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Turning a New Leaf

The story of one man's fall

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My friend Alice and I stood on some boulders overlooking the North Fork of the Santiam River in Oregon. Below us the water pooled, then trickled through a fissure and into the Santiam's whitecapped channel.

Moss, boulders, water, blue skies and treetops bronzed with autumn light—nature looked fine that day. But not as fine as it would in a few weeks, when red, orange and yellow leaves would dapple its green attire. Still, the light was enough to inspire me to recite poetry. My brain, crowded with appointments, lists and papers to grade, got as far as, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...."

Unable to proceed any further down either road, I said, "I can't wait for a cold snap to turn the leaves. Imagine gold, red and orange scattered among the evergreens."

Alice squinted and said, "The cold doesn't turn the leaves; the lack of daylight does."

As an English teacher, I should know better than to dip my toe into the pond of science. It leaves no room to say, "Well, that's my interpretation." Instead, being male I said, "I think you're wrong."

Alice and I had unwittingly entered the land of inane disputes, a realm I inhabit so often I could claim citizenship. One evening a friend and I argued till 2 a.m. over who was the better guitarist, Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana. (I still say Santana, on the basis of Supernatural.) A former girlfriend and I squabbled over the difference between medium rare and rare roast beef. (She said—and I'm not kidding—that medium rare meant red in the middle; I said red equals rare. When I called my mother, who hates conflict, she said: "You both have a point.") Every other week my wife and I argue over her need to clean the house the night before the cleaning lady comes to clean the house.

After a final glance at the amber light crowning the firs, Alice and I trudged to her car in silence. For me, the question of whether cold or light causes the leaves to turn became the guest who wouldn't leave. Walking to the store I would think: leaves. I would read about Tiger Woods and think: leaves. We got a notice for the leaf cleanup on our street and I thought: cold or light? To rake the leaves from my mind, I Googled: leaves turning/cause.

To paraphrase Robert Frost: two notions diverged in the woods, and I chose the one that was...wrong. "The timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily regulated by the calendar, that is, the increasing length of night," I read on a National Forest Service Web site. When I told Alice she was right about leaves, she said, "Oh. I'd forgotten about that."

Who won the first Super Bowl? How many horsepower in the 1965 Mustang? Who wrote "Wichita Lineman"? These are questions a man might ask Alice after losing a debate about leaves, for when a man is wrong, he promptly searches for something to be right about. And I did. While Googling leaves turning/cause, I stumbled across a scholarly paper titled "Cold-Induced Photoinhibition Limits Regeneration of Snow Gum at Tree-Line." The paper provided minutiae that I am storing for the next time Alice and I go hiking. Somewhere on a rocky trail I plan to ask, "Do you know why there's a limit to regeneration of snow gum at the tree line?"

I can just see Alice shaking her head. I can hear her baffled, "What?" I nod yes, and with measured calm explain, "Well, it's because cold-induced photoinhibition limits regeneration of snow gum at the tree line." But first, because Alice asks a lot of questions, I'd better Google snow gum and find out what the heck that is.

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