This time last year, I was barreling down from the Kalahari desert in the northwestern tip of my native South Africa, through the parched semidesert of Namibia, toward one of the world's most spectacular sights: The flowering desert of Namaqualand, where the gray-brown flats give way to hills of delicate flowers that bloom for a few days before they are seared by the African sun and seem to melt back into the rocky ground.
This time last week, I was negotiating the mild roller-coaster road through the White Mountains range of New Hampshire, experiencing a season barely found on the other side of the equator. When spring rains cover hillsides with translucent white and purple flowers in a burst of new life 8,000 miles away in Namaqualand, the cycle is winding down in the northern hemisphere in an equally beautiful burst of color.
And, if the sight of those delicate, doomed flowers succumbing to the hot winds of Namibia is poignant, fall in New England is all majesty.
Indian legend explains the brilliant reds of the maple family, the blackgum and scarlet oak as the bloody trail of the Great Bear, slain by celestial hunters and roaring, wounded, through the forest.
Botanists explain that the red color is formed by sugar manufactured in the leaves being trapped there by cool autumn nights. From that stored sugar a red pigment, anthocyanin, is formed. From that stored sugar: candy apple red, cherry red, the rich gold of caramel, thick cider, maple syrup.
People manning roadside stalls say this is the best year yet; one gets the feeling they say that every year to the hundreds of thousands of sightseers whose custom now rivals the ski trade for income.
But no one contradicts them. We catch our breath at this mountainside's mix of red and green and gold, that maple's bright orange. A traveling companion declares he wants to find three trees in those shades, side by side -- a microcosm of fall. Before the morning is out we have had a dozen such photo opportunities.
After shooting half a roll of film on a solitary maple that seemed to trap the soft autumn light in its leaves, I realized that I had to photograph as much as possible because I did not believe that this display of color happened every year, and no one else would believe that it ever had.
I was in full sympathy with the woman from California overheard complaining that "the trees out there never turn red." She sounded as if she felt cheated by the fact that she could have gone through life having never seen the proof that green things become red -- not the autumnal red of postcard pictures, but a clear, true scarlet.
I felt cheated, too, that it happens in so few areas of the world. What if Raphael or Botticcelli had seen such colours, what if they had lived not in hot Italy but in a clime where the same cold that every year brings the little death of winter caused, too, this vibrant swan song?
For a section of the rural population in Vermont, fall in New England seems rather to be living proof that money does grow on trees. Lots of money -- one estimate puts the income of the fall tourist season at $75 million.
It is spent on sophisticated meals in Rustick Inns and honest pancake breakfasts in diners, on maple syrup and sharp cheeses in roadside stalls that give themselves away by stocking "Made in Taiwan" knickknacks alongside some farmer's daughter's pressed flowers. It is spent in the hundreds of hotels and motels that line sections of the New Hampshire roadside, in the homes of local families who provide shelter for the overflow crowds.
And on film. Everybody and her camera was out there on a sunny day recently, snapping still, dark ponds reflecting the trees, clicking furiously at the symmetry of red-green-red where two sugar maples and a fir shared ground, and in one half-hour, photographing what must be the most photographed tree in New England: a large, oak-shaped maple shading a graveyard along the road, every leaf the same shade of new copper in candlelight.
One of the most worthwhile $6 I have spent recently was on an off-season ski-lift ride to the top of Wild Cat mountain in the White Mountains region. It wouldn't thrill the natives overmuch (they know the mountains are covered with trees), but provided this tourist with a sense of the scale involved.
From the dark spine of the mountain above the conifer line, one sees acre upon acre of turning trees, their dramatic colors muted to a mottled, red and yellow haze. From above, one can also see the sketchy lines of the trees that have already shed their leaves, and the pockets of mist in the valleys -- a distillation of fall in one view.
But for the tourist who waxes too sentimental about New England in the fall, or grieves its short showing, a pinch of salt from this advertisement seen outside a Laconia hardware store: "Tired of leaves? Blow them away!"
That wish was granted a day later, when a freak storm dropped nearly a foot of snow on the White Mountains, breaking boughs and obliterating the colors. From fall to winter overnight, about the same time it takes those rocky Namaqualand hills to move from winter to spring.