Vermont's Official Foliage Forecaster | Driving with the Leaf Spotter
He pulled into Tillotson Trading, an antiques and salvage company, for a quick chat with owner Steve Tillotson. (“You’ll love this place,” Snyder told me. “There’s that Vermont sense of frugality, and the opinions are free.”) He had mentioned that trees’ turning color—getting ready to drop their leaves to conserve energy over the long winter—is how they avoid stress, but also how they display stress.
In West Topsham we drove by a newly built commercial sugaring operation and, just beyond it, a wide log landing piled high with cordwood. “The Limlaw family does a good job,” he said. He waved at the woodpile. “A third of Vermont kids go to schools heated with wood, and many homes are still heated by some form of wood. We wouldn’t be doing this tour if we didn’t have that history.”
Near the junction with U.S. Route 302, we swung past the forested wetlands at the headwaters of the Waits River, the nutrient-deprived swamp maples flaring brightly. We drove the long dirt road into Seyon Ranch State Park so that Snyder could touch base with the staff working at the lodge. He looked across Noyes Pond to the reddening slopes of Spruce Mountain and said, “Two days ago I would have called this ‘pre-foliage,’ but it’s starting to come now. I’d say 5 percent color.”
He fingered the leaf of a birch tree as he talked. “See the brown edges? Septoria fungus,” he noted. “Those brown edges won’t turn color. Last year we saw a lot more foliar disease because of the damp, humid spring—anthracnose and tar spots on the maples, especially. Those trees will recover. This year it’s been drought and pear thrips—tiny insects no bigger than black specks, but they can absolutely defoliate a tree.”
Along Route 232 in Groton, we passed a stream bed damaged by Tropical Storm Irene, and Snyder pointed out the closed-in, darker-green corridor we were driving through: “We’re out of the Waits Formation now—colder, more acidic soils, a tougher environment, so more softwoods, more forestry history than agricultural from here all the way through the Northeast Kingdom.”
And that’s pretty much the way it went for the rest of the day: Snyder talking about people and the land as we drove back into Groton State Forest and to Ricker Pond, then hiked up to a bigger landscape picture from Owl’s Head, where recent patch cuts showing state woodcock-management areas stood out like scars in the forested carpet. Back out 302 through Orange and around to Route 110 through Washington and Chelsea, past still-green tamarack swamps and 90-percent sugar-maple hillsides in full blush, past new horse farms and struggling old dairies and cottage woodworking businesses.
I told Snyder about my image of aerial photography and remote sensors. “Well, you could call my truck ‘Foliage Central,’” he replied. “During this whole drive I’ve been receiving inputs and cataloguing data. We have 12 county foresters doing the same thing. They submit reports to me twice a week during foliage season about what they’re seeing on the ground, and what they’re hearing from the landowners who are most connected to the land. I use my judgment to try and turn their reports into numbers. I guess as far as the forecasting goes, I’m proud to say that it still comes mostly from local knowledge.”
On the Goose Green Road shortcut heading home toward Route 25 and the Waits River Valley, Snyder pointed out a ridgeline of tan- and brown-tinged sugar maples. The drabness looked drought-related, but Snyder knew the landowner and made a note to himself to call and see whether he’d had trouble with pear thrips along that ridge. “Trees are resilient,” he said, “but they can’t move.”
He could just as easily have been talking about a state’s people. “They have to deal with any stresses right where they are,” Snyder added. “That dance of stress and resiliency plays out in a color scheme.”