More looking closely at the worm

Charles Darwin’s final book, 1881, was Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

Adam Phillips’ Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories addresses both Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Could a trip to the compost bin be as amazing as visiting the Galapagos?


Turning the compost

My wife observes I have a low tolerance for the nitty-gritty details of life. I have trouble accepting that things break down or fall apart. I don’t like cleaning up afterward. I don’t like confrontations, much less having to call people to remind them of their obligations. Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older, or of feeling myself constantly pressed for time.

What I have found is that turning the compost has therapeutic value. I’ll retreat there when I’m at a loss for dealing with people. My little buddies, the red wigglers, extend their own comfort, simply by being. I don’t know how they survive winter. They simply disappear and come back.

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My daughters balk at carrying kitchen refuse to the enclosed compost bin. The task falls on me. I wish they wouldn’t feel grossed out, as they claim. What I realize is how much this practice reduces the amount of trash and garbage we place out on the street for weekly pickup. More than the several hundred dollars we save each year, in city-issued trash bags, the practice heightens my appreciation for what we can convert back into soil. I wish we would do more with newspapers, for instance. The ash from our wood stove is applied rather than bagged lime.

And I’ve seen the ground itself responding, becoming softer, more pliable, and more verdant.

There are many life lessons here, as I keep seeing, collecting, turning, and spreading this process.

Behold, the worm

The humble stars of this show, revealed by a garden fork.
The humble stars of this show, revealed by a garden fork.

Red wigglers truly are, as the jingle in the comedy WKRP in Cincinnati proclaims, the Cadillac of worms. While that show’s fictional sponsor touted their excellence as fish  bait, I could never willing drown them: I’ve come to greatly value their appearance in the compost, first as a harbinger of health and progress, and then as a profusion taking the decaying matter (in our case, mostly deciduous tree leaves) into the final stage, which resembles dark, rich soil. Their arrival shows the work of decomposition is nearing completion. The original organic matter is now down to a quarter of its original size, or less, and will soon resemble rich soil.

Whether this process is scientific or simply mysterious is answered to some degree in the eye of the beholder. I do my share in turning the mass in each bin with a pitchfork, to work in more air, and then try to add nitrogen, one way or another. Our household, for instance, has a pet rabbit, and her manure pellets are concentrated energy for this transformation. And then, as the conditions become optimal, the slow process occurs. A new pile to be composted begins to retain moisture before typically reaching a takeoff point where the interior mass becomes quite hot to the touch, perhaps reaching 150 degrees. After a light rainfall, the bins will actually be steaming.

For the record, I’m not a gardener. My wife is. My role is more the assistant, constructing raised beds, maintaining the wood-chip pathways, mowing, some weeding, and composting, especially.

My first real encounters with composting came in religious circles. When I lived in the yoga ashram, we were serious composters, although most of the hands-on work with it was done by others. We also had a significant amount of manure from our horse and chickens to work with. Later, traveling within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I overhead a number of conversations regarding the practice and learned that the root word of humility is related to the concept of composting. Humus, then, as rich soil for growth.

The lowly worms lead the way.

* * *

The worms become emblematic of the unanticipated directions this journey has taken. I have no idea of where they come from, other than underground or perhaps from neighboring, more finished compost. Yet they appear. They show up as reminders of unfinished work and of rot. There’s nothing sleek, secure, and finished about our house and yard. Everything seems to be in motion. I keep hoping we can afford to put a new roof on the barn, while my wife wants to redesign the driveway. Turning the compost is something I can afford, as is collecting all the bags of leaves from the neighbors each fall. It would be so much easier and nattier to have truckloads of topsoil and finished compost delivered, if our budget allowed. The worms move around, as most of our possessions seem to do also.

The worms also reflect our desire of going organic. They are living organisms, rather than chemical applicants.

They are red, like our house and barn and small garden shed.

Tombstone angels

Colonial Puritan headstones present an evolving emblematic reminder of fleeting nature of mortality, moving over time from harsh stylized eyes of judgment to the bare bones of the human skull to more humanized features before turning to images of Grecian urns or weeping willows. The images came to be known as Tombstone angels, for good reasons.

Here are some examples from a burial ground in downtown Concord, Massachusetts.

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Pumpkins and shadows of witches

Nowhere else have I seen Halloween observed with the excess that it stirs in New England. A native of the Midwest, where I’ve lived in five cities and three states, and having resided in the mountains of both Upstate New York State and Pennsylvania, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and a corner of the South, I find myself perplexed when Halloween decorations begin appearing shortly after Labor Day, about the time that the early signs of autumn foliage are obvious and undeniable. By the first of October, the decor is out full-bore, nearly as pervasive as Christmas decorations the first week of December.

