Autumn Song

Les sanglots longs

Des violons

De l’automne

Blessent mon coeur

D’une langueur


It was a great day: a sunny, windy, colourful, warm late October day, perfect for flying kites … yet the feel of this poem – Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine – seemed to permeate the air. Autumn is here, the winter is coming. The sparkling rays of the sun bathing the forests and meadows of Planina polje (‘polje is a terminus technicus for a ‘karst field’, a large flat-bottomed depression in a limestone area) are but messengers of long darkness that is just around the corner. When the daylight saving time ends, it will be here. But Nature is a great painter, and her latest exhibition is amazing.

Autumn is a special time in the forest – a time when some really complex and ultimately beautiful biochemical processes begin in the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs.

As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, a layer of cork gradually cuts out the veins of a leaf; the water and its mineral content no longer replenish the cells and the chlorophylls are no longer produced. The chlorophylls break down into colourless tetrapyrroles, and suddenly other pigments begin to shine through: the green curtain is lifted, the xantophylls, other carotenoids, and anthocyanins open their dazzling show.

Xantophylls and carotenoids in general are yellow and orange, and are constantly present in the leaf. When the green mask of the chlorophylls fades, the yellow and orange pigments come to the fore.

Anthocyanins come in all shades of red; they are actively produced during autumn, and are not found in the leaves before. This is connected to phosphate levels and its role in the breakdown of sugars: during the summer the phosphate content is high, but in autumn it moves out of the leaf into the stem of the plant. The sugar-breakdown process changes, the production of anthocyanins begins – and the leaves get their brilliant red and purple colours.

But why? The plant’s idea is to shed the leaves, so why bother; the leaves are somewhat expensive to maintain, and in diminishing light the maintenance costs slowly exceed the benefits of photosynthesis. Yet that’s not the whole story … One theory is that the plants are actively signalling to various harmful insects – such as aphids -. that biochemical processes in the plant are still going strong, among them the production of various chemical defences against the insects. And the aphids understand this: plants with bright red leaves have a lower parasite load!

But whatever the reason, the autumn foliage is spectacular, and the showy leafy trees make the conifers green with envy (or shame). There are few thoings on this planet as marvelously colourful as the deciduous forests in autumn. This Dinaric mixed forest at the edge of Planina polje, photographed from a kite, is no exception.

The poem at the beginning of this post, Autumn Song, has little to do with this spectacle. As if there are two autumns, one full of colour, the other bleak, dark and grey.

When a sighing begins

In the violins

Of the autumn-song,

My heart is drowned

In the slow sound

Languorous and long.

Yet there is something bright in these words of Verlaine, though it’s not due to his poetic genius … On June 1, 1944, the BBC’s Radio Londres broadcast the first three lines of Chanson d’Automne. To the initiated – the SOE and the French Resistance – they meant that Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, will start in two weeks.

The next three lines – Blessent mon coeur … – were broadcast at 23:15 on June 5. It was a call to action: the invasion will begin in 48 hours, start sabotaging, disrupting, attacking.

Then the dawn of June 6, 1944, came. And the rest is history.

All kite aerial photos shot with Nikon P330 on The Sumo Fighter Rokkaku made by Dr.agon kites.

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