This October I missed New England’s main event: peak fall foliage. For people unfamiliar with this phenomenon, each autumn the leaves all over this part of the country go on a hunger strike, leeching the green from their veiny hands to replace it with the most brilliant, jeweled earth tones of scarlets, oranges, and yellows. Natives and tourists alike flood the area to take in the sweeping hills made into patchwork quilts, rolling tree-lined back roads bursting with color, and various wooded parks and hiking trails that make you feel like you’re wandering around inside of a Life Saver candy roll. It is impressive. Even the most jaded, grizzled of us New Englanders who refuse to be awed by anything—“Ya got a shahhk in ya bathtub? Whatevahh.”—will stop in our tracks to stare, open mouthed at a stand of ruby red trees in someone’s yard.
Forecasters do their part to stoke “leaf peeping” (real thing, from the Latin folium gawkerus) by switching over to special weather maps during their broadcast. These track the change in foliage in undulating waves of red, orange, and yellow to depict where and when the trees will be at the height of their color. I think this is the equivalent of giving meteorologists a bone to gnaw on that tides them over during the dull months between hurricane and blizzard seasons. Also, people plan their vacations around this phenomenon. There could be airfare involved, certainly a rental car, and something recently ordered from L.L. Bean to fully look the part. Fall in New England is some serious, Everest-intensity level business for some.
I live in Boston, but had planned to take some time visiting northern New Hampshire a week or so after the weather maps predicted the high point of the foliage would have come and gone. From the way the meteorologists talked about it—“It’s OVER! There’s nothing left to see! Leaf peepers go home! You’ll never get that perfect Instagram shot now. FAILURES! Get out and don’t come back until ski season starts!”–I expected to find something that looked like the set of an animated Tim Burton film, all ashy, leafless trees and browns the color of a wet Crayola crayon.
While some trees were empty and others had their colors muted, elsewhere there were hills stamped with buttery gold and ochre, hiking trails draped in shades of burnt ginger and tangerine, and different varieties of bushes along the roads and in people’s yards showing off magenta hues. Even the marshes seemed to come alive (I guess “marsh-cast” is not sexy enough for weather folk), their grasses tawny in places, rust-colored in others. Plum and wine-colored leaves of boggy plants looked as if Bob Ross himself were painting them in real time. I gawked plenty. Everywhere I looked there was some new well of beautiful to tumble into. Peak, my ass.
It reminded me how much I’ve always disliked that term: peak. Too bad he peaked in high school. After her music career peaked in the 70s, she disappeared from view. It’s never good to peak too early. Peak is weak, apparently. It’s a firework burst that fades into the night sky before the crowd finishes gasping. It’s an idea perfectly suited to these times where “brand” and “platform” and “influence” and “likes” yoke our existence to a sinewave of data that tells us nothing, but we’re delusional enough to believe tells us everything. It’s a notion that speaks to how our attention gets repeatedly dragged over to the flashy, sexy, hot-thing-of-the-hot-minute the way cats follow the red dot of a laser pointer. It feels like we’ve gotten into the habit of assigning value to the things that arbitrarily spike to the top of a graph labeled “IMPORTANT THINGS RELATED TO YOUR SELF-WORTH AND LIFE’S JOURNEY,” which is, of course, bullshit. Life is not a few proud moments on a highlight reel; variety is threaded through our journeys for a reason.
A look around at the landscape, so alive and vibrant despite being “past peak,” revealed that nothing was over or ending or not worth experiencing. The maples and oaks that had shed their leaves made room for stands of white birches, their bark like polished ivory, to take center stage. Hardwoods seemed to shrink back, giving pines and evergreens room to be seen, readying their arms to catch the first snowfall. I could see these different players maneuvering around one another like dancers in a ballet, following a rhythm that we seem to have lost the ability to hear, but that urges us to pay the same attention to the valleys, the straightaways, the gnarly, foot paths as we do to those precious peaks.