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Fall colors

10/07/04 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(Host) Commentator Bill Shutkin loves the more subtle colors of the fall forest.


(Shutkin) The fall's a funny time of year around here, what with all the tour buses and SUVs full of leaf peepers drawn like moths to the candy-colored foliage of maples, birches, and ash. As a former part-time Vermonter, I get it. I mean, what's not to love about the northern forest in autumn, the ocean of reds and golds, oranges and yellows. It sure beats your average street tree or the duller hues of the transition forest farther to the south where I used to live.

As I've come to spend more time in Vermont and know the forest better, I look at the fall differently. For me, it's not about the golds or yellows anymore, not about the maples or birches.

There's a balsam fir, two actually, that stand alongside an alder swamp on the west side of our property. In the summer, they're completely hidden by the hardwoods nearby; the firs' short needles and spiky silhouette are no match for the birches wide-spreading branches or the ash's towering height. If you didn't know better, you'd think there were no conifers over there.

But then, in mid-September, about the time I start closing my windows at night, something magical happens. As the leaves change color, the fir trees begin to appear as if in bold relief, their delicate green the perfect contrast to the gaudy yellows and oranges.

For me, autumn is the time when I'm reminded about what makes the green mountains green. Sure, in the summer, the whole forest is verdant; but in the fall, and then the winter, even into the spring, it's the conifers - the spruce and fir - that define our mountain zone, that separate our woods from their more temperate cousins found at lower elevations and points south.

When I rediscover my fir trees each fall I rediscover not what drew me to this state but what keeps me here. It's not about the colors but the hills, the hardiness and humility that come from living with long winters and a short growing season. It's about a landscape that's beautiful not because it's more vast or spectacular than any other but because it's time-tested, enduring, and, like my fir trees, elegant in its understated power.

So let's rejoyce in the foliage season with its autumnal glow and bright palette. But not too much. After all, as our Vermont friend Robert Frost warns us, "nothing gold can stay." For me, the green is gold. It's what remains after the visitors have gone, after the glow has faded to gray. And in case you forgot, November is right around the corner.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.


Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a research affiliate at MIT.
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