Fall – as all we northern woodlanders know – is leaf-peeping time.
If the hills ablaze with red and yellow were not evidence enough,
there are other signs to alert us: the tour buses, for instance, tall,
sleek ones with windows you can see out of from inside but not
into from outside. It’s not unusual come October to find these
landlocked cruiseships parked in downtown Farmington while
their passengers debark for lunch before heading north to take
in the peak foliage on Maine’s western mountains.
The charter bus companies are not alone in recognizing
the value of this autumnal resource. Maine’s Department of
Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry even has an official
website ( www.mainefoliage.com) where you can sign up for
weekly reports on current foliage conditions in the state’s seven
different foliage zones. John Bott of the department tells me
the foliage website got 574,000 hits last year. Or for up-to-the-minute reports anytime during the season, you can call Gale
Ross, the department’s fall foliage coordinator, at (207) 287-
5153. All this is as it should be. What better use for buses than
taking people out to see the splendor of Maine’s forests. What
better fun for Gale Ross than telling folks just when and where
to see one of nature’s greatest shows on earth.
The ideal vantage point for day-tripping leaf peepers –
whether they get to it by bus or on foot – is a high elevation
with a 360-degree view, or at least a 180-degree one. The desired
effect is a panorama filled with the nearly infinite variety of
color combinations visible from that kind of perch. Most years
I’ll take time off on peak-color days and climb one or two of
our nearby mountains that reward the hiker with just that kind
of macrocosmic view. And on days when I need to work close
to home, I can indulge in backyard leaf peeping, watching the
first tinges of red and yellow seep into individual trees and then
infuse them wholly with color.
The next step in this more microcosmic approach is to focus
on individual leaves. In A Year in the Maine Woods, Bernd
Heinrich recorded the colors he found in fallen red maple leaves
he picked up on a short walk. In his sampling of 27 leaves, he
found an amazing variety, ranging from “yellow with small
purple blotches” to “bright vermilion red with yellow veins,”
from “uniform orange” to “greenish yellow with one bright red
corner.” So I find myself wondering whether each red maple leaf
produces its own unique coloration, something like snowflakes
retaining their six-pointed form while producing endless variations on it.
Granted, the fall show is spectacular, whether you’re looking
at one leaf or untold millions, but it’s far from the only show our
leaves put on. Where fall rushes in with fanfare and dazzles us,
spring tiptoes in, clothing the hillsides with poplar’s soft, gauzy
green and red maple’s crimson haze. And along with those
delicate colors that must drive painters wild with envy come the
By Robert Kimber
emergent leaves. The trees and shrubs around our dooryard – the
maples, ash, black cherry, chokecherry, shadbush, to name just a
few – make it easy for me to watch the quite rapid day-by-day
growth of their leaves to adulthood, a process lovely to behold.
It’s like being in a nursery school on fast forward where toddlers
might shoot up to adolescence in a matter of a few weeks.
When I’m out on a ramble in the woods and find an infant
leaf I haven’t seen grow to maturity before, I cut off a twig and
put it in a water-filled mason jar on the kitchen table to see
what its leaves will develop into. This past spring I brought
home a cutting with seven tiny green canoes on it, each about
an inch and a half long and with radical tumblehome curling the
gunwales in so far they nearly met the inside of the hull. After a
few weeks they grew up into adult hobblebush leaves.
For my eye, spring, with its flowering and leafing out, is every
bit as beautiful as fall, if not more so, but then why quibble?
Leaves never disappoint. In mid-summer’s days of ubiquitous
green, the different shapes and shades of leaves give each tree
and hillside its distinctive tones and contours, and on a breezy
day a tall gray birch just 50 yards from our back door will turn up
the silvery bottoms of its leaves and put on a show of fluttering
and flashing that would put a sequined ball dress to shame.
Even in winter, when the branches of most deciduous trees are
bare, beech leaves – ribbed, papery, and translucent as Chinese
lanterns – are still holding on. Somewhere in the forest you can
always find a leaf: a reminder that the snow will melt, the sap
will run, the leaves will burst out once again; a reminder, too,
that there’s never a dull moment among trees and no such thing
as a closed season on leaf peeping.
Robert Kimber has written often for outdoor and environmental magazines. He lives
in Temple, Maine.