Halloween means something quite distinct here in New England – something beyond the trick-or-treat emphasis elsewhere. At first, I thought it was simply a matter of quantity – or maybe trinkets that have become widely marketed in recent years. Such observations lead me, then, to ask whether the overindulgence has accelerated in recent years. To ask whether it’s merely another manifestation of increasing consumerism – a reflection of a secular society that confuses a candy overload with spiritual blessings. But that turns the consideration toward the quality of the observance itself. Just what hunger drives so many people to adorn their yards with large plastic “pumpkin” bags filled with leaves or to drape blinking orange lights around their houses? Admittedly, some of it is pure playfulness – the effigy of the witch crashed into a telephone pole or a tree. But is there something more – a hunger within the psyche that is not openly acknowledged? In that light, the practice of teaching Halloween carols (for that’s what they are) in elementary schools can be seen as a perverse substitute for sacred Christmas music that’s been banned – a reflection of tolerance that permits the mention of witches, but not a baby Jesus, in public institutions. (Doesn’t that, by default, make for an anti-Christ? What values are being taught here? Which ones suppressed?) Hunger turned exclusively toward candy, rather than genuine food, is not healthy. Perhaps sending children out dressed as terrorists is the inevitable outcome. So what if they’ve been isolated from experiences of death common to farm life or even large families of previous centuries?

My concern is that a “witches-are-good” theology sugarcoats the deeper essence of New England’s Halloween fixation. The real issue is anxiety about death, something that is rarely addressed outside of religion, which we’ve largely banished from the realm of public discourse.

Enter some of the more isolated pockets of the region, listen to the stories, and you’re likely to sense that something else is going on – something that goes back generations. Bits of it appear in the news – a farmer who poisons the coffee at his church, the police chief who buries his girlfriend’s husband in his front yard and is discovered a decade later. Something in the heart turns to stone. A century-old house will do; two centuries or more is better.

The fact is that families here have been in place for generations. Memories linger, and wounds – even perceived slights – fester. Add to the caldron large numbers of Scots-Irish, Irish, and Quebecoise – with all of their own folklore and superstitions regarding death and hardship.

Salem – the city now synonymous with witchcraft in America – is also the seat of Massachusetts’ Essex County. From our contemporary vantage, we typically blur Salem in with “events back then” and overlook just how far back that goes (settled in 1626, it’s the second-oldest city in Massachusetts – and four years older than Boston). By comparison, Philadelphia would not be envisioned until 1681, and the first town in North Carolina would not be founded until 1705. Salem bridges more than the mother country’s Essex County with an Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Despite its footing in medieval thought, barely a decade after its founding Salem could nevertheless as easily claim to be the birthplace of dissent in America, thanks to a succession of Samuel Gorton, Anne Hutchinson and her followers, and Roger Williams in the 1630s – each of them, we must note, ultimately taking flight to what would become Rhode Island. From our contemporary vantage, we also blur the distinctions between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and those of the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony – not only critical theological differences, but cultural ones, as well, rooted in different parts of England. Our modern impression of witches in black pointy hats and Puritans with muzzleloaders and buckled hats loses any sense of the intellectual and moral fermentation in the decades up to 1692 – a time of upheaval that included the theological and social challenge presented by the emerging Quaker movement (four of its itinerant ministers were executed by Massachusetts officials 1659-1660) and by the simultaneous restoration of the English monarchy. The return of Charles II to the throne must have presented the ultimate existential conundrum to the Puritan movement, which had come to the New World with hopes of nurturing the future English government from exile and was then largely excluded from Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. All the while, the expectation of Harvard University as an alternative Oxford would, over the centuries, would be fulfilled in a then-unanticipated destiny. Today we emphasize the Puritans’ fear of nature, but overlook the fact that the frontier wilderness not far from their doors was full of danger – including kidnapping to Quebec that continued until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Until then, English civilization ceased just beyond the handful of garrisoned communities only sixty miles up the coast from Salem.

