Looking for fall as the trees turn

The Green River is golden. Driving Route 43 at noon as the sun breaks through, I lean back against the seat and feel myself smiling spontaneously. The leaves let the light in, and here for a stretch the woods are rich and sunlit and almost too bright to look at.

I can’t ever take it for granted.

Every year now, I start looking anxiously when the first red leaves show in late August. John Steinbeck said it for me in “Travels with Charley” — “The climate changed quickly to cold, and the trees burst into color, the reds and yellows you can’t believe. It isn’t only color but a glowing, as thought the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly. There’s a quality of fire in these colors.”

The days are sunny and 70s now, and the nights drop to 40, and the woods are a glory. They are muted in places. Some of the leaves turn brown and crumble. But I am holding on to every fall day that feels like fall to me.

Like Steinbeck, I like seasons. I like winter storms and spring thaws. And it seems clear that as the weather changes, our sense of normal weather changes with it.

The winter we had a few seasons ago, when the temperature stayed below freezing from Christmas to Valentine’s Day, used to be every New England winter — and I mean 30 years ago. My grandfather, keeping a log in his Maine cabin by the wood stove, recorded 11 degree days in November in 1973. Hal Borland, writing a regular nature column from Northwest Connecticut in 1975, recorded a regular temperature swing in mid-winter from sub-zero or single digits at night to 20s and 30s during the day. Now it’s often 20s to 40s, which should be early spring weather.

Sugar maple trees need the cold. And they could move north to look for it. So when one near my front door turns oriole-orange over night, I look closely.

“I like weather rather than climate,” Steinbeck wrote in 1960, when he drove through New England at this time of year. “… For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”


This post is adapted from a By the Way column that ran in the Berkshire Eagle in my time as editor of Berkshires Week. In the photo at the top, maple trees turned golden at the base of the Hopper trail on Mount Greylock in 2008. Photo by Kate Abbott 

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