Monday, November 19, 2012


There’s a famous quote from a nameless Native American in response to Daylight Savings Time:

Only the white man thinks you can tear a foot off the top of the blanket, sew it to the bottom of the blanket and come away with a bigger blanket.

It’s funny, but I’m not in the laughing mood.

Most people dismiss it as a minor inconvenience, whatever, just a glitch in the calendar.

But there’s a small, burgeoning segment of the population that isn’t fooled.  Growing stronger and more politically acute every day, there is a silent renegade minority that sees Daylight Savings Time for what it really is.


It started a long, long time ago…in the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution…there in the lush and irrigated fields of Mesopotamia…amateur farmers making rows in the shadows of ziggurats…domesticating the cow, befriending the dog, taming the seed, pulling the weed and propagating the tuber…the invention of the Modern Man…since the very cradle of civilization, it’s been an out-and-out war.

Standardized time versus solar time.  The industrialist versus the idle.  The trans-tribal commerce versus the neighborly barter. 

And twice a year, the time-punchers and the day-jobbers score a victory…Daylight Slavings Time.

I don’t want to start trouble…but I’m suspect.  I really don’t like early sunsets perfectly synchronized to quitting time.  I don’t trust that one bit.  I don’t like society and government deciding that sunlight is more productive in the morning than in the afternoon.  And I don’t like big business turning my clock.

That means war.

According to most scholars of the subject, standardized time has been winning the battle ever since the first World War when it was first decreed the law of the land.  It was re-enacted again during the second World War and it gained even more popularity at the same time our society started living to the rhythms of the global financial network, the electronic communication grid, the pocketwatch, and the transportation schedule.

The commuter versus the ambler.  The time-keeper versus the shadow-watcher.  At the desk and on hold or out to lunch and off the grid.  The broker versus the broke.

It’s war, I tell you.

And it really limits the time I have for tree-hunting. 

Just when the getting’s getting good.

That’s why I like to save one pre-approved vacation day for mid-November…some random day of the week…just punch out, boots on, machines off.

It’s called hookey.  It’s easy to do.  I just clock out.

I clock out and I catch me some color.

Some good, raw, primary color…


…humming in the crisp breeze, polished by the blue sky…


…that rustic, quilted pattern of color we call autumn.


What, exactly, is going on out there?

Something very simple, actually.  You just have to rebel against everything you’ve ever been taught your whole life. 

The trees aren’t changing colors.  They’re losing colors.  They’re losing green.

The reds and yellows, the browns and oranges, they’ve been lurking in the leaves the entire time.  We just can’t see them.     

Now that the trees are halting production of the chlorophyll, the other colors are able to shine.

Catch them while you can.

It didn’t take me long to find a stand of good color.

These are ginkgoes, about one block away from my urban cabin, painting the sky above the local Sunoco station.

The ginkgo is sometimes called the maidenhair tree, so named because it resembles the maidenhair fern…but, before I learned that little factoid, I always thought that name was inspired by its golden fall color.


The ginkgo, one of our most curious trees, has some strange autumn behavior.

It seems to lose all of its green overnight…so it’s possible to park your car at the end of the working day under a green ginkgo only to find your car the next morning sitting under this kind of buttery canopy.

The ginkgo also has the peculiar habit of dropping all of its leaves at once.  It’s true.  Maybe one dozen or two dozen leaves will fall first and then whammo…your car will be parked under a completely bare ginkgo tree…and you’ll need to dig out that ice scraper from the bottom of the trunk to wipe away all those golden fans.
For tree-hunters, it becomes a game…trying to predict when, exactly, certain ginkgoes will lose all their leaves.

As I was fueling up my car for the day’s adventure, I made my guess.  These ginkgoes will pull the switch on Wednesday November 28th, the over-under being two days.

I was almost ready to hit the road and catch some color.  Fueling up the car was only the first step.  I didn’t want to have to stop mid-day for food.  Better to fill my own gas tank now.


