FEATURED COLUMN by John McDonald: Please leaf Maine alone

By John McDonald

Every year it’s the same thing. Soon after the kids go back to school and the summer complaints go back to wherever they came from, folks in the media start talking about leaf season. It’s called by different names — foliage season, leaf-peeper season — but it refers to the same activity. Put simply, it’s the act of driving around gawking at leaves. As my grandfather used to say about such activity, “Don’t they have something better to do?”

People plan their annual vacations for early October through late October and drive thousands of miles across North America, over majestic mountain ranges and across mighty rivers just to be here in northern New England when our trees shut down for the season and stop making chlorophyll. With no chlorophyll to compete with, the other pigments in the leaves can finally shine if only for a few weeks.
Our green and black ash, basswood, beech, birches, butternut and elm will turn yellow; our boxelder, mountain, silver, striped and sugar maples turn red along with our mountain ash, poplar, serviceberry, willow and witch hazel. Black, red, scarlet and white oak, hornbeam, sumac and tupelo will turn red, and our black oak will often turn brown. There’s no denying it’s a great show and I enjoy it as much now as I ever did, but I guess it’s because I live here I’m able to control myself about the changing leaves.
I can look at a stand of beech and witch hazel and manage to keep my heart rate and blood pressure stable. The changing color of our leaves is important part of our state’s economic mix, so it’s a good thing that leaves stop making chlorophyll right on schedule every year. It’s a good thing for Maine that people in other parts of the country have to drop what they’re doing and drive here to Maine to see the resulting colors.
The act of looking at leaves is a big business here in Maine. A lot of otherwise successful people have spent a lot of time and a lot of money attracting the people who like to drive around or stand around doing nothing else but looking at our colorful leaves. The Maine Department of Conservation manages millions of acres of forest land and that means — among many other things — they have lots of leaves under their jurisdiction for visiting leafers to gawk at. Go to their website (state.me.us/doc/foliage) and you’ll find more than what you think healthy human beings should know about the act of looking at leaves.
There used to be — and maybe still is — something called a “foliage forum,” where foliage folks (people who go loopy over leaves), can go to share favorite leaf-peeping spots and private foliage experiences. Those with way too much free time can share thoughts on foliage seasons gone by and reveal fantasy seasons they’d like to be part of.
Just think of it: Many of these people will be voting in a few weeks. Our Department of Conservation is on the job, releasing weekly foliage reports during the season. Where do they get these reports? Overworked forest rangers, who are supposed to be looking after Bambi and Thumper and other woodland creatures, are asked to stop attending to their duties in the field, sit down in a nice comfy chair someplace and look at all the leaf trees in the immediate vicinity to assess the amount of color change and leaf drop that has occurred since their last assessment. These reports give color in percentages — from 30 to 80 to 100 percent.
Once filed and posted, these reports represent the official word on foliage conditions in the state of Maine and are provided to the public and the media. It’s surprising so much fuss can be made about the act of watching brightly colored leaves as they fall, but then an equal fuss is made over Niagara Falls, and that’s just watching water fall. I hear a lot of people have been known to sit and watch that, too.
So, this fall, if you see leafers blocking roads and creating threats to public safety, just remember it won’t last long and, while gawking at our colorful leaves, they ‘leave’ a lot of green behind. Sorry for the pun. I got a little carried away.

John McDonald is a Maine storyteller who entertains at banquets, conferences and conventions throughout New England. He is also the author of five regional bestsellers – including “A Moose and a Lobster walk into a Bar” and “The Maine Dictionary.” Contact: maineauthorjohn.mcdonald@yahoo.com or 207-240-8324.