I suspect much of the tourist attraction has to do with factors other than New England foliage itself. This, despite the reasons proffered by state tourism and agricultural officials, who will always declare the foliage condition “outstanding” or shaping up for another incredible presentation; despite the forecasts of unofficial experts, each ready to announce when foliage has reached “peak” condition, even when no consensus exists on its definition or measurement; despite the over-coffee passions of everyone else, who rarely agree; and even despite the occasional native who will debunk the whole activity as foolishness. All the same, there is widespread anticipation each August and September; forget the practical reason of tourism.
Like it or not, autumn is our season. We could blame the Pilgrims, whose arrival in Plymouth Bay late in 1620 and subsequent sufferings led to the celebration the following harvest of what we now observe as a November holiday that, for several centuries, was uniquely New England’s, even as the region banned or ignored Christmas as pagan. Curiously, though, the first official Thanksgiving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, north of the Plymouth Bay Colony, was on February 22, 1630/31, after provision ships arrived just in time to prevent starvation. Yet the harvest, rather than mid-winter, celebration prevailed.
Autumn also links New England with Halloween, perhaps a consequence of the Puritan obsession with witchcraft or perhaps a consequence of the Irish immigrants’ reaction to the general avoidance of Christmas. In the Colonial era, the witch trials of 1692, while the largest outbreak, were by no means an isolated aberration.
Poet Donald Hall has argued that the region embodies a Gothic sensibility that distinguishes it from the rest of North America. Repeatedly, I’ve heard guests ask the new owners of an old house if they’ve encountered any ghosts. And I’ve heard people who are otherwise perfectly rational reply with detailed observations. For the record, let me say our house has none, other than the ghosts of broken marriages.
Throughout New England you will find brooding, grotesque turns filled with unspoken shadows: if you look into the October foliage not at the bright spectrum but rather at the darkness behind it, you will stare into a specter of death about to sweep flesh away, baring a skeleton of forest to stand angular the subsequent six months. Somewhere in the soul of every authentic Yankee this awareness lurks; the leaf-peeping tourists will be gone before the first icy nor’easter slams these shores, before the snows pile up, before frost inches into our soils. Fall, too, brings relief from a sequence of blackflies, greenbottle flies, and mosquitoes that bring so much misery to our springs and summers. The October we cherish is dry, clear, sunny, crisp, a fleeting remission between clouds. Over the centuries, the Puritan legacy evolved into Yankee character as well as Transcendentalist philosophy, and subsequent ethnic migrations to New England have assimilated many of its values; to some extent, then, immigrant Roman Catholics become Calvinists. The leaves remain a mystery or magic.
While the tourists come for some feeling of history and rural character, we need to ask which New England comes to mind: green village commons of Vermont, stone fence lines of New Hampshire woods, lobster boat harbors of coastal Maine, Ivy League campuses, brick millyards along seemingly placid streams, urban skyline reflected in Boston Harbor or the Charles River? Five of New England’s half-dozen states are relatively small, compact enough that a driver could likely touch soil in all six in a four- or five-hour expressway dash. Rhode Island and Connecticut are the tiniest, and – to the surprise of many – Vermont and New Hampshire are each nearly a fifth larger than Massachusetts. Off to the east, practically by itself, Maine is roughly the size of the other five put together. Even so, New England has a density found in few other North American locales: this is not someplace one explores adequately in a week or a month, but rather years, as an individual landscape slowly discloses its character and attraction. Visitors are sometimes amazed to discover that they cannot “do” Vermont one day, New Hampshire the next, Boston the third. Even when you narrow your focus, exploring with any comprehensiveness requires much time. Perhaps this is why so many vacationers choose to return year after year to the same “camp,” as cabins are known hereabouts, or to the same resort – returning to the same ocean shore or mountain lake. In the Granite State, for instance, I remain struck by how different the Monadnock Region is from Sunapee-Kearsarge-Dartmouth to the north, or to the east from the textile mills legacy of the Merrimack Valley or from the area of earliest settlement, the Seacoast. This, even when so much of the Yankee stock remained identical. Climate, too, can vary widely, from short summers of the far north along the Canadian border to mild winters of Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay (which are themselves vulnerable to hurricanes). One year my friend in northern Maine reported that frost hit their neighborhood just before Labor Day. Further south, we get an occasional snow in mid-May.
As a consequence of its varied landscape and climate, New England presents an array of foliage viewing opportunities, varying from chilly remote mountainsides, a few already dusted with late-summer snow, to azure fishing ports. Because of this climate differential, “prime” foliage in the North Country can run as much as three or even four weeks ahead of peak conditions along our southernmost shorelines, which are moderated by relatively warm coastal ocean currents. (Summer visitors need to be warned, moreover, that these warm currents shoot far out to sea as they roll around Cape Cod: swimmers are generally shocked when they discover how frigid the waters are at beaches north of this point, even in July.)
Consider, too, how a mountainside expands the amount of foliage available to the eye. Not only the number of trees, but also the range of microclimates: some species grow at higher elevations than others, and thus the available colors multiply. A pond or river or harbor, too, opens distances that present more trees to the observer – a dimension differing from the mountain.
