Autumn Beauty & Radical Decentering

In the latest of our occasional Earth Justice blogs, Sara Mark reflects on the season.

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There have been some beautiful autumn days this month. A walk around Kew Gardens, amongst its majestic Ginkos. Liquidambers and Maple trees; butter-yellow, crimson-red and even purple-black leaves illuminated against a limpid blue sky is one of the joys of the season.

I was curious to discover what triggers these stunning transformations in colour, and was surprised to discover that many of the autumn hues are present all summer, just hidden under the layers of chlorophyll-rich cells in the leaf surface. A case of unseen constants; rather like discovering as a child, that the stars shine all day! With the onset of autumn the chlorophyll breaks down and as the green colour fades away, it reveals yellow flavonols, orange carotenoids and red to purple anthocyanins. The exact mixture of these compounds varies from species to species, and so we enjoy the beautiful array of autumn colours. The brightest foliage colours develop when the days are bright and cool and the nights chilly, but not freezing.

Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus) Kew Gardens. West London.

Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus) Kew Gardens. West London.

And that brings me to one of my favourite quotations.

‘At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to (Simone) Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position at the centre”… When we come upon beautiful things – they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form “ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world” or they lift us… letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the centre of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the centre of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.’1

Even to a tree in a London park.


  1. Elaine Scarry. On Beauty and Being Just (2000). P.111-12.