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.
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.