The Zen of Foliage

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower …"

-William Blake "Augeries of Innocence."

Blake was a Western mystic, but these words echo the Japanese poet Basho whose haiku define the Far East experience of Zen meditation. Here in New Hampshire nature writes its own poetry, and all you need for a moment of Zen is a walk in the great outdoors when fall reaches its fiery peak. But be sure to look down and around as much as up, because autumn's mystery is not confined to the trees. Follow the dots for an mind-opening guide.

We're all guilty of doing it. Watching the splendor of New Hampshire autumns flash by in red and orange streaks at 55 miles per.

But those lucky enough to live here can spend more time with our foliage – we can not only observe it, but open our minds to it, find serenity in the transition from summer's bounty to the glorious death that is autumn.

For those who know how to look, foliage can not only delight. It can enlighten.

the winds of fall
are blowing, yet how green
the chestnut burr

The beauty of our fall foliage defies description. Similarly, the Eastern meditative practice called Zen is without definition, but some have ventured to describe it as the act of finding wonder in the common things around us – like the quiet, solitary moments of peace that can be found seeing a burnished flag of goldenrod poke through a cracked window in a Candia salvage yard, silver green lichen on a rock wall in Derry, a spear of sumac growing up from a cellar door in Hudson, shocking, utterly shocking in its raspberry pink and, yes, the blazing, vermillion sugar maple growing on Mount Monadnock.

In the North Country well above the notch, where fortunes were made from the forest primeval, stands an elegant illustration of the persistence of nature. Just north of the former paper mills in Berlin in the Androscoggin River, where the great logging runs ended, stands a line of rock piles called boom piers that held the poles where doughty loggers with spiked boots and steel-tipped poles separated the floating logs. The mills have long since closed, but the piers endure, great piles of rocks that rise several feet above the water in the middle of the stream. Birch trees several feet high have regained a footing on the piers. Nature triumphant.

One doesn't often think of heading to the ocean to see the best of what autumn has to offer. But one need only walk along New Hampshire's seacoast and crank up all five of senses. There – everywhere – you'll see the rugged beach rose, which will still have enough pink and white petals to emit their intoxicating perfume. In a few weeks the petals will fall, the green leaves will turn yellow and the voluptuous, bulbous and nutritious rose hips will remain to be picked and turned into jelly. Jump the gun and brew a cup of rose hip tea to sip and savor along the way. At Odiorne State Park in Rye, the clusters of rosa rugosa are particularly stunning with the cold, green Atlantic as a backdrop.

won't you come and see
loneliness? just one leaf
from the kiri tree

Fall foliage in the form of marsh grass is also accessible at the coast. Head to the boardwalk at the Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland and watch the marsh grass wave to you from the salt marshes, a rich golden color in the fall. Bring a sketch book and charcoal and don't worry if the last time you drew something was in kindergarten. A few strokes to suggest the long, lean blades are enough to capture their yin/yang qualities of resiliency and delicacy – function and form.

The spirituality of fall woods take a literal bent in the small town of Washington – the birthplace of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To get to the simple white meeting house built in 1842, one walks through the Sabbath Trail – a one-mile path in the woods. There, you'll find crimson maple leaves which have lighted atop granite markers engraved with biblical sayings.

Take the time to sit on the simple wooden benches, read the markers and marvel at a wood fern blushing peach or a splash of emerald moss, making its way across a fallen birch tree. Listen to the silence.

taken in my hand
it will vanish in hot tears
autumn frost

There are engravings of another kind to be found in Nashua's Greeley Park, where a lone, mammoth 100-year-old European Weeping Beech forms a tent of copper-leaved branches in the fall. Underneath, where the waning autumn sun dapples through, it's like a tent, with a dirt floor and a giant, elephantine trunk. There you'll find the carved initials and names of lovers and friends who have hidden and trysted there. Look up and up and up. The symbols scratched in decades ago have climbed the tree as it has grown. This could be the perfect place to contemplate the eternal nature of love. You might want to bring your volume of Pablo Neruda's sonnets:

"By night, Love, tie your heart to mine, and the two/together in their sleep will defeat the darkness/like a double drum in the forest, pounding/against the thick wall of wet leaves."

A single maple in New Hampshire served as inspiration for another renowned poet.

