Watching her reputation

What, then, gives New England foliage its reputation? What draws so many tour buses and out-of-state cars each fall, so many camera-toting souvenir collectors?

There is the climax of color, of course.

Writing of the view from her kitchen window, a friend in northern Maine once labeled our autumn foliage as garish, a description that still leaves me uneasy. Among the endless depictions of this yearly phenomenon, hers is not an adjective I would select. The eruption is glorious, not gaudy. Its most riotous is still angelic. Besides, her scene was essentially small-scale: chamber music, rather than grand opera: neighboring houses close to the road, in one direction, and the fringe of woods and the Grange Hall beyond their vegetable garden, in the other. For a view of mountainside color, she’d have to walk the equivalent of a city block down the lane to the lake or drive north to the next town, with its vistas of distant Katahdin along the way. The view from her kitchen window could as easily happen in Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Yet my wife, who prefers earth-toned shades to pastel hues and has little tolerance for any show of ostentation, has long yearned for a quilt the color of New England foliage, and of nowhere else. As if you could ever quite define that, given the variation of species between one stretch of forest and another, much less the changing tonalities from sunrise to sunset and from one day to the next. Nonetheless, some harmonic chord endures.

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Some of my favorite description of New England foliage occurs in Grace Metalious’ notorious Peyton Place (a much better novel, incidentally, than its reputation has suggested). Apart from my quibbling that Indian summer comes, by definition, after the first killing frost, and the foliage change can occur independently, she nails the experience: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never quite sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay,” her novel opens. Yet, “On the roads and sidewalks of the town there were fallen leaves which made such a gay crackling when stepped upon and sent up such a sweet scent when crushed that it was only the very old who walked over them and thought of death and decay.”

New England’s memorable fall foliage is the result of several crucial factors. Trees, of course. Masses of them, unlike the mowed farmlands and scattered preserves of the Midwest. Unlike the typical suburbs (although many of ours have turned wooded). The kinds of trees that turn vivid color, rather than turning directly brown and falling, the way an orchard does. Enough trees to provide page after page along a roadway or trail. Enough to continue changing after others have already passed, much like a fireworks show, for that matter. Our deciduous trees, we should note, are the result of centuries of logging and nurture where the climax would otherwise be evergreens.

Add to that foothills and mountains, lifting the amassed trees to the sky and multiplying the sheer number of leaves visible from one spot, and the encounter is literally heightened. If you’re going to travel with the intent of viewing foliage, then the more trees the merrier. In New England, the tourists head straightaway to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Green Mountains of Vermont, and Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. The residents, meanwhile, find pleasure in less spectacular settings as well.

Much of the wonder arises in chance encounters, factors you cannot anticipate, no matter how often you view them: the wistful color veiled by fog and then mirrored in a pond or a stream’s still waters. A stunning array against a backdrop of slate-gray clouds and illuminated by blazing late afternoon sunlight at your back. The dramatic moment when clouds slit open for golden light to pour down. The moment a rainbow arches in front of slate sky. The way cloudy days can become more colorful than sunny ones. Some surprising display at a turn in the road. Or what Metalious describes as “laughing, lovely Indian summer (who) came and spread herself over the countryside and made everything hurtfully beautiful to the eye” while the trees “preened themselves in the unseasonably hot light [and] conifers stood like disapproving old men on all the hills around …”

And yet, you may also gasp at a solitary tree. You will swear its red or orange petals are the most beautiful in existence, and then be disappointed the next morning to see how ordinary its autumn garb seems: a random blast of back-lighting had transformed everything. Less than a week later, the tree is barren, ending any anticipations of an encore.

Then there’s the whole matter of “peak foliage.” There may be pockets where all of the leaves turn color and then fall simultaneously, but what I find instead is some slow sequence of individuality. It’s a gorgeous pageant where some species flare resplendent and then go naked while their neighbors remain unchanged, awaiting their own turn.  How do you define the supreme moment of this transition? From the pastels of late September and the first week of October, the colors begin a series of transformation. For much of New England, the Columbus Day weekend is considered prime; others use mid-month as their target. Even so, some of the most stunning and memorable examples occur later, after most of the trees are already stripped bare.

