Nature’s Calendar – 12th -16th November – The Smell of Decaying Leaves

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, only a few days ago I was exhorting everyone to ‘watch the skies’, but today I am inviting you all (well, at least those of you in temperate zones) to ‘watch your feet’ instead, because the leaves are making some very fine patterns at the moment. What an extraordinary transformation is going on! I suspect that the breakdown and decay of the leaves from deciduous trees is the biggest annual change in biomass in the seasonal areas of the world, and as it happens it releases an ephemeral but evocative smell. Scuffling through leaves reminds me instantly of looking for conkers in the garden of my Aunt Mary’s care home, of walking with friends through the local woods, of raking up leaves for the Guy Fawkes bonfire that we used to have when I was a child.

As Rebecca Warren explains in her article in Nature’s Calendar, the different parts of the leaves decay at different rates. Fungi are very important detritivores, spreading their hyphae over the fallen leaves like tiny fingers and extracting the nutrients that they need. Slugs, snails, bacteria and worms all get to work, and the frost and rain help break down the trickier elements of the leaf. Lignin forms the skeleton of the leaf, and is often the last part to remain.

I also love those ‘ghosts’ of leaves that you sometimes see on a particular kind of paving stone, where the leaf has disappeared, but its ‘shadow’ remains.

Of course, if you live in the UK one reason often used for disruption on the railways is ‘leaves on the line’. But why? Well, the tracks are lined with literally millions of trees (and there used to be a lot more mature trees alongside the route for HS2 which have now been cut down) (don’t get me started) and they all shed their leaves over the course of a month or so, leading to a mulch on the rails. This makes the rails slippery, and so train drivers have to accelerate and brake more carefully, which can cause slower journeys and delays. ‘Leaf fall timetables’ are in place for many of the more rural lines, including my regular journey from Waterloo to Dorchester to visit Mum and Dad’s grave. I note that the first three trains of the day in both directions will be leaving 5 minutes earlier, so I had better make a note. If you are in the UK and want to check your trains for ‘leaf fall timetable changes’, have a look here.

Well, as the rain pours down outside and the leaves gently turn to mush, here is a poem by Amy Boothby, aged 10. Many of the poems by adults equate autumn with sadness and loss and endings, but not our Amy, who sees the excitement of it all. Let’s be more Amy whenever possible!

Autumn, by Amy Boothby (Age 10)

Look at the different coloured leaves,
Swaying gently with the breeze,
Lovely reds, browns and greens,
All waiting to fall from the trees.
When they leave they twist and turn,
Ready to join the masses of fern,
Landing softly on the ground,
You can taste the smell of autumn, all around.


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