The Fall (and Foliage) of Cambridge

It's autumn.

That may seem obvious, but it's less evident than you might think. In fact, the average Harvard student could have spent the last week in Harvard Square and still not have a hint that New England's famed fall has begun.

The reason it's hard to tell what season it is has a lot to do with where we live. There are more buildings here than there are trees, and parking lots are more abundant than parks.

The legendary former Mayor of Cambridge, Alfred E. Vellucci, tried to rectify this problem years ago when he planted the Liberty Elm tree in front of the Harvard Lampoon.

The vegicidal Poonsters chopped it down, in a move typical of Harvard's attitudes toward trees.

If you really cared about trees, you would have gone to Yale. (It has a school of forestry.) Or you would have gone to Dartmouth or Cornell or Amherst or Williams. (They have lots of trees.)

Harvard is left, for the most part, with a casually destructive attitude toward Cambridge's vegetation. People here would rather brag about the number of dead trees on library shelves than laud the live ones that turn color outside. The trees that do eke out an existence here have a gritty urban sensibility. They're A Tree Grows in Brooklyn trees, struggling against pollution and graffiti; noble California redwoods or wild New Hampshire oaks they're not.

This summer's renovation of Holyoke Center could have added some greenery, providing spectacular natural color around the building. Instead, its renovators strung up pieces of colored cloth.

The city of Cambridge has the same casual indifference to trees. Sure, there are a few scattered parks around. There's even a City Arborist. But for the most part, the landscape is urban and concrete. The largest areas of open space are peripheral to the city, along the Charles River and at Fresh Pond. This geographical marginality represents a greater truth--trees and the natural autumn landscape just aren't that important to Cambridge dwellers.

Buried in our books and automobiles and classrooms and subway cars, we miss a genuine natural wonder. Especially for college students who come to New England from other regions with less colorful autumn seasons, the fall here is something to behold.

It's difficult to explain what is so amazing about a New England autumn--I'll leave that to the poets. But even without their help, you would know a New England autumn after seeing the colors and breathing the air and walking through the leaves and smelling the far-off wood smoke--and we would all be better for it.

With autumn absent from our daily urban lives, we have to make a special effort to take notice of it. Jews have the advantage of the holiday of Sukkot, which starts tonight. By dining outside in a booth, under a roof of branches, the Sukkot holiday forces observant Jews back into contact with nature at a time of year when attention ought to be paid.

Car owners, or renters, can take a ride west or north and view the foliage. Last weekend, the maples along the Mass. Pike were already turning a brilliant red.

When I was in high school, the headmaster would announce every year about this time that classes were canceled the next day, and that the whole school would climb Mount Monadnock. This is easier with a 400-person high school than it is with an 18,000 student university. (If Rudenstine were to cancel Friday's classes for a hike, how much of Monadnock would be left when we finished with it?)

Here at Harvard, we're reduced to taking classes about trees, watching slide shows and overhead projections. We may look longingly at the few elms left in the Yard that haven't succumbed to disease. If we're lucky enough to get into a special seminar, we may finagle a weekend trip out to the Harvard Forest in Central Mass.

All these are really poor compromises. The bottom line is this: there's something strange about our urban New England existence when it takes an editorial in The Crimson to remind us it's fall.