Maine’s Other Fall Season
By Eileen Willard
October brings colorful splashes of bright red, yellow and orange to the landscape. The trees almost try to outdo each other. Red maples start the show and others join in. Rakes come out of the garage. Lawn services seem to go non-stop with noisy leaf blowers. It’s all so terribly busy and we are all caught up in it.
Leaves fly this way and that. Then, right after the first big clean up, a bountiful dump of brown oak leaves decides to cover the grass again. Oaks have their own schedule of leaf drop and it doesn’t usually coincide with homeowners’ efforts at tidiness.
Pumpkin Spice is the flavor in our coffee, our muffins, and ice cream. Halloween decorations dot the lawns. No one escapes the frenzied end of summer party we call Autumn in New England. Who would want to? From spectacular foliage to potted mums on porch steps surely the thought of being elsewhere during this time of year doesn’t intrude on the celebration.
In no time at all it ends. Rain and windy weather rip the straggling leaves from branches and overnight the forest looks a little drab. Most folks jump ahead and think about Thanksgiving plans at this point. However, I invite you to contemplate a short season named “Down-Leaf Time” by Vermont writer Castle Freeman Jr. published in Yankee Magazine in 1997.
Ten years ago my Dendrology (the study of trees) Professor at University of New Hampshire read the “Down-Leaf Time” essay to students before we left for our outdoor lab identifying trees in Durham, NH. It changed the way I saw the forests after the flurry of foliage season. I began to appreciate quiet, contemplative walks in the woods so much more.
A brighter light unobstructed by leaves washes over the forest floor. At first the fallen crisp leaves obscure the trails. I pick my way carefully guessing where to place my next step. Rustling sounds accompany my every step.
In a matter of days or maybe a week or two depending on rainy weather, the “high tide” of leaves flattens out, darkens and begins to decompose. They get pasted to rocks and soil or become wedged amongst the vegetation along the edge of the trail. A somewhat spicy smell signals a change of season, not quite Thanksgiving, but surely introducing thoughts of frosts and snow.
Down-leaf time invites us to enjoy a quiet calmer interlude. The fallen leaves decompose and release their organic matter back to the soil. The trees are set to endure months of dormancy. Their buds (already formed for next spring) are protected against the elements but quite visible to anyone taking a closer look.
Perhaps a season may only be the four on the calendar. However, I invite you to tune into our smaller seasons in New England; to maple sugaring season, mud season, apple blossom time, dreaded black fly season, lilac time, planting time, leaf peeping season and now “down-leaf time” thanks to a Vermont writer’s appreciation of nature's subtleties.
Rather than retreating to one’s comfy home to wait for spring, a walk through one of the Arundel Conservation Trust’s trails might enrich the day in that little season hardly anyone has noticed.