Nature teases us with the promise of all her fiery beauty, yet dry season and warm nights could leave her pale.

WHITHER AUTUMN?

September 23, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA: SUN STAFF

Nature gives no interviews, nor previews for pundits who write for rustic almanacs. Nor does she let others in on her plans -- those interested for practical or aesthetic reasons to know what kind of winter or fall we are in for.

Nature doesn't dribble out reliable hints either: Trust not temperature charts, nor annual precipitation lists. Put no faith in woolly bears.

So what to do?

Hope. That's all one can do. Hope that the woods ignite with color. Hope that the show, when the curtain finally goes up, runs longer and offers more variety than that pallid travesty of an autumn that dashed all expectations and closed so forlornly last year.

The process that governs how it all turns out begins in late August, and runs into late September. These are the crucial days as we advance toward that desired outcome.

But know this, here on the first official day of autumn: Things have not been going well; our progress is unpromising. That is not to say the fall is lost, not yet.

"If we are going to have a vivid fall, we need warm days and cool nights," says Jim Hull, a plant ecologist at Towson University. "At night we need temperatures in the 60s and well below."

Of warm days there have been plenty. Too many. Of cool nights, there have been not nearly enough.

Knowing all that he knows about these matters, Hull still declines to make predictions. Things could change before it's too late, he says, before we pass that point beyond which, for want of a string of deep, crisp nights, and hoarfrost dawns, we will witness autumnal flop.

But it's virtually impossible to fix that point on the calendar, where to mark this or that square, numbered box and say, "There! That's our deadline!"

Nature is a tease; her promise often goes unfulfilled.

The process that Hull speaks of that yields all the incandescence of that Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that John Keats celebrated, that process can be explained by science, at least up to a point. After that, the mystery returns. It is, literally, a natural revelation, an unveiling.

Short 'photo period'

Scientists know it is the shortening of the day that induces the biochemical change that occurs in plants each year around this time. But they don't know why. This diminished daylight, or shortening of the "photo period," causes plants to halt the production of new chlorophyll, the ubiquitous green substance of spring and summer. Then, "as the existing chlorophyll slowly degrades," Hull explains, "other colors in the leaves are exposed."

The carotene, always there in the leaf, now flashes bright yellow. Compounds appear called xanthophylls; they give us the reds, purples and oranges. But the cold is necessary to bring forth these darker hues that infuse the spectacle of fall with its depth and texture.

Which is to say, if we don't get the cold, we are going to have a nearly monochromatic autumn -- all yellows.

Some people are ready to blame the drought for this unhappy prospect. We had a drought last year and we had a nondescript fall. "In the years we have drought in summer," Hull agrees, "we tend to have poor color."

But do we really have a drought? People whose tomatoes, tenderly planted and tended, shriveled on their hairy stalks in, say, Annapolis, would swear to it. But shriveled tomatoes do not forebode the Dust Bowl. Other amateur farmers in other parts not far removed from Annapolis might have seen their precious tomatoes drowned as they stood by helpless to rescue them.

Ralph Scott, a geographer and meteorologist, also at Towson, reports that a single storm dumped nearly 2 inches of rain on his place near White Marsh earlier this month. That's a lot of rain. He, and others with professional interest in precipitation levels, are unconvinced of a drought's existence.

Harold Kanarek, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is another one.

Not a drought

"We had a lot of moisture through June, and it was an extremely wet spring," he said. "We had a great water table going into the summer months, and we haven't had excessive heat."

Unlike last year, and in many years before that, he says, no part of the state was declared a disaster area this summer, though pity the farmers of the Eastern Shore, whose soybeans got burned.

Crop losses from lack of rain and an increase in fire starts in dry woodland have been reported in parts of Virginia. But in Maryland, says Donald VanHassent, supervisor of forest stewardship for the Department of Natural Resources, "fire starts have not been prevalent this year during the 'dry.' " This is the preferred term at DNR to distinguish prevailing conditions from actual drought.

So we wait, and move more languidly than usual toward September's end, deprived so far of the pleasing snap of fall. Our "composition" -- Hull's word to describe our inventory of deciduous trees -- is ready, willing, but yet to be enabled.

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