I’ve heard the true connoisseur looks for purple. In the ash trees and sugar and red maples, especially. There are hints of what’s to come in the flowering morning glories, Joe Pye weed, the hostas, the wild asters, but rarely in the trees themselves do I find anything approaching dead-on plum. Rather, the purples are subtle and elusive. Perhaps its very rarity increases its intrinsic value. Yes, the quest for purple leads to several fronts. One finds distinct purples early on, in the fringes of still-green leaves beginning to turn – the lilac, dogwood, and aster, for instance. Another acknowledges the extent of red-violet, rather than out-and-out red alone. Here the gradations are more varied and richer than you’d previously thought. A third front finds purples in the play of sunlight and shadow. In a fine mist one early afternoon, for instance, I observed a field of otherwise tan grass in a highway appeared lavender, without question.

The color changes sequentially, rather than uniformly: some trees remain green as others go bare. Often, the foliage changes first in the many bogs and swamps of New England, falling before other trees have even begun. As the volume intensifies, so does saturation: if an unseasonable snowfall or a violent outbreak of windy rain does not spoil the development, our trees enter their department store lipstick counter phase – or something resembling a giant fruit stand that’s been toppled by an errant driver, scattering apples, blueberries, oranges, peaches, apricots, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and various squash in random combination. Sometimes in all of this chaos, there is so much yellow and orange that pumpkins seem to provide the primary color referent. The hues keep transforming. Sometimes it seems the woods are a vast floral garden in bloom; at other times, they seem to have entered their red metals stage – fresh iron rust, copper, bronze, gold – or the colors of oil refracted in water. Too soon we arrive at a spicebox phase of chili pepper, curry powder, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and paprika; with these come hints of pumpkin pie. And then, voila, we have Halloween.

Still, to my eyes, some of the most beautiful examples occur long after most of the leaves have already fallen. I treasure the memory of walking with a friend through the burial ground behind our Quaker meetinghouse on a late October afternoon and coming upon a single red maple that was perfectly exquisite. As he said, “If we were Japanese, we’d sit down and each write a haiku on the spot!” We saw a reminder of the ideal of savoring each moment, of not missing a day’s observation – if only a minute or five: take a brief walk! inhale! – and extend this throughout the year.

Even so, in the suspended time of the present, how quickly it passes! For any particular example, it’s now or never. That’s not to stop you from hoping for repetition. More than once, my wife and I have found ourselves halting in a panic in our hallway, thinking one or the other daughter’s bedroom was on fire only to realize, with as much amazement as relief, that it was instead the reflected light from the maple in front of the house – a tree that is slowly dying. One Sunday afternoon spent in the loft of our barn as I sorted through old letters, listened to a live concert broadcast, and sipped a martini, I kept looking up to the two bands of yellow at the window – just two, and no other color, but a glowing masterpiece all the same. Or another Sunday after meeting for worship and walking home along the city’s new community trail, following an old rail line in a tunnel of color behind sprawling houses and then over the leaf-strewn river, I marveled at what I recognized as a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, no matter how many times I’ll return.

One of the challenges I find is in naming the palate. What is the dominant color at any time in this metamorphosis? What begins as dry pastel strokes intensifies, eventually traversing from vanilla or custard to butterscotch and crinkled caramel. One friend asserts, “They’re not really colors – they’re things like amber and russet, whatever that is.” Examine an individual leaf, and you’ll notice that frequently it has layers of colors, one atop the other, like a wash or a composite film. Miraculously, they dovetail in clarity, even though this combination would turn gray or muddy if you attempted to paint what you see. Thus, single leaves are bejeweled, even when they are mounted in the massive crowns and necklaces of the landscape.

By Halloween the dominant color of the woods is gray. You could say the foliage has fallen. The limbs are barren. Even so, it is surprising how many boughs still flutter with yellow leaves, or red. Some low trees are still in glorious color. A few trees, mostly sheltered in town, are remarkably still garbed in green. All the same, when this change of foliage is regarded as a very well executed fireworks display, viewed in slow motion over a few weeks rather than a half-hour’s duration, Halloween then comes as its grand finale, its clincher, the end of six months of foliage. The seasons of summer and winter are no longer isolated, but intrinsically conjoined, however fleetingly – the Siamese Twins of New England.

