Fall Colors in Appalachia

Most people in this region look forward to the fall more than any other season, despite this being the prologue to winter. Starting in September at the atlas or far end of Appalachia, color changes ripple down the spine to the coccyx at the southern extremity a month later, but the finest sights are in the north and at high elevations. Colorful sugar maples like it cool.

Fall colors in Appalachia

People have probably marveled at the spectacle ever since they first set eyes on it eons ago, and long before they wrote about it. I find it perfectly understandable if Native Americans believed fall beauty was the deliberate artistry of a Great Spirit who painted the trees, flowers and creatures for human pleasure, like the Huron story of a great bear’s blood dripping on the forest from heaven and other stories passed down in tradition and lore. More than anyone else, Charles Darwin deposed humans from the center and purpose of creation, but accommodated his feelings for natural beauty in an evolutionary perspective (‘There is grandeur in this view of life …’), which is surely true though we have paid a price by losing a naïve and supremely arresting joy out of mystery.

When the first people saw the Appalachian Mountains there were no trees because the land had been scraped by glaciers and it took centuries for forestland to replace retreating plants that were the first colonizers after the last Ice Age. We are lucky to live in an era when conditions favor trees with fall splendor, though probably one of the last generations to witness them as climate warming pushes back the season and trees struggle with summer heat. The change is not so much a loss to the tourist industry as to the human spirit.

This year’s weather has muted fall colors in Central Appalachia. The maples were almost denuded a month ago, although the oaks are still green and beeches golden-yellow.

Leaf color chemistry is molded by weather. For the most brilliant display, summers should have plenty of rain because drought triggers leaf abscission. Then, late summer should have warm, dry days and cool nights with little wind. Those conditions prevailed this year, save one—the nights stayed mild. We had our first frost on October 17, but it was slight and night temperatures were mostly above average. An Indian summer spoiled a painted fall.

The closer you look at leaf chemistry the more complicated it seems. This is surely a principle in science as, for example, whether physicists study elementary particles or the cosmos the closer their examination the deeper and further they are borne. Science mines nature, but we never get to the end of the seam. We celebrate this richness, but it must be frustrating for politicians who commission research because they hope complexity will turn into neat answers, yet at the end of a study the conclusions are often provisional and there are plenty of new questions.

Once upon a time, fall colors were regarded as consequences of healthy biochemistry yielding to organic decay. The fact of the matter is half opposite because they involve a rather active process. Some genes switch off while others turn on. Each leaf is more in command of its fate than left to the consideration of entropy. Of course, photosynthesis does shut down in the absence of enough sunshine or moisture, and, to add complexity, deciduous leaves are more responsive than evergreens. It’s a familiar story because a sun-loving pot plant left in a shady place when we go on vacation will be a pile of dry leaves and bare stems when we return. It is a protective mechanism for plants and deciduous trees in autumn to withdraw vital nutrients and minerals from leaves into their ‘body’ for storage until needed at the start of the new growing season when the sun breaks out.

When the green pigment disappears, the yellows and oranges that were present all along are revealed. Beech leaves go a step further when the pigments turn into brown tannins that we notice dangling on stems all winter. But the red and purple pigments of maples and gums are synthesized de novo shortly before their leaves fall.

These are anthocyanins, which are molecules that are abundant in ripe berries and grapes and lend red wine its virtuous reputation. They are beneficial for leaves too where they serve as sunscreens and antioxidants to protect valuable molecules synthesized in the summer from solar rays shortly before the fall. There is another theory that bright colors warn away pests, as if rouge leaves can tell insects they ought to buzz off to find a less vigorous tree. It doesn’t square with the widespread lack of receptors needed for seeing red.

Despite its brisk pace, I believe science will never end and its ambition will never find a final goal. That’s worth celebrating. Life would be boring, almost pointless, if everything was predictable and nothing was mysterious. Mystery is sacred.

