Lauren Stevens: Words from the leaf chief

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Perhaps the statute of limitations has run out so that I can now safely admit that, from autumn 2003 through 2011, I wrote 83 brief commentaries on the state of the foliage, put on line by the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, usually signed "Leaf Chief" but otherwise anonymous. Presumably leaf peepers from away consulted my words while making plans to visit the county.

Oddly, newspapers, radio stations, even Yankee magazine, thought Leaf Chief knew what he was talking about, although I was then as I am now only a writer. So I looked out the window or even biked or drove around the countryside to come up with my material.

Clearly I was biased in favor of making the leaves appear as cooperative as possible, regardless of when someone was thinking of coming. And I was slightly subversive, plugging getting out of the typical tourist transportation mode to bike or hike in the hills.

What I thought I learned was that the timing of so-called peak color didn't really change that much from year to year; that perception of the vividness of the color had more to do with viewing conditions than any actual physical differences. I seemed to find that in North County, anyway, the best color was likely to be about a week after Columbus Day (that is, Oct. 12, not necessarily the date of the three-day weekend) and that the foliage looked better if the sun were shining. Especially dramatic: a streak if sun cutting through dark clouds and hitting the backside of the leaves.

Sometimes I let loose, as when bidding farewell to the season, I as I would like to now. "Nature's annual drama in Berkshire County, the un-leafing of the deciduous trees, will come to a close. The maples, ash, birch will appear to be dead all winter; the telltale leaves that remain on the oaks and beech will rattle ominously in the northwest winds. Yet some April day we will walk in the forest to see bursting buds. Berkshire spring is brief and often uncertain, as late cold battles with early warmth, but the direction is clearly flagged by the golden-green filigree that will decorate the branches.

"This cycle in the Northern Temperate Zone is exciting and unique. No coniferous forest, tropical forest, or subtropical forest displays anything approaching our leaf fall. As naturalist Rutherford Platt has said, `What happens in the deciduous forest is one of the most dramatic events of life on earth in terms of its sweep and swiftness, and its impact on vast populations of plants and animals.'

"Furthermore the [present] drama is heightened by the sure knowledge that our descendants will not be able to see as awesome a display, in this place, due to a warming climate. Our iconic trees, especially the sugar maples, require cold winters. Over time the species here will diminish."

he end of this leaf season is not the end of all leaf seasons, yet we can read in the leaf fall that is this fall, of lesser falls to come. Thus observes the former Leaf Chief, not an expert, only a caring writer.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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