For some residents, as I learned through a former girlfriend, the foliage brings no delight but rather panic, for they know deep cold and extended darkness are approaching. They find no compensating comfort in this outburst of beauty. To fully appreciate a New England autumn, then, remember what lies on either side. The cool palette of brief High Summer – the greens and blues, accented by yellow blossoms or cotton candy sunsets – is suddenly aflame before turning to the monochrome of Soft Winter and then the Deep Winter following Christmas. Where I live, our drawn out winter can be snowy or dry; we can have snow cover from Thanksgiving to Palm Sunday, with its grays against white, or only random storms and melting in some brown mix. We’ll get what we get, with a few nor’easters or a blizzard thrown in.

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Fearing the wilderness, with reason

For much of its first century and a half, English settlement of New England remained fairly compact, clinging largely to the coastline and the south. For example, the city where I dwell, now a little over an hour north of Boston, was settled in 1623 as New Hampshire’s first habitation (and the seventh oldest in the United States); yet Dover remained frontier, with fatal Indian raids into the 1720s. Across the river are the few Maine communities that survived attacks by the combined French and Indian forces, and these were fortified garrison towns, a reality that is commemorated in Dover’s nickname, Garrison City. There were valid reasons for fearing the wilderness, apart from natural forces: on its far side to the north, French Catholics encouraged Indian raids and hostage-taking. King Philip’s War (1675-76) was merely part of a nearly century-long French and Indian war against the English. In contrast, on much of the rest of the American frontier, Indians were not being as successfully used as pawns by foreign powers, at least for such duration. In addition, on the sea, which was so essential to New England existence, pirates and privateers roamed, often supported by those same foreign powers.

When the New England frontier was finally pacified, extended settlement finally occurred through much of the rest of the six-state region. Much of this happened after Tennessee and Kentucky had been occupied to the west, and as Upstate New York, Ohio, and Indiana were being built up. The widespread Greek Revival architecture across much of Maine, for example, speaks of this development occurring simultaneously with the westward expansion of America – except that for New England, the growth moved northward.

The interface with the sea speaks of other encounters and resolutions in the New England character. Our coast is pocketed with small harbors and seaports, much like the shores of the Puritans’ East Anglia. The namesake of New England’s principal city, Boston, was a small Lincolnshire town whose St. Botolph’s church – the largest parish church in England – was famed for its spire, the 272-foot-tall Boston Stump, which served mariners as a seamark. Its vicar, John Cotton, would be part of the elite Massachusetts Mather-Cotton dynasty. Standing near the waterfront in any New England harbor, it is difficult not to imagine square-rigged sailing vessels swaying before your eyes. Something resists automation.

The mindset of working the sea differs greatly from that of a farmer or an artisan. The sea is open space, and there is no sense of husbandry. One collects wealth, rather than nurturing it. A fisherman is largely independent, vulnerable – ready to help another in distress, but also highly competitive and protective of his turf. A merchant sailor ventures further afield, but both he and the fisherman are dependent on their vessels, on the weather, and on the quirks of fate. The wharves and lobster pots of New England’s coastal villages, then, reflect an endless upheaval, a churning as restless as the ocean itself. Mermaids may have been nothing more than idealized mates for these men, whose roots were on land even while they ventured years after cod and whales.

The strand of strict Calvinism the Puritans embraced left its consequences. We should note, too, that while the Puritans dominated life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in Connecticut, they differed on theological points with the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, even when both would unite in what would become the Congregational denomination, and eventually spin off in the Unitarian denomination as well. In contrast, the Pilgrims were Separatists, and more democratic within their ranks than their fellow Calvinist Puritans; dissident Baptists and Quakers found slightly more tolerance in the Pilgrim lands than in those ruled by Puritans. On one hand, the Puritans’ was a rational religion, based on dialectical distinctions presented in lectures – a system that emphasized a literal, intellectual understanding of God’s plan stripped of its emotional, mystical, symbolic, and poetic dimensions. While their commonwealth was built upon an unusually wide literate tradition that would establish Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth universities, it also had a repressed side that could erupt violently against non-conformists and the threat of innovation and change. It was a complex mixture that could be unexpectedly liberal on matters such as divorce or premarital courtship, yet conservative in preserving its “English” (rather than “American”) culture, and fearfully vigilant against any possible pollution by sin. It was practical, yet often suspicious. As they said, time was money.

