Falling Leaves

I took this photo of the driveway into the farm eight days ago. Now all the leaves have fallen. The maples and beeches everywhere are stripped. The hillsides and lower slopes of the mountains have a silvery sheen from thousands and thousands of bare trunks and branches.

The old white oak at the head of the school driveway still rattles its dry brown leaves in the wind in an appropriately spooky way for the season, but at this elevation oaks are few. (I planted some seedlings on the farm. I dream that my grandchildren will see them.)

Only the poplars cling to their fluttering dead yellow leaves. Poplar, called quaking aspen out west, is referred to here as “popple,” and is considered virtually a trash tree.

Writing in 1917, Thomas Morris Longstreth damned Adirondack poplars as “rank” and “coarse.” “The beech is an aristocrat,” he wrote. “The poplar, on the other hand, is essentially vulgar.” William Chapman White, in his 1954 book Adirondack Country, halfheartedly defended the poplar based on its fleeting appearance in May:

The poplar tree now has its one moment. The rest of the year it is the weed of the woods, and Adirondack people say, ‘Popple ain’t much.’ It is brittle and not good for much. Despised, deemed fit only to drop, rot, and provide a more fertile ground for its betters, the poplar has one bit of glory, and that is now. For a few days it is the loveliest thing in the woods, particularly when seen at a distance.  As it puts out its fringed catkins, its gold-green and yellow-green fuzzy “flowers,” the poplar brings the first strong color to the hillsides. When the sun is full on them, the hills shine with the poplar’s green and yellow light, the freshest tone of spring.

I understand the distaste for poplar. It’s not only common but invasive; a poplar sapling can jump up three to four feet in a single season — I mow thousands every year with my weedwhacker. It grows so quickly that it has little strength, and after storms the tall trees can often be seen toppled on power lines.

Still, I think poplar has two moments of glory. The one described by White, and right now — when all the other hardwoods have lost their leaves and, almost alone in the newly-drab landscape, poor despised popple keeps fluttering bravely.

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