Fortunately, there are still countless enigmas in nature to stimulate our curiosity, and keep scientists employed. In this post I can mention only one, though it is relevant here. I wonder why evolution hasn’t given all deciduous trees the same glorious reds and purples in the fall if those pigments are so beneficial. Isn’t natural selection supposed to steer genetics to an optimum fit for the environment? Europeans must be satisfied with their yellow fall leaves and no native reds at this season compared with the hot colors we enjoy most years in eastern North America and Asia. Are there any bright theories out there?

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Jean Purdy_Remembering a Pioneer

Some of the most absorbing stories I ever read were from historians and biographers when they bring to light the lives of forgotten pioneers and heroes. On the rare occasions my writing and research can cast a light on a past life I feel moved by the discovery and heavy with responsibility. I imagine archeologists feel likewise when excavating a pile of old bones in some forgotten tomb if they unexpectedly uncover real treasure— buried evidence to name the bones and flesh them with a notable life story.

These thoughts stirred when I walked the dogs on Jamestown Island. I stopped to chat with a group of archeologists working on the burial site of the first African American woman brought to North America. “Angela” died around 1625, but their work is making her better known than she ever was in her lifetime.

Margot Lee Shetterly has been excavating recent history for her book Hidden Figures, which is now a Hollywood movie. She tells the story of African-American women mathematicians who made major contributions to the NASA space program, although, sadly, only one of the trio lived to enjoy the belated public acclaim.

Young Jean

Stories like these have encouraged me to try to give people I admire the dash of immortality that a story in print offers.  I wrote a short biography of an Englishwoman called Jean Purdy in last month’s issue of the journal Human Fertility. She died at the age of 39 in 1985, but never lived to see how the struggles of her tiny research team have blossomed from a breakthrough to a medical revolution that is creating millions of families with IVF babies. The article is free online here.


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George Washington’s Stars & Stripes

On hearing an organ playing inside a church last Sunday as I strolled along Trumpington Street in Cambridge, England, I felt drawn inside to listen. It was Little Saint Mary’s Church which sits tightly between the Fitzwilliam Museum and Peterhouse College, and is as old as Peterhouse, the first Cambridge college.

Little St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge UK

The church was empty apart from a young man practicing at the keyboard in the organ loft. A clergyman appeared from a side door to check the lectern, and when he passed along the aisle I stopped him to ask about the church’s history. It was Anglo-Catholic, meaning its loyalty was stretched between Canterbury and Rome, and it had an interesting plaque on the wall. I had to check it out.

It commemorated a former vicar of the church, one Godfrey Washington of York (1670-1729) who, according the man in the black cassock, was the great uncle of George Washington. Yes, that George!

Memorial for Revd. Godfrey Washington

But what captured my attention was the coat of arms above the inscription. It was rendered in red five-pointed stars and stripes on a white background. When I checked the heraldic history at the House of Names I found it was indeed the family crest of the Washington family, who came to England with the Norman Conquest. [Check your own family emblem at houseofnames.com].

Was this the origin of the American flag we have today? The one whose origin was declared at the 2nd Continental Congress in 1777: “the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field …” Only the blue is absent from Washington’s coat of arms.

The history of the American flag is shrouded in mystery. There is an old story, often dismissed as fanciful or apocryphal, that George Washington sketched a design with stars and stripes for Betsy Ross, an upholsterer he knew, to make a cloth flag from it. Scholars argue about the authenticity of that homey story, but the similarity between Washington’s coat of arms and the Union flag is surely more than coincidence?

Next Post: Jean Purdy: Hidden Life of an IVF Pioneer

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A Memoir from Western New Guinea

While all these thoughts rolled through my head, Gil was sitting on the bed beside Jake. I resumed our conversation as if I was never absent in mind.

“It’s a bitter irony to be felled by a stroke here after surviving danger in Papua.”

“We are waiting for tests,” Gil said. “He might’ve been poisoned like another colleague.”

“Poisoned here?” I couldn’t believe an assassin was lurking in New York.

We left for a quick bite at a diner off Seventh where we sat in a quiet corner and ordered steaming bowls of lentil soup. The warmth helped to melt the wariness of strangers. I wanted to know more about Jake’s work and the struggle for independence. Gil leaned back in the booth to wipe his spectacles and collect his thoughts.

