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I’m hiking down a trail in the Skegemog wetlands with my buddy Dewey (aka The Scurvy Rascal, aka Scurv, aka Duane, if you’re a stickler for plain first names). Autumn is approaching full blaze in the Traverse City region, and this is a great time for taking to the woods with a camera. An overcast sky can’t suppress the exuberant crimson of these maple leaves, or the bone whiteness of the poplars.

This time of year is a parable of light—light that reveals what has been hidden and creates what was not there. The waning days trigger changes in the chemistry of plants, the results of which play out dramatically across the wooded Michigan hills. A mysterious alchemy occurs as green chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, unmasking the gold of autumn and couching it in an ensemble of red, purple, and orange.

I stop to snap a photo of a maple leaf against its mottled, forest background. Two weeks ago, this leaf was bright green; today it is a revelation of yellow and orange. But nothing is here that was not here all along. Concealed by the leaf’s green pigment, the yellow carotenoids and orange xanthophylls have remained unseen until now, when, for a brief time, they step out of hiding to help create the spectacle of autumn color.

I’m reminded of a verse from the American poet Bliss Carman’s “Vagabond Song”:

“The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry

“Of bugles going by,

“And my lonely spirit thrills

“To see the frosty asters, like smoke upon the hills.”

“The scarlet of the maples.” Yes, that says it well. Some maple trees are so fully cloaked in red that they look as if they had been dipped in a bucket of paint. Unlike the yellow and orange hues, however, the reds and purples of autumn leaves are not a revealing, but a transformation, a product of light interacting with sugars to produce brand new pigments called anthocyanins. They’re what give us the scarlet of the maples and the shocking purple of the asters on the hills.

A single tree, and even a single leaf, is often a crazy quilt of pigments—subtle at first glance; striking at a second look. No artist ever painted a more dazzling masterpiece than the hand that paints the leaves of autumn.

The trail takes Dewey and me into the interior of the swamp, and shortly after, we hit an impasse. Recent rains have flooded the path, and neither of us feels ambitious enough to get his feet wet. It’s time to head back. The day is growing old, and a mug of craft ale at Short’s Brewery in Bellaire is calling. This moody October day has been a paradox of sombre gray and bright colors. Tomorrow will be sunny, transfiguring the leaves with light. And the parade of another Michigan fall will continue in breathtaking sublimity.

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Written by Dave.