Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes from a fall colors trip

How does one begin to describe the glory of fall foliage at its peak? It's as though Nature, having finally released herself from the tyranny of green, had chosen, like a child given a new set of sketch pens, to explore every shade of her newly discovered palette. Here she adds streaks of orange to the upper registers of one tree, there she conjures up another in brushstrokes of impressionist yellow or renders a third in pointillist maroon. Every grove is a symphony of color, every hillside a tapestry of warm, woven hues. In Vermont, the hills are alive with ripening tonalities of flame and gold, layer upon layer of ochre and burgundy, crimson and burnt sienna rising towards an azure sky, every sunbeam a blaze of fire across the descending treetops. Driving a narrow forest road, impression succeeds impression with the breathlessness of an art gallery as every turning reveals a new masterpiece to gawk at. One tree blushes, the green base of its leaves giving way to a shy orange at the tips; another flames like a torch kindled in the midst of a dark forest. Spilled patches of sunlight lie like gold on the asphalt highway, and scraps of leaves fall lazily through the air, notes escaped from the fugue of the woods. Even the bare trees, the ones that have already shed their foliage, look like pencil sketches, line drawings added to the canvas of the landscape, abandoned but not erased. There is nothing to hold on to here, no single image to grasp or treasure, just the impression of an incandescent but ephemeral beauty that escapes you even as you stop to look at it, or blurs in your car windows into an abstract celebration of pure color.


What is impressive about fall colors is the way the overall effect is an aggregation of such infinite detail - every glorious tree is an arrangement of thousands of perfect little leaves, each a work of art in its own right; every copse or hillside is an accumulation of hundreds of such painstakingly colored trees, each possessing its own unique pattern, its own individual hue; and every drive is a collection of dozens of such views each of which seems definitive and unforgettable, until you stumble upon the next. To travel amidst this splendor is to appreciate the way the world overwhelms us with its richness, makes our lives a process of constant discovery, of beauty endlessly recreated, relentlessly new.


Driving through upstate New York, flecks of red show through the ferrous green of the forest, as though the Adirondacks were slowly rusting in place.


It's not only Nature that has a hand in creating this beauty. Mankind too has done its part to make the scenery picturesque. Freshly mown meadows sprawl lazily amidst the woods, their innocent yet vivid green providing the perfect contrast for the glorious colors all around. Dilapidated barns dot the countryside, along with corrals of grazing horses and quaint little roadside stalls selling pumpkins and maple syrup. Here a small wooden bridge crosses a gurgling stream, there a small house with its white railings and roof of slate blue adds the final touch of pastoral charm to a landscape already exquisite. Even the villages along the way, tourist traps though some of them are, maintain their air of aloof other-worldiness - a mainstreet lined with charming little cafes and taverns, the spartan beauty of a whitewashed church.


A lone tree in a pasture, proud as a sentinel in the livery of Autumn, knowing that it falls to him, and to him alone, to keep her dominion in the midst of these fields.

Two points in the distance - a church steeple and a windmill - define the horizon between them. The one endlessly turning, the other eternally still.


What we ate. Chocolate chip muffins from a small roadside bakery in the Catskills. Red pepper soup followed by tender chicken steak in a delicious lemon herb sauce washed down with a Sauvignon Blanc at the Old Mill Cafe in Ticondegora, NY. An exquisite dish of mushrooms, sun-dried tomato and grilled salmon on a bed of pasta at the Pot Belly Pub and Restaurant in Ludlow, VT. All helpings large enough to feed a family of three. Four if they were watching their weight.


It is humbling to think that Nature means none of this - that in the scheme of things this beauty is incidental, irrelevant. Acre upon acre of land is swathed in the most gorgeous foliage, but none of it is by design, none of it is meant to amaze the eye or excite the imagination. Nature does not shape itself to our witness, rather it is our sense of beauty, our bedazzlement at the sight of these wonders that is itself an atavistic echo of the awe and wonder our ancestors must have felt, watching the leaves change color above them. Astounding as they are, these images are mere byproducts of a process of annual decay, a process concerned with death and renewal, not with aesthetic achievement.


Discovery 1: The state of Massachusetts has the most arbitrary speed limits ever. The general idea seems to be to divide the highway into one mile intervals and then use a random number generator to assign speed limits of somewhere between 25 and 50 mph (in five mile increments) to each individual mile, without any logic except the thrill of variety. I'm told the Mohawk trail is very scenic - and it may well be. I wouldn't know because I was so busy watching for the next road sign that reset the speed limit for the 3,572 nd time, that I didn't see anything else.


