The Stranger by Christopher Van Allsburg is a book I wanted badly to buy, but did not.  Why not?  Sticker shock.  It was autographed and priced at $250.  Our well worn copy at home will have to do.

  It came out in 1986 and ranked right up there with the Polar Express for at least two of our kids and perhaps even a bit ahead with the one born in 1985.  It is, for me, the ne plus ultra of children’s picture books.  Perfect combination of colorful, compelling artwork, spare yet fruitful prose, and prescient allegory woven discreetly into the fabric of the narrative.

  To a kid it reads as the story of an enigmatic stranger knocked temporarily into amnesia by an auto on a dark country road.  By this adult, now some twenty years after publication, on its pages can be seen hopeful resolution of careless interaction of man and nature.

  “It was the time farmer Bailey liked best, when summer turned to fall”.  Driving home, thinking he’d hit a deer, Farmer Bailey finds a strangely clad itinerant lying in front of his vehicle.  Taken to the Bailey home he is doctored and fed.  This is the caption to the cover picture above:

  – Mr. Bailey lent the stranger some clean clothes.  The fellow seemed confused about buttonholes and buttons.  In the evening he joined the Baileys for dinner.  The steam that rose from the food fascinated him.  He watched Katy take a spoonful of soup and blow gently across it.  Then he did exactly the same.  Mrs. Bailey shivered.  “Brr” she said.  “There’s a draft in here tonight”. –

  The stranger seems able to communicate non-verbally with the wildlife and stays with the Baileys for a while working tirelessly in the fields.  Until, that is, he notices that the autumn hues in the distance are not shared with the still verdant deciduous trees of the Bailey farm.

  After putting back on his own clothes, off he hurries leaving fresh frost and fall colors not far behind.  In the frost on the Bailey’s window is written “see you next fall”.

  It’d be terrible if fall didn’t come.  I can’t imagine living in a place where the seasons do not change.  Whether it be the luxuriant transformation of bean fields from green to golden or maples from green to orange to red, one can hardly not be filled with wonder or reverence as witness. It’s like the slap in the face by a zen master to make sure you’re paying attention.

  It’s an amazing process.

  The green energy producing chemical chlorophyll is unstable and rapidly decomposes in sunlight.  Thus, obviously, plants must continuously synthesize it.  Come shorter days and cooler nights a corky membrane grows between stems and leaves constricting the flow of nutrients and the chlorophyll disintegrates.  Green gone.

  Other more stable compounds are left behind.  Carotene (which helped transfer light energy to the chlorophyll) absorbs blue-green and blue light thus appearing yellow.  Leaves containing it, (aspen, soybeans) will thus turn bright yellow as the chlorophyll disappears. 

  Some leaves contain anthocyanins which absorb blue, blue-green, and green light thus reflecting red.   Unlike chlorophyll and carotone this is a component of cell sap and not part of the cell membranes.  As the concentration of sugar in the sap increases the yellowing leaves turn red.  The more sugar, the brighter the red.  Maple syrup.  Forty gallons of sap = one gallon of syrup.

  Best colors come with dry sun filled days coupled with dry cool but not freezing nights. 

Autumn morning sun
Hallows the dirt and stuble
Noble shades of brown

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