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Carl Wernicke: Autumn Beauty Revealed


Saturday morning I was driving down Mary Kitchens Road on Garcon Point when I began to ask myself, when did all those wildflowers pop up on the shoulders? Sure, I had been seeing the fall flowers coming on, but how did they go from coming on to a cornucopia overnight?

Well, they didn’t. It just seemed that way.

Before I say why, let me backtrack a bit.

Just about everyone I know breathed a sigh of relief last week when the weather finally turned. Trading the hot, humid, heavy air of last week for the cool, dry, light air of this week seemed to take a weight off our collective shoulders.

I don’t know if it is climate change or just the fact that for some reason almost everyone I know is getting older. But heat and humidity in October seem not just wrong, but increasingly unendurable. Northwest Florida is renowned for its summers on the beach, but every year I find myself waiting ever more eagerly for fall.

People seemed cranky last week, and the heat and humidity were increasingly what they were talking about; or make that, complaining about.

Then the weather turned, and the flowers came out. Or, rather, they stood out.

Why? Surely it can’t be that the humidity was so heavy that it shrouds the landscape. But on Saturday morning it suddenly seemed as if the ditches and fields were paved with flowers. It must have something to do with the light. The sun shining through the dry cool air, with the bright blue sky overhead, was suddenly gentle and warming, not sullen and harsh. The colors on the landscape were crisp, not dull.

Maybe it really does work that way. A sister-in-law who recently returned from a trip to France talked about a region where the mistral winds blowing down from the Alps created rare light conditions that inspired some of France’s most influential painters. The clear air and cobalt blue skies illuminated their vision.

For several weeks I have been watching nature fill out its wildflower palette in our woods. A new flower in a new color seems to opens every few days, adding to the swirl of hues blending into the greens and browns of the tall grasses. Piece by piece the fall mosaic is coming together, and I eagerly wait to see what the full canvas will entail.

Now, I can’t honestly say if wildflowers in Northwest Florida actually are brighter in cool dry air than in hot humid air. At my age I doubt my eyes are sensitive enough to notice, even if it is true. So maybe something else is at work. Maybe the colors are just brighter in my mind’s eye. In that case, the biggest change wrought by fall is inside me, not outside on the landscape.

If so, it speaks to the potential of the human mind. If the brain is indeed a sleeping giant with powers we have only begun to tap, maybe someday scientists will figure out how to harness that power, to prompt the mind to see things in new ways, without the use of drugs.

Nature now appears capable of accomplishing this miracle overnight, with something as simple and fundamental as a mild cold front. I’m thinking that scientists are probably not ready to emulate that.