This fall, photographer and journalist Jenny Stockdale returned to her native New York and captured some stunning photos of the fiery landscape that is the autumn in the northeastern U.S. Read as she describes her relationship to the New York countryside and its crisp autumn.
By Jenny Stockdale

n mid-October, the hillsides of Upstate New York catch flame with a whole different kind of wildfire. It doesn’t burn like wood burns; it’s a random and far-reaching, quiet and cold transformation. Its smokeless flame ignites, unbridled in forests all along the northeastern seaboard. And when it burns out, there is nothing left in its wake, save a layer of devastatingly beautiful ashes — piles and piles of fallen leaves.

A former New Yorker myself, born and raised on a hobby farm in The Finger Lakes region, I’ve come to miss this bright spectacle nearly as much as the family I left there when I moved to California half a decade ago. It’s only fair to admit that there’s an equally impressive fire season here in So Cal, but it’s nowhere near as hypnotic or nostalgic as the fire of New York’s autumn leaves.

Milkweed after its prime – sustenance for the migrating Monarch butterfly

This past October was my first trip back during the fall since I left home — which is what I still call New York, For the record. There’s a lot of wisdom in that old Tom Waits song, “San Diego Serenade” — I guess I never really did see the east coast, until I moved to the west. Never saw my hometown, until I stayed away too long. And when I saw it this time, after five years of absence, I was floored by its beauty.

As a kid, I was a wrecker of the orderly leaf piles my father raked into fragile mountains in the middle of the yard. I drank a liquid ton of fresh cider. I consumed glassy, red candy apples at an alarming rate and claimed well in advance which pumpkin (growing amongst the corn stalks in the garden) was mine for carving at Halloween.

Dad walking up the old logging trail behind his farm in Newark Valley, N.Y.

I spent a great deal of time putting on and peeling off layers of wool, cotton, and fleece. I had many conversations about what makes a good quality pair of barn boots. I hovered by my father’s coal stove until my hands and feet thawed out from a frozen, sunny afternoon hike — a Kodachrome trek through the acres of old oak forests behind his house. I hovered in general, in observation — maybe just mimicking the season, which did the same. Needless to say, going back as an adult changed none of that, except maybe that my hands lingered at the sides of my coffee mug instead of my cup of hot chocolate.

On the farm, then and now, fall meant the end of the garden — a labor of love that kept the whole family busy during the summer months. It’s an annual ritual, after everything useful has been picked, to haul out the rototiller and plow under the dry, whispering remnants of the harvest. It typically meant the end of the chickens too, as they started to molt around this time and made better soup ingredients than egg producers.

Autumn decay

The dark hours after school were spent feverishly canning green beans and eating more than one’s fair share of fried green tomatoes — left by the dozen after the season’s first frost. As for the other remaining produce, well, let’s just say the neighbors had a lot of squash and zucchini show up on their doorsteps.

My folks didn’t grow green beans or zucchini this year — dad’s new job required him to travel often and the garden was neglected — but there was still plenty of squash to go around, and if I never eat a friend green tomato again, it’ll be too soon.

A view of the back yard from the pond

I’m sure it’s easier to admire fall now, when I’m so far removed from its aftermath: Horizons of barren, black branches raking gray clouds across a sky that would soon spit snow, sleet, and freezing rain for the next six months. But for as much of a concession as this season is — nature’s gorgeous, aforethought apology for winter — I still harbor a special ache for it in my subconscious. An ache for the biting wind that blows the scarlet and gold off the trees, for the smell of snow that chases that wind and for all the melancholy preparations the creatures of the northland start making when those leaves change color.

I ache for scarves, mittens, and ruddy complexions — cheeks kissed by the red lips of the cold. For the acknowledgement that I will soon be able to slow down, pause in repose. It’s an unwinding that I have yet to experience in California, where fall indicates with sunny warmth that you can still wear flip flops with your light sweater.

I went back for two weeks, watching that fire rage in my parents’ back yard. Rage on both sides of the New York State Thruway, as I drove east and west to visit my old stomping grounds (and the friends who still stomp there). Rage in the pallet of warm hues I just can’t seem to find among the palm trees and beaches of my current state. The aspens burned a brilliant yellow for me. The sugar maples flared up in reds, florescent oranges, and deep purples; the white oaks rusted brown; the red oaks shined up golden. It was as if the trees had been drawing oil paints out of the ground instead of water. For two weeks, I admired the fleeting wildfire of fall, and left — on purpose — before it was extinguished, because I wanted to remember it as vibrant as it was at that moment, as it always has been in my mind.

Early morning fog and frost from my mother’s front porch in Mechanicville, N.Y.

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