“We were in DC for an award the night before he fell ill. We thought human rights in our land would get attention at last. It’s a long story few people here know or care about.”

Market day in the mountains

I knew the threads of history: how Dutch New Guinea was preparing for independence when General Suharto annexed it, how at the height of the Cold War the West turned a blind eye because his regime was a bastion against communist insurgency. There was a multilateral agreement supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous people by a plebiscite, but it was a sham and merely switched Papua from a Dutch to an Indonesian colony. Political dissidents fled or joined OPM bush fighters, no match for the army or the more-feared paramilitaries who made punitive raids on villages. No one knew for sure how many people died in those decades, and I didn’t ask for grisly stories.

“Indonesia is now a democracy and its army withdrew from East Timor. Why not Papua next?”

Gil sighed. “We are a long way from Jakarta. There’s a limit to what even a good prime minister can do, and the West won’t put pressure on a friendly and moderate Muslim nation.”

“I guess the mine is a big problem, the one that got Jake into trouble. No one should go hungry or homeless in a country that rich.” I found the gold mine on Google Earth, a dirty ochre stain in place of a green baize for tribal homelands. Apart from token support of local communities, the wealth was exported for American stockholders and government coffers in Jakarta. I was more than angry, I was heart-broken at losing Eden.

“Mmm. The mine too,” he said.

A few weeks later, Jake moved out of the hospital to a friend’s home a few blocks away. His physical recovery was painfully slow and the ‘Voice of his People’ was now aphasic despite dedicated effort by therapists.

After I moved away it was hard to contact him, but the following winter I called ahead to meet in the Village. I stood in a pool of light outside a diner on the sidewalk and examined every black man who passed. Finally, one emerged out of the shadows, his teeth gleaming in the light and hand attempting a wave. He sauntered into my embrace.

“How are you?” I asked. He felt strong again, but could he speak?

“Fine,” he rasped. That was his only word, but nods and smiles are fine communication between friends.

“How’s your medication?”


I heard his stroke was not from any act of malice, but a complication of an infection caught in Papua for which he needed retroviral drugs. I never forgot the poignancy.

The End

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A Memoir from Western New Guinea

I flew to the Highlands on a creaking Merpati aircraft with only one other passenger and other seats replaced by large steel drums. I would have been more nervous if I had known we were a tanker carrying gasoline to Wamena. Flying over an unbroken canopy of lush forest and climbing over the island’s backbone we descended into the Baliem Valley. It was assumed to be uninhabited until 1945 when a USAF plane crash-landed and was met by hundreds of tribesmen. It was the last great encounter between the modern world and uncontacted people, and they are still trying to adjust to encroachment they cannot resist.

I walked out of a ramshackle airport into cool mountain air free of malarial mosquitoes for the first time. No advice could have prepared me for Main Street.

People went about business barefoot on the mud, splashing in puddles, and occasionally moving aside for a bicycle rickshaw or Land-Rover. Tiny Papuan women in rags stooped under huge bundles of firewood or had bags of sweet potatoes slung by a band around their forehead. Some held a naked infant to their breast with a skinny arm. Youths in mud-stained shorts and t-shirts looked on vacantly, and a blind albino man with burgundy lesions stood apart.

Real friends

Some men wore a semblance of Western dress, but many still observed tradition. They strode with the erect self-confidence of businessmen on Fifth Avenue, although their ribs were starved of plumpness that prosperity grants. They carried a parang (machete) or a digging stick instead of an attaché case, and wore a koteka (penis sheath) and a large leaf as a vain attempt to cover their rear cleavage in place of a tailored suit. There were more native dressers in the countryside where they were resistant to pressure from missionaries and the Authorities to dress ‘properly.’ As people wended past a satellite bowl connected to the world I came from, I felt like a Time Lord stepping out of his TARDIS into a surreal world where two eras thousands of years apart had collapsed into each other.

