for many months!

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  9. I finally got here to read one of your recent posts. I’m so glad you photographed the smashed leaves. They do remind me of lithographs and other graphic depictions. Lovely in their own way, and I like the visual comparison you provided to the ones that had fallen elsewhere.
    I didn’t know there is sometimes Big Leaf Maple honey. I’ll be sure to purchase some if I run across it in the area. It would be fun to try — especially now that I know it’s an intermittent availability.

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  10. These are some of my favorites among your photographs. They’re not only visually pleasing, they evoke one of the best aspects of autumn for me: the fragrance of wet leaves. While I hardly can recall the fragrance of northern flowers like lilacs, I can bring up the scent of decaying leaves in a moment, and it always makes me happy. Numbers 6, 7, and 8 are especially pleasing in that respect.

    I’ve always enjoyed the leaf ‘shadows’ that appear on wood, too, and skeletonized leaves. That probably explains why I find your willingness to ‘traffic’ in leaves so appealing — it’s a new approach to an old, old process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How interesting that these evoked that smell! I’m glad.
      I guess all of us with a keen visual/graphic sense and deep appreciation for nature will see lots of possibilities in leaf shapes, in their various stages and guises. Skeletonized, shadows and the lot. πŸ˜‰ Good pun! Thank you so much. πŸ™‚

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  11. What really gets to me is that the structure of the pavement has become visible ‘through’ the leaves.. Your words ‘translucent’ and ‘skeletonized’ are very well chosen. They have become a print of the living leafs they once were.. the soul has left the matter. Thank you, Lynn.

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  12. Every single one! These are wonderful, Lynn. Such great visions and a fine way to make decomposition beautiful. I know what you mean by hesitating to shoot these images but it is our good fortune that you did. Such a fine collection. The textures and lighting are so pleasing. I think they should be lining a hallway somewhere.

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  13. I’ m so happy you didn’t turn away from those beautifully deconstructed leaves. Your photos are very special beauties, dear Lynn, kind of typically yours and quite different from the usual pictures of autumn leaves.
    The Bigleaf Maple is really impressing, I don’t think I ever saw a tree with such large leaves in nature. You are lucky to have such interesting nature around your place – but nature is always interesting, no matter where you live – one just doesn’t appreciate what one is accustomed to too often.
    Thank you for this great post again, dear Lynn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe there are trees with equally huge leaves in the tropics, but I doubt there are any in temperate zones. It’s true, nature is always interesting, but it’s a little easier to see that around here, probably even for folks who have lived here all their lives. Thank you for your comment, Ule….yours are always appreciated.

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  14. Love seeing you hiding behind the big leaf maple. Seems I’ve finally found some moments to start doing some catching up. I’m SO VERY HAPPY not to have missed this post. I’m sure you know how I love this amazing Dr Seuss tree! πŸ˜€
    Oh, and yes, the trampled leaves give them a distinct pattern. Not to be scoffed at because the poor things have been badly abused. πŸ˜‰

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    • Yes, I know you love Bigleaf maples, so this is a different take on them, right? I’m pleased that you got around to seeing the post – I can imagine your inbox is pretty crowded. Don’t worry, you’ll catch up in due time.

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  15. Luckily I’ve managed to keep the ‘ins’ within manageable levels. It’s mostly LR giving me fits… if I thought software could get dementia this would be it! LR is indicating that the stuff from the second half of our SW trip is there, but if I try to select (or even delete), it tells me it can’t find the files. The recovery from the head cold isn’t helping matters since it’s made my head all fuzzy… it could have been some stupid thing I did that screwed things up so badly. I will likely reset the computer to a time before it got so messed up, but I’ve been doing an additional backup of images I for sure don’t want to lose. It just takes TIME!!! 😦 If I could find some uninterrupted days when the mind is paying attention, I might get it figured out !!! πŸ˜€ I think I’m only a couple of weeks behind now.

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