While we today apply “Puritan” or “Puritanical” with a prejudicial contempt equivalent to the charge of “witchcraft” or “sorcery” in earlier eras, we also fail to see the movement’s great idealistic accomplishments, including genuine attempts to create utopian societies within the constraints of human nature. We fail, too, to see that they maintained – even from their pulpits – a lusty approach to life and sexuality, albeit within the confines of marriage and community. We expect them to be spotless, by our standards; what a shock, then, to hear about the large quantity of beer these Puritans quaffed – more than a gallon a day for every man, woman, and child, by some estimates – and, later, hard cider. (Or, on much of the New England frontier, the whiskey common to Scots-Irish tables.) Even watered down, it must have led to borderline alcoholics, at the least. A paranoia becomes possible. What is missing in our stereotypes, then, is any sense of individual people and their personalities. Nowadays, we revel instead in their failures and discipline, instead of their accomplishments and goals. In raising the “puritanical” cry, we blame them for much in which they are guiltless, and accuse them of things they never were. We are far more likely to look at them through the revisionist eyes of Arthur Miller (The Crucible) or Nathaniel Hawthorn (The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables) than through their own. The sins, then, may be ours as much as theirs.

The subject of witchcraft obviously provides its own boogyman – especially as it touches our own nerve about persecution injustice. (Incidentally, one friend has concluded that the Salem witch executions were the result of the application of then-modern “scientific method” jurisprudence; under church rules, she argues, none of the accused would have been ruled guilty. Again, our presumptions and values deserve challenge.) What is not known can be regarded as darkness, and who knows what lurks in the darkness?

All the same, something in autumn evokes witches in the American mindset. Especially in New England, with its intertwined images of fall foliage and Halloween witches. As Fischer notes, from 1647 to 1692, the Puritan colonies accounted for ninety percent of the accusations and eighty-five percent of the executions for witchcraft in English-speaking America.

If we typically fail to see the Puritans themselves, perceiving witches becomes even more elusive. (And all the more fascinating for a modern thread of morbidity.) We can ask, of course, whether they existed at all. One answer is that laws are not written and imposed for problems that don’t exist. In other words, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Of course, there’s the very question of how witches and witchcraft are defined – and even whether practitioners would have so defined themselves or their work in that manner, or as something quite different. On top of it all is the romance of the outsider – an underground tradition, perhaps dating to antiquity, maybe Druids or Celts, or the mere act of quiet rebellion against the dominant authority.

What we do see is how much the matter haunts the American mindset, and how widely it touches a common nerve. Nothing demonstrates this as much as the autumn pilgrimage to Salem amid the annual tide of foliage peepers.

While the Salem witch trials touch on many basic tensions – with socio-economic justice high on the list – they also invoke an underlying tension between intellect and emotion. Because the Puritan strand of Calvinism relied strongly on the Bible as the “written Word of God,” what emerged was a reason-based approach to faith. Where, then, did emotion fit? Or practices that long predated the Protestant Reformation? Or abuses of power relating to families and commerce? Buried emotions and fears were bound to erupt somewhere.

In some ways the contemporary New England Halloween seems to wallow in the forbidden, a Mardi Gras in Pilgrim land. How strange, too, that a holiday from the Catholic and Anglican liturgical calendar should come to so dominate a place settled by those who did not observe even Christmas! How much, then, is a jeering reaction to the Puritan hierarchy from East Anglia by the Scotch-Irish, Catholic Irish, and backcountry Quebecoise who since migrated to the region in great numbers?

The witch trials continue to fascinate as historians delve into not-so-apparent influences, such as struggles for secular dominance and wealth. Some see a manifestation of long-festering Puritan fears, an anti-Quaker thrust of the Salem trials, though veiled, having much earlier hanged Quaker Mary Dyer, a woman having a legitimate claim to the throne of England. Even earlier, Salem had offered a pulpit to Roger Williams, who would eventually establish the first Baptist congregation in America, and was a center of antinomian theology, much to the agitation of Puritan officials. The ultimate issue, then, may have been Puritan hegemony, rather than witchcraft.

Others have looked to scientific causes, such as an outbreak of hallucinogenic ergot in rye – which would nonetheless point back to the fears of witchcraft itself.

When considering Halloween in New England, we might even add the much-later Lizzie Borden case (1892 – exactly two centuries after the Salem witch fever), that continues to focus a morbid fascination on Fall River. Lizzie’s case is mirrored in other stories of death, of a series of husbands slain by their new bride, of children’s mummies found in attics decades later, all part of New England’s Gothic lore. Somehow, it’s altogether fitting that master horror writer Stephen King lives in Maine.

David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989) sees in the “Death Ways” of New England seeds for this situation: “The Puritans of Massachusetts shared this feeling in an exaggerated degree because of their theology. … New England’s Calvinist orthodoxy insisted that the natural condition of humanity was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them. The people of Massachusetts were trained by their ministers never to be entirely confident of their own salvation. From childhood, they were taught to believe that a sense of certainty about salvation was one of the surest signs that one was not saved. … This attitude of cultivated insecurity, coming on top of the dangers of life itself, created a brooding darkness that hovered over the collective unconscious of New England for two centuries.”

