By Hildur Palsdottir
Fall is my favorite season for several reasons, kicking leaves being one of them. But warnings that this summer’s drought would cut the season for leaf peeping short here on Long Island and result in a subdued color palette inspired my plans to venture out of state and up north to enjoy the vibrant display of colors characteristic of Northeastern autumn.
Unfortunately, stressed trees are underperforming as a symptom of climate change with this year’s color display attenuated not just on Long Island, but also in the eastern part of Massachusetts and Connecticut, southeastern New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I heard the canopy is already browning in Rhode Island.
The factors at play for fall color display include more than just moisture and sunlight. The absence of fall frost mutes the crisp brilliance of crimson red. While many had predicted that global warming would lead to a longer growing season yielding more time for photosynthesis, climate scientists were surprised to discover earlier leaf senescence in a warming climate. While the fall foliage peak is pushed back in some places, leaf-peeping season is shortened.
The spread of non-native canopy further mutes the formerly brilliant fall foliage that’s inspired poets and painters throughout centuries.
In my quest for wonderment I drove north to New Hampshire this mid-October to embrace with all my senses the most magnificent shades of green, yellow, orange and red. While surrounded by health and vibrancy, my climate concerns blended with timeless natural beauty. Amid biodiverse native woodlands I relaxed my worries temporarily into a bed of ancient ferns decorating the forest floor. Insidious English ivy nowhere in sight.
Healthy ecosystems are expressed in rich biodiversity. Gazing at the forested mountain range and native wild lands up north, you can easily access your natural place and humility. It’s therapeutic to spend time in nature. Inspired by Northeastern woodlands Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
While hiking through New Hampshire woodlands, I made a point of pausing by healthy beech trees, well aware that the nematode that causes Beech Leaf Disease poses a significant threat to the future of our Northeastern forest. Long Island woodlands are further compromised by several other recent invasive pests such as the Emerald Ash Borer attacking Ash trees and spotted lanternfly that doesn’t discriminate.
Last century it’s estimated that every fourth tree in our forest was an American Chestnut. Already functionally extinct for decades, the iconic American chestnut population was wiped out by a fungal disease carried over by Chinese chestnut trees introduced into North America from East Asia. Almost 4 billion American chestnut trees were killed in the first half of the 20th century. I couldn’t help but wonder if similarly, our beeches will fade into memory of a distant past.
Before journeying up north, I inspected all flat surfaces for spotted lanternfly eggs, and had to trust that disinfecting my boots with vinegar was sufficient to prevent the spread of the invasive pests that plague Long Island woods. Our neck of the woods has been irreversibly shaped by colonial settlement and overdevelopment. Very little is left of old-growth forest here in Nassau. Returning home from New Hampshire to New York by car, it’s ominous how together with growing population density the non-native, invasive tree canopy creeps in and largely replaces our native tree canopy.
First introduced by European settlers as an ornamental for landscaping in 1756, fast-growing Norway maples now dominate the canopy here and have replaced most of our native sugar and red maples. Their thick canopy mercilessly prevents native seedlings from finding sunlight.
In addition to crowding out natives, many naturalists suspect Norway maples flush the ground with toxins, thereby preventing other species from taking roots. If you’re not leaf shape literate, you can easily distinguish Norway maples from other maples, as they exude a milky sap from the leaf stem. While introduced in good faith, most states now classify Norway maple as an invasive plant species.
It’s hard to predict the future of our native vegetation here. But it is certain that doing the best we can today to manage the spread of invasives and plant natives will make an enormous difference for our future ecosystem’s health and function. And as Emerson wrote, our nature is beautiful. Let’s embody this beauty in action with native ecosystem restoration.
With autumn’s golden and crimson glory fading into shades of brown, it’s timely to support our local, native trees in whichever way you can. Please do feel invited to connect with the trees not just for the sheer aesthetics, but also the vital ecosystem functions they perform, including their generous offerings of breathable air. Joanna Mounce Stancil of U.S. Forest Service writes that “one large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people,” while cleaning the air of carbon.
We have an enormous capacity to support positive change; we can help regenerate disturbed woodlands and nurse them back into thriving ecosystems and with that remind future generations about their beautiful nature.