The reds are popping, the yellows are vibrant and the greens are glittering. Even the locals cannot get enough of the beautiful transition that turns Vermont from the Green Mountains into a symphony of nature’s beauty. Vermont becomes a postcard state, where tourists run around with cameras attached to their faces, stopping their cars in the weirdest locations to capture that perfect photo — even before Instagram.
From this beautiful collection of colors, we get all kinds of inspirational quotes — it’s the time of year where Mother Nature shows us the beauty of embracing change, how so many different colors exist where before we only saw green, taking lessons from the beauty of nature and hopefully bringing them into our basic lives. Vermont in the fall is on millions of travel backlists around the world, and we can only feel spoiled as we watch the oak trees outside my window turn three different shades all at one time.
It’s glorious, this time period where we fall in love with Vermont all over again. But it wasn’t always this way. With the advent of new arrivals and the explosion of the papermill after the Civil War, Vermont was stripped of its natural beauty by loggers. Not that logging is evil in itself — responsible cutting can support healthy forests and vibrant wildlife — but logging in the mid 1800s was all about making as much profit as possible on the cheap. There was no replanting and no selective cutting. These loggers were only in the here and now, and the term “Green Mountains” meant money not trees.
Deer began to vanish as their natural habitat was removed and the ground began to slide as the tree roots no longer held it in place. It was, simply put, an ecological disaster that was destroying the state. The rolling hills of Vermont became barren, desolate reminders of their old selves with stumps of slaughtered trees. Vermont had become a haven for sheep and wool production, but not much else was left. But by the early 1890s, Vermonters had started to notice. In his inaugural address, Governor Urban Woodbury called out the logging industry, demanding a policy to lessen the “wanton destruction of our forest.” It is here we start to see the first preservation of Vermont’s forests, as Legislator Joseph Battell purchased Camel’s Hump and Breadloaf Mountain in an attempt to save them from the “lumber butchers.”
By 1909, the state named its first official forester and purchased its first 450 acres of forest, the Old Goshen Gore in Plainfield. Vermont’s love affair with the preservation of our forests had begun and with a combination of private donations and public money, land trusts and goodness, Vermont now has over 4.6 million acres of forestland. Vermont went from 80% clear cut to 80% forested in just a few decades. When we choose to do something right, Vermonters don’t mess around. However, these new forests were different. While the old trees had been beautiful pine trees reaching toward the sky and perfect for lumber, something had changed. The exposed soil had warmed and instead of the heavy slow growing seeds of conifers, new deciduous hardwoods grew up in their place. Their light and prolific seeds beat the conifers to the punch, and these new plush forests grew quickly, changing the forests from one of dark pine green to various shades of green.
While Vermont had these trees before, never had they grown in such abundance. Red maple, American beech, yellow birch, and the mighty oak tree grew up quickly. That’s right. Maple trees. Used by indigenous peoples for centuries, legend tells that they followed the example of the squirrels sucking at the sugary sap. And then one day the wife of the chief boiled the meat in the sap for dinner and rejoiced in its sweetness. With the invention of the tin can around the Civil War, maple became the shelf stable staple of households around the growing United States. And with the regrowth of its forests, Vermont has been able to dominate the maple market — and everyone knows Vermont maple syrup is the best in the world. But since 2010, Vermont has lost about 1,500 acres of forestland a year.
While some forest loss has been from disease, much has come from the changing times. Urban development and larger parcels being divided up by descendants will make it much harder and we as Vermonters will face difficult challenges in the future. Perhaps foliage is not just a glowing demonstration of the beauty of nature, but a reminder of the damage that humans can cause to our surroundings and a celebration of the decision to preserve our land for the future.
Let us look at these colors as a reminder that we are but stewards of these lands and great forests, and that while we might profit from them, we should do it in a way that future generations might also know the beauty of Vermont.