Contrary to popular opinion, the colorful glory of fall foliage season is not when the northern woodlands are at their most enticing. Rather, the subtle kaleidoscope of colors and textures that bursts forth over six weeks or so each spring is the time that their beauty is most dazzling—if you look closely!
This first flush isn’t nearly as flashy as the forest’s autumnal swan song; indeed, there’s nothing particularly compelling about the mist of dusty olive-green gradually filling out the brown of long-dormant hillsides. While we welcome the promise of leafy woods to come, this initial pulse seems little more than a prelude to summer. Birds and springtime flowers, frogs and peepers, shirt-sleeve sun are what capture our attention, while the woods awaken in the background.
Look at bit closer, though, and the prelude becomes a delight-filled symphony in its own right. It is—by far!—the time of the most varied visual delights: brilliant two- and three-toned buds bursting forth; tumbling crimson maple-flowers; feathery beech leaves cracking open their long, arcing sheaths; fiddleheads unfurling atop thin stalks. And as a backdrop to all this, an impressionistic splattering of new leaves in a diverse palette of color tones is gradually filling the fractal lacework of the forest canopy. Many leaves begin as rusty-browns and dirty-greens, a few shine in deep reds, and of course there’s every shade of green known to god and man (sage to spring to yellow to olive), while just for good measure, a few trees leaf out in pale off-white, tinged with a dusty yellowish cast or the merest hint of green.
Looking across the landscape, all this can fade into a drab-but-promising brownish-green, but up close the colors all pop and contrast in delightful ways. The trick is to pause and take in these details when you’re walking; then you’ll notice this same incredible variety splattered across all the larger views as well. Yet it’s not just about color—there’s no arguing that fall dazzles in that department. But all those bright autumn leaves are, well, leaves—while the springtime woods are a mad mashup of new and rapidly-changing arboreal body parts.
In the near- to middle-distance, across a meadow while on foot or alongside the road when driving, the diversity of forms and textures is most striking—and it’s here that spring most dramatically out-dazzles fall. While the endpoint of nearly all that’s now bursting forth will be quite similar (deep green leaves filling the space in and around all the trees and bushes), for these first few weeks, our view into and through the woods is a jumble of radically different shapes, sizes, and structures. Leaves, of course, at every stage (bright and tender first shoots, drooping rust-tinged youngsters, and stiffening-up, nearly mature greens), but also tree-flowers—some soft and droopy, others in compact bunches, and a few elaborate and brilliant cascades—and some early seeds as well, especially the red maple wings that add their bright touch to the end of this spring emergence, in the same way their flowers first speckled the canopy while the season opened. Often, new green leaves are tucked right up against flowers or seeds, creating a temporary and eye-catching contrast in both color and texture.
All these joyful first expressions of spring add up to create a delicious cacophony of awakening. Around every corner is a new surprise—little microhabitats with a sudden splash of full-on deep green where a tree or few are nearly leafed out, or a north-facing hillside that lags a couple weeks behind, silhouetted webs of branches just beginning to be obscured by tiny early growth and the faintest hints of color. Traveling short distances—toward or away from the coast, or into the hills, or a couple hours north or south—also triggers quick rewinds and fast-forwards through this most varied of months.
It won’t be long until the thick blanket of green settles into its summer uniformity. For now, though, the awakening of the woods unfolds slowly, inviting us to take in the subtly compelling wonders of these precious, fleeting weeks of the Spring Tinge.
Lots more images below; click through to revel in the tinge!
All images in this post can be enlarged by right-clicking & choosing “open link in new tab/window”
(not “open image in new tab/window”)
An April maple, its intricate tangle of latticed branches silhouetted against the sky. Six months of rest, winter-bare—but now, this week, the stark duotone of branch and sky is spangled with glimmers of red: tender, vibrant tree-flowers speckle the crowns of all the maples in these woods. Across the field, this hint-of-red brightens the undulating skyline of the forest. And right here, arcing over the trail, the branches fifteen feet above are likewise bursting forth with brilliant bits of crimson. So celebratory, so alluring—yet just out of reach, a tad too far away to really see. This calls for some Vision Enhancement!
A quick probe into the daypack; aha, yes. There we go. And wow, what an exuberant outpouring it is! Spilling from tiny flaring petals, three or four thin stalks droop downward, each one opening into another miniature flowering knobbule that culminates with a final looping bit of plant-flesh, curving like a cat’s claw—this whole elaborate flaring-forth radiant in the exact same shade of rich red (perhaps just slightly tinged toward salmon), and each of these little flowers tucked in close to several others, all tumbling together in a jumble.
I pan slowly up, past similar clusters of bright blooms scattered throughout the twiggy expanses of the maple here beside me . . . then slip for a few moments into hyper-3D, sliding through the vivid depth of field that’s one of the special joys of playing around with binoculars: slowly fingering the focus knob, dropping ever deeper into the tangle, skipping from flower to flower, branch to branch, each blurry background layer, in turn, coming into sharp relief then gradually softening again into a smudge of diffuse color as the next cluster behind rolls into prominence.
