It’s happening again. It feels premature to talk about it already, but autumn is upon us: my oldest son is beginning his freshman year at the University of Vermont, and his younger brother is beginning his senior year at Stowe High School. These are sure signs of fall. In my last column, I talked about the August change in the weather. And as soon as that was posted, we returned to a soupy, tropical, late-summer environment in Northern Vermont. But fear not, because despite the blip in temperatures, the one thing that defines fall in Vermont has begun: the change in foliage.
To understand why the foliage in Vermont in the fall is so famous, so vibrant, so iconic, you have to go back to winter. In winter, Vermont is white (Vermont is white in many other ways, too, but that’s a column for another time). We’re blanketed under snow for five months, blanching our eyes. The only points of reference are the denuded forests reaching through the snow, and the ribbon of asphalt leading up to the ski area.
Snowmelt in April reveals a ravaged landscape heaving its way through the transition. It rains. It snows. It muds. And finally, around the third week of May, it greens. The buds on the trees explode with pale green, an effervescent green that’s a marketeer’s delight. Throughout the summer the shades of green on the trees progress, moving to a deep, dark, foreboding green by the end of July. This is the color that chokes the forests, keeping them cool and shaded. This is the green that gave Vermont its name.
It’s worth noting that while it’s easy for me to say, “This is the green that gave Vermont its name,” we’re still unclear about who, or how, Vermont got its name. One thing that’s certain: it wasn’t Samuel de Champlain. Nor was it the indigenous peoples who frequented the area. Like all myths, the naming of Vermont is murky and difficult to document. For an academic discussion of this history, check out “Samuel de Champlain and the Naming of Vermont,” by Joseph-Andre Senecal, Ph.D.
The disambiguation of nomenclature aside, Vermont could easily have ended up being named Whiteburry, or “Place of the Deep Snows,” or “Mudville”--or something that reflects the state’s most stunning season, autumn. And therein lies another myth.
In precolonial times, Vermont didn’t have the blazing foliage that has made it famous today. According to forestry historian Charlie Cogbill, the dominant tree species in Vermont before European settlement were American beech, spruce, and hemlock. The maple, which comprises one third of the trees in the state today, was barely present. That’s important not only for the maple syrup industry, but for the tourist industry as well, because it’s the prismatic progression of maple tree foliage in late September and early October that dominates the color scheme of our famous landscape. And the reason the maple tree took over is because most of Vermont was deforested in the 19th century to provide lumber for a growing nation. The second growth forests that restored Vermont were predominantly deciduous, the maple first among them. And that’s why the state isn’t called “The land of the blazing colors,” or some other marketing proviso.
But it could. Because now, as we lose the deep greens of summer, as the chlorophyl recedes from the foliage, paling the leaves, moving them toward their seasonal glory, we move back to our colors, and beyond that, when the foliage drops, and we’re left with the peace and grace of stick season, waiting for the snows.