While generations of schoolchildren have had to memorize Joyce Kilmer's 12-line "Trees," few know that it was a tree planted in New Hampshire that served as the poet's inspiration. According to a Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, written in 1938, Kilmer wrote "Trees" in 1913 while visiting the Holbrook Farm in Swanzey: "One day while sitting on the veranda of the farmhouse, waiting for a luncheon, he looked across the valley" and was taken by a majestic maple. "Picking up a brown paper bag, he wrote in pencil the words" now etched in the American consciousness -"I Think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

It is not certain exactly where that tree was, but rumor has it that it's a giant maple, now turning the color of ripe persimmon, on the Keene border.

Sometimes trees are just trees. And sometimes trees are the living symbol of hope, salvation and love. Such is the case at Canterbury Shaker Village where a maple or horse chestnut was planted in front of the meeting house or on the road to the village each time an orphan or convert entered the community. All the Shakers are gone now, but their trees, orange and pink in the fall, are tall and strong. Before she died, Eldress Bertha Lindsay, the last living Canterbury Shaker, recalled the day she came to the Shakers as a 7-year-old orphan, feeling lost, abandoned and hopeless, and the moment a few weeks later when she finally felt like the community was her home – her family in every sense of the word. Blind in her last years, she would point in the direction of "her tree" that she said she could see in her mind's eye as clearly as the day it was planted. Go. Close your eyes and listen as the autumn wind rustles the leaves. Perhaps you'll hear the happy voices of children singing. NH

autumn colors
without a pot
of red-brown soup


In autumn the vermillion berries of bittersweet are so seductive, the tricked-out vines make their way to mantelpieces and door wreaths all over New Hampshire. We long to have them decorate our homes in late fall – providing all the color that's about to vanish from the winter landscape. It's gorgeous, but deadly to so many native plants and trees. It is nature's and the English language's ultimate oxymoron. Bittersweet – both pleasant and painful, joyful but tinged with sadness. Yet all bittersweet is not equal. Here there are two ubiquitous varieties: false or American bittersweet, and Asian bittersweet. The two varieties look alike, wood vines with rounded leaves that produce green fruit in the spring that ripen to a marigold yellow in the fall when they burst revealing orange berries that hang on well into winter. But historically and ecologically the difference is huge. The American variety is indigenous – not at all invasive – and provides winter snacks for pheasant, quail, rabbits and squirrels. Asian bittersweet was brought to America from the Orient in the 18th century as an ornamental plant. It's opportunistic and aggressive, hoarding sunlight and killing low-lying plants and girdling trees, choking them to death. It's also hardy and spreads rapidly. If you tossed those bittersweet vines that decorated last year's Thanksgiving table outside, chances are they've spent the year digging in and spreading out to fences, trellises and just about anything else in their way.


It's fluff. It's silk. For heaven's sake, it's butterfly food. And in the fall, in New Hampshire, milkweed is even more miraculous, turning urban parking lots and country pastures into ethereal-yet-utilitarian, "cloud covered" fairy lands. Beneath the autumn sunshine the smoke-colored, cornucopia-shaped pods split and release translucent-winged seeds. Those seeds ride the crispy fall wind planting next spring's purple flower, which will serve as a kind of womb for the larvae of what will become the outrageously orange and black Monarch butterfly. But for now, in the fall, what remains is the silky floss that has been deemed useful by man and beast from the get go. Goldfinches gather it for nesting, Native Americans used it for diaper material, it was collected by schoolchildren in World War II to use as stuffing for life preservers and it's still used today for pillows and jackets. And, yes, it has its spiritual appeal, too. Holistic healers claim the plant awakens a clouded soul and promotes spiritual growth, and in Hindu mythology it was believed that the creating god was under the influence of milkweed juice when he made the universe. And they call it a weed.

ear of the pine tree
mushroom on a strange tree
with a leaf stuck to it


Sure, New Hampshire's sugar maples, elms and oaks are the foliage lure for most who come to peep leaves in the fall. But nothing can beat the eye party provided by the hardscrabble smooth and staghorn sumac that grows on roadsides and just about everywhere in the Granite State, even in places where nothing else will thrive. The stiletto-like blades of the sumac plant with their delicate serrated edges flare shocking pink in autumn after their purple berries fall or are gobbled by hungry woodpeckers and chickadees. Some native Americans considered sumac a sacred plant that foretold the changing of the seasons. They used sumac to treat fevers, colds and skin diseases and blended the leaves with tobacco for smoking. The bark was used for basket weaving and the leaves, seeds, roots and berries for making different colored dyes. Sumac was also used to make "Indian lemonade" by soaking the drupes in cool water, straining the liquid, then sweetening it with maple syrup. But don't try any of the above with sumac's nasty cousin – poison sumac, which grows in swamps and has smooth edges on its oval-shaped leaves.