On my way to the neighborhood coffee shop, I passed under the starry mural of these Japanese maples.

Now, at this time of year, most maples start producing a very acidic sugar, which some believe is a defense mechanism against the dropping temperatures…others claim that the sugar protects the tree from hungry insects.   

We see that sugar as red.

Every kind of tree has a distinct, particular growth pattern.  Certain environmental factors will encourage individual trees to abandon its usual pattern to find the most efficient path to sunlight…or to hide from strong winds…or to survive on the mean streets.  But a healthy tree in a good spot will always revert back to its family tradition and grow in the most efficient pattern…pure machine.

Leaves, too, are meant to be efficient.  The shape of a tree’s leaf, paired up with its particular growth pattern, is supposed to be the most efficient way for the tree to catch as much sunlight as possible. 

You can see that efficiency in action, staring at the sky under a Japanese maple.


Thin, sturdy branches…delicate, toothed leaves…all those crimson stars…stacked up and overlaid…tight as a knit…this is one of the most efficient patterns of leaves out there.  Standing under its color, there’s barely a stretch of sky in between each star.

At the coffee shop, I took a shot of espresso and then picked up a large cup for the road, but I’d need a little more sustenance than that if I wanted to spend a full day catching color.

To the farmers’ market…

…where good color isn’t limited to the surrounding trees…

…winter squashes…their own autumn canopy…and the hardy crop of crucifers.

This isn’t your grandma’s cauliflower…and that strange thingamabob in the lower right corner of the photograph?

That’s called a romanesco.

It’s part of the cauliflower family…a little nuttier, a little sweeter, a whole lot greener and a million times freakier than the familiar cauliflower…those florets grow in a logarithmic, fractal pattern called the Fibonacci spiral.

It’s a spiral pattern seen many times in nature…the arms and radius of the spirals turning to the rhythm of a golden ratio…starting with 0 and 1 and then each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two…0 and 1, then 2 and 3, then 5 and 8, then 13 and 21 and so on and so on until it’s reaching towards infinity...or if you start at the end of the spiral…disappearing into infinity.

This Fibonacci spiral can be seen in sunflowers and pineapples, artichokes and certain pine cones, in nautilus shells and in spiral galaxies…and here, at the farmers’ market, in the romanesco cauliflower.

Look closely at the head of a traditionally white cauliflower and you can see the Fibonacci spiral contorting and unwinding right there in your hands…


I grabbed some cauliflower and some winter squash for the fridge but, for the day, I needed a good stock of apples.

This is your typical variety of western Pennsylvania apples…

…york, cameo, jonagold, fuji, golden delicious, stayman winesap and gala.  This display is missing a few staples, like the macintosh and the granny smith…but I happen to really like the stayman winesap…and the cameo apple?  Well, that was one of the apples used by Cornell University to create the honeycrisp® so I grabbed some of them too, plus a few jugs of cider.

Tank full of gas?  Check.  Coffee?  Check.  Apples?  Roger that.  One more pit-stop at my friend Gina’s farm and I could spend the rest of the day just catching color.

Gina’s farm is located on the outskirts of Philly, off Ridge Avenue in the Roxborough neighborhood.  I decided to take the long way, around the art museum, down Kelly Drive and through Fairmount Park.


In some parts, especially in New England, driving down long and curvy country roads to catch the autumn color, traditionally called leaf peeping, is a lucrative part of a local tourist industry.

There are even seasonal maps, made for tourists, solely designed for leaf peeping.

I suppose, if one made a leaf peeping map for Philadelphia, then it would center around Fairmount Park…Fairmount Park and its main thoroughfare, Kelly Drive.

The tall trees on the upper slope of that hill?  Those are oaks, going brown, vaulting over the creeping understory of sunny Norway maples.

Fall color is one of those distinct characteristics that can help identify a tree.

Brown.  That’s a fall color that says beech…or hornbeam…but mostly oak.

