Waves of color

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With yet another election looming, plenty of people have color on their mind. Well they can have their reds and blues, because my brain (and my eyes) are focused on the hillsides, ablaze with the hues of autumn.

The folks up north get all the attention for fall color, and of course the reds and golds of early October there can be breathtaking. But I’ll be honest; I feel kinda sorry for our brothers and sisters in the northern climes. Because only a handful of tree species — mostly maple and birch — grow there, the leaves change in one steady progression that results in one of those “peaks” we all read about. I’ve seen many a color peak over the years and they’re impressive indeed; the beauty so widespread and vibrant it can feel almost overwhelming. There have been sunny October days in northern Minnesota or Wisconsin where I found myself almost frustrated, unable to decide whether to focus my attention on a distant panorama ablaze with glory, or the simple beauty of an yellow-orange carpet of leaves at my feet.

Of course dealing with so much eye candy is a happy task. But the problem with a color peak is, well, the aftermath. For a few short days you think “this is why God made trees”....and then one good windy day or rainy night later, those same trees are as naked as they’ll be until April. Suddenly that much-anticipated color peak is nothing more than a memory.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve come to love autumn in bluff country so much. While we lack the shocking display of a birch-maple forest screaming its color, we enjoy a subtler, yet longer-lasting, show. Our maples and the few scattered birch pop and sparkle for a bit, then drop their leaves. There’s often a break for a few days, but other species; the ash, hickory, and butternuts, take over with their own sideshow. Then my hillside favorites, the white and red oaks, pull a dance card and flaunt their russet and scarlet tints, with some of the stubborn trees hanging on to their leaves until early winter. Another often-neglected leaf show occurs on the river bottoms, which grow thick with maples and birch species that are shy about showing off; often not peaking until late October.

One of my dearest friends lives in northern Wisconsin, and we’ve developed a habit of trading pictures of things that bring us pleasure; smiling kids, family vacations, goofy dogs, big deer or fish, and of course scenic shots. In early October I received a drop-dead beautiful shot of their family dog posed on a riverbank so splashed with vibrant color I mistook it for a postcard. But then, only days later, I received a second photo with trees in the background and of course the scene was starkly different, the trees mere stick figures of their once-gaudy selves.

Meanwhile, a red oak in my backyard was just starting to flex its color palette, the tips of the leaves starting their steady march toward beauty. Three full weeks later that oak is not only just now reaching its best blush, but I know from watching it over the years that those leaves will stick around until winter. So yes, the overwhelming beauty of a color peak is something to behold, but I’d rather experience the slow, steady, waves of color that are one of bluff country’s perfect blessings.