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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Changing seasons under a gingko tree

By Dick Hirsch

I am very fortunate to have my own personal indicator that reports the arrival of fall. In our climate, the seasons typically evolve from one to the other at their own pace, often frustrating those residents who, in the fall, wish to know precisely when to pack away the Bermuda shorts and put the heavy gear into service.

The calendar offers its traditional explanation of the beginning of each of the four seasons, but those provide generalized information, the same that has been dispensed for centuries, rather than specific data relevant to current conditions. Sometimes seasons linger far longer than predicted and other times they vanish far earlier than expected.

Fall is tricky. Where I live, people start buttoning up as the days grow shorter. But they never really are sure. This year we had a few November days that mimicked mid-summer; on those days I checked the temperatures in Savannah, Louisville and Raleigh and we were as warm or warmer than those places.

Just the opposite is true in the spring. Winter persists. Who wants to pack away the mackinaw when there is still the risk of flurries and freezing weather? There are many people, and I suppose I am one of them, who are reluctant to cling to the dictates of the calendar. They prefer some definite information, a signal, that the season has changed and it is time to change clothes and seasonal behavior.

I receive such a signal each year and on the day that signal is received I become secure in the knoeledge that fall has arrived. I don’t accept the arrival of fall with concern. It is a beautiful season and its arrival is heralded at my house in a very emphatic manner. I receive the authentic news from the gingko tree.

The gingko is the most elegant tree in the backyard. It is a native of China, but its seeds long ago were dispersed widely and we are lucky to have one. When it comes to appearance, it has a mind of its own. It sends limbs out this way and that in a seemingly unplanned fashion. Sometimes the limbs, some gnarled and twisted, converge and intertwine. It is a resilient and sturdy tree that for years has withstood the sometimes brutal assaults of unseasonable snowfall or unexpected high winds.

Once you see the leaves of a gingko tree, you are not likely to forget them. They are large and fan-shaped, about two to three inches wide. In the spring the leaves emerge very slowly, still fan shaped but tiny, just a size or two larger than microscopic. Through the summer the tree flourishes and is loaded with foliage of a deep green.

As I look out the window at this moment, the gingko is absolutely barren. And that status is the important part of the gingko personality and this story.

Unlike most of the trees of the forest with which we are familiar, the gingko does not reluctantly shed its leaves, dropping a few last week, a few additional this week, with still more scheduled for the future.

No, that’s not the gingko’s way. The gingko drops all of its leaves very quickly in a blizzard of green, usually in one day, sometimes with a few stragglers the second day. The dropping is like a sprint, evolving quickly; it is unannounced and not predicted on any calendar or any botany manual. But it is a rare sight.

I almost missed it this year, but my wife, Lynn, noticed a few leaves dropping and immediately summoned me to watch. I was in the shower but this is a sight available for viewing just once a year so I grabbed a towel and hurried to the nearest vantage point. The leaf drop, intermittent at first, quickly reached a heavy volume and continued for about an hour. It’s a hypnotic sight. The ground beneath the tree, which is a tall and burly specimen, was totally covered with those uniquely sculptured leaves. I was pleased to be a witness.

That is my personal signal of the arrival of fall. Message received. With the gingko, I need not study the almanac, or accept as fact the traditional seasonal rites of the calendar. There is no need to rely on the predictions of meteorologists. The tree is barren; that’s it. I have stashed away the Bermudas and resurrected the flannels and the sweaters from the closet. It’s fall. My gingko tree told me.


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