Long before modern science began to understand the processes that create our weather, people made up their own explanations. Many of these accounts were fantastic in nature, with evil or benevolent gods, monsters, and spirits controlling the elements. In this series, we’ll explore some of these ancient myths and share the science behind them.
The Great Bear
Among the Algonquin tribes who once inhabited much of North America, from New England all the way to Wyoming, there was a legend that explained why the leaves changed color in the fall. The story goes that there was once a great bear who roamed around terrorizing people. He ate the food they’d gathered, destroyed the homes they built, chased away their game, and even mauled women and children.
The bear was far too powerful for any one person to kill, so the bravest and strongest warriors from several tribes banded together to hunt it. When the bear saw the hunters coming for him, he did what any sensible bear would do — he took off running. The warriors chased the bear for many months, over all the earth, over mountains and across seas, all the while firing their arrows at him. Though they could never catch him, they did get close enough, once, for their arrows to reach him. One arrow pieced the bear’s side, not deeply enough to kill, but enough to draw blood. In his pain and rage, the bear reared up and took to the sky, running from his pursuers through the heavens. To this day, says the legend, those warriors continue to chase the bear in circles around and under the earth.
In the fall, when he is rising above the horizon, the bear’s blood drips down onto the trees below, turning the leaves scarlet.
The Constellation Ursa Major – The Great Bear
The bear is said to be the pan of the Big Dipper, coincidentally part of the constellation Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. The handle of the Dipper, known as the bear’s tail to the ancient Greeks, is said to be that band of warriors, still diligently chasing the bear after so many years.
Of course, we know today that the red of fall leaves isn’t really the blood of a great bear, but red pigments, called anthocyanins, that are produced in the leaves in autumn. Read more about this process here.
Without knowing about the complex chemical processes going on inside each intricate leaf, however, the early Americans were left to come up with their own explanation of how and why the leaves change colors every autumn.