These were not a people who turned easily toward the forest or who would reach out to strangers. Their houses of worship, of a much different architectural style than the later Congregational steeplehouses that come to our minds today, were shorn of ornament, excepting a huge single eye at the front of the raised pulpit. The core of their worship was a two-hour lecture, with a second in the afternoon. Prophesy was suspect; they preferred to stick closely to scriptural text, avoiding the breezes of emotion. Music was confined to psalters, sung one person at a time. Their meetinghouses had clear glass, rather than stained. And yet their dwellings had dark interiors, the earliest standing as examples of medieval architecture and construction. The great wave of the Puritan migration came in the dozen years from 1629 to 1641. The die was cast.

Perhaps this emotional dryness has its parallel in our New England foliage. One of the surprises in exploring New England is in discovering how swampy the landscape really is. Geologists define ours as a sunken coastline, and for many of the early settlers, staying dry was a problem. There are tidal salt marshes and interior bogs, storms and flooding. It is said that a Yankee likes what will outlast the rot – and so, coins are high on that list. Even so, little here is constructed of brick or stone, except for textile millyards, often now in decay.

Other strands linger. “At Plymouth in southeastern New England,” David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989) writes, “another variety of English culture was introduced by the Mayflower Pilgrims who were very different from the Massachusetts Puritans; even today this small sub-region still calls itself the ‘Old Colony,’ and speaks a strain of English which is subtly distinctive from other Yankee accents. On New England’s north shore from Marblehead to Maine yet another culture was planted by fishermen from Jersey, Guernsey and English channel ports; their folkways still survive in small towns and offshore islands from Kittery to the Cranberry Islands.”

Another surprise comes in discovering the “swamp Yankees,” the impoverished third who lived in shacks away from the village common. The tourist, remarkably, fails to perceive these northern hillbillies who are detailed so well in Ernest Hebert’s novels. Many of them, unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans, were a “mixed people” from the Borderlands of northern England, the Scottish Lowlands, and Ulster in northern Ireland – these so-called “Scotch-Irish” who had fled to the American backcountry, 1717-1775. This rough-and-tumble warrior people were, in their homelands, already called rednecks, crackers, and hoosiers. In New England many of these Boarders settled in the Merrimack Valley of New Hampshire, coastal Maine, the Upper Connecticut River Valley, and central Massachusetts; their militant individualism, rowdiness, and often anti-clerical Presbyterian strand of Calvinism put them at great odds with their Puritan overlords – a factor that may well explain the great political animosity that continues between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Though Puritans clustered in towns, the Boarders moved out in isolated farms along waterways – building humble farmsteads where springs would provide a dependable source of water year-around. The names of their settlements reflect their origins: Derry, Londonderry, Dublin, Antrim, Newcastle, Berwick, Bradford, Carlisle, Cumberland, Dunbar, Hillsborough, Manchester, York, Durham, Belfast, Stow, Wakefield, and so on. They preferred their dinner boiled – as stews, cornmeal mush, and soups. This legacy, however unnoticed, is there, like the darkness behind the foliage. They, too, are a major part of New England.

“The climate of New England was wet and stormy – with forty inches of precipitation a year,” Fischer explains. “ The weather in the seventeenth century was even more variable than in the twentieth. … When these air masses meet above New England, the meterological effects were apt to be spectacular. The countryside was lashed by violent blizzards, raked by tornadoes, and attacked by dangerous three-day nor’easters which churned the coastal waters of New England into a seaman’s hell.”

And so, the foliage comes each year, with varying success. I wonder how it struck the Puritans. “There were no random acts in Puritan thinking,” Fischer observes. “Everything was thought to happen for a purpose.

