Wednesday, October 3, 2007


A few years ago, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, President of Marlboro College, told a group of arts presenters that it was likely going to be the artist community who first finds the courage to ask the difficult questions about the state of our world. As I recall, she was referring to the conflicts in the Middle East and Southern Asia. But drilling for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge—an environmental issue if there ever was one—was also big back then as was the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act and the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) budget.

I have no problem sharing my negative opinions about NCLB and my positive opinions about the NEA because those things directly impact the arts. But until now, I have felt it inappropriate to share my opinions about global economic and political issues. What has changed?

Vermont’s foliage, that’s what.

For years my wife and I have looked forward to September; kids back at school, crisp mornings, warm afternoons, great hiking, and of course, the foliage. Almost nothing beats September in Vermont—except possibly October. For the last couple of years however, we have noticed that the colors haven’t been as vibrant as they once were.

At first, I thought it was yet another symptom of middle age—the rods (or is it the cones?) on my retina must not be as responsive as they once were, surely. Perhaps my own increasingly faulty memory has imbued past fall seasons with far more resplendent chromatic displays than they deserved.

This year, however, I finally have to come clean. I am a musician by training, but as the Executive Director of the Vermont Arts Council I am viewed by many as a spokesperson for all the arts. But the artist in me has to admit, at long last, that the colors are bad; dull, brown, and crispy.

What is going on?

Last week the Times Argus wrote an article on a leaf fungus called Anthracnose, a blight that evidently has been around for ages. This year is supposedly “good” in that Anthracnose levels are far lower this year than in recent years. Okay. I’ll accept that on its face, but if Anthracnose is the culprit, why are the leaves worse this year than ever? Could it be something else? Acid rain? Warm temperatures? All of the above?

The obvious threats to our environment and our collective reluctance to call crispy-fried foliage by its true name—a nightmare—has at last awakened the sleeping beast in me. Now it is my turn to enter into this fray because if I don’t, I will not be able to stare at myself in the mirror every colorless morning for the remainder of this pathetic fall season.

I am not a scientist. I am not even a native Vermonter. But I am somewhat observant, and I listen to my friends who are sugarmakers. I hear their stories of dying sugar maple trees. I see the evidence myself—there is one on my block that can’t be more than 30 years old (shouldn’t they live to be 150?). I’m really not trying to make a political statement here, after all dying maple trees and dusky brown leaves have been creeping up on us for at least a generation and impact all of us, regardless of whether we vote red or blue (or orange or yellow).

Are we going to have to wait until the oceans are lapping at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum or drowning the Old North Church before the masses wake up and do something? It doesn’t matter whether it was Shakespeare or some other playwright who made the phrase “sound the alarums” famous. We just have to get busy and start sounding them…

The environmental decay, of which this fall’s foliage is but a symptom, affects us all—regardless of your position on global warming. Al Gore and Bill McKibben are not the issue. Your own senses are. Trust them.

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to stand up for fall. If you’re like me, you’ll do it because you miss the colors.

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