The challenge with going on a fall colors trip is knowing when you're done. It's not like going to see some mountain or canyon or historic ruin, where you can get to a definite place, take a bunch of pictures, and then tick the relevant box. At what point can you claim to have 'seen' fall colors? How do you know that there isn't a more stunning sight waiting just five miles away, which is what 'fall colors' are really supposed to look like, not this pathetic excuse for foliage that you're gawking at now. The question "Have we seen it yet?" is one that looms large in the mind of every fall color seeking traveler.

Which is why Z and I were glad to discover this thing called the Robert Frost trail near Ripton, VT. Apparently Robert Frost lived in a house somewhere in Ripton for a while and used to go for walks in the fields and hillsides surrounding the town, so there's now a 1-mile loop trail that winds through said f. and h. , strategically dotted with plaques inscribed with Frost poems along the way. This can get a little twee at times (at one point, for instance, the path forks, so of course there's a plaque with the Road Not Taken on it) but for the most part it adds a pleasant dimension to the trail - reminding you of Frost poems you'd forgotten or making you experience familiar poems anew, seeing them matched to the countryside that they were meant to evoke. Besides, there's the visceral thrill of knowing that you're walking in paths where Frost may once have trod, and anyway, how often do you see a trail that joins the exploration of nature with poetry? The trail itself was pleasant enough: so thick with fallen leaves underfoot that it felt like walking on a lush maroon carpet, and winding through great stands of yellow, sunkissed trees through which the top of Breadloaf Mountain, it's crest flaming with autumn colors could occasionally be seen.


Discovery 2: Never, ever trust fall foliage reports. According to practically every 'current' foliage report Z and I checked out, fall colors were at their peak through a wide swathe of New England and upstate New York, down all the way to Northern Pennsylvania, with a small chunk of Northern Maine / Vermont being past peak. So we drove out of Philly thinking it was only a matter of an hour or two before we started seeing fall colors. Instead we had to drive all the way up to Albany before we saw anything but green, and even there the trees looked as though they'd just begun contemplating the possibility of changing color, like a 30-year old starting to consider retirement plans. Central Vermont was the only place where fall colors genuinely seemed to be at peak. So much for the Information Age.


Sunday morning, I look out of my hotel window and see blotches of orange and crimson climbing through the maple outside, as though the tree were trying to juggle the sunrise in its branches.


Easily the most glorious sight of all is the country cemeteries that lie on the margins of some of the smaller towns. Tombstones of sombre white arranged in neat rows on a small hillock, with great trees spreading in flame above them, like rustling seraphim standing guard over the bones of the lost. As though Death were a season mellower than any other, as though life blazed more brilliantly in the presence of Death.


Anonymous said...

Reading about the fall colours and the rural countryside made me strangely nostalgic. 'Strangely' because I'm yet to see Fall in all it's glory, ablaze with such vibrant how could something which is yet to be seen evoke a sense of nostalgia?

[as though life blazed more brilliantly in the presence of Death.]

But it does, doesn't it?


drifting leaf said...

you just made my day so beautiful my dear friend!

'abandoned but not erased...'

you're magical with words dear fal

prashanth said...

Superb:) Your play with words brought motion picture to me.It is splendid,some lines such as:
"The one endlessly turning, the other eternally still"
"even there the trees looked as though they'd just begun contemplating the possibility of changing color, like a 30-year old starting to consider retirement plans"
"life blazed more brilliantly in the presence of Death"
"abandoned but not erased..."
"lazy leaves........"
Your post on YOBMOT and Socks and Animal's People are fantastic,

hatshepsut said...

errm. palette not pallet, no?
a pallet's a straw bed :)

Falstaff said...

N: Oh, I regularly feel 'nostalgic' about things I've never experienced. I suspect nostalgia is the wrong term though. There should be a word for being reminded of something that you've dreamed of or imagined.

leaf: you're welcome

prashanth: Thanks. I take it you're new to the blog.

hatshepsut: *strikes forehead* yes, of course. All fixed now. Thanks for pointing that out. The folly of relying on spell check to catch errors.

Sunbeamz said...

Thank you thank you for putting those unbelievable feelings into words ! Nature is just amazing :)
I haven't maanged to be in the right place at the right time, though I wish I could have seen that for myself.
Loved your photographs.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but sometimes the 'memory' being evoked seems so real, yet you know it couldn't be. If you find a word for such 'nostalgia' let me know too.

Though I have a theory of 'why' it might happen. I've a very vivid imagination, such that when I read books I can see it play out in my mind like a movie. Perhaps thats why sometimes some things seem so familiar, even though I might not have experienced them in real life. Like memories of memories?


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Damn. Now I miss that horrible country.

But hazelnut coffee is now available in this city. Some consolation.