I’d be very pleased with myself if I’d thought to place that single maple leaf on the log under the crook of the red maple sapling, but in fact I was oblivious. I had eyes only for the sapling’s dramatic struggle to escape the crushing embrace of the dead. This is, after all, the season for high drama; who can be expected to focus on a single leaf? It only revealed itself as the true subject of this photo in retrospect, as I was reviewing the pictures in the LCD screen on the back of the camera.
This past weekend was the peak of fall color here on the mountain. Because the majority of canopy-height trees are oaks, every year it’s hit or miss whether we’ll have a good display — some years they go straight from green to brown, with no intermediary stops at rust red (red oak), scarlet (scarlet oak), or orange-yellow (chestnut oak). This year has been excellent for color, but lousy for photography. The weather this weekend lurched from rain to sun to snow and back again. During one period of intermittent sunshine, I hurried up to the top of the field for some wide-angle shots, but none of them turned out very well. (I posted the two best results on Flickr.)
The maples are more dependable. Although in general I’d advise ecotourists in Pennsylvania not to waste too much time in the “big woods” of the north-central counties, where the forests are young and ecologically impoverished by decades of severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer, in early October the fall foliage display is much less likely to disappoint wherever maples and birches are the dominant deciduous trees. But we have plenty of red and sugar maples and black birches here, too, especially along the forest edges. One of the best places for leaf-peepers to go around here is the stretch of Interstate 99 between Altoona and Bald Eagle. I don’t suppose I need to dwell upon the irony in that.
But a healthy Appalachian oak forest is far more than just the canopy. Park your car or bicycle and go for a walk in the woods almost anywhere in central Pennsylvania right now, and your gaze might gather warmth from the orange flames of sassafras, the red coals of shadbush or maple-leafed viburnum, or the crayon-yellow, starfish-shaped blossoms of witch hazel, which perversely chooses the middle of autumn to bloom. In wetter areas, the spicebushes are stippled with blood-red berries, and higher up the mountainsides, lowbush blueberry leaves — as in the photo above — turn a wonderful wine-red. Even the invasive multiflora rose and barberry bushes are worth a second glance, since, in addition to their own crimson fruits, many of them wear a colorful patchwork coat of fallen tree leaves. If you spook a deer, or if you run into a hunter dragging his quarry out of the woods, chances are its coat will have finished changing from the reddish brown of summer to winter gray. In another week, most of the forest will have followed suit, and the drama will be over for another year. The oaks will all go brown, and wait for the November winds to strip them bare.
Don’t forget to send any and all tree-related links to Rachel of frizzyLogic, who will be hosting the next Festival of the Trees on November 1. Address your emails to: festival (dot) trees (at) gmail (dot) com, and send them no later than October 30.