Friday, October 11, 2013

Closing Time: Chestnuts and Mountain Ash

Horse chestnuts were always a harbinger of autumn.

At about the same time that the pomegranates began to appear in little neighborhood groceries the ground began to be littered here and there with beautiful shiny brown asymmetrically round lumps with a white face on one edge.

It had taken some cold and some wind to split the green spiked husks that had been the protectors of those nuts since the first warmth of late spring.

Legend had it that if you ate one of those nuts you would die because they were poisonous. In spite of that legend their popularity with children was universal. They were so shiny and pretty that everybody collected them. They were always a disappointment because the shininess never lasted and they were soon dried out drab and dull shadows of their immediate fallen-off-the-tree glory.

About all they were good for then was to have their nut contents removed from their shell and to have some kind of hollow tube attached to that shell turning it into a play pipe.

Mostly they ended up back on the street to be smashed to pulp by oncoming cars and washed away in the autumn rains. Some remained un-smashed and cast aside, became long lived, blackened reminders of the season gone.

But for a day or two they had been shiny brown jewels to be treasured by kids who had felt a sense of awe at the beauty of nature and who had instinctively wanted to possess some of that beauty.

Sadly, that beauty quickly proved to be brief and fleeting.

But the beautiful shiny brown nuts of the first cold days of Autumn had not just appeared from nothing.

The beauty of that brown shiny shower of nuts in the fall had been the result of another burst of beauty in the early spring. Horse chestnuts have a palmate fan of five leaves. The leaves as individuals are beautiful. They are shaped like a feather, except, unlike a feather, they are symmetrical with both sides of the spine having the same size and shape. In the early spring these feathers emerge in lacy light green clusters all over the tree. They each gradually unfold from within a sticky and shiny protectively coated bud. For a brief period they look like a vast array of little palm trees gradually appearing from nowhere, spread evenly over the superstructure of the winter dead gray branches.

By the time the leaves have spread out and grown to their full size and have become a darker green, changing from looking like tiny palm trees to looking like serrated green fans, a new burst of beauty appears. Thrusting upward from fan bedecked stems, like the pointed tipped tubes of the old bubble Christmas tree lights, there appear not only beauty, but magic. At first they are just little points emerging at the up thrust end of every stem. Soon they show their serious intent to become something bigger, something significant. But they wait a little while to show their true intent. Suddenly on a sunny morning the entire tree is alive with Christmas tree shaped tips on each stem. Except instead of being green they are glorious bursts of creamy white flowers with dark rosy colored throats. They looked like living versions of Tai princess rings. And soon they will be alive with visitors: bees and hummingbirds love them.

In almost no time the flowers disappear leaving in their stead Christmas tree – or Tai princess ring - shaped masses of little round green nubbins. Through the warmth of the summer the leaves continue to darken and the nubbins become golf ball sized and then bigger; and the little protrusions that had been on the nubbins become identifiable spikes.

And then as summer wanes the day comes when fall has arrived. It can be seen in the angle of the sun; it can be felt in the incipient chill of the air; it can be sensed for no obvious reason at all. It just is. And one knows it when it is so.

And the horse chestnut trees know.

And their leaves turn yellow.

And their leaves begin to fall.

And then on an especially chilly night the wind rises and the husks split and the shiny brown gems fall in cascades to the ground and children pick some up.

The rest are pushed around in the piles of leaves being raked and burned.

And some are charred.

And some escape, having been left behind by the flexible tines of the rake.

And those that remain are ground to meal by passing and parking cars.

And then the rain, which begins to torrent, washes the meal down the gutters into the drains and out of sight.

It is as if they never existed.

But they did exist.

And the trees remember them. And as those trees present their barren winter gray trunks to the icy winds of winter they are already preparing for that glorious spring day when the cycle begins yet again.

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