Autumn Flameout

October 16, 2010


If it’s true “the darkest hour is just before the dawn,” then a logical corollary would seem “it’s always brightest just before nightfall.” I’ve seen enough sunsets to support that assertion. So too with the “sunset” season – autumn.

Our most iconic season with its legendary, almost mythical, moment of “peak foliage” burns brightest on the very cusp of the rainy, gray days and cold, longer nights which soon follow.

After heavy rains and winds tear the tapestry of the autumnal foliage display, northern New Hampshire is relegated to “past peak” status on The Weather Channel foliage maps, like an aging movie star.  While locals still eagerly await the approaching twilight of deer season and subsequent nightfall of the first real snowfall, fair weather tourists largely abandon the hills when trees are stripped down to bleak, bare branches.

The NH Division of Travel and Tourism had forecasted 600,000 visitors would spend $85 million over the Columbus Day holiday weekend. Actual visitation as measured by traffic through the State’s highway tolls exceeded 1.4 million travelers, an increase of two percent over last year. Businesses reported busy to record-breaking holiday weekend sales. From the annual Sandwich Fair to the Warner Fall Foliage Festival, leaf-peepers were prominent in pursuit and purchase of the quintessential autumn outdoor experience.

Fall foliage is simply a bio-chemical metabolic process. Leaves change color due to the chemistry of fading chlorophyll which reveals hidden secondary pigments. The relative roles of sunlight, sugars and formation of leaf stem abscission layers remains the stuff of botany lecture nightmares.

For a decade, I’ve admired the multi-faceted ruby of the fall foliage phenomenon from its economic significance to its biological underpinnings. The more profound and universal aspects of autumn I’ve come to think of as a subtle and spiritual “inner foliage season.” I know that sounds like dubious, tree-hugging-hippie philosophy, but stick with me on this one, friends…

At the close of the growing season, our forests provide their most spectacular natural metaphors. Inanimate hardwood trees drop leaves for elegant recycling into a soil nutrient bank that will refinance the resurrection of their tender green leaves next spring. Bare naked limbs of once-bright maples ask those who pay attention to the passing seasons to ponder the endless cycle of youth, middle age, senescence, death and rebirth.

After decades spent watching autumn leaves change and then fall, many of us take for granted how lucky we are to live in a region that is so predictably gorgeous – but only for a few short weeks in October.

Legions of seemingly rational people from exotic places as far as Canada, Europe and the Midwest spend days and dollars to travel here to watch dying leaves flame-out and fall. The out-of-state visitors perch along roadsides snapping photos of crimson maples while locals pass, shrug and resume routine autumn weekend chores. I drove to my local hardware store to paint a rusted snowplow while oblivious the crazy calico collage of colors. One friend noted bumper-to-bumper southbound leaf-peeper traffic on I-93 Monday with almost smug satisfaction, saying: “Hell, we didn’t need to drive north. We got it all right here, all around us. It’s where we live.”

While an occasional foliar epiphany might seize us at the sight of a personal favorite local maple tree arrayed in it’s autumn finery, we’re generally blinded by a lifelong familiarity with fleeting crimson leaves.

It’s where we live.

Amen to that.