I picked up a beech leaf and examined it: the leaf was pale yellow in the center and dark brown around the edges. I knew that soon these leaves would carpet the forest floor in layers of beige, but for now, the forest was sparkling in the late October sunlight, and the beech trees glowed like gold.
The scene brought to mind Henry David Thoreau’s 1860 essay “Autumnal Tints,” in which he wrote, “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate.” He meant that by diligent study of nature we learn to appreciate its beauty. He summed up the essay by encouraging readers to pay attention to nature:
When you come to observe faithfully the changes of each humblest plant, you find that each has, sooner or later, its peculiar autumnal tint; and if you undertake to make a complete list of the bright tints, it will be nearly as long as a catalogue of the plants in your vicinity.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
And so, this fall, I tried to do as Thoreau suggested, that is, as I hiked, ran, and drove through the eye-shocking autumnal displays in upstate New York’s Shawangunk and Catskill mountains, I tried to “observe faithfully.” Here is my list of the brightest tints….
Autumn opened with bursts of red. As Thoreau had pointed out, red maple (Acer rubrum) is one of the first trees to change color, and sure enough by mid-September, I began to notice three-lobed leaves dotting the forest floor like drops of wine. Looking up, I saw the tops of the leaves were pink, while the bottoms were still pale, and in the slightest breeze the trees seemed to shimmer translucently. Soon the fallen leaves were so thick on the path that it felt like stepping through a crimson mist.
But it wasn’t just the maples that were turning red. On a rainy scramble in Harriman State Park, a colorful spark caught my eye. Upon inspection, I found the leaves of the mountain black cherry (Prunus serotina) were reddening around the edges. On my next hike, I discovered a stand of crimson-leaved cherry standing over a field of scarlet heather. And then it seemed there were cherry trees blinking everywhere in the woods, and cherry leaves mixed in with maple along the trail.
And here was streak of scarlet spiraling up a tree: a long vine with leaves in clusters of five, known as Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
In the Shawangunk Mountains, the trails are lined with blueberry bushes, and these were now turning bronze. On the white rock faces, the blueberry was burning like a low, red flame.
The staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a short weedy tree that flourishes along roads and fields. Long rows of leaflets hang like pennants from drooping stems, and in most cases these were turning a deep burgundy, but in some places they surprised me with mottled patterns of orange and red.
All this red entranced me, and I all but ignored the trees whose leaves were gradually yellowing, but in October, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) suddenly stole the show. Thoreau described these trees as “dense masses of rich yellow with a deep scarlet blush….All the sunny warmth of the season, the Indian-summer, seems to be absorbed in their leaves.” To me, the sugar maple was a phantasmagorical orange. Driving through the mountains, I felt like I had fallen into a kaleidoscope.
Thoreau appreciated contrast. He remarked with great pleasure when a large sugar maple turned “deep blushing red on one half and green on the other.” I found other contrasts: golden foliage reaching toward blue sky, or yellow veins standing out from a scarlet leaf. Indeed, sugar maples spread contrast across the mountains, appearing as spatters of yellow, red, and orange against mountain slopes that were mostly still dark green.
Thoreau loved the sugar maples that had been planted along the streets of Concord, Massachusetts. He wrote that “wealth in-doors may be the inheritance of few, but it is equally distributed on the Common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest.”
But nature’s wealth is fleeting. By late October, the maples were fading. Yellow leaves began to show black spots. Red leaves turned brown, except for small smudges of crimson, and then these were gone, too. It rained, and the leaf litter crinkled, softened, and fell apart like wet tissue.
Now I began to appreciate the less dramatic autumnal tints. Beech, birch, basswood, tupelo, cottonwood, aspen, and sassafras leaves all started pale yellow and ended brown, but if you caught them at the right moment, there were shades of golden honey and sometimes flecks of scarlet. Shagbark hickory leaves turned a tawny mix of yellow, green, and brown with a rich, crinkled texture. Along roads in the western Catskills, I discovered stands of European larch (Larix decidua), a coniferous tree whose needles turn bright yellow before they fall in the autumn.
With the advent of November, it seemed that the kaleidoscope must stop spinning. Thoreau wrote that “most go in and shut their doors, thinking that bleak and colorless November has already come, when some of the most brilliant and memorable colors are not yet lit.” These colors belong to the northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and its cousin the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea):
Every such tree becomes a nucleus of red, as it were, where, with the declining sun, that color grows and glows. It is partly borrowed fire, gathering strength from the sun on its way to your eye. It has only some comparatively dull red leaves for a rallying-point, or kindling-stuff, to start it, and it becomes an intense scarlet or red mist, or fire, which finds fuel for itself in the very atmosphere. So vivacious is redness. The very rails reflect a rosy light at this hour and season. You see a redder tree than exists.
I found that upon close inspection, the oak leaves weren’t very red. More often they were olive, tan, brown, or sometimes burgundy – with a deep luster that made me think of cordovan leather, old book bindings, or polished wood. But as I looked around, I noticed the younger trees had a much more intense color. Driving across the mountains one day, I saw a stand of oak saplings that stood out in the bright morning sun like lipstick.
In “Autumnal Tints,” Thoreau wrote, “The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads, — and then we can hardly see anything else.” Regarding the oak, he was correct, because as the other deciduous trees gradually lost their leaves, I could look across the mountains and see how much of their valleys and slopes were covered in forests of oak. Everything seemed to be oak, and when the sun momentarily broke through the clouds, the foliage gleamed in hues of copper and bronze.
As I sit on a cliff in the southwest part of our town, the sun is now getting low, and the woods in Lincoln, south and east of me, are lit up by its more level rays; and in the Scarlet Oaks, scattered so equally over the forest, there is brought out a more brilliant redness than I had believed was in them. Every tree of this species which is visible in those directions, even to the horizon, now stands out distinctly red. Some great ones lift their red backs high above the woods, in the next town, like huge roses with a myriad of fine petals; and some more slender ones, in a small grove of White Pines on Pine Hill in the east, on the very verge of the horizon, alternating with the Pines on the edge of the grove, and shouldering them with their red coats, look like soldiers in red amid hunters in green.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
Colors play many roles in nature, sometimes attracting, sometimes repelling, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with autumnal tints: we may appreciate the colors, but there is no known survival or reproductive benefit associated with fall foliage. This phenomenon raises an interesting point: there is a form of wealth accumulated through work and savings and expressed through acquisition of luxury goods — and another form of wealth available without cost if you just look around you.
An advocate of the simple life, Thoreau ended his essay questioning the need to cultivate gardens, when “we have only to elevate our view a little, to see the whole forest as a garden.”