Grandfather and The Teacher … or … Why the leaves change colour in the Autumn.
As retold by Skid Crease
In a beautiful mountain village, there lived a wise old storyteller known simply as Grandfather. The village was too small and too poor to have a school or a government teacher, so all of the children were taught at home. They learned how to tend a garden and how to hunt and fish and how to cook a meal. And once a day the children all went to Grandfather’s cabin and made him a cup of tea and listened to his stories. From his mother, he had learned all the stories of the land and the people and all the creatures that shared the mountain with the people. The stories had been passed along for generations and spoke the truth.
The time of year that the children loved most of all was when the leaves change colour in the autumn. They would run to Grandfather’s cabin, build a huge pile of leaves and jump in them until they were exhausted. And then Grandfather would sit down in his rocking chair and sip his tea. The children knew it was story time! And their favourite story was about why the leaves change colour. Grandfather would wait until all the children were settled into their leaf blanket, and then he would begin.
“A long time ago, before the people walked the land, the leaves in the forest stayed on the trees all year long. They stayed green and bright and made food for all the creatures of the land. Oh, the sun still was very hot in the summers, and the winds from the north still brought ice and snow in the winter, but there was no spring or fall. The Great Spirit That Loves Life wanted all of the creatures to have food and shelter all through the thirteen moons of one year.
But the little creatures who lived on the forest floor – the worms and the slugs and the spiders and everything tiny that wiggled and crawled – were not happy when the winter came. Their little bodies were frozen by the cold winds and the ice crystals pierced their soft skin. They decided that they had to get the attention of the Great Spirit and so they joined all of their voices together and began to sing,
At first the Great Spirit thought it was the wind rising, but the soft and mournful sound grew stronger and stronger. The Great Spirit That loves Life was curious and followed the sound to a small clearing in the forest. There were all of the little creatures from the forest floor singing as loudly as they could. When they saw the Great Spirit they all suddenly stopped singing. The Great Spirit smiled upon them.
“Why, all my wonderful little creatures – why are you singing such a sad song?”
The little red wiggler worm cleared its tiny pharynx and said, “Well, Great Spirit That Loves Life, first we want you to know how grateful we are for all the beauty of our forest and meadows.” The other tiny creatures all cheered their thanks as well. “However,” continued the little worm, “When the winter comes we have a terrible time. The icy winds freeze us, and we can’t hide in the frozen ground, and the icicles drop on us, and a lot of us are dying. We don’t have fat and fur like the great bear and we can’t fly south like the geese Please help us Great Spirit.”
The Great Spirit apologized at once to the little creatures. “Please forgive me – I had no idea that you were in such pain!” The Great Spirit needed to do something quickly because winter was coming.
Just then the light of the setting sun slanted through the forest trees and made the leaves appear to be on fire! “That’s it,” said the Great Spirit That Loves Life. “I will turn all of the leaves in the forest the colour of the setting sun’s fire and make a warm blanket of red and yellow and orange leaves to remind you of the sun’s warmth. But you must promise to eat all of the leaves in the spring make healthy soil for the trees.” All of the deciduous trees thought that this was a wonderful idea and pledged to support the little creatures.
But the conifer trees objected. “Great Spirit” they said, “What will happen to all of the forest creatures who stay with us for the winter – they will still need food and shelter. And besides, if our sharp needles fall onto the little creatures, they will stab them like an arrow.” The deciduous trees and the conifer trees argued back and forth, and the winds grew colder and colder. The little creatures began to wonder if they would ever get their warm blanket of leaves.
Then the Tamarack tree spoke, “The little creatures need their blanket and the winter animals need their shelter. Since my needles are soft, I will join the bond that the deciduous trees have made with the little creatures and give them my protection. All my conifer brothers and sisters can keep their needles to protect the forest from the cold winter winds.” And so it was agreed. The Great Spirit gave the Tamarack tree a mantle of gold and promised that it a beautiful covering of soft spring green needles would appear when the warmth returned to the land. Then the Great Spirit That Loves Life smiled on the forest, and a shower of red and yellow and orange leaves and golden needles fell from the trees and covered the little creatures.”
Grandfather smiled at the children who were listening intently. “And that is why the leaves change colour in the fall. Now, go and play and let me finish my tea!” The children all gave Grandfather a big hug and then jumped in the big pile of leaves, being careful not to jump on any of the little creatures.
Winter came, and spring, and over the summer, something wonderful happened in the village. The government had decided that the village was big enough for a school and a full time teacher! A government helicopter lowered a big modern portable onto a cement pad that the villagers had made. Then, in the middle of August, the new teacher arrived.
All the children thought she was wonderful! She loved science and stories and hiking on the village trails. And she loved her teaching. She spent almost every spare moment getting her classroom and materials ready for the first day of school.Why, she even took time to walk around the village and meet all of the people. She especially wanted to meet the Grandfather, but had gone away on a long canoe trip the day the teacher arrived. It was a trip he took every year, alone, before the leaves began to change colour.
This year, for some strange reason, he had left the village earlier than usual. Grandfather always listened to the winds of change, the children told Teacher. They said he went to listen to The Great Spirit That Loves Life to learn more stories of the land. The teacher smiled: the children had such wonderful imaginations!
The first official day of school came and the children came happily into the school. Teacher smiled at them, took the attendance, and then said, “It is much too nice a day to sit in the classroom – take me on a walk and show me your favourite things.” She was a very smart teacher. The children took their teacher by the hand and walked her onto the forest trails. In a little clearing they made a big pile of leaves. The children and their teacher all jumped into the pile and laughed.
