Leaf Watch ... there's a story


When earth repays with golden sheaves
The labours of the plough
And ripening fruits and forest leaves
All brighten on the bough...
Walt Whitman

(September 22, 2003) What's the foliage like where you live? Foliage forecasters are predicting a brilliant and stunning autumn, and it doesn't appear that Halifax, Nova Scotia, home to shunpiking magazine, will prove to be an exception. Red is the first colour to show this fall and already we are beginning to see a hint of the magnificent colour that is expected to roll through the Bluenose Povince. Deep reds, fiery oranges, and blazing yellows -- it's something we never grow tired of beholding. Despite clear-cutting of its forests, Nova Scotia still hosts an amazing spectacle of autumn leaf colour.

At the Frog Pond in my own Spryfield neighbourhood, a leaf watcher wrote just last week: "The low angle of the morning sun enhances the concentrated sprinkles of colour appearing in several small wetlands along the north side of the pond. The view from the duck feeding area features some scrubby maples turned dark red ormaroon, and the cat-tails and ferns at the water's edge are turning golden brown. Tiny patches of colour along the path include: red berries on False Holly, some clusters of ripening rose-coloured fruit on Wild Raisin, light purple aster, dark purple knapweed, goldenrod, white asters, and beside the parking lot a large clump of knotweed is covered with cascades of white flowers."

How colours change is one of Nature's great mysteries. The Native Indians had a theory that blood dripping from the Great Bear (Big Dipper), that was shot by the sky hunter, dotted the mountain side in the red maples and other red plants. And, as the meat was cooked, the fat that spattered out of the kettle landed on other trees to form yellows.

The Autumn Leaf Watch Program may be a helpful guide to experiencing fall and learning about how leaves change colours. A caution, however. Since its inception in 1999 at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, this initiative has become highly commercialized by Nova Scotia Tourism and Culture, and it now seems more geared to Americans than Nova Scotians. In PR lingo, they call it marketing the shoulder season. The program itself seems highly imitative of the New England promotions, but they do a much better job: web sites offer scenic routes, photography tips, foliage guides and detailed interactive maps showing leaf colour intensities. Rhys Harnish, who owns the Dauphinee Inn in Hubbards, NS, about 30 kilometres southwest of Halifax, isn't impressed either. In an interview with Catherine Vardy of NovaNewsWatch, he describes the information on the phone message as "pretty fluffy." Harnish says he's also concerned that his region isn't always mentioned on the recording.

And it no longer features a map, at least online, which we will rectify as part of "shunpiking online". And therein lies a story.

We had been publishing informative articles and illustrations of the fall spectacle throughout our first three years. I developed this approach in September, 1996 after I visiting the museum one rainy Sunday afternoon to see an exhibit on fall leaves. Sadly, it consisted of a few dried leaves, with some open pages from an American book, all sitting on the front information counter. I don't know what I had expected -- a stunning slide show in the auditorium, son et lumiere! perhaps -- but it was a great disappointment. I even talked with Brenda Boutilier, the museum's practical director of public relations, about it.

So we set out to develop our own interpretative guide through the pages of shunpiking. Like everyone else, we were fascinated to learn about the biology and the aesthetics, the change in pigments, and share what we learned with our readers. In September 1997, for instance, Keith Jensen (then natural history editor, now in Calgary) and graphic designer/artist Ian Cauthery (now in Toronto) colloborated to put together a striking, one-page guide. We also asked such experienced interpreters as Scott Cunningham, Sheena Masson and Peter Oickle to write brief guides to discovering fall, by foot or by water. In 1998 acclaimed photographer Stephen Patterson and myself colloborated in designing a centrefold (later a poster) of stunningly beautiful images entitled "Fall Colours of Nova Scotia".

In August, 1999 we approached the folks at the Museum to publish a new, four-colour centrefold and guide in our forthcoming September edition on a colloborative basis. We had heard from Alex Wilson that they had initiated a Leaf Watch program the previous fall. Deannie Sullivan-Pierce, the then-coordinator and initiator, enthusiastically agreed. (Deannie, a resident of Dartmouth, knew her subject: a writer and researcher, she was also a founding member and director of the Nova Scotia Wildlfora Society. In 1996 she had begun a scientific research project, "Uncovering Our Wild Roots" with the aim of preserving our botannical heritage. Her research was based not only on literature surveys but more importantly on collecting oral knowledge from elders in the Acadian and Mi'kmaq communities to make a permament record of the wild flora they used. Her work and findings were featured in "Where the wild things are", shunpiking, May, 2000).

But the Museum had been switched to the aegis of the Tourism department, which had to give the final o.k. to shunpiking's use of the material. The staff there hummed and hawed, putting us off. Deannie had to lobby. We were now well into September. Finally, a week after our September 10th deadline, the time when leaves really start to visibly begin to change, we were informed we could have a whole CD, containing: (1) a nine-paragraph release summing up the changes in leaves, the intellectual property of Deannie Sullivan-Pierce in the first place; and (2) a digital file with designer Elizabeth Owen's beautiful illustrations of leaves, which belonged to the Museum in the first place, and which Deannie had already given us print copies for scanning. But, no, we couldn't use their map. The map, they said, wouldn't fit the dimensions of our centrefold. They had even sat down and measured it. Well, we thought it must be huge! When we finally saw the famous brochure, this massive map was a whole five per cent larger than our 15 inch tabloid; in other words, something any student could easily reduce to our dimensions.

I don't remember their print run -- it seemed quite small. The bulk of the brochures were to be distributed from a call centre, and some from the tourist bureaus which, we pointed out to them, most Nova Scotians don't visit anyway. The call centre's toll-free number, we were told, was being plugged in media buys in the U.S. market. Think about this. Here is a taxpayer-subsidized program, with a budget of $25,000 plus. The opposition parties were already publicly whining in the legislature about the expenditure -- spending badly-needed funds for people to watch some trees! -- a page three article in the Daily News. And here shunpiking was offering to reproduce their map with an interpretative guide free for our 100,000 readers -- within Nova Scotia! The answer was, "no" (not even "sorry, no"). That's why we are mystified as to whom this program was really addressed to. It is no wonder that tourist operators weren't happy with the program. Neither was Deannie: she left the program the following year.

Undeterred, we immediately went ahead and designed our own map, highlighting seventy four vistas throughout the province which we published by late-September, in time for fall colours, entitled "Autumn is Awesome". The response was terrific. We still have a few back copies if you are interested. And we'll also have it online as part of "shunpiking online" (number 4) as a downloadable pdf file.

Nevertheless, the Leaf Watch program does provide an interesting weekly update on the changing fall foliage throughout the province from September to November. The information is gathered from volunteers around Nova Scotia, who fill out weekly reports. They record how many of the leaves have turned, and how much of each colour they see, then call in their reports describing the intensity and the range of foliage colours in their area. "We're not just focusing on hardwood colours," Deannie Sullivan-Fraser once said. "We're looking at colour that can come from blueberry fields, or from salt marshes. We're bringing people to spots where they wouldn't expect to see colour."

Visit http://www.novascotia.com/leaf/ which features the weekly fall foliage updates, or call the leaf line toll-free at 1-877-353-LEAF. Volunteers started posting information on September 18th.

What's the colour (color?) like in New England? Try the foliage site at Yankee magazine -- http://www.yankeemagazine.com/foliage/map/

Make the most of it!
Tony Seed
Editor, shunpiking online