Extended Leaves

Extended Leaves

A photo essay. To view all 15 photos, check out the email edition of this story.

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The leaves have been weird this year, right?

The sense that even nature has been askew in 2021 is not in our heads. After an eighth-hottest and third-wettest summer, fall has been uncomfortably comfortable. By my accounting, performed each dead of night while taking my dog out, New Haven’s first frost of the season only landed in the wee hours of yesterday. That tracks with harder data, as fall’s first sub-40 air temperatures arrived that very morning—almost a full month past the average and, according to local data collected since 1948 by the National Weather Service, the very latest on record.

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Excessive rainfall and the clouds and storms that bring it can alter the leaf-peeping experience both chemically—by reducing the amount of sunlight and therefore the production of relevant compounds—and mechanically—by prematurely pulling many leaves from their trees. But the experts seem to agree that temperature is the bigger factor. Higher temperatures in summer and fall reduce the production and retention of certain sugars in the leaf, resulting in less red and more orange and yellow, which may also be duller. Higher temps also cause chlorophyll, which of course makes leaves green, to break down more slowly, thereby delaying and staggering the color shift and diluting the overall impact.

Even in an ideal year, it’s difficult to predict or even identify peak leaf-peeping, but this year it feels impossible. The two big trees in the yard next to my building provide a confounding anecdote. One is on or even ahead of schedule, clinging to its last flimsy layer of yellow, while 20 yards away, the other is still fully clothed in green feathers, albeit with little yellow tips.

So instead of doing what I might do in a normal year—gauging the right moment, then grabbing my camera and raking through the most promising places to peep—I’ve gone digging through the archives, plucking out some favorites. Most of them have never before been published, and together they might just offer the closest thing to a peak leaf-peeping experience this wild-weathered year.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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