Over the past few weeks, as the Earth moved through the time of spring equinox, I found myself once again slipping into a three-dimensional “sense of place in space” —the physical experience of being on the surface of the spherical earth, and of earth’s body being in motion around the sun. It’s all there in the classic textbook illustration that shows our planet’s seasonal path around the sun:
Surely you remember the basics: our northern hemisphere tilted toward the sun in summer, away from the sun in winter, and momentarily sideways to the sun at the spring and fall equinoxes (the tilt remaining constant in space, the north pole always pointing at distant Polaris). But how do these moments in the life of the planet look and feel from the vantage point of a human body in the noontime sun or under the slowly-turning panorama of a starry night?
The perspective from our local landscape out toward the sun, an awareness of the earth’s tilt, and our view from here out into the galaxy, can all come alive within an expanded version of this image, stretched to the size of the “real world” around us and fleshed out by our own physical experiences here on Earth, alongside the sun and within the vast halo of stars that surround us in our galactic home.
Open gaze swings down, narrows, relaxes into rippled, rolling textures; a softness eyes can feel. Across the undulating terrain, spindly bodies are tightly packed into a single sprawling presence emerging from the earth below; little leaves reaching up, rubbing neighbors—receptacles for moisture, for bits of breeze-blown detritus, for a passing wave of focused attention that slowly traverses this miniature, mighty realm. Mighty indeed: now a giant foot presses down upon supple stalks, covering half their expansive, communal body, then rises again and swings slowly past, settling next beyond these borders in the neighboring land of hard-packed soil. A neck, high above, swivels just as slowly—eyes still in gentle communion with the mossy mound as it recedes, a step behind and none the worse for wear in the wake of the passing intrusion.
And so it begins. The first breath of spring in this land of the white pines. A soft inhalation of welcome, laced with promise. Anticipation. The woods pond is suddenly bigger by half, its waterline bulging into the interseasonal zone’s soggy-footed grasses and—presto—alive again with ducks: ten mallards, already sorted into five tightly-bound pairs. Relaxed, attentive, they move together, keeping a comfortable distance from the human making his way along the trail a few yards into the woods, whose feet fall softly and slowly among mounds of mosses—bright, engorged, alert—that sprawl over roots and rotten stumps in the boggy woods.
And so it spins, today’s in-breath but one of many that will carry us out of the skin-chilling months of winter’s penetrating embrace. This day, this week, this very moment, each rises and falls away one after another—the stillness and bluster of winter also a deep breath enlivening the great pulse of our planet; all these breaths giving rise to the heartbeat of life here in our thin earthly skin where soil and sky touch, reach into each other, interpenetrate. . . . dancing alive this singular, symbiotic wholeness and each of its integral, particular faces.
And so it is. Water pooling atop saturated soil, bogs softened, filling and spilling across woods duff into yards-wide mini lakes. The pond spreads to fill its little clearing, even as ice lingers; one of the ducks steps up onto this milky-white remnant to stand and stretch with a patti-pat-pat of wing slaps. The others graze, bottoms-up in turn, on greenery sprouting from the mud a few inches below the surface, a variegated mirror laced with dark and bright reflections of tree trunks on the far shore, their bare twigs now hissing in a passing breeze; beyond, a hundred-foot pine tosses to and fro with a roar of its own. The warm wind plays in the woods all around, enlivening the space with a finely-honed sense of rhythm and depth: airy fingers brushing through a cluster of pines at the end of the pond, setting them astir. . . and now caressing a bushy high crown directly overhead into a throaty sigh.
The pulses of this aural tapestry rise up and fall away on all sides, one or two surging to a crescendo every ten seconds or so, overlapping, giving way to the next—over here, now there, and again moving on—layering into an immersive surround-sound whole that encompasses and cradles the pond’s swelling shoreline with its ice and its ducks and its hidden hoards of slumbering amphibian serenaders of dusks to come. Now a puff of breeze skims across the pond’s surface, countless tiny ripples dancing and sliding, a patch of shimmering light blinking across the water, then gone again, the gust skipping back up as it approaches, lifted again toward the clouds by the trees on the near shore.
The ducks meander together around the pond, muttering among themselves. A songbird trills nearby, staking his claim. A chest swells, contracts, swells again, taking the moment to heart. Tall pines sway, the sun glows a bit brighter through thinning clouds, the stream feeding the pond gushes wide and strong past leaf-packed banks. This week may feel like a turning, yet even tonight will drop to near zero, the ice spreading once more—thin, transient—sending these eager ducks back to one of the briny estuaries four miles south or the flowing river a half-mile east.
Just so: a breath in the body of our land of the white pines. A beat of the earthly heart. The ephemeral, palpable embrace of a woods pond at midday in the season of vernal stirrings.
(Part 2 of 2; here’s the other one)
As to scenery (giving my own thought and feeling),
while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite,
Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford
the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but that the
prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight,
last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest,
and make North America’s characteristic landscape.
