What autumn leaves teach us

Photo: 2009fotofriends/Shutterstock
Published October 14, 2016

Nature is a wonderful teacher and it offers many valuable spiritual lessons.

Here are a few personal insights that came to me after time spent traveling in Alberta and Ontario during the past few weeks.

The British speak of the changing seasonal appearance of leaves and shrubs as “autumn foliage” while we North Americans might refer to it as the “fall colours.”  For the majority of Canadians, this magnificent natural transformation provides a most intriguing experience that is rich in meaning.

In my earlier years I believed that frost was the cause of leaf coloration. Later,

I discovered a different, scientific explanation.

For most of the growing season, green dominates and masks out the colours of other pigments nonetheless present in the leaf. Sunlight is very important for green leaf vitality, but in the fall, the sunlit process of photosynthesis declines. As daylight hours shorten and temperatures cool, the chlorophyll that keeps the leaves green for most of the growing season is gradually stopped and the hidden pigments of yellow, orange and red will gloriously appear. This colour change is especially true in hardwood species like hickory, ash, maple, yellow poplar, aspen and birch.

Modern science clarifies a natural process once vaguely explained by what we might now call myth. Today we are inclined to view scientific fact as true and myth as falsehood.  For me, however, a myth about frost can also be true and very helpful. Myth emerged from a pre-scientific age but it continues to describe natural phenomena in a subtle, poetic way. How important it is to hold both science and myth –  two expressions of truth –  in vital creative suspension!

Yellow is the dominant fall colour of Alberta, while multi-coloration is often  seen in Ontario and the eastern parts of Canada. Everywhere, the shades are beautiful, and vary depending on growing conditions and tree types.  This reminds me of the splendour to be found in human diversity. Heritage and context have made all of us appealing and we come to appreciate that more as we grow together, multiculturally, as a community of Canadian people.

Light plays strongly into natural transformation as aesthetic beauty. Art history helps us understand how painters have long portrayed the rich contrasts of light and shade with intriguing results. The Creator seems to have intended this from the beginning and shaped it into ways that make nature’s process so appealing.

We live in a vast country where both similarity and diversity comingle. All of us have the opportunity to better appreciate nature’s beauty close to home and some of us take opportunities to enjoy it in other parts of this enchanting land. The more we seek meaning in particular places, the more likely we are to find it elsewhere.

Comparisons between natural and human beauty are limitless. Reflect on this, contributing your own insights. Canadian autumn leaves have much to teach us spiritually if we are attuned to them. I discovered that again in my travels this fall.




  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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