I took a rickshaw to meet an American who I heard gave refuge to students from my alma mater after they were released in a military operation against freedom fighters. Frank was instantly recognizable in his yard, much taller and fairer than others. He was the son of the first missionary in the valley and came back from college in California where he felt alien. He invited me to join his family for tea and home-made cake in a sitting room that looked like it was transported from Fresno, until you gazed out the window.

“I hear you are helping community development, Frank.”

“Yep. This is very different to when I was born. Let me show you what it was like with one of my precious possessions.”

He opened a book with a cover picture of native warriors going to battle. I too owned a copy of Gardens of War, and read the story again of bygone Dani society again before traveling.

“I came for birds-of-paradise and tree kangaroos. Have you heard rumors of thylacines in the southern jungle?”

“Sorry, I’m no naturalist. While you’re here, you must enjoy the people. You’ll never forget.” That realization was already dawning.

But as I sat in comfort with a second slice of fruit cake, I felt uneasy watching the Dani file back to their homes in the bush. “Why are they so poor?” I asked. “Isn’t there a humungous gold mine?”

“Forget the gold. This is the land of the sweet potato. The crop failed this year and people are starving.”

I was flummoxed to walk blindly into a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of people were dying during a drought caused by El Niño. He explained the smoke plumes I saw from the air were a superstitious belief that fires bring rain clouds.

“When you return bring us news where garden crops are failing so we can drop rice sacks from our whirlybird.”

I hadn’t come on a mercy mission but no one could refuse such a light request.

The next day I was in the back of a pickup truck going to the end of the road from where I would start trekking. Several tribesmen were already sitting with their tools, and another pair arrived with a live hog bound feet and snout hanging from a pole between their shoulders. Before the tailboard went up, two women with a child got on board. We were a rag-tag bunch and I shifted closer to the men because, although their naked bodies reeked of wood smoke, they were less repellent than the women’s fetid rags.

The younger woman cradling a baby grinned to show blackened tombstones between orange gums stained by betal nut juice to relieve toothache. Her companion, probably her mother, was forlorn and wasted with skin stretched thin across her skull and eyes staring out of dark sockets on a hard world. When she pulled her rags to cover a shoulder I noticed the ends of two fingers were missing on one hand and one on the other. According to a custom less-honored now, women express grief for losing a child or spouse by chopping off a finger, whereas men slice off a corner of their ear. Amputations were common, some more extensive, and the sight reminded me of my own family, safe and well at home. I wanted to hold the ‘old’ lady’s hand to convey warmth of our common humanity, but hesitated too long wondering whether I should or if I could. The chance was lost when she drew her hands to her breasts to stop them flapping like loosely fitting soles when we drove over bumps. How did she bear to go on? Did she have a peace I could never understand?

The road ended at a police shack where I roused the officer to sign the surat jalan. My translator Michael was waiting for me. He was a wiry man from the Lani tribe in a clean shirt and pants who spoke several languages and knew our route over a mountain pass to a tiny settlement. I was much slower than him even with hiking boots and a light backpack and had to rest for breath and rehydrate. I cursed my water filter two days later when I often had to retreat quickly behind boulders, but it was hard to complain when the Dani bore suffering stoically. They hurried past us in bare feet laden with bags of tubers and rice, skillfully avoiding loose rocks and human feces strewn like mines.

I learned to greet men ‘nayak’ and women ‘la’uk’. They were amazingly friendly and cheerful, and always willing to pose for a photograph in exchange for a gift from my bag. A lady in a grass skirt burst into giggles taking me for a clown dressed for hiking in the Adirondacks instead of an equatorial mountain.

We sometimes stopped to shake a Highlander’s hand, which according to custom should be long and mindful to give warriors time to weigh up a stranger. One ‘old’ man, perhaps younger than me but whose ribs bulged under parchment skin, followed us for an hour carrying his parang, only pausing for discreet relief behind a bush so I wouldn’t see him lift his koteka. We parted with hands but no words to share. When I returned home to be streetwise again, I recalled how a visitor can travel among the tribes with confidence in security.

