Fallen

The fall foliage in the Boston suburbs is now past peak, which means it’s my favorite time of year, when the ground is just as colorful as the trees. I like the crunch of leaves underfoot, and I like the burnt and burnished tone of the late-changers, who lean toward brown and bronze. October is ethereal, with bright colors overhead, and November is grounded, with earth tones underfoot.

Crabapples

Yesterday I had a spare half hour between my last class at Curry College and a Friday afternoon meeting in Boston: a spare half hour I should have spent grading papers. But it was a glorious fall day–sunny and unseasonably warm, shirtsleeves-and-sandals weather–and I knew I’d hate myself if I spent the whole day inside. There will be plenty of time to catch up with grading, I told myself, when the weather’s cold and dismal.

Green Dot trail

It had been years since I’d gone walking at the Blue Hills, which are just down the street from Curry College. Years ago when my then-husband and I rented a house in nearby Randolph, MA, I frequently walked Reggie at the Blue Hills: those were the days when Reggie was young and full of energy, and seemingly no amount of walking could tire him. That was, in other words, a literal lifetime ago, when I was still married to my first husband and Reggie was still alive.

Nest box

Autumn is a naturally retrospective time: seeing so many living things wending their way to their eventual demise naturally gets you thinking about past autumns and the things you’ve lost in the interim. Autumn is a naturally retrospective time that sometimes leads you to wonder how many more seasons you have in you and what, exactly, it is you’re doing with your life in the meantime.

Distant color

But yesterday, as I said, was perfect walking weather: no ghosts of autumns past could distract me from that. I pass the parking lot for the Blue Hills’ Trailside Museum every time I drive to or from Curry, and usually I don’t have time to stop, much less go walking: usually I’m hurrying to campus to teach or hurrying home to tackle an endless to-do list: so many papers, and so little time. An adjunct’s work is never done, so I always feel a bit wistful when I pass by the Blue Hills, remembering past walks there and wondering when I might find a spare half hour to return.

Autumn landscape

Yesterday was my chance, and I took it. I didn’t have a map and couldn’t remember exactly where the Green Dot trail from the Trailside Museum’s parking lot goes; I just set an alarm on my phone to tell me when I’d need to turn back to my car, and I let my feet lead me where they would. Where I found myself, I figured out later, was the Carberry Path, a side trail that dead-ends at the edge of the Blue Hills’ property…but before I found myself facing a No Trespassing sign that turned me back toward my car just before my alarm did, I spent a short but wonderful while in a fall field reigned over by a regal old hickory glowing gold in the afternoon sun.

Golden hickory

Japanese maple foliage

When I got home from teaching today, J was standing at the kitchen counter, working at his laptop. “The tree out front is on fire,” he said, and I immediately knew what he was referring to.

Arborvitae, oak, maple

In one corner of our front yard, we have a Japanese maple that is perfectly lovely all year round, its lacy green leaves veined with red. But every autumn—and seemingly overnight—this perfectly lovely tree erupts into brilliant blood-red foliage that seems to carry its own inner illumination, as if someone had flipped it on with a switch. Forget about walking the earth in search of Annie Dillard’s tree with the lights in it: all you need as proof of a benevolent Universe is one glimpse of a Japanese maple on fire.

Japanese maple

When the Japanese maple in our front yard is “on,” it seems to emit its own light, like a red lantern. Rationally I know the crimson glow that filters through the window and seeps between the blind-slats is sunlight diffused through countless red leaves, but part of me expects to see a power cord stretched from tree trunk to electrical outlet to power a tree as bright and radiant as a neon tube.

When I walk into my soothing green-tiled bathroom on Fire Days, I can see the maple-glow before I see the tree itself outside my window. As I sit here writing these pages in front-facing bedroom, the white walls are tinted with a blush of red, and the forest-green blinds seem entirely incapable of keeping red out, for it flames and trickles between every slat.

Japanese maple samaras

When I came home from teaching today, J was there in the kitchen to inform me the tree out front was on fire, a camera sitting on the counter beside him. Fire Day is a regular fixture of every autumn: we haven’t had an autumn yet where the Japanese maple in our front yard hasn’t brilliantly turned. But Fire Day is a fleeting festival: soon enough the leaves that are lit today will lose their electricity, their power fading until they crumple and blow away. If you want pictures of a tree on fire, you have to move fast before the brisk breeze quenches its light and extinguishes its flame for another year.

This is my Day 4 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Golden oaks

The fall foliage in Massachusetts is presently past its prime, which means the brightest leaves have already fallen. Every autumn in New England features a predictable parade, with the maples’ reds and yellows presenting the brightest—and earliest—color while the oaks bring up the burnished rear. We’ve now entered the bronze age, the time of year when hearty oaks prevail over flamboyant maples, and the landscape is cloaked in brown and gold. This is autumn’s ripening time, when all of nature is either seedy or going to seed.

Yellow bus with golden foliage

These weeks of late October and early November are probably my favorite time of year for this very reason of being past-prime. Anyone can be charmed by the eye-popping spectacle of early autumn, its yellow and red color scheme as garishly obvious as a McDonald’s sign: golden arches at every turn. But in October, the oaks come into their heyday with colors that are more somber and subtle: burnt gold, burnished brown, and hammered bronze. In these weeks of October-into-November, most of the leaf-peeping tourists have headed home, and only the locals are around to relish and rake the leaves that remain. On the ground, oak leaves look dead, but while clinging to the trees, they shimmer with a subtle sheen of tans, beiges, and browns: earth colors in all their flesh-toned glory.