“Ah,” said Teacher, “This is my favourite time of the year, when the leaves change colour.” The children stopped jumping, “Really teacher? It is our favourite time of the year too!”
Teacher smiled, “Come and sit around me and I will tell you a story of why the leaves change colour.” The children were amazed – did she know the Grandfather stories too?
“You see, children” Teacher began, ‘the reason that the leaves change colour in the autumn is that all the green chlorophyll in the leaf stops making sugar sap for the tree to grow. As the days become shorter and shorter and the temperature gets colder and colder, the green begins to fade away in the leaf, and all of the other special chemicals that were hiding inside the leaf begin to appear. The carotenoids are yellow and orange and the anthocyanins are red – the same red that is in the salmon’s belly. And when the leaf is not making any more sugar at all, the stem closes off and the leaves fall to the forest floor. In the spring when the snow melts, the decomposers that live on the forest floor slowly mulch the dead leaves and enrich the forest soil. When the spring rains come, the sugary sap that was stored in the roots of the trees begins to rise up as the days warm. It feeds the buds that become the green leaves of the Springtime. Isn’t that a wonderful story!”
The children sat silently staring at Teacher. She really seemed to be a very good teacher, but she didn’t know anything about why the leaves changed colour in the fall. “Teacher,” said the children, “The real reason that the leaves change colour in the fall is that the trees are honouring the promise they made to The Great Spirit That Loves Life to make a warm blanket of all the sun’s colours for all the little creatures that live on the forest floor. And the little creatures promised to always chew up the leaves in the spring to feed the trees so they could make new leaves again.”
Teacher smiled at the children, “That is a wonderful story,” she said, “but the real reason…” and Teacher told them her science story again. Oh dear, thought the children … we have so much to teach her. We will have to take her to see Grandfather when he gets back. The she can learn all of the true stories.
And so it went for the next two weeks. Every time Teacher tried to give the children a proper scientific explanation about the seasons, or the rainfall, or how mountains are made, the children had a Grandfather story to tell. Now, she was a very smart, very caring young Teacher. It was obvious to her that the children all loved and respected Grandfather. So, one day Teacher said to the children, “I would love to meet Grandfather when he comes back from his canoe trip. Maybe we could have tea together.”
“Yes!” cheered the children. There was hope for their teacher after all! And so, only a few days later, the children announced that Grandfather was back and he was very happy that Teacher was coming to his cabin to share tea.
Teacher was a little nervous. She didn’t want to upset Grandfather, but she knew that she had to get her science stories across to the children. The government tests didn’t have any room for Grandfather stories!
When the special day came, the children hiked Teacher along the winding trail that led to Grandfather’s cabin. Grandfather had moved another rocking chair out on the porch and put out his very best tea mugs. “Grandfather,” announced the children, “meet Teacher.” And the children ran off to jump in big piles of leaves that Grandfather had prepared for them.
“It is so wonderful to meet you,” said Grandfather. “Since I have been back, the children have done nothing but tell me how happy they are that you are their teacher. This is good.”
“Well,” said Teacher, “It is wonderful to meet you at last. Since I arrived in the village they have done nothing but tell me all of your stories.”
“Ah,” said Grandfather, “they love the stories. They are the stories of the land and the people and all the creatures that share our home. They are the stories that have been passed down from all the storytellers who came before.”
“I love stories too,” said Teacher. “In fact, one of my favourite stories is about why the leaves change colour in the autumn.”
Grandfather stopped rocking and sat forward in his chair. “Really?” asked Grandfather, “Why that is one of my favourite stories too!”
“Would you like to hear my story?” asked Teacher.
“Oh yes,” said Grandfather. “There is nothing a Storyteller enjoys more than listening to another Storyteller.”
And so the teacher began. She spoke very slowly looking into Grandfather’s eyes. She told him all about the special chemical in the leaf, about the green chlorophyll that helped the leaf take sunshine and water to make sugar for the tree. Grandfather’s eyes were wide with wonder. She told him about how the changing amount of daylight and the angle of the sun and the change in temperature turned off the little sugar factory in the leaf. She told him about all the other special chemicals that hid in the leaf that began to appear when the green chlorophyll stopped working. About how the carotenoids brought their yellow and orange to the leaf, and the anthocyanins brought their salmon red to the leaves.
She told him that when all of those special chemicals stopped working, the stem of the leaf pinched off and the leaves fell to the forest floor. About how all of the tiny and microscopic organisms that lived on the forest floor slowly decomposed the leaves and created a rich mulch so that when the spring rains came the roots of the tree could be nourished. She told him about the sugary sap that was stored as starch in the roots of the tree over the winter, began to rise up into the branches as the days grew warmer and fed the new buds with their sugar. About how the new leaves burst open with the chlorophyll ready to start working with the sun and the water to make food for the tree all over again.
“It is the cycle of materials and the flow of energy that connect all of this, all of us, together,” explained Teacher. “Isn’t it wonderful!”
Grandfather had ben staring at her intently throughout the entire story, but now she noticed that tears were falling down his cheeks. Oh, dear, thought Teacher, I have hurt his feelings.
“Grandfather,” said Teacher gently, “I didn’t mean to upset you. But this is the story I was taught in school.”
“Oh, no,” said Grandfather, “These are tears of joy. That is one of the best stories I have ever heard!”
“Really,” said Teacher, astonished.
“Why, yes” said Grandfather, taking her hand. “I had no idea until right now how much trouble The Great Spirit That Loves Life had gone to just to make a blanket for all the little creatures.”
Grandfather smiled at Teacher, and she slowly smiled back taking his other hand in hers.
“And I, Grandfather, had no idea until this very moment, that I had only learned half the stories.”
The children played in the leaves. It was going to be a very good year.