Every year in October and November, sugar maple trees make a spectacular contribution to autumn color.
PHOTO: GRANT HEILMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
There are so many different places in the United States
and the rest of the world with lovely autumn color displays and so many trees with outstanding colors. But
let's be honest: The locale most famous for awesome fall
leaf hues is Vermont and the tree most famous is the sugar
The World's Most Beautiful Tree?
Over 40 years ago, Rutherford Platt wrote American
Trees; A Book of Discovery , a volume in
which he described several hundred species with great
eloquence and with truly unsurpassable enthusiasm. But
among countless favorites was there a "best" tree? He
wrote, "If you would see perfection, go look at the maple.
It is like truth made into the form of a tree." And about
one particular kind of maple: "Sugar maple is [the] most
successful tree, and contender for the title of most
beautiful tree in the world."
I feel sure that by "successful," Platt here meant
successful at being the artistic essence of what a tree
should be. I say this because the sugar maple tree is not most
successful in the more prosaic sense of being able to
establish itself in a great variety of climates.
As Platt himself notes elsewhere, the sugar maple is not a
big-city tree; it needs fresh, pure air. And it has other
requirements, for unlike the also beautiful and colorful
red maple (which is more tolerant of different soil types),
it does not grow all over the eastern United States. One
authoritative guide says it grows south to North Carolina
and Tennessee, west to eastern Kansas, and in localized
areas of northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia.
A map shows it extending to southern Missouri but
surprisingly not into Arkansas. (Would any of our readers
beg to differ?) Platt also notes that the sugar maple is a
distinctively American tree; it will not grow in England.
Platt goes on to explain what perfect balance there is in
all parts of a maple, from overall design to smallest
detail, and how healthy and successfully adjusted to its
environment the maple is. The wood is one of the very best
for furniture and for firewood. All of these attributes are
preeminently true of the sugar maple ("the queen of
firewood," it doesn't throw out sparks). In addition, there
is of course the tree's role as the source of the best sap
for maple syrup. But the time to tap for syrup making is
In autumn, the sugar maple leaves flame first with gold,
then start adding orange, and finally might (or might not)
finish with red. A maple with red leaves is more likely to
be red maple than sugar maple, but the variety of the sugar
maple's colors is wonderful — and so is stopping at
orange. After all, orange is the perfect complement to the
blue sky of clear, sunny days. And it is the clear, sunny
days that are best — in concert with clear, cold
nights — for inducing bright colors.
The ultimate way to tell a sugar maple leaf from a red
maple leaf is to look at the curve
between the lobes of the leaf. If the curve forms a rounded
U shape, the leaf belongs to a sugar maple; if the curve
forms a sharper V shape, then the leaf belongs to a red
If you wish to preserve some of the most beautiful of
colored autumn leaves, you can easily do so. Just use the
transparent, sticky-backed paper available at many grocery,
hardware, and craft stores. Put your leaf or leaves on a
piece of poster board. Next, cut out a piece of adhesive
paper a bit larger than the leaf, peel off the backing, and
press it with the sticky side down over the leaf. Just make
sure the piece of sticky paper is large enough and that you
smooth it to press out any air bubbles.
Viewing Andromeda Galaxy
This fall, in October and November, watchers of the night
sky can see Mercury and Venus before dawn, a very slight
lunar eclipse, and some other special astronomical events
that not every year brings.
But there are certain astronomical sights that, although
visible every autumn, are irresistible to both veteran and
novice observer. One of these is the farthest light that
can be easily seen by the unaided eye: M31, the great
galaxy in the constellation Andromeda.
A galaxy is usually a collection of billions of stars in
space. Some galaxies, such as our own, the Milky Way, have
their stars arranged in a vast spiral. That is the case
with the Andromeda galaxy, too, but there is an important
difference: This "sister" of the Milky Way is about twice
A pair of binoculars may be needed to help you first
locate M31, especially if you live in or near a sizable city.
