Inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Autumnal Tints”, last fall I’d headed out in early September, while the mountains were still green, in search of the first red maples turning scarlet. That experience got me thinking: while we all love the fall foliage, what about winter colors? And spring?
Winter hiking gave me a chance to study some of the season’s subtle hues, like the warm red bark of the paper birch once the white layers have peeled away (the same hue incidentally as the chest feathers of the red-breasted nuthatch which frequents the Catskills’ boreal forests during the winter months) or the parchment color of shriveled beech leaves still hanging from the gray branches and vibrating in a random breeze. And sometimes winter colors startle you, for example, when the clouds momentarily part to reveal a patch of brilliant electric blue.
But as for spring tints, the season comes and goes so quickly, I was afraid I’d miss it.
On a recent hike up Slide Mountain, the sun was shining through the leafless forest and warming the barren ground, when I noticed tiny red dots scattered along the trail.
Upon inspection, these were minute red flowers which had sprouted from red maple buds. They reminded me of the purple three-lobed leaves I’d seen last fall, splashed along the trail like drops of wine. Once again the red maples were changing in advance of their deciduous peers.
But the real show was waiting for me after the hike was over. Once back in the car and on the road for home, I saw maples flashing by, their buds lit up by the afternoon sun, the trees glowing red almost as brightly as in the fall.
There wasn’t any safe place to pull over, so I couldn’t get a close look, but in passing I glimpsed red apparati unfurling from the branches, consisting of flowers both male and female, seed-carrying samaras, and young leaves, all the equipment for growth and reproduction. An individual tree can be male or female or a hermaphroditic mix, and trees can cycle through these variations over time.
Along the far side of the road, the mountains were covered in billowy green clouds lit up by the afternoon sun, and here and there in this green mist were sprays of shimmering pink. But there was no opportunity to stop and capture a shot, and by the time I turned onto the main highway, the colors were gone.
I could’t capture an image of the red maples bursting into bloom; the evening sky was the best I could do.