Something there is that doesn't love a lichen. Look down. The rosettes of lichen that cling to New Hampshire's rock walls and tree trunks provide ample evidence of the power of teamwork and fall foliage on a micro level. The lichen is actually two species in one – a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and blue-green algae or cynobacteria. The fungus surrounds the algae and provides water and minerals; the algae provide carbohydrates created through photosynthesis. Their annual growth is minimal but their persistence is legendary. They can live in some of the world's most extreme climates and some have lived for 4,000 years. Experts have estimated the lichen that grows at the summit of Mount Chocorua has lived at least since the Visigoths invaded France in 510. There are more than 450 species of lichen in New England alone with poetic names like Caloplaca, sometimes called firedot or jewel lichen, which can blaze as bright orange as any a turning sugar maple. Even after the last leaf falls in New Hampshire forests, the silver-green of sea storm lichen, provide autumn's last gasp of color in the form of undulating lace.

Lily pad

Redefine foliage and consider the lily pad that grows in still ponds. No fragile lotus blossom, but the sturdy yellow pond lily, a hearty native to the Granite State. Its moment in the sunshine is nearly over. Its flowers are gone and the leathery pads are changing from frog-camouflaging green to the deep aubergine and blood red of aquatic decay. Others flare yellow before they sink below the water's surface to make way for another pad that will emerge again in the spring. Native Americans ate their lily pad tubers like potatoes and they told this story about the water beetles that lived in the mud under the lily pads: On occasion the insect community would be overcome with sadness after a beetle climbed up to the top of the lily pad and was never seen again. They mourned the loss until they too felt compelled to climb atop a pad, but resolved to return to tell their friends what they saw. After sitting in the sun atop the lily pad, each individual took a nap and awoke to find that they had turned into a gossamer-winged dragonfly. They flew off and resolved to return to tell their friends, but could no longer sink below the water to find them.

none is traveling
here along this way but I,
this autumn evening

Wild Beach Roses

We know the lilac is the state flower, but someone might want to reconsider the common beach rose (rosa rugosa), if only as our autumn selection. In many ways the beach rose, a suckering shrub, is like the New Hampshire seacoast along which it grows with gusto. It's small, rugged and beautiful. Did we say tenacious? It grows new plants from the roots, is virtually drought-proof and blooms well into October. Even when it sheds its obscenely fragrant white-and-deep-pink petals, it leaves behind the voluptuous beauty of the rose hip, which changes from green to yellow to orange to deep ruby red – a kind of fall foliage microcosm. If that weren't enough, it prevents beach erosion and makes for a mean jelly.

Marsh Grass

No amber waves of grain for the Granite State, the closest thing we have is the salt meadow cord grass that thrives along the coast and the shores of Great Bay between the average high-water mark and the upper reaches of the highest spring tides. Its four-foot-tall, hay-like stalks enliven the waterfront as they dance in the sea breeze. Native Americans used it for cover while stalking birds, fish and other wildlife. The European colonists dubbed it salt marsh hay and used it for fodder and bedding for their cattle. Towns were built to be near it. In the fall the great waving grass turns from green to golden brown, a transition less dramatic than flaming elms and maples but no less an indication of the end of summer. It's lovely to look at this time of year, a subtle respite from the sometimes garish colors of traditional foliage. But the smell – well, not as much. Salt marshes become a little rotten-eggish when bacteria breaks down the grass, providing yummy nutrients to organisms. It's even inspired poets like 19th-century American writer Sidney Lanier who wrote in his "Hymn to the Marshes" – "The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!/A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high …"

all night
autumn winds being heard
behind the mountains

How to Write a Zen Haiku

by Rick Broussard

at peak foliage, take a walk and find one perfect leaf

return with it to your writing desk, equipped with a cup of tea (green), a piece of fine paper (rice, preferably), an ink pen (fountain-style, black), a bowl and a lit candle

with the leaf as your muse, assemble in your mind three lines of concise, evocative prose adhering to traditional haiku format of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, five in the third line

when the haiku is clearly visualized, transfer it carefully to the page with the pen

allow the ink to dry

lift the page to the candle flame igniting one corner; then drop the page into the bowl, leaving it there until thoroughly consumed

scatter the ashes

Categories: Fall and Foliage