15 November 2010

Peep This

I really dislike the notion of leaf peeping.

First of all, it is a ridiculous pairing of words. Simply forming the sounds and speaking them aloud makes you feel like a bumptious jackass. Meanwhile, it makes everyone within earshot agree that you are, in fact, a bumptious jackass. Don’t get me wrong. Good-hearted people are pleased to hear of a friend’s restful weekend vacation. Just… spare us the Martha Stewart jargon.

I want to be clear, though. I have zero problems with dedicating entire conversations or a whole weekend to the beauty of autumn. Mid-to-late fall is my absolute favorite time of year. I love it. The smells. The weather. The scenery. Love it.

My real problem with “leaf peeping” is the suggestion that it should be confined to a special, schedulable activity. A sane person in a sane world should be able to say, “It’s beautiful outside and I need a break… see you Monday.” No explanation and no itinerary necessary. Just go.

Thank you, preachy blogger guy. I thought you were in the middle of a series on gardening.

Yes, I know. I’m getting to that.

Somewhere between Labor Day and Halloween, Midwestern vegetable gardens and potted annuals go quietly into the night – literally. While the days remain arguably comfortable, the nights quickly cool and frost starts to claim the remaining tomato plants. At the same time, a wide variety of shrubs and trees begin their own near-death decent into winter. But their change is far from quiet. Shade trees in the park and climbing forts in the backyard slowly shift toward dormancy this time of year. Chlorophyll (the green-colored molecule that makes photosynthesis possible) decreases and other, non-green pigments begin to show through in leaves. The result is a breath-taking display of pink, yellow, red, orange, and caramel brown. It’s beautiful.

However, because many of us are hopelessly trying to be one-hundred percent productive one-hundred percent of the time, we feel guilty about simply looking up at the trees. So we coin a special term that makes it sound like we are doing something. We’re leaf peeping.

Constructing a special activity out of what should be the simple pleasure of noticing and enjoying a change in seasons is absurd. But having an all-things-considered view of the environment you shape for yourself is a different story. That is, if you like fall colors and you are compelled to have something for your to-do list, there is nothing stopping you from putting together your own, personal peep show.

The October issue of This Old House Magazine, for example, recently listed ten impressive varieties of trees and shrubs to liven up an autumn yard display. The sampling included “quintessential stalwarts” such as Maple trees; dramatically named shrubs like the Smokebush; and the Blueberry, which offers edible/bakeable/freezeable fruit throughout the summer and “continues to delight” as the season turns cold. All three of these can thrive in Wisconsin’s varied weather, which means there is no reason an attentive gardener can’t make the leap from melon to Maple trees.

Trees and bushes are more expensive than carrot seeds, of course, but the long-term investment in an at-large garden plan can provide years of enjoyment. If you have a chance to add a new boarder on the yard, plan for November and try to bring some fall colors of your own. If you can afford a Sugar Maple sapling, go for it. If you are looking to add some fruit to your backyard garden, think of Blueberries. They are – much like an ideal companion for warm summer days and chilly fall evenings – sweet and beautiful.

First you were complaining that we try too hard. Now you want us to plant our own trees!?

Hang with me. I’m getting there….

The point, folks, is that leaf peeping isn’t a thing. We made it up. Having the coherence to notice a fantastic change in nature’s color scheme is not an “activity.” It is simply being present: genuinely present where you are and in the company of everything around you. Don’t try to manufacture an event out of being alive. But that doesn’t preclude anyone from turning the productive impulse into a chance to actively provide a space for appreciative inaction.

If you need to feel that you are doing something when it comes to fall colors, give landscaping a try. Otherwise, be honest – and set an example for others. Just enjoy the scenery.

And, if you want to make a trip out of it, go ahead. Chances are you earned it. Put your loved ones in the car and go somewhere for the weekend. Bring back pictures to share. But, please, just call it a vacation or a getaway. Don’t come back talking about leaf peeping. And, if you happen to stay at a cute local inn, run by an adorably domestic couple… that would be a Bed & Breakfast. Don’t call it a “B & B.” It makes you sound like a putz.


1. Fall on a Bike Path, by K. B. Connery (Madison, WI)
2. Smokebush, from the blog post "Loving the Smokebush" by Patti Rowlson
3. Golden Sugar Maple, by Suzi Duke
4. Norwegian Blueberry, by Thomas Mues

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