And when I say brown, I’m not talking about dead leaves…or dried leaves…I’m talking about that rich, tawny, tannic brown that smells like a cinnamon and burns like a hearth…the chestnut mare…I’m chasing copper, I’m catching mahogany…


…I’m catching brown in those bronze defenders of the open fields…the autumn oak. 

Most oaks actually keep many of their leaves.  Crispy, dried and sere, most oak leaves have the tendency to stay in the sky all winter long and fall in the spring.

This is called marsescence

Why?  Why keep the leaves?

Some say it’s to block the harsh winter winds…some say it’s a way to deflect the snow…but it’s hard to think that an oak tree needs that kind of protection.  I mean, c’mon?  An oak?

Does it look like an oak tree is going to wimp out during the winter?

More likely, the leaves fall in spring to form a natural compost around the base of the tree, just in time for the new growth and April rains.

Driving around Fairmount Park, I was also able to catch some stunning Norway maples…

…a very common street tree but not one that particularly excites me…except when it burns in the fall…incandescent…lighting up the sapphire sky...


I found a Norway maple right next to a ginkgo tree…both trees in full flare…

…a perfect chance to compare these two different shades of yellow side by side.

From this vantage point, the ginkgo appears more yellowish-green, something I never noticed before.

I was worried about tarrying too long…still lots of color to catch…and I still had to stop by Gina’s farm to pick up more supplies…so it was on the road again, even if it meant that I’d have to wait another day…maybe even another full year…before catching certain colors and trees again.


Gina’s farm, the Urban Girls Produce Farm, is located right on the border of Philadelphia, way in the hinterlands of the Roxborough neighborhood.

Her farm itself was shutting down for the season although Gina was hard at work, building an underground fence of rat-wire around the self-standing walk-in refrigerator to keep the critters away from her storage crops.

Man, that just sounded like too much work for a day-off.

I’d only come to pick up one tool.  I needed a good rake.

I like a good, sturdy rake…with a handle worn down smooth in the right places…


…I need a solid, stout hilt that won’t break from a bad patch of cold ground…I need tough, tight tines that won’t let a good color escape…


…and, before I get roped into measuring and cutting lengths of rat-wire, I needed to take off.

All morning long, I’d been catching some good, primary colors…catching almost every coordinate on the optical light spectrum…with that cloudless blue sky cutting the radiance like a prism…but there was one more color I was determined to catch.

I got my reds and yellows, blues and browns, even my whites and purples...all in the bag for the day…but there is another autumn color out there…much more elusive, much more slippery…its natural habitat well beyond the traditional color wheel…intangible and unnamed…using subtlety as its camouflage…I’m talking about the color of the autumn carpet.

I’m gonna need a bigger rake.


What is the name of this color?

This is, after all, the ultimate fall color…this tawny, rustling patchwork of color that heats our soul in autumn…cozy, crisp, homey and warm…but no name.
I guess the first step is to figure out its composition.  What makes this color?

Well, you got the locust and the sycamore leaves…


…the pine cones and pine needles…


…plus the entire carousel of maple leaves…

…and, if you look close enough, you’ll find some other elements like the sweetgum fruit.

All together, the ingredients of that autumn carpet.

It shows up every year but we have yet to call it by a single name.  Good.  If it’s got no name…if it’s got no number…then it can’t be called in to work.

In the end, that’s a victory for our side…one thing out there, right at our feet, that has yet to be standardized and governed…free as a bandit…that hard to catch, outlaw color.


There are colors out there, citybillies, that have yet to be classified and named and it’s up to us to find and catch them.

It’s not going to happen sitting at the desk locked down to standardized time.

So, I put the rake in the backseat and headed off to where the road becomes a trail…where the wild colors change with every slant of sunlight.

Sorry I can’t take you with me…but, bossman, I’m off the clock…no machines can’t catch me.

I’m punched out, off the grid.

And I’m not going to let those bastards call me lazy.

Even off the clock, there’s still lots and lots of work to be done.

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