Even though I grew up in the Deep, Deep South, there’s no more magical phrase to me than the words, “Fall in New England.” I’ve never been to New England in the autumn, I regret to say, but when I was a kid, I would read National Geographic stories about the foliage, and stare at the photos of the blazing trees, and imagine I was there. The crisp fall air, the golds, the reds, the smell of wood smoke, sweaters, apple cider, pumpkins, Pilgrims — some kids dream of the beach, but I dreamed of this. Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, because in my imagination, it seemed like a celebration of all that is New England in the American soul. Louisiana wasn’t entirely deprived of autumn (unlike, say, South Florida), but ours was a pitiful thing. I’d sit there and think about those lucky Yankee kids, sitting there on Pepperidge Farm , eating cider donuts and walking through the vivid forests, and burn with envy.
(I was, incidentally, always envious about what kids Elsewhere had. A McDonalds, for instance. And Dolley Madison snack cakes — Dolley Madison sponsored the Peanuts specials, but we couldn’t get them in my town. Only Hostess brand. Verily, life was elsewhere.)
Our autumns weren’t nothing, at least not when I was a kid. You could put on your windbreaker and go pick up pecans, or toss around the football. But boy, wouldn’t it have been great to have been in New England? Wouldn’t it have been great to experience a glorious autumn, instead of welcoming it simply as the Thank-God-Summer’s-Over time of year?
Well, maybe not so much, or at least for not much longer. Global warming has put fall in New England on the endangered species list. Excerpt:
First, our signature crisp fall air seems to be turning less, er, crispy. The Union of Concerned Scientists has found that northeast temperatures have been rising by about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1970, with winter temperatures rising at a rate more than double that. The group says that regional temperatures could rise another three degrees within the next 30 years, and up to 12 degrees by 2099.
This warming is already producing a constellation of region-specific effects, including a longer growing season and compromised sap production. Forest aesthetics are not immune. The New England Climate Coalition predicted a few years ago that if temperatures continue to climb unabated, “the fall foliage for which the region is famous will disappear as birch, maple, and spruce species migrate north or die out altogether.” New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services warned in 2008 that the state’s hardwood trees could move north by up to 300 miles. In Maine, scientists have enlisted citizens to document the effects of climate change by monitoring their own backyards.
Amateur observers of regional color have intuited this for years. Scotty Johnston, a 72-year-old Connecticut resident who serves as the guided-tour company Tauck’s “fall foliologist,” says that the region’s cold weather is what makes it so special. “I don’t like to pooh-pooh the South, but between you, me, and the gatepost, they don’t have the cold snap,” he told me. “The cooler temperatures are not as extreme, so the snap is not triggering the reds.” Tauck, which helped pioneer New England foliage tourism in the 1920s, is conducting 25 tours this season, with some packages costing more than $4,000 a person. (The company recently began reaching out to tourists in Europe and Australia.)
Bob Bower, a 61-year-old organic farmer in central New Hampshire, was out selling pumpkins, syrup, and homemade soap at the 64th annual foliage festival in Warner, N.H., on a recent weekend. “We’re boiling sap earlier and earlier,” he told me. “We’re growing vegetables later, and we haven’t had a hard frost yet. And it’s not just this year. It’s been consistent.” It was 80 degrees out as we talked, and the canopy of trees above us was green. Bower said it was the first year he could remember that the leaves hadn’t turned by the time of the festival. And he’s right: Several ongoing studies throughout the region are finding signs of fall occurring later and later in the calendar year.