Sunday 25 May 2014

Two Ways of Knowing Autumn

[Red phase fagus contrasted against the more common gold] 
One May morning I am walking through the Cascade Gardens wishing I had my camera. The early light through the deciduous trees is highlighting their gold, red and burnished leaves. Around the trunks fallen leaves are piled thickly. The air is still: full of rich, sweet, memory-laden scents. The man resists the boy’s urge to kick and throw the leaves about the garden.

A few mornings later I am walking through the same garden wishing I had my ear muffs. Council workers have driven a truck onto the sloping lawn. There is a huge and noisy machine aboard, with fat hoses – blue and concertinaed – coiling out of it across the lawn. The workers are sucking the garden dry of leaves, raking them into the nozzle of the over-sized vacuum cleaner. There will be no kicking and throwing of leaves today.

* * *

Over the years I have come to imagine that I know autumn. That is I know the chemistry of deciduousness and the role of chlorophyll in leaves. I understand that chlorophyll not only gives leaves their green colouring, but also helps to convert sunlight into sugar. In deciduous trees, as days shorten, that chlorophyll starts to break down and another pigment called anthocyanin starts to predominate. And it’s anthocyanin that gives autumn leaves their colour.

[Brilliant autumn-like colours in snowgum bark are also caused by anthocyanin.]
I also know that with shorter days and lower temperatures, the leaves eventually stop taking up any more nutrients. Their on-tree life ends and they fall to the ground, returning precious materials to the soil. That is something of what I “know” about autumn leaves and deciduousness.

[Fagus at Tarn Shelf in Mt Field National Park]
At the same time I’m aware that the German language has two words for “knowing”: wissen and kennen. The first refers to knowledge about something; the second to a familiarity with a person or place. One is more about facts, the other is more about experience. I find this a useful distinction, though not in an “either/or” fashion. Both facts and familiarity, knowledge and experience, contribute to a deeper knowledge of someone or something.

One kennen part of knowing includes that sweet, evocative smell I experienced among the fallen leaves. It is a knowing that dates back to the time I first experienced autumn. It is the sweetness of memory, of familiarity, of deep experience involving all the senses. It adds to my wissen knowledge that the sweetness of the smell is based on the sugars that are being liberated from the fallen leaves in order to feed the next spring growth. Unless, of course, a vacuum cleaner or a troop of small children has cleared them away.

* * *

While most Australians will have to go a long way to gain kennen knowledge of native Australian deciduous trees, Tasmanians have ready access to Nothofagus gunnii, the deciduous beech, popularly known as fagus.

[A collage of fagus photos from Lake Fenton] 

I have reflected elsewhere here on the significance of fagus Suffice to say it is one of the natural wonders of Tasmania; a phenomenon that never fails to lift my spirit. But this autumn I had only limited opportunity to add to my fagus kennen. Lake Fenton in the Mt Field National Park has probably the most accessible, and lowest altitude, fagus in southern Tasmania: ideal for the time-poor pilgrim.

Around Lake Fenton, in the wet, bleak, thin-soiled boulder fields, is a broad expanse of deciduous beech. For 11 months of the year you would be hard-pressed to find it. Surrounded by eucalypt and pandani woodland, the trees are bare in winter, and green and over-towered in summer. Only for a few weeks in autumn do they glow; a wide, low, golden flame burning through the surrounding green and greys. 

[Fagus dotted through woodland near Lake Fenton]
The best of it is a 10 minute walk from the roadside. We take care on the slippery boulders; pull hats and hoods around us against wind and showers; wait for an abatement in the weather. Despite the conditions, I notice we are smiling the whole time. It may not be the best we have ever seen, but there is still a minor magnificence to it. We pause and gaze for as long as we’ve got. At least we’re certain there will be no vacuum cleaner coming along to interrupt us.

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