It’s true: it’s here. The change that all of New England awaits every year with hushed breath has begun to transpire. When the leaves start to turn, will the Leaf Peepers be far behind?

Whether or not the tourists have caught wind of it yet, the trees along the Ashuelot River here in Keene have begun to turn. Before you think that these photos come from some secluded wilderness spot, let me explain that the Ashuelot River Park is in the heart of metropolitan Keene (such as it is). The main entrance to the park is on West Street next to the Blockbuster Video store and behind the new Starbucks. Colony Mill Marketplace and a homogenous strip mall are across the street. When you think of Keene, you have to understand that a river runs through her, and this river slices right through the heart of Keene’s business district with its parking lots and chain stores.

I stress this point for the sake of those aforementioned Leaf Peepers. They presumably think that Keene’s parking lots and chain stores are somehow more amply blessed than their own, that the maple in my front yard glows a more neon shade of salmon than the maple growing in their own. Although it’s true that New England autumns are, for various complex meteorological reasons, more brilliant than those of anywhere else in the world, the trees on a secluded New Hampshire hillside aren’t necessarily going to be brighter or more spectacular than the trees behind the supermarket. And yet over the next few weeks, droves of folks from neighboring New England towns will motor through my backyard to see how my trees compare to theirs. Have they ever noticed the maple in their own front yard; do they even care?

Forgive me for sounding crotchedy: it’s not like I have a problem “sharing” my backyard with strangers. But like the older brother of a blossoming beauty, I feel a bit protective when strange eyes start ogling “my” little girl. The gangly tomboy who was all but invisible to outsiders all summer long has suddenly, surprisingly, transformed into a Babe, and all the neighbor boys have started to sit up and take notice. Now even unmowed weeds and unkempt roadsides are beginning to shine with beauty; now even insect-eaten leaves are wilting in a particularly aesthetic fashion. The irony of autumn beauty, of course, is that it is the pall of death we so admire, the process that makes leaves change color being the very act of their death and desiccation. Autumn is a reminder that Nature ultimately does not care. These leaves are not baubles bedecked to tempt and allure but the sallow, sunken shades of decay, Nature being careless enough to cast off without thinking leaves and lives by the bushel.

That Nature is in the business of dying–and that she deals out death with abandon and aplomb–should be no surprise. The whole year ’round, creatures are born only to die inevitably thereafter, the cycle of life being an endless conveyor wending toward the Hereafter. What is surprising about autumn–the real change that transpires this time of year, every year–is that for once humanity is in step with Nature’s death-wending course. When else but in autumn do you find people, enthusiastic tourists, flocking to funerals? For Leaf Peeping is nothing more than a huge landscape-sized wake, the bodies set out for viewing being numerous, colorful, and so common as to be found under virtually every foot.