The breeze was cool, bracing, a stark contrast to the sun on that autumn day, beams of heat blasting through the treetops and warming me intermittently as we walked through the forest. The wide path through the trees was hemmed on both sides by poplar and tamarack trees, woven together with that typically thick, prickly, impenetrable underbrush that Alberta was famous for. The grass underfoot was well trod, as it would be at this time of year after a summer of people walking all over it.
I slowed my pace and let Finn get a few strides ahead of me. He was lost in his own little world, swinging a tree branch and gazing up into the trees overhead. Passing under a sunbeam, his fine blonde hair turned golden and warm for a moment, framed by his lime green jacket, before fading into shadows again.
A few steps later he looked back towards me, pushed his glasses up his nose, and said, “Daddy?”
“Why are the leaves turning colors?”
He watched me intently as I looked up at the trees as well. It was still late summer, and fall wasn’t fully upon us yet, but already some of the trees were trading their greens for yellows and reds and oranges. The amber sunlight only exacerbated the change in color, rays of light coming in at an angle, even in midday now.
“Because it’s fall,” I said. “Every fall the leafy trees change color.”
“I know that,” he said with all the impatience of a five-year-old, “but I want to know why they change colors.”
My mind searched about for a moment. I know the technical answer, decreased sunlight triggering a response in plants, blah blah blah. Hardly exciting, though. So I searched for a different, more fun answer, and one came to mind right away.
“You remember the museum this summer, when we learned about dinosaurs?”
Finn nodded his head.
“And remember how that lady told us that there were no flowers when the dinosaurs were on the earth, only green plants?”
“Daddy, just tell me why, please!”
“I’m getting there.” I reached down and extended my hand to him, and he grasped it reflexively. “So, there never used to be any flowers, right?”
“Well, one day, a plant was born that COULD grow flowers. Maybe they were little flowers at first, small ones the size of your pinky finger, but eventually a whole bunch of plants learned how to make flowers, bigger and more beautiful than anything else that grew on the earth.
In the beginning, the trees were fine with that. A couple flowers here, a few more somewhere else, but the world was still a very green place. Then, over time, there were more and more flowers, whole fields and gardens full of nothing but flowers with all of their bright, beautiful colors.
Well, the trees became jealous of the flowers. They wanted to be the biggest, most beautiful things on earth. But they were always green, never changing, and when you have too much of the same thing for hundreds and thousands of years, you begin to lose track of just how beautiful it truly can be. Do you know what I mean, bud?”
“Uh huh,” Finn replied. “It’s like eating the same cereal every morning, eventually my tongue gets bored of tasting it.”
“That’s exactly it. So the trees all talked to each other, whispering plans and ideas to each other. Some thought about making flowers of their own that were bigger than anything the smaller plants could make. Some thought about growing bigger and wilder, enough to swallow up all of the sunlight so that the flowers wouldn’t be able to grow any more.
Then the maple tree had an idea. What if they turned all of their green leaves a bright color, like the flowers did? They couldn’t do it all summer long or the trees wouldn’t be able to survive and grow and feed the dinosaurs and other animals that counted on them for food. And they couldn’t do it in the winter, when all the leaves froze and dropped down off of the trees. But they COULD take a little time, right before winter came around, to change the whole world from green to red and yellow and orange, a more amazing display than any flower ever put on.
Now, some trees didn’t like this idea; the prickly pines and old spruces preferred to stay green, and since they mostly stood on their own away from the other trees, they were left to do whatever they wanted. And some trees that grew in warm places, like the jungle, never lost their leaves in the winter, and they decided to just stay green all year long, but would grow bigger and spread wider than any tree had ever dared to before.
But the rest of the trees, they all got together and decided to change color together, to be even more beautiful than the flowers. All the birches, the poplars, the maples, the lindens, the oaks and the chestnuts, and all the other trees you have never heard of, all decided to change their colors together, to try and be more beautiful than the flowers that grow all summer long.”
Finn thought for a moment and then looked up at me. “Is that a true story, daddy?”
“That’s a true story, bud,” I said.
He thought for another long moment. His little hand in mine was warm and small, and finally big enough to hold onto as opposed to just having him hold my fingers. When had he got so big, so smart to ask questions and understand long, complicated answers? Where had the years gone?
He sighed. “That was a good story, I think.”
“I think so too, bud. Now let’s go and see what we can find today.”
Jayson Merryfield is an accountant, photographer, writer, speed skater, podcast enthusiast, camper extraordinaire, father to two boys, and husband to a very patient wife. Not necessarily in that order.