September 07. 2018 6:21PM

Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: The trees are already telling the story ... Fall is on the way


Swamp maples at Turkey Pond in Concord testify to the fact that fall is, indeed, on the way. (EMILY LORD/FOREST SOCIETY)

Another remarkable autumn lies ahead; make plans now to get in touch with your own inner fall foliage season.

The recent final wave of 90-degree summer heat crashed onto hot sand at Hampton Beach over Labor Day weekend and rolled back out to sea, leaving New Hampshire to the next big thing: fall foliage.

This morning's expected weather is "the first fall preview," quipped the meteorologist, citing overnight low temperatures dipping into the 40s with a possibility of first frost in low-lying valleys of the North Woods. From air conditioners to sweater weather in 48 hours. Welcome autumn and farewell to another endless summer, "leafing" so soon.

The new season includes county fairs, football games, apple picking, pumpkin-spice-flavored everything. Chances are you have also noted the familiar signs: bright yellow school buses and back-to-school sales. For me, autumn officially begins with my first sight of scarlet leaves coloring roadside red maples, a.k.a. "swamp maples" or even "Judas trees" betraying summer. The quintessential icon of autumn is a red maple leaf silhouette.

In the veggie garden, dry corn stalks rattle and pumpkin vines wither. Summer squash and zucchini lie abandoned to fend for themselves in the crush of late weeds. Fruits are scattered, awaiting first frost. Cherry tomatoes turn like tiny traffic lights from green to yellow and red as if to stop the inevitable collapse of their leafy kingdom.

In the woods, sour fox grapes and earthy mushrooms scent the morning air. Purple asters and speckled orange jewelweed blossoms tint the roadside ditches. The green palm-like leaves of climbing sumac vines are already crimson. The earliest red hues of maple and sumac leaves speak in rustling whispers of impending autumn.

September days grow short when the sun melts into the hills of Vermont before supper. Twilight arrives with chirping crickets long before the seventh-inning stretch. Night air in rural towns carries the faint scent of wood smoke. You can feel cool air drain from hillsides to pool in river valleys shrouded in fog at dawn.

The evil wasps wearing Yankee pinstripes that menaced our passage beneath their papery nests in the eaves of the porch are doomed. One chilly morning soon, I plan to dislodge their bristling nest and crush it beneath my boot before they can fly or try to sting, but there's no joy in that. 

Summer's end is bittersweet - beautiful, heartbreaking and nostalgic. Ritual sadness accompanies each little death.

In autumn, I am invariably asked to contribute to the fall foliage forecast, a milieu of expert opinions regarding the expected quality of the impending leaf-peeping season. This allows me to go outdoors to conduct research. 

In rainy years, experts use creative phrasing: "it will be a rare pastel year." Others question the timing of "peak foliage," a mythical phenomenon. I mean, what happens if it arrives in the middle of the night?

The truth is that leaves always change; the intensity of the colors and the timing of that alleged "peak" are relatively insignificant. When asked how I think the foliage will be, I give more or less the same answer: "the foliage will be absolutely spectacular this year." I've rarely been wrong.

But foliage season is more than an economic tourism construct. Foliage has spiritual qualities, a mindset. The colors inspire us to embrace all things autumn - nostalgia for childhood and respect for elders now entering their own autumn years. Falling leaves can work on your soul if you are wise. Try to get in touch with your "inner foliage season" - embrace the change. Reset your inner clock. Enjoy the cooler autumn temperatures and fleeting natural beauty.

The subtle psychological effects of autumn might catch you by surprise. Walk under the blazing red maples or kick through fallen leaves. Each rose-pink dawn following an early morning frost carries the promise of a warm, bright cobalt-blue afternoon sky. It's the season when - as children - we would rake piles of leaves for the sheer joy of jumping and rolling in them.

Embrace it. All too soon, colorful leaves will fade and fall with an audible cascade. The rustling of leaves outside will be replaced with a hiss of snow flurries amid bare branches.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is senior director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Reach him at Forest Journal runs every other week.