By God, the leaves were falling and winter was coming just like it always did. Except it wasn’t.
The three old sugar maples in back are near the end of their lives; they’re ready for assisted living, maybe even a nursing home. Their decrepitude is less obvious in summer when, despite their age, they are as leafy as the younger trees that are nearby. We should probably take them down before they fall on someone walking by on the path into the cemetery. But we like them, especially in autumn when their leaves turn gold and burnt orange and drop off to float lazily to the ground where they form a colorful carpet for a few days until they go brown and decay.
Two of them are big and round, and you can see how magnificent they must have been in their prime even though they’ve lost a lot of limbs. Every time we have a strong wind, more come crashing down. So these erstwhile beauties are now quite misshapen. The third one is even less attractive, and it looks frail besides. In the fifteen years Ann and I have lived here, the trunk has been without branches on the lower thirty or so feet, and pileated woodpeckers have made cavernous holes in the pole-like trunk. At the top, it sprouts an oval crown of branches. In all, it has the shape of a Q-tip.
Near the geezer trees, we’ve planted replacements that are now six years old. Three new sugar maples look as hearty and strong as young athletes. We also put in a couple of red maples. For reasons unknown to us, they seem a bit less fit. The one silver maple we planted died in infancy, but I’ll try again in spring.
There’s a silver towering over the three-story house across the lane, and I’m very pleased to have it for a neighbor. The leaves turn a pale lemon color in autumn. The banks along a stretch of the Raquette River are lined with them, and I keep meaning to take my canoe out there and drift along for a few hours letting the color have its way with me, but I haven’t gotten around to it.
In the part of our yard nearest the neighbors’ silver, we have a copse of Norway maples. They’re young and healthy, perhaps only a third of the way to maturity. I suppose they are volunteers, though the nuns who occupied the house for the 50 years preceding our tenure might have planted them. Norways aren’t native to the area. They’re often found along railroad tracks, suggesting to some people that their seeds may have fallen from passing trains. I have no idea why trains would have Norway maple seeds on them. Norways have very large leaves, as much as eight inches across. They turn a darker yellow than the silver maple, but not golden like the sugars.
I’m very fond of the Norways, and it distresses me when the power company periodically brutalizes them. Short of burying the power lines (an impractical undertaking in the rocky Adirondacks), there is no way around having to trim branches away from the wires. But the way the crew does it is, well, cruel ─ slashing indiscriminately and hastily and not caring about the look or condition of the maimed trees left behind. Fortunately, Ann and I are rarely out on the one-block-long side street where the butchered side of the copse shows. From our viewpoint they look largely untouched.
Our lot is only three-quarters of an acre in size, and the house has a Shaquille-sized footprint, so there isn’t much space for trees and plants. But we have a lot of them anyway. Besides the maples, there are several conifers – a hemlock by the driveway, and in the view from my study down toward the cemetery, a Douglas fir and two scotch pines. Like the old maples, the Scotch pines will not be with us much longer. Some sort of destructive force – a Japanese beetle according to the unauthenticated expertise of a neighbor – has marched downhill from the north over the last few years leaving stumps in its wake. Whatever the malignant force is, it’s not affecting the fir, just the scotch pines, which are already looking ill. It might be possible to save them, but our tree treatment experience in the past has proved to be quite expensive, so Ann and I convened an arboreal death panel and determined that we’d just accept their loss. Anyway, I don’t care for them as much as I do the several young sugar maples that are coming up among the pine needles.
On the south side of the house is a majestic white pine. The house has three stories with a pitched roof above that, and the tree is half again that tall. They grow to a height of 160-180 feet, and they typically live 200-250 years. We figure ours was already in place when the house was built about 115 years ago. Maybe some years before that.
It’s close enough to the house so that several rooms seem to be built into it. We bathe and sleep among its branches. Several young white pines are making a good start in the shade of the parent. I enjoy thinking that they may be around in the 23rd century.
Birches, aspens, beeches, one elm, a honeysuckle bush the size of a small tree, several varieties of lilacs, a box elder, and a number of trees I don’t know the names of fill in spaces here and there. Last year we planted berries ─ low-bush and high-bush blues, raspberries, and blackberries. At harvest time, it was pointed out to us that there was a large stand of raspberries we’d been unaware of growing wild behind the garage. We ate and froze a couple of gallons.
When the short summer is over, there are a good many chores to be done to take care of all these growing things and of the house. The severe winters in this High Peaks region of the Adirondacks require preparation. Some things are unquestionably necessary in order to avoid damage. Gutters must be removed so that ice sliding off the roof doesn’t destroy them. Some jobs are, I suspect, more in the nature of custom. What would it hurt not to rake the leaves that accumulate on the lawn? Probably not much.
So for a couple of weeks, Ann and I spend a good deal of time outside getting ready. It seemed the same as usual this year. But it wasn’t.
As always, the first frosty mornings brought with them elemental feelings of excitement, nostalgia, anticipation, uneasiness, and warning. Something old was ending, something new beginning; we get to experience only a finite number of such transformations. Better get a move on. Better enjoy those Honey Crisp apples and the autumn foliage to the fullest. Autumn’s warning is always there, but in the past it has come to me quietly ─ nothing a little whiskey couldn’t handle. This year it was clamorous, and it was qualitatively different.
On a beautiful sunny day with the temperature an unusually warm 70-something, I stared at the row of sugar maples along the driveway. They were at the peak of their color, just as they had been the first time we saw the house fifteen years earlier. That swathe of brilliant color dominated our first impression. It was a large part of why we were compelled to buy the house. We’d grown up in a part of Texas that had only two seasons ─ real hot and a little less hot. Gaudy, vibrant autumn leaves and their announcement of a real winter to come were irresistibly come-hither.
That first enchanting vision occurred on September 5, 1998; this most recent, on October 3, 2013 ─ thirty days later. The climate is warming. Fast. And right in my yard.
It’s possible to mitigate the rate of warming – maybe even stop it – but doing so would require radical changes of behavior that few would be willing to undertake. And the changes would have to be mandatory.
Ann and I drive a Prius, keep the thermostats as low as we can bear, eat a locavore vegan diet, recycle everything possible, print on front and back, and save throwaway sheets for note pads. Many people do all that and more. Many people do nothing to help. But even if everyone pitched in and did their bit, voluntary actions alone would not prevent horrific consequences.
In World War II, gasoline, tires, meat, eggs, butter, and other goods were rationed. Turning off lights during blackouts was not an option, it was the law. It seems we found the Axis powers to be more threatening than climate change. That’s mistaken.
As unwelcome as it will be, radical changes in how we live can no longer be left to individual choice. Autumn arrived in the Adirondacks thirty days later this year than it did in 1998.