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By Cookie Murphy/Pettee

This past August, as the bright green leaves on the aspen trees in my front yard started to fade, I knew, as all of us in Colorado knew, that fall was about to arrive. The subtle beginning of this change awakened in me the anticipation of my upcoming sixth season of color change.

Anyone who attempts to write about fall color hopes to uniquely and perfectly describe the sights and feelings ushered in by this particular change of seasons. Some photographers capture this phenomenon visually, from close-ups of individual trees and their leaves to panoramic spreads of whole stands of aspen, across the expanse of the Flat Top Mountains or the lower elevations of the Sawatch Range, here in Colorado. Whether the landscaped row of aspen trees in my front yard – which I have tried, not very successfully, to photograph as they move through the phases of transformation – or the broad hillsides behind the community of Edwards, or the serene setting of Sweetwater Lake, no photo seems to hold the glow emanating from the contrasts of the deep green pine and spruce often surrounding the aspen, against the rust and orange of the scrub oak, and the brilliant yellows, golds and oranges of the various aspen colonies – altogether appearing like a thrown quilt.

I live on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains – but could be anywhere in the high country – experiencing explosions of joy at seeing the aspen and scrub oak change color, covering the hills and mountains with their patterns of contrast; followed by the cottonwoods along stream and river beds, with their warmer, duskier, soft gold. Over this all too brief, almost fragile, three-maybe-four-week season, we all hope to find the time to view every favorite spot. Then that first frost comes, and we know the colors will darken and fade, and the leaves blow away. We must await next year. The landscape will change to soft, dull browns until the gray skies and snow arrive.

In a seeming instant, all of the color vanishes. And while my environment remains beautiful – red hills covered with green chaparral, the Eagle River in sight from my deck, the tall spruce and pine in my yard ever green – the oncoming drabness requires me to work harder to smile and greet people with grace or courtesy. The sky is darkening by 4 p.m. and I feel like hibernating with the bears and skunks.

As opposed to the elms and maples that decorate the fall of the Eastern Seaboard, in the high elevations of Colorado, the predominant draw for tourist “leaf peepers” are the “Quaking” aspen. CDOT, our State Dept. of Transportation, is so concerned that drivers will veer off the I-70 Interstate at 80 miles an hour while craning for a look, that last year the large digital signs dotting this freeway advised: “For best foliage viewing, use vista pull-offs or visit mountain towns.” I understand why the post is necessary, for it is impossible not to turn for a look and then hold your breath for a moment at the sheer delight. This past fall I was so pleased when a good friend visited from the Bay Area and we drove up to the “mountain town” of Leadville, primarily for the spectacular views at almost every turn along winding, two-lane Highway 24.

One of the most stunningly beautiful places along this route is the valley that once housed Camp Hale, the World War II Alpine training ground where American soldiers learned to fight in Alp-like conditions, preparing to go to northern Italy: the famous 10th Mountain Division. Now the site is part of the White River Forest; all of the structures gone, save a few barracks foundations. It seems ironic that while this broad valley, set between fairly high mountainsides, offers some of the best contrasts of yellow-gold aspen colonies scattered throughout green pine, all of the armament originally housed there has left asbestos in the soil of the valley floor. The beauty also contrasts with the fact that German prisoners-of-war here were required to be laborers – in winter.

None of this history prevented me from basking in the surrounding Autumn beauty when we pulled off the road and took it all in. And I am glad that Camp Hale will never be developed again, but will remain such a treasure.

Contributing to the visceral experience of the yellow-gold is the fluttering of the aspen leaves in the slightest breeze. This attribute is the result of the leaves’ attachment to their branches. They are connected via a long flattened petiole, so the movement of each leaf creates the impression of the overall tree quaking or trembling, leading to the common moniker, “Quaking” aspen. This visual – and aural effect, if you are standing in a colony – is amplified when the sun is shining, reflecting the yellow, gold or orange of the trembling leaves.

