"A Sabbath of rest unto the land".
- Leviticus xxv. 4.
UNLESS one is blessed with a contented mind, a well-filled purse, and a good digestion, it is sometimes difficult to fight off depression in these autumn days, when we think we see all about us in the outdoor world the work of the great reaper, Death. The woodland paths are littered with fallen leaves, the hardiest garden-flowers have lost their brightness, and even the wild asters have doffed their queenly splendors of purple and gold and are gray and sombre, like Guinevere, grown old and turned nun.
Now, on stormy nights, the wind sounds a different note from any that we have heard in summer, and goes by with a low howl like that of some strong, savage thing into whose power the poor earth is soon to fall helpless. Yet the reign of the Frost King is beneficent. Difficult though it may be to convince ourselves of this truth, in wet November weather, when yellow leaves shower down under dark skies, it is truth, not only cheering but scientific.
In those myths which were the nursery tales of the world's childhood men were told, ages ago, and over and over again, that winter is the sleep, not the death of the fields. The winter world is Brunehild pricked by Odin's sleep-thorn. She is wrapped in slumber which seems as deep as that of death, yet she will wake at once to the kiss of Sigurd - the summer sunshine.
The beautiful summer is Proserpine carried off in the flower of her loveliness by the grim Lord of Hell and mourned for by her mother, Ceres, the bountiful earth. And in the story of Alcestis the myth occurs again. In both cases despair is turned to joy. Proserpine, still young and fair, is restored to her mother's arms, and Alcestis is brought in triumph to home, husband, and children, and her return is celebrated with feast and song. They are both stories of the sure return of spring - poetic ways of saying that winter seems to rob and slay, but in reality does neither.
To one who goes into the autumn fields with eyes opened by Nature-study, they are "happy autumn fields ' indeed. The idea of death, which is their superficial suggestion, is merged and lost in the far more deeply pervading thoughts of rest and resurrection. The brown meadows, in which the work of the reapers is done, have borne and nourished the crops of the year, the food of millions. Their summer's task completed, they lie at rest, gathering from air and sun, from autumn rain and winter snow, the constituents which will help to feed the crops of another year. The lilies, which neither toil nor spin, have yet made just and due provision for another summer's need. In bulbs, protected from frost and damp by a coat of papery, scales, the young foliage, and in some cases even the flowers of an other season, sleep, and packed in with them is a store of gums and starches gathered for the needs of next spring by this summer's leaves and roots.
The orchard-trees have been putting their vitality first into a wealth of bloom, and then into the fruit "pleasant to the eyes and good for food." Now their duties are done, and as a tired worker removes the clothing of the day before lying down to rest, they strip themselves of the green robes which they have worn all summer. The forest-trees by September have formed and ripened their seed. And all have laid away beneath their bark a store of nourishment which will feed the tender foliage of spring when it first begins to grow.
The leaves now fading have not been suddenly slain by ruthless frost. For weeks they have been bringing to a peaceful and fitting close a life which reached its fulness in the dog-days. While as yet summer was at high tide nature began to form across each leaf-stalk, just at the point where it joined the main stem, a very thin layer of cork. The manufacture of cork is not a trust in possession of the Spanish branch of the oak family. Cork is a constituent in the bark of most native flowering-shrubs and trees. It is also used by vegetation in repairing its rents and healing its wounds, and sometimes a layer of it is interposed to isolate diseased or dying tissues and, as it were, quarantine them from healthy and growing ones. The "wound-cork" which the trees use in lieu of court-plaster may be covered by the subsequent growth of trunk or branch, so that eventually it lies deep in the woody tissues.
But wherever it is met with cork can be readily recognized under the microscope by the forms of the cells composing it. They are square or brick-shaped, with clear-cut angles, and they lie as bricks do in a house-wall, pressed closely together in horizontal rows (Fig. 99a). Sometimes they contain a brownish, granular substance, but oftener they are, in the expressive phrase once used by a daughter of Erin, "full of emptiness," and in this case they may be much bent and crinkled severs the leaf from the bough does its work gently. At first it is not an unbroken sheet of cells, but a thin, incomplete, and porous plate, which intersects the softer tissues of the leaf-stalk but does not cut across the bundles of fibres and vessels which are the vital connection between bough and leaf.
At about the same time, or a little later in the season, another change takes place in the tissues of the leaf-stem. Now just outside the forming cork-plate there is a narrow band of rounded cells, which lie loosely together with many empty spaces among them. This is the "absciss" or "cutting-off" layer, and just here the stem-tissue is very easily ruptured.
By October the corky scale at the base of ,each leaf-stalk has gained its full thickness, and severs almost completely the union between leaf and branch. Then, some frosty night, a thin plate of ice forms in the absciss layer, and the separation between leaf and branch is finished and final. When the morning sun melts the ice the leaves will shower from the boughs, however calm the air.
Fig. 99a. - Cork cells.
(From the leaf-scar of the horse-The Cork layer which chestnut much magnified).