Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chlorophyll

It seems appropriate that we owe our magnificent fall colors to the withdrawal of one substance, and therefore the revealing of others. Green chlorophyll departs, yellow and orange and red pigments appear. Autumn is like that: heat and humidity leave, adjectives change from lazy and passionate to chill and energetic and astringent, views open up to their essences, insects burrow, birds migrate, grass indulges in a final burst of green, change is rapid.

Except the conifers. My mother on her recent visit to Maine pointed out that Vermont and even Ohio may have more brilliant colors, but Maine has the contrast of lasting evergreen and changing foliage, and that, like the change of seasons, is finally more satisfying. Constancy and change together always seem so obvious in Maine, like the ocean, like the weather, like the winds.

Ian McEwan's most recent novel Solar is about chlorophyll, and about constancy and change. It's been criticized as McEwan-lite, somehow not worthy of the master, but critics fail to see that it's a satire. Its "hero" scientist spends his later life trying to figure how chlorophyll changes sunlight into energy, not to mention trashing most of the lovers and friends in the process; it's really very funny how he fails to understand anything at all, in spite of (because of?) his Nobel prize. In the middle of his formulas and machinery, never once does he think of the beauty of a leaf, in the autumn of his life.

I may not understand much about photosynthesis, but I know at least that Maine foliage transcends science.




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