This expanse of foliage is, to some degree, an unintended consequence of a pattern of agricultural technology introduced from Holland to East Anglia and then to New England. “The technology of farming was much the same as in England, despite many environmental differences,” historian David Hackett Fischer writes in his Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989). “The Puritans specially prized ‘champion,’ which was their word for flat, open land without trees or hills. They found it in Dedham, Watertown, Sudbury, and Concord [Massachusetts] – pockets of rich alluvial soil that are still farmed profitably today. From the start, the Puritans worked their American land with British ploughs – a method unlike the hoe husbandry that prevailed in other parts of British America.” But throughout much of New England, the landscape was hilly and forested; thin, rocky soil prevailed; and the Puritans’ traditional agricultural practices, combined with additional methods adopted on these shores, such as fertilization with saltwater fish, had disastrous consequences in depleting the soil. By the early 1800s some farms were being abandoned, a phenomenon soon compounded as farmers migrated to more productive farmlands of the Midwest. Later, when a town’s young men enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War, they were often grouped in the same company; heavy casualties in a single encounter could cost a New England town a generation of young men; the consequence was a population decline that has impacted many communities to the present. After two centuries of shrinkage, the forest spread outward once again. Where mixed use farming continued into this century, a changing national economy finally took its toll; in Life Work (Beacon Press, 1993), Donald Hall describes how the traditional exchanges of hard toil, cunning, and community that sustained his grandparents in a largely cashless rural matrix has vanished, taking with it a kind of Yankee frugality and practicality. When we drive down narrow, twisting backroads lined with stone fences and canopies of maples, and glance at unique New England-style barns with their thirteen glass panes above the barn door (one for each of the Revolutionary colonies) and the rambling farmhouses with their connecting sheds, we are looking into the autumn of this Yankee tradition, as well. We look, and are often touched by something we cannot express.
“Another environmental factor was the land,” Fischer writes. “New England’s terrain was immensely varied, with pockets of highly fertile soil. … But most of the land was very poor – thin sandy scrub on the south shore of Massachusetts, and stony loams to the north. Much of the coast consisted of rocky shoals or marshes, and the rivers were not navigable for more than a few miles into the interior. By comparison with the Chesapeake estuary, there were comparatively few points of access for ocean shipping. Both of these factors – the distribution of pockets of good soil and the configuration of the coastline – encouraged settlement in nucleated towns.”
This pattern of Puritan settlement, with few individuals living outside the nucleus village, followed the East Anglia model – and differs from much of the rest of the United States. There is more to the lovely green common than meets the eye.
A closer examination of the pattern of settlement, however, presents a more complex model. Joseph S. Wood in The New England Village (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) argues that settlement in Colonial New England was more dispersed and that much of our idealized town center actually comes from the Romantic elite in the nineteenth century. What they thought they were preserving, then, was something they were instead creating.
Regardless of its origins, what we have before us is a stylish array of architectural periods presented primarily in white frame structures and settled within a wooded landscape. It remains distinctive, idealized, and widely copied.
This matter of being rooted in history extends beyond appearances. For a number of reasons, few New Englanders moved away from their towns. “In New England as a whole rates of refined persistence were very high – in some older country towns, the highest that have been measured in any adult population throughout the Western world. This pattern continued from the mid-seventeenth century into the late eighteenth,” Fischer writes. They stayed close to their village commons and markets, families, and friends. In such a gridwork, Boston could indeed be seen as the “Hub of the Universe,” its spokes radiating out across New England and the Georges Banks.
I am always disconcerted while hiking high in a remote mountainside and stumbling across an ancient stone fence line running through what is once again wilderness. How much industriousness went into the determined effort to wrest a farm what must have been, at best, marginal land? Our renewed balance of forest, village, and meadow is a beautiful ecology. It appears to be by design, though clues indicate otherwise. The stone fences in forest remind us that the trees have crept back, almost as forgiveness. They seem to have a sense of forgetting, as well, and of striking a new balance, however tentative.
Pay attention and you may discover each place possesses its own unique spirit, a particular set of vibrations that could be embodied as a local deity, as they are throughout the Hindu world, or devas or angels or a sense of tribal identity or the impact of an ecosystem or watershed or some defined overlap of commerce and culture – sometimes to a life-giving communion, sometimes to a tyrannical oppression, depending. Yet against all of its distinguishing character we must confess New England holds no monopoly on rainbow foliage. Each October this outburst of shimmering tinted rhinestone occurs on deciduous trees across much of the Northern Hemisphere, marking an experience both local and universal, a detailed bend in an extended stream in a band not just across the continent but likely around the globe. What I know of it is particularly American.
Where I grew up, the morning newspaper would assign two of its writers each year to head for the hills of southeast Ohio for an autumn trek, and then presented their reports side-by-side – one from the outdoors columnist’s point of view, the other from the fine arts. To the west, I’ve lived through autumn in the cave-riddled hardwood backcountry of southern Indiana and along the Upper Mississippi, with its panoramas of the bluffs along the river; further west, golden aspens fluttered in the breeze along the Yakima River in the interior desert of the Pacific Northwest and the two-thousand-foot-long veins of scarlet maples snaked down through evergreen slopes of the Cascade Range. To the east, there were two years in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, or a week in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in what the locals kept describing as the most spectacular outbreak in memory. Still, nothing has surpassed my memories of that first autumn after college, when I was free each afternoon to explore the mountainsides along the border of New York and Pennsylvania, where species of northern forests mingle with those of the south.
All of them could stop your breath.