Within that collective unconscious memory is the fact that Halloween falls close to the beginning of solar winter, just a little more than a week away – just as Groundhog’s Day announces solar spring. This sense of solar seasons, rather than calendar seasons, is well known to earlier peoples, and explains why Mayday, the beginning of solar summer, was so widely celebrated. (Except in New England, where the town of Merrymount provided the brief exception.) Such arcane knowledge makes pieces of folklore fit into place.

Halloween is a harbinger of November, the bleakest month of the year – made all the more so by the return of Eastern Standard Time, which drives sunset to mid-afternoon and means leaving the workplace for home in darkness. Halloween, then, is a herald of gloom, death, and despair. Laugh all you want during the party or the parade of sweet-toothed kiddies, the candle in the jack-o’-lantern will die out. Here, then, autumn presages new trials. The brilliant colors are deceptive and short-lived – a clarion warning. Getting through New England’s dark winter has no guarantee. Don your costume and pretend it does. But for balance, remember, All Saint’s Day and Ash Wednesday follow – with much reason.

Citations and more

Bonnie Friedman, in Writing Past Dark (Harper Collins, 1994), recalls “leaves kindled on the trees, bursting into orange and red and yellow almost with a gasp like a pilot light lighting, and they hung there the barest instant – a week, nothing – before they flung themselves to the earth. The ground flowed with colors as if a globe had been spun. Everything urged disorder.”

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To demonstrate how intensely the dominant Puritan culture could bear down on those who opposed its values, historian David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989), relates the origin of a well-known American word:

“In Massachusetts Bay, an eccentric Devon family called Maverick settled the present town of Chelsea and an island in Boston Harbor that still bears their name. They had trouble with the Puritans and moved away, keeping one jump ahead of the larger cultures that threatened to engulf them. By the nineteenth century, the Mavericks had found their way onto the western plains. Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.”

The fact remains that New England has, at its heart, Puritan roots – which, surprisingly, include an awareness of witchcraft. Fischer demonstrates that the United States bears the often conflicting legacies of four distinct English migrations to the American colonies. New England, he argues, arises almost exclusively in a culture transported from East Anglia – in particular, the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. From the Boston accent, which in England was known as a “Norwich whine,” to the diet of oven goods (pies, Yankee pot roasts, and Boston baked beans), to the “saltbox” and “Cape Cod’ style of houses, to the New England sports of baseball and American football, the origins can be traced to surviving parallels in East Anglia and neighboring shires. Fischer also reports:

In England, every quantitative study has found that recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled. The American historian John Demos concludes, “… interestingly, the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the [old English] county of Essex alone. Essex was beyond a doubt a center of witch-hunting within the mother country …”

A rare repertoire

Apart from the seasonal recipes my wife trots out in autumn – the leak-and-potato or butternut squash soups, for example, or the last of the fresh eggplant parmesan  – I mark the occasion with my own extended ritual. Somehow, each October, I pull out my recordings of the symphonies of Charles Ives and play them in sequence. Rarely as 1-2-3-4 and the Symphony of Holidays, either, but more as a dozen playings of the first, followed by a dozen of the second, and so on. And then that’s followed by George Whitefield Chadwick’s string quartets, often leading to other New England Romantic era composers – John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote – as well as the more contemporary Walter Piston and his colleagues. These are not pieces I hear often on the radio, not even Boston’s, where all but Ives had lived and worked. (He had become the leading insurance executive in Manhattan, as well as a legendary maverick musician.) These are the neglected but brilliant and often innovative voices of New England, defiantly proving to the world what the Germans were not required to match. I’ve come to feel their music in my soul as my own.

Occasionally, while driving in autumn, I pass a meadow of intense green, even after a killing frost. How inexplicable this reminder of spring aspiration feels so late in the year!

Once, approaching Pinkham Notch on my return from northern Maine, I pulled over beside a boulder-strewn streambed and hiked briefly, thinking myself alone in the now pale yellow, chilled air. As my exhale fogged, I glanced around the forest and listened to the echo of the few remaining birds. Then I noticed the fly fisherman in his waders, patiently casting.

The line, as easily a filament of music as of hope or tranquility; the skill of casting, advanced over the years; the mastery of tying the feathers themselves, likely in the long nights of winter: all coming together in the passing, the present, now, momentary, fleeting, falling wonder.

Brooding, as an element of depth

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.

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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.

Awaiting color

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.

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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.

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.