Remembrance of Foliage Past

by Taffy Cannon

Easterners who move to Southern California often initially lament that they “miss the change of the seasons.”  My response, which I try not to make too testy, is that we do have a change of seasons. It’s simply different. More subtle, less extreme, and most decidedly not announcing the impending arrival of months of frigid weather.

In truth, however, the one time of year when I almost regret living where I do is autumn.  The days grow shorter, but with few glorious visuals to accompany the approaching end of another year.  A couple of liquidambar trees in my neighborhood are stunning, but palms and rugged pines are more prevalent in this desert setting than the thirsty giants of my childhood.  Deciduous trees tend to drop their leaves in a brief brown blur. Color? That’s why we grow flowers.

I took autumn for granted as a child in Chicago.  The suburban neighborhoods of my youth were filled with elms and oaks and maples, all offering radiant fall color and mountains of fallen leaves.  Those leaves had to be raked up, of course, but the reward for blistered palms was a huge curbside bonfire, and the smoke spiraling up as the brittle pile began to burn offered a scent as firmly attached to my memories of childhood as Proust’s Madeleine to his.

Those childhood elms fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease, and most areas of the country now require that fallen leaves be bagged rather than burned.  Composting is more common than it was in my youth, though I do recall one season when we deposited huge quantities of dead leaves on the far side of the garage to compost.  (I’m pretty sure we never actually used whatever those leaves might have deteriorated into, and that pile may still be there.)

Time passed and I landed happily in Southern California. 

I heard tales over the years of Autumn in New England, which seemed to be as much a state of mind as a geographical phenomenon, and I studied the pictures with the same detached interest I’d give to Mayan ruins or the Taj Mahal.  Except.  This happened here, in my country, a link to the past I had left behind.

And so it happened that shortly after delivering our only child to her freshman year of college, my husband and I flew to New Hampshire, from one distant corner of the county to another.  I was writing a travel mystery series and the third entry in that series, Fall Into Death, would be set in New England in autumn.

The numerous complications of writing a travel mystery series are more than balanced by the splendid requirement to take some very nice trips in the interest of research.  But one unavoidable problem is that no matter how much advance research you may do on an area where you have limited personal experience, it’s almost impossible to know how that research will translate into usable material for the book you have in mind.  You need to visit two or three times as many possible settings as will actually make it into the book.  Throw in a limited advance and looming deadlines and you move almost—though not quite—from adventure to chore.

I discovered, as I began my advance research, that the season known as “peak” varied from one area to another, was tracked by legions of locals reporting in to Yankee Magazine, and depended on a host of factors over which I had no control.  Watching the surf roll onto a San Diego beach, I studied the chemical and biological and geological factors that create or inhibit leaf coloration at the end of a growth year.

I came to understand that the entire trip would be a visual crapshoot. 

Sure enough, in lower New England at first, we saw very little that resembled the calendars and postcards for sale everywhere, though crimson sumac lined most roadways in a taunting reminder that we were missing something mighty amazing.

We scurried from cranberry bogs near Cape Cod (the Edward Gorey house was regrettably closed) to lobster joints on the coast of Maine.  I collected information at marble quarries and Walden Pond and whaling museums.  I toured Orchard House and Lizzie Borden’s place.  With a western sense of distance and insufficient advance respect for the time needed to traverse winding rural roads, I often felt rushed.

But for the most part the trees everywhere remained a rich, vibrant green. I could still write the book, of course, and had plenty of terrific material, but where were the russets and golds, the lemony birches and scarlet maples?  Were we leaf-peepers with nothing to peep at?

Then we drove into northern New Hampshire and Vermont and the magic began. For two glorious days we passed through landscapes that matched or exceeded the pictures I’d been mooning over for months.  I was able to identify a single scarlet tree on an amber hillside as a maple by its shape.  I puzzled over pink-leaved bushes that turned out to be blueberries.  Blueberries!  Who knew?

One stretch alongside a stream was so stunning we drove back thirty miles just so we could travel along it again.  A foggy isolated road that we discovered by accident near a country hotel offered both tantalizing color and drifts of fallen leaves upon its shoulders, and that is the image that comes to mind when I fondly recall the trip.

Yes, there was an autumn in New England, and it was magnificent.