People often quip that California has no fall season; they would be quite wrong if they are speaking of Northern California, although old Pasadena has passing fair colors along its streets. Some of the most spectacular displays of fall foliage are to be found in the streets of Sacramento, Palo Alto and Berkeley, where, over the years, people in these cities have planted a richly variegated urban canopy of birch, plane, ash, elm, Japanese maple, sugar maple, gingko, pistachio, chestnut, mulberry, elm, and countless more varieties. These unleash their colors gradually, starting in late September. The colors then slowly unfold, one into another, like a kaleidoscope, through mid-December. The trees here can be planted in arching arcades, as one would find in the Midwest or New England, but are more typically interspersed haphazardly with olive, palm, deodora cedar, redwood, and scrub oak. The result is a lush variegated palette of color, not a monochrome presentation of one color for a relatively short time, only to be followed by bleak grey, as I have witnessed in some other parts of the country.
I took a trip to Sacramento last weekend, hoping that the autumn leaves up there would be a little further along than they were down here in Santa Clara a week ago. It’s all in the timing. As it turned out, there were some well along (the birches always go first), but the drought had slowed things down by about a week. And the lack of moisture had muted the colors on some trees, such as the London planes. But others, like the ginkgos, were shining in their typical luminescent yellow. They hold on to their leaves the longest, and then drop them virtually all at once.
A special treat is the arrival of fall in the wine country, where the vines themselves turn a range of colors, from yellows to oranges to reds. Driving past rows of these low-lying plants is somewhat like flying over a New England hardwood forest, looking down on all the color.
This is the kind of Fall with which I grew up and became ever more familiar each year. The temperatures drop. Currently we are waking up to mornings in the low forties, and in some places in the mid- to upper thirties, which is good for the trees and gives them that crisp brilliant coloration. And this coming week we’ll finally get some much-delayed rain, which will hasten the end of fall, but which will produce even more brilliant colors.
When I was very young and still working at the piano, part of my repertoire was the etude, “Automne,” by Cecile Chaminade, a long-forgotten and underestimated composer who wrote in the Romantic style of the 19thcentury. She was the first female composer to be admitted to the Légion d’honneur. That rhapsodizing piece of music captures the wind and rain and swirl of leaves that we so associate with fall. Sacramento autumns could often be like that, and so I played it with gusto. I recall the day we buried my father, a November 2, when the wind from the Sierra foothills was stirring orange leaves and causing Fr. Buckley’s alb to billow like a sail.
While some might associate the fall with melancholy, I feel that emotion more acutely at the end of summer. The arrival of fall and its gradual glorious unfolding instead pitches me into a place where one can calmly contemplate the mystery of life and the beauty of its apparent end in the color-filled death of the leaves. But, here at least, it will not be long before the buds reappear on those branches, harbingers of hope.