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?
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….
Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” contains colorful descriptions of New England’s fall foliage, including sugar maple and northern red oak, as well as more humble plants like bearded grass and pokeweed. Of special interest to me was Thoreau’s commentary on the red maple (Acer rubrum): he’d noticed that as early as the 25th of September a small red maple on the edge of a meadow had already turned a “far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer” and that the tree was all the “more conspicuous” in contrast with the rest of the forest, which was still green:
Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun!
— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
In recent weeks I’d spotted solitary maple leaves dotting the trail, splashes of scarlet among the prevailing greens and browns of the forest floor. This Sunday would be the 25th of September — and based on Thoreau’s essay it seemed precisely the right time to go scouting for the season’s first red maples to have fully changed their color. My friend Steve Aaron was looking for a mountain to climb, so I invited him to join me and Odie the Labradoodle for an attempt on Fir Mountain, one of several pathless peaks that rise above the headwaters of the Esopus Creek.