—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, 1879
The realm of high mountain peaks has so often felt like the prime place to experience the meeting of earth and sky—all those jagged summits piercing the atmosphere, their sheer power (primal earth) stirring sky to respond, calling forth great explosions of cloud and bringing down the rains from on high. Yet: today I see the folly—and dare I say the maleness—of that narrow view of the eternal dance of sky across earth under sky. For now, all around/under/within me, a very different and equally powerful union is taking place: the skin of the earth is rippling at the wind’s touch.
Here, at the bottom of the sky, rolling hills blanketed with supple grasses shimmer under a day-long caress of the hundred-mile winds of the plains. On a nearby slope, nearly backlit by the mid-day sun, large-scale patterns show the wind moving steadily left to right. Yet within this flowing motion are countless smaller and constantly shifting shimmerings, bright patches within the larger patterns, slipping and sliding across the hills: expanding disappearing returning trembling. This play of light is dynamic and detailed, riveting and subtle to the very edges of perception in ways that call to mind the ionic exuberance of the northern lights.
Drawing my gaze in, to the prairie carpet closer at hand (foot), Read the rest of this entry
(Part 1 of 2; here’s the other one)
As dusk fades to night, a strong wind stirs the stiff, heat-hardy leaves of oak and hickory into steady sensual contact with their brethren; the sound we know as “wind in trees” is, in actual deed, tens of thousands of leaves caressing each other. Spinning out a two-day tendril from the Rockies to the nearest edge of the eastern forest, I’ve touched down in the Cross Timbers of northeastern Oklahoma, an oak-centric forest that’s a sort of stepping stone between the prairies and the Ozarks—from which spread the piney forests of the southern gulf plain and the leafy Tennessee and Kentucky woods that stretch on to the ancient bones of the Appalachians.
Many times I’ve travelled between my home in a small valley at the southern tip of the Rockies and the moister, sylvan landscapes of the east. This time, instead of zipping through the vast open plains in a burst of I-40 intensity, the journey stretched to fill two long days—laced with detours and countless pauses along the way, and so knitting together another stretch of my experiential map of our varied continent.
For starters, I slipped off the interstate after just a couple hours, drawn by the chance to cross the Canadian River in a more exciting spot: dropping suddenly into a 600-foot canyon gouged into the western edge of the plains. Read the rest of this entry
Finally, a video of aurora that isn’t speeded up by today’s craze for time-lapse. For two nights in the early 80’s aurora swept far enough south to be overhead in central Maine (very rare; usually they’re on the northern horizon at best), and we were entranced by their visual Majavishnu dance. Slower than water in a stream and faster than clouds overhead, the rippling motion of aurora hit a real sweet spot for lifting viewers into an extended state of wonder. While of course video in a 500-pixel-wide portion of a screen can’t replicate this wonder, you can get a faint taste of it from this show in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
And check this out: the same footage with comparisons in real-time and time-lapse. As he explains, while real-time captures the actual feeling of the motion, that 30fps shutter speed dims the colors, while time-lapse sequences come closer to presenting the color as seen by the eye, at least for bright aurora.
Note, though, that many time-lapse videos of the night sky, using a series of still shots at wide aperture, clearly exaggerate the brightness, as compared to human vision; virtually all of the gorgeous milky way time-lapses do this to a fairly dramatic degree, as do some videos of fainter aurora. Real time video, by contrast, will, if anything, under-represent the brightness of the night sky.
Again, in lieu of any fresh songs springing forth from my own muse, I offer this recent reverie from a writer I’ve come to deeply appreciate, Brian Doyle. In an essay on the wonderful website curated by the Center for Humans and Nature, he glimpses the needle’s eye:
What is the greatest single virtue of our species? What is the one thing that we have in spades and abundance, the one thing that perhaps allowed us to prosper and multiply in such staggering numbers, to send men and machines into the sea of the stars, to fling a chirping robot past the boundaries of our very galaxy? Imagination, brothers and sisters. Imagination. We dream and then make real our dreams. And all that inventiveness, all that innovative zest, all our yearning to solve puzzles and discover secrets and worry inarguable truths from the welter of lies and distractions, all our deep pleasure in making things that were never in the world before in just that way—now that is become the thin thread of our salvation. Not to mention all the other actors in the play. Not to mention your children and their children
Following his heart and his pen through a series of powerful and poignant reflections (please do read the whole piece), Brian reminds us, and asks us:
We dreamed ourselves aloft. We dreamed ways to wrestle and wrangle rivers. We caught electricity. We persuaded plants to march in rows and give us their children to eat. We dreamed ever-faster ways to whir along the skin of the earth in steeds of steel. We dreamed throbbing cities so big and vast and high they seem unreal when we shuffle through them gawking far below. We dreamed the most extraordinary music and the most haunting deep-shared stories. We invented uncountable thousands of languages and religions and dances and sports and foods and medicines. Can’t we invent new fuels for our steel steeds, and new ways to catch and share energy, and new ways to spin detritus into fuel and energy? Have we gone stale and dim as a species, here at the apex of our population and technology boom? Were these last centuries of incredible invention and innovation and imagination all just for money and power? Or do we have a last slim door through which to send our wild holy imaginations into a future where children do not gasp and retch and duck the bullets of the Water Wars?