Highland lady scraping with digging stick for tubers

We arrived at sunset on a ridge with a cluster of wattle huts below from which smoke columns rose through holes in thatched roofs. Our first hotel was down there.  We scrambled across the baked dirt of gardens where a woman was raking for wilted sweet potato plants with a stick. I made my first mental note for Frank to make a food drop.

Michael led us to a more distant village to meet a ‘Big Man’ who lived in the largest hut where other men were quartered at night. Women and children lived separately, near the hogs which are villagers most valuable possessions. We crawled through a hole in the wall to the inner gloom where my eyes smarted from smoke.

A venerable man sat in the dirt poking the fire to make sparks fly. His face and body were daubed with white paint, and he had a vacant hole in his nasal septum for a boar’s tusk. The bird-of-paradise feather in his hair advertised his status. I guessed he witnessed extraordinary changes in his lifetime: from tribal wars as a young man, to Christian missions in mid-life, and now in his third age a military occupation. I always dreamed of seeing a place where traditional society still clung, if only in the heads of elders, to bring stories to my world of crowds and concrete.

Meet the Mummy outside the Chief’s home

That was my Eureka moment suspended since childhood, and yet I wondered about my motives for being there. Later, I asked Jake if I was no better than others who exploited his people. Did outsiders claiming to be harbingers of progress and development really come for selfish interests—the government for natural resources, businessmen for companies, anthropologists for careers, and missionaries for souls? I came for adventure, and gave nothing back to the people—not even cigarettes they begged for. Always a gentleman, Jake only stared back with dark eyes.

I didn’t learn much new from stories Michael translated from the old man, but it was precious to hear them first-hand. When I asked if the young girl stirring a pot of leaves on the fire was the chief’s grand-daughter, he grinned: he had taken her as his third wife to preserve his health. I also asked if he was an animist because I assumed the shriveled mummy outside was his ancestor, but Michael grinned even wider because the chief declared he was Catholic. I made a gift of a bag of cowry shells and we curled our small fingers together as a traditional sign of friendship on parting.

Michael leads us to our hotel

As we hiked to a losman (guest hut) I exhausted Michael with questions and wished Jake was my companion. He could explain how former warrior tribes became gentle and hospitable, if missionaries criticized for suppressing culture should be given credit for fostering goodwill, or even if the security forces condemned for human rights abuses be complimented for forcing a peace. I expect his sympathy was for the tribesmen who resisted with bows and arrows and antique shotguns against automatic weapons. Michael was reluctant to talk about suffering and violence, perhaps out of tribal loyalty, but he admitted a monstrous exploitation when he recently guided another Westerner who wanted young girls brought to his tent.

“How many and why did you help him?”

“About fifty. They got a dollar apiece.”

Money, meaningless in better days, was needed for food and tools in desperate times. The chief told me promiscuous sex was normal before marriage, but that liberty made young people vulnerable to predators and brought disease to his community. Michael didn’t understand, but the provincial medical director I met earlier told me travelers and sex workers were spreading HIV-AIDS in coastal communities. It would only take a few sparks to start a wildfire among innocent Highlanders.

“Michael, you know about AIDS?”

He shrugged. He didn’t know or thought nothing could be done.

“Are hospitals prepared?”

“Hospitals for dying people.”

That was the general attitude. There was no faith in them as places of healing, and Papua has the worst health and mortality statistics in Indonesia. The only hospital in the district closed for a time when money ran out, and the scattered missionaries were language translators and none was qualified for medical care.

I made a silent promise to contact professionals in NGOs and the WHO who know when conditions are ripe for epidemics and have resources to combat them. I also emailed Jake as someone with field experience. I had no difficulty persuading them of the urgency, but hadn’t counted the obstacles. International aid was already stretched, Africa was the priority for AIDS, and Papua was a security risk for precious resources. When I returned two years later the fire had already spread, and nothing was being done for victims who could only turn to their families for care and traditional medicines. This was the second promise I broke, perhaps from a mix of naivety and hubris. An estimated 5-10% of the adult population is now infected, and the UN reports the prevalence of HIV infection is twenty-times higher than elsewhere in Indonesia.

Continued September 15

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