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Do you ever wonder about the leaves?


 As the leaves start to change and the cold air creeps into our bones, sometimes new questions come up about the world around us. Why do the seasons change? Where does the wind come from? And one of the greatest contemplations of all time... why do the leaves change colors?

To answer that, let's start at the beginning. There are two categories of trees, coniferous and deciduous. Deciduous trees are easy to spot this time of year because they are the trees that shed their colorful leaves. Individual cells make up what we perceive as a leaf. Cells can be thought of as drops of water in the ocean. Each individual drop of water comes together to form what we perceive as the ocean, just like cells making up a leaf! There is a special pigment in every cell of a leaf, called chlorophyll, that give leaves their green color. Chlorophyll helps the cell transform energy from the sun into another form of energy called sugar. When there is less available sunlight, chlorophyll begins to break down allowing the other pigments, like yellow, orange, and red, to show in the leaves. This is why we have colorful leaves in the fall! During the late fall and winter season trees go into a dormant phase that could be thought of as hibernation. They do not create sugars, uptake nutrients or carbon dioxide, and do not produce oxygen.

Each leaf has useful nutrients like carbon and nitrogen. These nutrients break down into the soil creating the perfect bed for new plants to grow in the spring. That is why composting leaves is so important to enrich our soil, which is currently in dire need of rejuvenation. Imagine the lush garden you can create from all those nutrients! If gardens aren't your thing or you find yourself swimming in excess leaves, there are many resources for Clark County residents, like a free leaf coupon for drop off, composting sites, and yard debris and organics carts with Waste Connections. Disposing of leaves responsibly keeps leaf-blocked drains from flooding our roads and much more. Composting is the best way we can conserve and keep these abundant natural resources local.

 Fallen leaves make for great craft projects. My favorite is to take a hole puncher to a bundle of leaves and make biodegradable confetti, but the list is endless! You can make "fur" for a variety of animals, nature-inspired art pieces, wreathes, bowls, stringed leaves, or something completely new!

I recently attended an amazing workshop on nature journaling by John Muir Laws and hosted by the Lower Columbia Nature Network. You can get connected with his resources here. Our activity was to observe a leaf and, with his guidance and structure, to get creative and make a journal entry about it. I was blown away at how a little guidance can enhance our engagement with nature so drastically. His workshop was filled to the brim with nuggets of deeply insightful teachings.

Here is a fun activity you can do on your own, with a group, and with children of any age! Their natural inquisitive nature makes this activity so fun!

Grab a blank piece of paper and a pencil or pen. Colored pencils are an added bonus. Take a stroll to find the BEST leaf in your neighborhood or schoolyard. Find a place to sit and observe your leaf. Without any judgment begin to ask yourself Laws' three key prompts, "I notice...," "I wonder...," and "It reminds me of." Fill the page with as many observations as you can find, making sure you have a mix of words, pictures, and numbers. There is no right or wrong! These examples can help you get started. After working on this for at least 10-15 minutes, reflect on how journaling helped you to identify more about the leaf than you could have by simply looking at it in passing. Chat about what questions came up for you and see if there is anything you want to research or follow up on because of an observation you made. Before you know it, you just became a scientist! 

Next time you see a leaf, I hope you can remember the answer to the age-old question and maybe even think of a few new ones. What does the changing of colors in the fall leaves remind you of?

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