“Henry David Thoreau simplified his life to understand life. He wanted “to live deep and suck out the marrow of live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.  To him, nature rater than civilization was the repository of life, and living close to nature the means to mine that treasure.” — Adapted from Miriam Levine’s “A Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England.”

“October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.

“I formerly thought that it would be worth the while to get a specimen of leaf from each changing tree, shrub and herbaceous plant when it had acquired its brightest characteristic color, in its transition from the green to the brown state, outline it and copy its color exactly, with paint in a book... I have made but little progress toward such a book, but I have endeavored, instead, to describe all those bright tints in the order of which they present themselves.”

“Thoreau’s Classic Essay on the Colors of Fall”


“EUROPEANS coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage. There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but a few bright colors there. The most that Thomson says on this subject in his “Autumn” is contained in the lines —

‘But see the fading many-so colored woods,

Shade deepening over shade, the country round

Imbrown; a crowded umbrage, dusk and dun,

Of every hue, from wan declining green to sooty dark’:-

and in the line in which he speaks of

‘Autumn beaming o’er the yellow woods.’

“The autumnal change of our woods has not made a deep impression on our own literature yet. October has hardly tinged our poetry.

“A great many, who have spent their lives in cities, and have never chanced to come into the country at this season, have never seen this, the flower, or rather the ripe fruit, of the year. I remember riding with one such citizen, who, though a fortnight too light for the most brilliant tints, was taken by surprise and would not believe that there had been any brighter. He had never heard of this phenomenon before. Not only many in our towns have never witnessed it, but it is scarcely remembered by the majority from year to year.

“Most appear to confound changed leaves with withered ones, as if they were to confound ripe apples with rotten ones. I think that the change to some higher color in a leaf is an evidence that it has arrived at a late and perfect maturity, answering to the maturity of fruits. It is generally the lowest and oldest leaves which change first. But as the perfect winged and usually bright-colored insect is short-lived, so the leaves ripen but to fall.

“Generally, every fruit, on ripening, and just before it falls, when it commences a more independent and individual existence, requiring less nourishment from any source, and that not so much from the earth through its stem as from the sun and air, acquires a bright tint. So do leaves. The physiologist says it is ‘due to an increased absorption of oxygen.’ That is the scientific account of the matter — only a reassertion of the fact. But I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on. The very forest and herbage, the pellicle of the earth, must acquire a bright color, an evidence of its ripeness — as if the globe itself were a fruit on its stem, with even a cheek toward the sun.”

Next week will be the second part to Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints.”

Joe Rhinehart can be reached by  e-mail at joeprhinehart@gmail.com.

Recommended for you