For 30 years, Marc D. Abrams has meditated on the mysteries of the woodlands and the mystical magic of autumn. So he was asked where he would go for that maximum feasible foliage experience. His answer was as disappointing as it was unsurprising.
"That is a tough one," he said, "because I have seen great colors throughout New England, Upstate New York . . . and down the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia and North Carolina."
I was holding out hope for that miraculous revelation, a hint of an undiscovered jewel, but I guess a few million of us would give roughly the same answer. I would, however, add the colors that Abrams, a Pennsylvania State University professor of forest ecology, has seen in his own state, not for naught called Penn's Woods. My autumn canvas would include the scarlet-, gold-, russet-, and cinnamon-tinted foliage I have seen even in New Jersey, especially the northwest, and in the special wooded areas in and around Philadelphia, including the Wissahickon Valley, where I have played catch with the falling leaves.
Autumn in the East is an enchanting experience, what the late naturalist Edwin Way Teale described as "the glorious, flaming sunset of the year," a sunset that lingers for weeks, and that in recent years has been lingering longer.
You don't have to look hard. I wouldn't recommend it, in fact. My all-time favorite foliage experiences - in remote northwestern Maine and deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains - were evanescent, lasting just long enough to teach me a lifelong lesson that I, too, often have overlooked.
What I do always keep in mind about autumn is that we are incredibly lucky to have it. Some are saying this could all change should warming accelerate, and Abrams and others say colors have been showing up a shade later in recent years. But warming also has a benign side, extending the season, perhaps making it more colorful. And based on preseason signs, this fall is shaping up to be a beauty.
What's behind the show?
The variations of nature's palettes are almost endless, but autumn colors are driven by three basic pigments: carotenoids (the yellows and oranges of corn and pumpkins), anthocyanins (think cranberries and apples), and basic green chlorophyll.
Responding to autumn's light cues, chlorophyll in deciduous trees recedes and yields to yellows and oranges. Then, as food-bearing veins at the leaf base shut off, the stranded sugars manufacture the show-stealing anthocyanins that turn leaves aflame.
It is impossible to predict just how brilliant an autumn will be in any given woods, or any given species, for that matter. But Abrams says the best colors depend on favorable weather during the growing season - that is, with adequate but not excessive rain. Too much rain is a bonanza for tree-blight parasites. Those requirements generally have been met in the East, which has been spared the leaf-shriveling drought conditions of the West.
What happens in the next few weeks, however, also is crucial. What you want, said Abrams, is "a nice cooldown in late September through mid-October." Warm, sunny days and cool nights without killer frosts are ideal for inciting anthocyanin.
When is the best time to get out there? In far northern New England, the color onset already has begun, with a peak in late September. By contrast, color in the lower elevations of the Blue Ridge might not get underway until mid-October and peak in November. In the immediate Philadelphia area, the peak usually arrives the third week in October, but thanks in part to so many exotic species, the color can linger well into November.
The seasons do vary, and a foliage trip sometimes is a game-day decision. But a government-run site developed by Xioyang Zhang at South Dakota State University might be a big help. Using satellite data, it monitors conditions every three days and predicts what will happen 10 days out in six color-intensity categories: www.star.nesdis.noaa.gov/star/news2014_201410_FallFoliage.php.
Considerable research is being devoted to whether worldwide warming is pushing back the season. Earth's temperatures are running about 1.5 degrees warmer than in the 20th century, according to federal data, and the warming in the Northeast has been about the same. But any conclusions are compounded by the varieties of species, elevations, and terrains.
One of the most detailed records we've seen was started by 87-year-old Nancy Aldrich, daughter of the founder of Polly's Pancakes, in Sugar Hill, N.H., a famed tourist destination. Since 1975, Polly's has kept track of the dates of onset, peak, and season finales. Onsets and peaks haven't changed much on her chart, but the season has been hanging on about five days longer up her way, until Oct. 10.
Abrams said the warming also might be adding a dash of color, thanks to additional splashes of precipitation that have stimulated growth.
Just as important as when you decide to go is when you decide to look. Those splendidly sunny autumn middays are for walking in the cathedrals of the woods as the sunlight turns the leaves to stained glass. For panoramas, however, slate skies make for better backgrounds, and not too many natural phenomena can match the light-and-shadow interplay on hillsides as rapidly moving clouds race across the sun. If it's raining, my advice would be to stay inside with a beverage of choice. Wet leaves can be more dangerous than ice; just ask SEPTA.
My favorite time is around sunset, when a hidden sun might slip beneath a cloud in just the right angle to electrify the leaves, barks, and treetops. Stay around for twilight, when the subtlety of leaf color is exploited by the remnants of daylight. And if you're fortunate to be somewhere on a clear night with a full moon, catch the silvery light on the colored leaves. The moon will be full at the end of September, during the peak in northern New England, and in late October, in time for the Philadelphia peak.
What I've learned to appreciate most about autumn are all the things I notice almost incidentally, what the philosopher Robert Pirsig called "corner-of-your-eye" experiences. As he wrote in that '70s tome Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "You point to something as having Quality and the Quality tends to go away."
He was proved right at Moosehead Lake, in the wilds of Maine. I was driving, actually braking, down a steep mountain road, hoping to live through the experience, when I caught a glimpse of foliage the like of which I had never seen. I had a similar instant on the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, as the car emerged from a low cloud. In both cases, once I tried to prolong the moments, they were gone.
I've had other moments that were close, and I've never known an autumn to disappoint. Enjoy what comes your way, but above all, relax, and be grateful.
LEAF PEEPERS' GUIDES
Peak foliage dates can vary depending on weather conditions and other factors.
A government-run site monitors conditions nationwide every three days and posts 10-day forecasts in six color-intensity categories: www.star.nesdis.noaa.gov/star/news2014_201410_FallFoliage.php.
A private site offers weekly forecasts in seven color categories: www.smokymountains.com/
Also, starting Sept. 22, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will issue weekly updates on Pennsylvania conditions: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/