Thursday, October 4, 2007

Heading for a Fall

For anyone who lives in the Northeast, this time of year is one of anticipation. September and October are the months when the foliage promises to turn from various shades of green into a riot of color. Magic is the only apt word for it. When I was a kid, the season's advent also meant that as the leaves fell, the weekends would be filled by hours of raking and then a homey bonfire that would send up an aromatic smoke that always made me think of pipe tobacco. Of course, with environmental rules now in force, and air pollution to consider, leaf-burning is something you see rarely and only in rural areas.

The thing is, diminishing ice floes in the Arctic aren't the only indicators of global warming. It seems the annual foliage season here is also being affected. I drove through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts a month ago and already some trees had turned brown. That could be due more to drought than to global environmental issues, but it was still alarming and disappointing--and an unnerving repeat of last year. I drove through again last week and even more trees had succumbed to the unseasonal heat. For the leaves to turn their bright red or orange or yellow, a chemical process has to take place that depends on an annual combination of moderate late-summer warmth and cool, almost cold, nights. This year, we've been suffering with near-record heat during the day and only moderately cool nights. Those in the know see it as a troubling development.

It's a corollary development to the increasingly-early maple sugar seasons. These annual rituals are seriously out of whack. As a youngster, I can recall September mornings so crisp and cool and evenings almost cold. You needed to adjust your wardrobe accordingly. The light jackets and sweaters came out by mid-September. And October sometimes demanded something more akin to a ski parka. Hey, some years we had snow well before Halloween.

I read in "USA Today" recently that New England was considered one of the best spots for "leaf-peeping" this year. (Yeah, they call it that in some parts of Maine and Vermont.) But based on reports from friends as far north as Bangor, the forecasts for spectacular foliage might have been premature. For one thing, the unusual heat has delayed the onset of color. Here in Albany, some trees are still green while others have already dropped their leaves. I can recall years when everything seemed to change at once. Everywhere you looked, the oaks and maples were in their autumn glory. But this year in particular, everything looks baked and tired. After a miserably humid summer, I was wishing for some sunny and cool days, and a celebration of the season under a canopy of leaves that look like tiny, boldly-colored kites.

There is one consolation: I hear the local apple cider is especially fine, with natural hints of cinnamon.

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