Leaf Peepers

The front rolled in right before dark. You could feel the change in the air as the barometric pressure dropped and the cattle who had been standing in the upper paddock eating the last of the pumpkins abruptly hunkered down to chew cud. My son and I were in the shop of the big barn working on a project. The doors were rolled back so we could watch the sunset. He stood at the band saw while I worked at the bench and neither of us spoke much after the day we had put in. Being together working on something for fun was enough. Inside my wife and the younger children were preparing our supper and every once in a while they would come in to check on our progress, the new puppy following them like a shadow. We were assembling a scale model of a cabin that my son plans on building for himself. Everyone would call it a tiny house today, but he refers to it as his getaway.

I understand that and in a way I am excited for him to start his own life wherever it takes him. If he remains on the farm the cabin is a good start for a young man, out on the edge of the property with his own entrance he can learn what it’s like to live alone out from under the shadow of his parents while still doing what he loves. If he feels the pull to go on to something else he will have an asset that can earn him an income rather than to hit adulthood indebted. He’s thinking farther out than most kids his age and that, coupled with the skill sets he has already developed will serve him rather than forcing him to serve others.

Every year around this time swarms of tourists come up for the weekend to view the changing of the seasons, up here they call them leaf peepers. The expensive sedans and SUV’s with out of state tags are filled with well dressed out of staters who come to see the phenomenon in all its glory. This area in particular is known as one of the premier regions for fall colors because of the variety of hardwoods and the numerous rises and falls of grade. The process of color change is as much about light as it is chemical. As the days shorten chlorophyll production drops off and the glucose stored in the leaves begins to turn towards the red end of the spectrum reflecting light in an entirely different way than during the Summer.

The change begins to show in the weakest trees- the saplings and the dying and in the lowest spots where the water concentrations are highest, along the rivers and in the bottom land and swampy bogs. Certain species begin to go before others, first the ash and the soft maple, followed by the poplar and the birches. The sugar maples with their heavy tops take the longest, putting on a month long striptease where they slowly give off vibrant displays of dropping their cover from the top of the crown to the bottom as if consciously trying to get every last bit of color squeezed out one leaf at a time. After that the fruit trees and the nut bearing ones step up on stage like the flurry near the end of a fireworks display- bright yellows, glittering purples, scarlet and magenta, then nothing. The oaks finish last, usually with a duller display of orange and umber as the wastes are left trapped in their foliage.

This year has been a stunner. Seven weeks of solid color so bright it hurts to look at it. The colors that started in the lower folds of the hills has progressed up the hill like a spectral fog enveloping the slopes in riotous hues until it reached the crest of our ranges and then moved on. Depending on the time of day, the color of the sky, the quality of the air the combinations of orange leaves and azure sky or lavender sunsets against aureolin canopies provide art school demonstrations of complimentary color wheels that literally take your breath away. I can’t tell you how many times I stop in the midst of splitting wood or building fence just to stare at it, my jaw hanging open at the sheer beauty on display, drifts of falling leaves scuttling downward on each breeze, twisting as they fall against the backdrop of dark forest and exposed ledge. The livestock appear to watch as well, heads rising in unison as a gust of wind cuts loose from the distant peak of Little Bear mountain, shaking the trees like an incoming wave and setting loose a confetti storm of falling leaves.

Towards the end of the evening, after we’d eaten and the rest of the family was settling in for the night, my son called me outside one last time. He had set up a couple of lawn chairs in front of the barn facing the Mink hills in the distance. The cloud cover was so low and so dense that you couldn’t make out the rock maples in the front yard and there was a darkness that surrounded us so completely you could feel it. A soft drizzle was starting, more like a mist than a rain, but you knew what was coming behind it.

We sat there, the two of us, worn and tired but still filled with an awe that felt electric. My son is taller than I am, stronger too, but when I look at him all I can see is a toddler with bare feet, a boy with his hands up to the elbows in a stream, a teenager in a football uniform making a tackle and springing up from the turf with a smile on his face. This Winter we will select and harvest the hemlocks for his cabin and drag them across the snow to the site where he’ll begin to build his life wherever it takes him. I hope that there will be many more nights where we’ll get to sit together in the dark and talk about books and weather, or spend evenings in the shop working together on other projects, but if not I will always have the ones we’ve shared.

At some point I learned that as much as we see of trees and forests above the ground that there is just as much that we do not see. Over fifty percent of the mass of a rock maple is found beneath the surface of the loam at its butt end. Here there is a hidden economy of roots and mycorrhizae. The functions are unseen at that level, but demonstrate their ceaseless work in the canopy above. A healthy forest is a thing of beauty, but it is the result of never ending functions and processes of a world that exists in the shadows beneath it.

Our own societies and cultures are similar in that we are able to point to the lights and the rising cities as some kind of proof of our success and vigor as a people and a civilization, but that is certainly the result of the things we do not see- the thankless hours spent raising children to be thoughtful and honorable adults, the toil and labor of individuals doing tasks of drudgery and endless repetition in order to keep the lights on, the water flowing, the streets in good repair. I can see the decay around the edges, the disease manifested in the body politic, the soured tones of every discourse, the fouled and polluted exchanges both economic and social and understand that the failures are deep and manifest. We live in a forest that has already had it’s finest display of Autumn color and are entering a terminal phase. Winter is coming and you don’t need to be a farmer to see that.

The rain came heavy during the night and took down the last of the yellow leaves. The dawn was suffused with orange- the sky was filled with it and it leeched into every corner of the house awakening us in a surreal world that was more beautiful than the one we went to sleep in. Outside the two lawn chairs sit in front of the barn, empty, facing the distant hills and I can see us sitting out there in the dark together, my son and I, facing the darkness together, but only for an instant and then it is gone. Winter is coming and I think it will be a hard one, but who knows. The only thing I know for sure is that we have done everything we could to prepare for the future no matter how uncertain it may be and that will have to be enough. The roots are deep, the hard work has been done and no matter what comes next we can sleep at night knowing that life will go on as nature intends. In this, I am well pleased.

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