“At the same time that the Puritans searched constantly for signs of God’s Providence, they also were deeply concerned about other forms of magic that threatened to usurp God’s powers. Black magic was sternly repressed in Massachusetts. Even white magic was regarded as a form of blasphemy. … Most of all, the practice of black magic was regarded with obsessive fear and hatred by the Puritans.”

For a few weeks, though, the trees must have mirrored the Puritans’ own wardrobes. “The taste in New England ran not to black or gray, but to ‘sadd colors’ as they were called in the seventeenth century … ‘liver color, de Boys, tawney, russet, purple, French green, ginger lyne, deer colour, orange,’” Fischer notes. Others were “flax blossom,” puce, barry, and philly mort from the French feuille morte (“dead leaf”).

Perhaps, then, the foliage is not just a change of colors or an interlude in climate. Perhaps it does have something to do with Pilgrims and Puritans and Indians parading across the landscape. Despite its regularity in the year, it is far from predictable. Despite the explanations of science, there are too many variables to allow logic to reign. There is a randomness in the placement of leaves, and in their falling – a randomness seafarers, at the mercy of mercurial elements, could accept. The falling leaves become waves and fishes in air current.

More than an orchard

For the most part, farmers in New England are counseled to take up much different strategies than their counterparts across much of the rest of the continent. The land here is often rocky and clay or sand, rather than prime loam. In addition, large tracts are rare, and few are able to work expanses focused on two or three crops alone. Instead, Yankee farmers are increasingly turning to niche operations, especially those closest to urban and suburban populations.

DeMeritt Hill Farm in Lee, New Hampshire, is a good example. With more than 170 acres — large by local standards — the operation has expanded from its apple orchard base to become, well, a family outing destination. The pick-your-own apples and peaches remain at the core (pardon the expression) of its appeal, an excuse to step out in the countryside while getting both fresh air and fresh fruit. But the owners have expanded on that base to include Halloween hayrides, hiking and cross country ski trails, an equestrian center, timber harvesting, a miniature zoo, a one-room schoolhouse where class field trips can assemble before and after their tours, and, of course, the country store.

Here’s some of what awaits.

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Picking apples

If there were only four seasons. As simple as the tapestry: winter, spring, summer, apples. Each of an equal length. Not the unbalanced freezin’, followed by black flies and then mosquitoes – the latter two ranking with rattlesnakes, bears, wolves, and rats at the top of the colonial inhabitants’ pestilence list. The little black flies fierce enough to swell my goddaughter’s eyes shut after a day of outdoor play one May. It’s enough to make you wonder how anyone worked the woods, much less farmed. The freezin’ could almost be seen as relief, if only it, too, weren’t so vicious.

To observe – first-hand – the annual sequences in the place you inhabit is to question and rearrange. Winter here can be five months; summer, six weeks at its prime, plus shoulders that feel more like late spring or early autumn. To quarter the year by solstice and equinox, as tradition has done, affords an inadequate equation. More practical is to embrace eight seasons, not four – and even that is slippery. My perception of an eight-cycle year evolved after learning of the ancient concept of solar seasons, where winter begins around Halloween (Samhain); spring, around Groundhog’s Day (Candlemas or Imbolc) (and thus, the “six more weeks of winter” caution); summer, with Mayday (Beltane or May Eve as Walpurgis Night); and autumn, around the beginning of August (Lammas). Though still not precise for the changes where I live, this eight-part system does introduce more nuance. Winter, after all, can feel to begin the day after Halloween, as much as December 21 or 22, especially with our return to Eastern Standard Time from so-called Daylight Savings. More telling is to realize June 20 or 21 is also Midsummer’s Day and Midsummer’s Night, rather than its beginning.

An eight-season year acknowledges the delay between the increasing daylight and the warming of the air, earth, and waters, and then their decline. The established beginning of summer, after all, also marks the soon shrinking daylight, yet few here plunge into the ocean before the Fourth of July and many swimmers are surprised its water can be warmer in late September than it was it July – the difficulty comes in warming yourself once ashore. While July here can be insufferably hot and humid, depending, we really don’t get tomatoes or sweet corn until the already cooler days of August – a glorious time I’ve come to call High Summer, to distinguish it from the previous Full Summer. Indeed, my recognition of High Summer originated in a lament, “How can it be August already? Summer’s almost over,” transformed by a mindfulness that our summer hadn’t begun until the solstice: many of our neighbors still have their furnaces running up to June, and other members of my family find May days too chilly to eat lunch at our shaded outdoor table. Meanwhile, late August evenings are typically too cool for lingering after an evening outdoor meal, and the darkness falls markedly earlier than it had a month earlier.