Surving Massive Oak inside construction zone

Although two of Framingham State’s massive oaks were cut down last summer to make room for an ongoing construction project, campus has not been completely bereft of old oaks. These belated days of autumn boast a well-ripened beauty that is striking precisely because it looks its age. Spring is the season for lush young lovelies, and September offers the newly ripening edge of maturing fecundity. The weeks of late October, on the other hand, lean deep toward death and decay: neither a bride nor young mother, but a middle-aged matron who soughs and settles into increasingly chilly nights, her wooden bones creaking. I cherish these weeks of late October because the passage of time is so apparent now, every burst of wind uncovering another branch, another bough, another wrinkle on the earth’s aging face.

Flaming foliage

In autumn, every place feels sacred. The light slants at a low, golden angle, refracting through foliage like stained glass. At every step you are reminded of mortality by the crunch of leaves underfoot while you harbor the hidden hope that this too will be green (again) in spring.

Waiting for the light to change

Autumn air is crisp and scented with a potpourri of dried leaves: who needs either incense or censer in this open-air cathedral, the now-bare limbs of early-turning maples arching overhead like beams. In autumn, the whole landscape is gilded, tricked in light and color, consecrated by the passage of time: a cathedral as old and as sacred as ages. Why do you need to step inside a church in autumn when being inside right now feels like its own kind of sacrilege? New England churches should be required to have skylights–or better yet, removable roofs–to let in as much golden light as possible: light straight from heaven, filtered through falling leaves.

(I wrote these two paragraphs in one of this morning’s First Year Writing Seminars, given the five-minute writing prompt of “Sacred Space.” I’ve been buried in papers these past few weeks, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. Today’s photos prove, however, that you needn’t go far to see leaves in New England, as I shot the first photo in a grocery store parking lot and the second while I was waiting for a traffic light to change on my way home from buying pet supplies.)

Leaf and sky

Every year, I worry that I’ll miss the so-called “peak” fall foliage season. If you travel to (or even within) New England to leaf-peep in the autumn, you presumably don’t want to waste your time looking at anything but the best colors, so there are handy maps to help you determine which places offer the best leaf-peeping bang for your travel buck.

Leaf and shadow

If you live and don’t travel much within New England, you don’t chart your leaf-peeping by maps. Instead, you see whatever you stumble upon, particularly if October is your busy season and you don’t have time to drive to picturesque spots offering the best autumnal money-shots. Last year I struggled to find a handful of appropriate images for the Photo Friday theme “Autumn,” and this year, I find myself facing the same sort of insecurity. Given the challenge of picking one picture that says “Autumn,” how can any one image live up to the hype?

Driveby

If you think that fall foliage has a “peak,” then you have a problem. What if you stumble upon, breathless, a particularly lovely autumnal scene, only to learn later that this vision of loveliness was merely mediocre? As soon as you think “peak,” you introduce the possibility of disappointment, for anything less than the height of perfection is second-best. Wouldn’t it be better to hold off in your peeping until you were quite sure autumn herself was peaking? And yet by waiting, wouldn’t you run the risk of missing that precise moment of visual perfection you were holding out for?

Green veins

I say to hell with peak foliage: I for one don’t have the time to wait around for it. While others are planning their fall-foliage tours against maps and weather forecasts, every day I just walk the dog. The pictures illustrating today’s post come from a dozen photos I snapped on Wednesday morning’s dog-walk; if you don’t like these, I have others. On any given day, the sights we see might be below average, prime, or merely mediocre, but they are, after all, all we’ve got. Whether or not this moment, this picture, this red-flaming leaf is Peak or not isn’t my matter to decide. Instead of waiting for the One Perfect Moment that captures Autumn 2009 in quintessential perfection, I’ll continue taking and sharing whatever images I can gather.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Autumn 2009.

Impress

This morning, among fallen horse-chestnut leaves, I found one perfect buckeye which I picked up and polished in my palm: a souvenir of the season.

Maple leaf on rhododendron

It’s mild and partly cloudy today after yesterday’s unremitting gloom and last night’s rain: a perfect Saturday. It’s Columbus Day weekend, so half of Massachusetts will be driving up to New Hampshire to look at the leaves of others while half of New Hampshire drives up to Maine. As for J and I, we’ll stay close to home this weekend, realizing our own backyard is just as lovely as anyone else’s.

This morning I saw a single red maple leaf snagged in spider-silk, wildly dancing in a breeze that showered down its gold and crimson fellows. It was almost eerie to see one single maple leaf caught in suspension, as it autumn itself were held in abeyance.

Dogwood berries

Time stops for no one, and changing leaves and ripening berries are a vivid reminder of that simple fact. These days of gold and crimson are the ones we New Englanders live for, cherish, and hold in memory: bright days savored against bleak times. These are the days that get us through the cold, monochromatic days of December and January, when color is a distant memory.

This isn’t something a leaf-peeping tourist can appreciate, for the true beauty of a New England autumn doesn’t fully ripen until mid-winter, when both the leaves and their peepers are gone. In the dark days of mid-winter, only hope and the memory of bright gold and crimson breezes remain, curled like cotyledons in their seeds. The memory of these bright and brilliant days is what we New Englanders tuck inside our souls like folded snapshot, a cherished memento to cheer us when the nights are long and cold.