Choosing a Birch Over a Billboard

IN 2006, Florida lawmakers passed a law that protected the billboard from one of the great environmental threats to its existence: the tree. During the debate, a state representative in favor of the bill testified, “Tourism depends on billboards, not on trees.”

This is one of the biggest differences between Vermont and Florida – that and the fact presidential aspirants never come here because we have the Electoral College clout of a chihuahua. Vermont’s tourism depends on trees. We don’t even allow billboards.

Roughly 4 million tourists will descend upon Vermont this autumn to peep at our leaves and savor what poets – and New England tourism executives – like to call the fire in the trees. (Out west they are less partial to that expression. When they hear that term in Colorado or California, they immediately signal the fire jumpers and start digging trenches around San Diego.)

There are a lot of reasons why people celebrate the fall foliage, not the least of which is that it is indeed very pretty. For a few weeks in late September and early October, the New England maple blushes a shade of cherry far more enticing than the ChapStick in Katy Perry’s MTV purse. Likewise, the ash glows as purple as billboards on Broadway and the birch trees bloom into a neon that’s downright phosphorescent. The woods grow more scenic, more lush, and more visually arresting – especially when the sky above is a cerulean blue and the vista is framed by the rising wisps of our own autumnal breath.

But here’s a reality that fascinated me my first years living in a small hamlet here: Fall foliage is not the Grand Canyon. Or Yosemite. Or even Niagara Falls. It’s not jaw-dropping, pull-me-away-from-the-edge-of-the-cliff, never-seen-anything-like-it spectacular.

So, why the attraction? Why the cars, the crowds, the buses lumbering like moose up and over each gap? After decades of living here, I have come to the conclusion that at least part of the draw is this: death. Not all of it, certainly. Some of the pull is romance in a four-poster bed and an inn with a dog and a fireplace. The leaves are a pretext to escape an urban condo with a view of another urban condo.

But we also understand that the colors we see in the trees are millions (billions?) of leaves slowly dying. We might not know the biology behind the change, but we realize that the leaf is turning from green to red because imminently it will fall to the ground.

The science is actually pretty simple: The tree is aware that the cold is coming and the leaves haven’t a prayer. Consequently, it produces a wall of cells at the base of the leaf, precisely where the stem meets the twig, thus preventing fluids from reaching the leaf. At the same time, the leaf stops producing chlorophyll, the chemical behind photosynthesis and the reason leaves are green. Without the chlorophyll, the leaf’s other chemicals become obvious, such as the maple’s red carotenoids. Soon the leaf withers and dies.

But what a handsome death it is. No dementia, no incontinence, no children or loved ones bickering over whether to pull the plug or order one last round of chemo cocktails. Humans should be so lucky as to turn the kaleidoscopic colors of the forest when we die. My friend, Stephen Kiernan, calls this “the lesson of the leaves” in his fine book, “Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System.”

Of course, the whole of autumn is about transience. The entire natural world seems to be shutting down, moldering, growing still. The days are short, the nights are long, and everything looks a little bleak . . . except for those leaves. Those kaleidoscopically lovely maples and birches and oaks allow us to gaze for a moment at the wonder of nature and to accept the inevitable quiescence of our own souls. Like so much else around us, it’s not the leaves’ beauty that moves us: It’s the fact their beauty won’t last.

And that, in my mind, is the great gift of the foliage – and why, thank heavens, no Vermonter is ever going to choose a billboard over a birch.

(This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe on September 22, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.