As a concept, my eight-season year resembles the artist’s color wheel, with its primaries – bright yellow, red, and blue – and its secondaries – orange, purple, and green – where the primaries overlap. Likewise, there are the strong seasons where the traditional and solar seasons coincide: Full Summer, Full Autumn, Full Winter, Full Spring, and the already mentioned High Summer and three others I still need to christen, the ones where they separate. Even here, though, I realize overlap for spring is inaccurate: our Full Spring starts with the leafing of trees at the beginning of May. So my seasons would run Full Summer (late June and July), High Summer/Early Autumn (August to late September), Full Autumn (late September to Halloween), Soft Winter (November to late December), Full Winter (late December and January), Late Winter (February to late March), Tentative Spring (late March and April), Full Spring (May to late June). Perhaps we could even name them after people – Julia, for Full Summer, followed by Augusta or King Leo – the way hurricanes are, for that matter, though that runs the risk of introducing unnecessary associations.

Of central interest to me in all of this is the relationship of the changing light and seasons with emotions. It’s not just a matter of having a favorite season – although spring here is too cold and wet and insect-infested to bring the same joy it has elsewhere – or of noticing the general crankiness that follows the Daylight Savings clock changes twice a year, where everyone’s “internal clock” is thrown off kilter for the remainder of the week. It’s the matter of acknowledging that where I live, November is truly the dreariest month – the general landscape has turned brown, and most people go to work before sunrise and leave after sunset – while February, in its sparkling white purity against the occasional blue sky, has already brightened to the same level of light as October. We even have the quirky situation where our earliest sunsets hit in early December, and arrive perceptibly later by New Year’s. Somehow, though, I always seem to be running weeks behind, wherever.

Where I live, solar autumn – High Summer and Full Autumn – are more than the prime of the year. They are ingrained in the region’s very identity. The air has turned cool and bright, the insects are manageable, the Hawaiian shirts give way to sweaters, I concede, awakening on that first chilly morning in August when fall’s in the air, stirring its bittersweet joy. (Noting, too, my wife will soon have me gathering golden bittersweet berries for her interior decoration.) From around the world, people begin phoning to inquire about how the foliage is shaping up, while the region’s state tourism offices respond by marching out their predictably rosy forecasts. Yet for all of this regularity, something remains tenuous. Drought can dull the color, as can blight, which seems to be increasing. The remnants of an Atlantic hurricane or an early snowfall can strip the leaves from their perch. On top of it all, global climate change is pushing back the first killing frost – the defining element of Indian summer and a catalyst for crisp color – and we seldom lose the last of our gardens in September anymore. North of the notches – that is, in the North Country, where the prime color arrives first, runs on its own pace. In contrast, we are moderated by our proximity to the ocean.

Though our small city is not a tourist destination, we are close enough to the beaches and the mountains to be aware of their traffic and to savor their attractions in the shoulder weeks free of the crowds. Already, before Labor Day, with school districts resuming, the seaside motel bookings are down, and apart from pre-kindergarten children or young couples, the beaches have been claimed by older adults, often bundled up on aluminum chairs and reading in small clusters. At home, agreeing on a walk, my wife and I choose one of the restaurants where we can sit in the afternoon sun and watch the river – either above the dam and waterfalls at the red millworks or downstream, over the tidewater marina – while sipping microbrew ales and sampling appetizers. We both know you could drive halfway across the country for a memory like this. And we both know that living year-‘round in a locale provides a context no fine-weather visitor can comprehend – the countering desolation of office workers scurrying into icy darkness, of madness and death lurking behind the curtained windows, of resort communities closed tight and abandoned.

My wife and I see this because we have moved here, each by a different pathway.