What to look for? With naked eye or binoculars, an elongated
fuzzy glow. When and where to look? Preferably when the moon
is not up and bright, and on November evenings between 8 and
10 P.M.; look almost directly overhead from anywhere in the
United States south of Alaska.
Why does such a mighty galaxy, a wheel of several hundred
billion stars, appear relatively faint to the naked eye?
Because of the awesomely huge distance of M31. The
Andromeda galaxy is thought to lie over two million light-years away. That means that the light you see reaching you
from M31 tonight left there over two million years ago.
In Praise of November
In his poem, "No," Thomas Hood wrote: "No shade, no shine,
no butterflies, no bees; No fruits, no flowers, no leaves,
no birds, — No-vember!"
How can we argue against lines that are so succinct and so
true? We have to concede that across much of the United
States — indeed, across much of the earth's north
temperate zone — November is a time when the whole
living world seems to have disappeared into death, sleep,
In most of America, December is the cloudier and stormier
month (though some of the mightiest nor'easters and Great
Lakes storms — including tremendous lake-effect snows
— have taken place in November). But it is in
November that the loss of leaves, flowers, birds, and sunny
days first hits and hurts us.
An argument in defense of November can be made, however.
And the central point of that argument is that November is
the great time of rest, quiet, and reflection that we need
after September and October.
Those preceding months are so busy with harvest, migration,
and other preparations for winter; neither man nor beast
has time to reflect. Nor do we have much time to
contemplate when every day we see new hues on the trees and
every minute there are more leaves drifting down or flying
by. We have to wait until November with its soft, muted colors (or lack of colors) and
lowered lights (cloudy skies, low sun, and short days) to leisurely play back in our minds the vivid sights and activity of fall events as we walk
down a road .
September and October may be the spectacular action-packed
climax to the story of the living world's year. But
November is its thoughtful epilogue.
Fourth Thursday in November
In last year's October/November issue, I discussed how
Sarah Josepha Hale and Abraham Lincoln were responsible for
establishing, back in 1863, the annual celebration of
Thanksgiving Day. The day that Lincoln set was the last
Thursday in November of every year. But the current role is
that Thanksgiving must fall on the fourth Thursday in
November and this is not always the last Thursday. For
instance, in 1990, Thanksgiving fell on November 22 because
that was the fourth — but not the last —
Thursday in the month. And next year, we'll be celebrating
Thanksgiving on November 23, again not the last Thursday in
So how did we get the "fourth Thursday" rule? In 1939,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt — for reasons I have
never been able to discover — proclaimed that
Thanksgiving would henceforth fall on the next-to-last
Thursday in November. But the change was met with much
opposition; this was reportedly in part from commercial
interests. They were said to be afraid that an early
Thanksgiving would reduce the numbers of Christmas shoppers
on "Black Friday," the great Friday of Christmas-present
buying the day after Thanksgiving.
In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt relented, and in December
of that year, Congress formalized his declaration in a
joint resolution that Thanksgiving be observed on the
fourth Thursday of November.
Why the fourth Thursday instead of going back to the rule
of the final Thursday? Perhaps Roosevelt didn't want to
give in completely. In the midst of a time torn by a
rapidly approaching world war and the lingering effects of
the Depression, he knew how to compromise with his own
people enough to keep them satisfied—but also how to
maintain his own position enough to keep their respect for
his judgment and power.
Almanac for October/November 1994
4 New Moon, 11:54 P.M.; day of St. Francis
8 Start of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871.
9 Spring begins — in the northern
hemisphere of Mars! In 1903 on this date, 11.17 in. of rain
fell in 24 hours in New York City's Central Park.
10 Columbus Day (observed); Thanksgiving
11 First Quarter Moon, 3:18 P.M.
14 Venus at its farthest south among
constellations for 1994. Now is also the time we might last
see it in the evening this year: very low in the southwest
just 15 minutes after sunset. Don't confuse it with
Jupiter, which is much higher to the upper right and may be
brighter than Venus because it is not in such brilliant
15 On this date in 1954, Hurricane Hazel
made landfall in South Carolina (this was one of the rare
hurricanes that maintained much of its power even after
hours over land; it carved a path of destruction up the
16 Mars on west edge of the Beehive Star
Cluster. Mars now looks like a fairly bright star, slightly
orange, high in the east at dawn's first glimmering. Use
binoculars to see the lovely star cluster near it this
17 Mars near center of Beehive Star
Cluster this morning.