I experienced a variation of “Quaking” aspen several years ago in Utah. My daughter’s doctoral research site was near the top of Cedar Mountain in south-central Utah. One day while she was out monitoring her work, I stayed alone at the researchers’ campsite. Having spent the night in a sheepherder camp wagon – a new experience for me, as was this whole setting, for I then lived in the Bay Area of California – I was sitting in a low camp chair trying to write. No other people were around, just my daughter’s blue heeler, Jill. It was a quiet, early summer day so the aspen leaves were still green, and I was surrounded by a small colony. A breeze came up, creating a humming, musical sound in the fluttering leaves. The music caught my attention enough that I stopped writing and watched the show of “Quaking,” becoming mesmerized and nearly breathless by the combination of sight and sound.

More recently on a trip back to the Bay Area, where I lived for almost 40 years, I had a similar reaction to color and texture. When I walked into my favorite produce vendor, Monterey Market on Hopkins Street in Berkeley, I gasped, but this time at the beauty of the selections of tomatoes, apples, potatoes, onions, five kinds of eggplant, a dozen varieties of mushrooms, large wooden bins full of organic Fuyu persimmons. Strolling around, I basked in the colors and smells and bustling of the market on a Wednesday afternoon. I took almost no photos of people on this trip; but I snapped about ten at Monterey Market. I must have looked a bit like a tourist at the Vatican gazing up at the Michelangelo frescoes, and the visceral transport into this environment was much like being engulfed by the aspen.

If the aspen can leave me breathless, then it was no surprise that being surrounded by this bounty of luscious – and edible – color and texture, was wonderfully overwhelming, sensually: vision, smells, touch.

As my mood elevated, I realized how much I miss not just the ease of access compared to where I now live, but also the quality of choice, in a similar way to how I miss the temporary burst of color each fall in Colorado when it is over.

There is also science behind our attraction to Fall foliage. Color Psychology is the study of hues as a determinant of human behavior. We all have our favorite color, and colors influence perceptions. For example, red is applied widely – in art, in marketing – to represent hearts and passion. However, these effects differ between people. Factors such as gender, age and culture can influence how an individual perceives color. In some cultures, black is the primary color surrounding death and grief, where in others it is white.

The general model of Color Psychology relies on a few basic principles. Color can carry a specific meaning, which can be learned or, possibly, innate. Our response to color is usually spontaneous – my gasp at these golden, fluttering trees. And the principle that makes such deep sense to me is that our perception of a color causes instant, unthinking evaluation, leading us to respond almost immediately to whatever that perception might be.

It is difficult to find much research about the effects of autumn leaf colors on our psyches. But two academics, Jason Brunt (Biola University, CA) and Michelle Harris (William James College, MA), have each studied specifically the effects of fall foliage. Brunt has postulated that visual contrast grabs our attention from infancy onward and that heavy contrast, saturation and brightness – like the brilliant gold of the aspen – are perceived as pleasantly exciting, particularly the striking temporal contrast in the fall.

And from a perhaps more practical perspective, Harris concluded that an autumn stroll can be an excellent stress reliever, as the positive sensory experience interrupts stress reactions, thus cuing our brains to pay attention to something beautiful instead of to ourselves.

This annual fall “leaf senescence” occurs when the chlorophyll in deciduous trees breaks down as temperatures decline. When the chlorophyll disappears, it reveals the yellow, orange and red carotenoid pigments underneath; pigments that breakdown more slowly, until the leaves eventually turn brown. During the spring growing season, the trees replenish the chlorophyll, thus the new leaves are green again.

The aspen, all medium-sized, deciduous trees reaching 49–98 feet tall, are native to cold regions with cool summers in the Northern Hemisphere, extending south at high altitudes in the mountains. They typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling and spread by means of root suckers, with new stems in the colony appearing at up to 98–131 feet from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived – in some cases, for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. One colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando,” is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspen in the world. Some colonies become very large with time, spreading about three feet per year, eventually covering many acres. A colony above Paonia Reservoir, on the way to Crested Butte, is reputed to be the largest in the world.

If I were to attempt to dig a bit deeper into myself, perhaps the brightness of the aspen – and of my office/writing room – uplifts my spirits as I am nearing my own autumn at 73. And I want to keep that brightness as long as possible. Here’s hoping next fall, and the next after that, will brighten even more. And, that “the world’s oldest performance art” will continue to entrance.

Cookie Murphy/Pettee lives in Gypsum, writing creative non-fiction, proudly serving on the Board of Mtn. Valley Horse Rescue, and working hard to lose 10 pounds by year-end.