Last fall I was amazed by the autumn foliage. It was an especially vivid season, and also Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Autumnal Tints,” had inspired me to seek out the colors. This year the foliage has been somewhat muted. A disappointment? — only if you must have big bright shapes. Lean to focus and there’s always something to observe. I’ve found when seen up close a single maple leaf fills the field of vision, just the same as the forest from a distance.
Driving out of the city for a weekend of hikes, I notice the roadside trees catching the afternoon light. This time of year the sun isn’t getting as high in the sky, and sunset-like effects are starting earlier and lasting longer. As clouds pass above, the tawny foliage flickers and flares.
The next morning I start off early on the way to Balsam and Eagle, the first two mountains I’ll scratch off for the November grid. A band of cherry-red appears along the horizon, a weird sunrise color. For some reason I picture elfin fires burning beyond the horizon. (What do you suppose they’re burning?)
On this trip I’m taking a different route up Balsam, starting from Rider Hollow instead of McKenley Hollow. The trail heads uphill alongside a little creek. On the left are crowds of short beech trees with handfuls of yellow-brown leaves still hanging from the branches. On the right stands a grove of hemlock, tall, stout, dark gray-green, and casting the forest floor in shadow. Two very different tribes, and the creek seems to mark not only a fold in the terrain but also a line of battle. Is there an environmental difference between the left and the right that favors one species over the other? (could it be the angle of the light?) A few yards farther up the hill, a small group of hemlocks has waded across the creek and pushed their way a short distance into the beech forest. Now there are taller trees in the mix, maples and ash. It’s turning into a free-for-all.
A little later I’ve reached some ledges and behind me the slope is tumbling down into the valley. I’ve gotten warm from the uphill exertion, so off comes jacket, and then a few minutes later sweater, and finally shirt. Up here it’s first growth forest, never logged, a gray-green world of stunted trees rising from among ferns and club-moss. In the tropics, this would be called an “elfin woodland.”
On the way to Balsam’s summit, the trail passes a vantage point looking east. Down below is Lost Clove and the road to Big Indian. The lower slopes are covered in groves of oak, vaguely orange-brown. Gray-blue mountain ridges roll off into the distance under a band of white-gray sky.
It’s raining when I reach Balsam, and I don’t pause, but head down into the notch, walking comfortably, despite the steep grade, on leaves, damp earth, and flat rocks. To the front, the slope rises toward Eagle Mountain, but clouds are curling across the shoulder and the summit is invisible. Now it’s drizzling. I persevere in shirtless mode, reckoning it’s good training for winter, and of course all those layers are in my pack if I need them.
Eagle is a seemingly undistinguished mountain with a broad flat top and no views, but that’s like saying the autumn foliage isn’t bright enough. There’s always something to see, or as Japanese Zen Master Dogen observed long ago, you might even find the moon residing in a drop of dew. In Eagle’s case, there’s a patch of knight’s plume moss near the top, a favorite species of mine, and on each visit I give it a nod, as if to an old friend. And now I find it growing in many places on the long ridgetop walk to Eagle, not to mention there was a patch on Balsam. Many other mosses are calling out for attention, including lots of dark green hair cap moss and some beautiful stair step moss so water-logged I didn’t recognize it at first.
The rain’s getting heavier. Upon reaching Eagle I’ve had enough winter training for today, and shirt, sweater, and jacket all go back on. I pause for a minute and listen to the winds thundering overhead like crashing waves.
The miles pass quickly and easily. Now I’m dropping down from the notch back toward Rider Hollow on another trail that follows another little stream. I pause to admire the water’s diligent motion: it shoots over a flat rock and pours into a small pool, frothing about for an instant then slipping along a mossy slab and tumbling into the next pool. Surely a nymph must have arranged these rocks to create such a lovely and precise effect.
As I’m nearing the trailhead, a strange branch lying on the path catches my eye: it’s covered with short yellow needles growing out of the wood and a few small cones. It couldn’t be a hemlock…glancing up I find patches of yellow and realize it’s a larch, a deciduous conifer whose needles turn yellow in autumn and fall out. This must be an old plantation. Like red pine, larch soars to the sky with great determination, spreading the uppermost branches toward the sun, and abandoning unproductive growth lower down (these branches fall to the ground leaving little pockmarks in the trunk).
On the drive back home, the leaves of a single tall hickory tree are glowing yellow against the smoke-gray sky.