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!
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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.