18 Alaska Day (in Alaska); start of
supposedly warmer spell called St. Luke's Little Summer.
19 Full Moon (Hunter Moon), 8:18 A.M.
21 Columbus made landfall in America this
day in 1492; Mercury at "inferior conjunction" (unviewably
close to the Sun).
22 Orion meteor shower peaks this morning,
but bright moonlight hinders viewing.
23 Sun enters astrological sign Scorpio.
24 United Nations Day.
25 Jupiter now almost lost in bright
twilight sky, very low in west-southwest about 20-30
minutes after sunset.
27 Last Quarter Moon, 12:44 P.M.
28 End of St. Luke's Little Summer.
29 "Black Tuesday" stock market collapse
on this day in 1929.
30 Set clocks back one hour this morning
at 2 A.M. (or when you go to bed before this) for return to
standard time; Sun enters constellation Libra.
31 Halloween); Nevada Day (in Nevada).
1 All Saints Day; Samhain.
2 All Souls Day; Taurid meteor shower at
peak for many nights around this time-if you live far from
city lights and get clear nights, you may see five or more
per hour of these brilliant and slow "shooting stars"
flying from high in the southeast late in the evening;
Venus at "inferior conjunction," unviewably close to the
Sun in the sky.
3 New Moon, 8:35 A.M.; total eclipse of
the Sun visible in parts of South America.
4 Will Rogers Day (Oklahoma).
5 Mercury at greatest western elongation
from the Sun, thus visible fairly well in the east sky (or,
more precisely, east-southeast sky) before sunrise. This
elusive little planet puts on its best dawn showing of the
year for about a week before this date and about two weeks
after — but don't confuse it with the far brighter
Venus as the latter vaults into view before dawn in the
next week (see entry for November 14 below). By the way, in
England, November 5 is an occasion for fireworks and
mischief; it is Guy Fawkes Day.
6 A telescope now shows the rings of
at their most tilted for the year (not very fitted, but a
lovely sight). Saturn currently appears to the naked eye as
the brightest point of light in the south a few hours after
7 Halfway point of autumn. Isn't it
surprising that for most of us half of autumn is a time of
bare trees and skies capable of letting loose with a
8 Election Day.
10 First Quarter Moon, 1:14 A.M.
11 Veterans Day (the original World War I
"Armistice Day"); Martinmas; start of St. Martin's Summer
(supposedly warmer period).
13 "The Night the Stars Fell on Alabama"
— in 1833 the night of an awesome Leonid meteor
storm. This show may be repeated for the United States in
1998 and 1999.
14 Venus and Mercury closest to each other
(not very close) this morning. Look low in the
east-southeast about 45 minutes before sunrise and you'll
see the brilliant Venus with much dimmer Mercury slightly
higher to the left. Mercury now comes into view lower in
dawn twilight each day, Venus higher.
17 Leonid meteor shower at normal peak
this morning — but only a few of these "shooting
stars" may be seen zipping out of the south in the last few
hours before dawn because bright moonlight will hinder
18 Full Moon, 1:57 A.M.; penumbral eclipse
of the Moon: the penumbra is only the peripheral shadow of
Earth and though about 91% of the moon goes into the
penumbra at this eclipse, we will still see only a slight
shading of the moon's upper part for about an hour centered
around 1:44 A.M. EST (late on the evening of November 17
for the western U.S.).
20 End of St. Martin's Summer.
22 Sun enters astrological sign
23 Sun enters constellation Scorpius
— for 6 days.
24 Thanksgiving Day (U.S.).
25 St. Catherine's Day.
26 Last Quarter Moon, 2:04 A.M.
27 First Sunday in Advent; John F. Kennedy
Day (in Massachusetts).