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When trees turn bright colors, he’s the foliage oracle

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 10/11/2020 Thomas Farragher
a man standing in front of a building: Michael Snyder, Vermont's commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, seen near the Green River Covered Bridge in Guilford, Vt., provides weekly foliage reports to the media and the state tourism office in September and October. © Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff Michael Snyder, Vermont's commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, seen near the Green River Covered Bridge in Guilford, Vt., provides weekly foliage reports to the media and the state tourism office in September and October.

GUILFORD, Vt. — As the splendor of a New England autumn stretches out before him, the man in the plaid shirt and forest-green vest is, momentarily, not just Vermont’s foliage oracle, but a middle-aged guy full of wonder as nature summons its impossible brilliance.

As we stand overlooking the 18 acres of Sweet Pond here, sugar maples are surrendering their green to yellows and emerging reds. Nearby, a sturdy oak remains mostly a stubborn study in green although, around the edges, it fights a fruitless battle.

Nature, as ever, is taking its course here, despite a drought that has dampened some of the kaleidoscopic beauty that remains on full display across the southern tier of Vermont.

And that means Mike Snyder is, once again, a man in much demand.

“It’s common for people to ask foresters: ‘What’s your favorite tree?’ " Vermont’s commissioner of forests, parks, and recreation told me the other day as he walked in the woods here.

“I haven’t seen one that I didn’t think was cool in some way. So you’re kind of tempted to say: ‘Do you have a favorite kid?’ I love them all. But — if pressed — I’d have to say the yellow birch. As a species, it’s amazing.”

Amazing is one word for it. And if you ask those tourists tumbling out of big buses on nearby scenic overlooks — or day-trippers pulling in to take in the vista — they have other adjectives.

“It’s just gorgeous,” said Krista Coombs, 47, of Bennington, as she surveyed the rolling, multicolored landscape before her. “It was so dry that some of the leaves fell off quicker. But it’s beautiful. It always surprises me every year. It just fills you up.”

Those are the kind of words that bring a knowing, wide smile to Mike Snyder’s face, a genial acknowledgment of the power of nature, a love of the natural world that he has nurtured nearly all of his life.

“For me, time in the woods is a touchstone,'' he said. “The woods don’t fake it. The woods don’t make it up. They don’t pretend. It’s real. It’s complex.

“There’s an incredible complexity and variation and dynamism that is exciting. It keeps things real. I just feel better in the woods. There are still things to learn.''

Snyder, 57, has been learning for a long time now.

He is the youngest of six children. His father was a high school biology teacher who, with his wife, raised the family in Levittown, Long Island, the famed post-World War II suburb that was one of the largest housing developments of the era.

Over time, he would leave suburbia behind and discover the wonder — and the peril — of the natural world.

He learned to ski at age 8. After the family moved north to New Hampshire, he remembers almost precisely when the call of nature morphed from something in his science textbooks to something more deeply inside of him.

He was just 12 when a county forester came to answer questions from grade-school kids.

"This guy was so cool,'' Snyder recalled. "He had a truck. He has the forester vest with all the gadgets and measuring devices. And he just knew all these great things about the woods. And I’ve thought about this a lot. I remember being like: You mean you can do that? I’m doing that. I never looked back.''

He was just 13 when his older sister, Marguerite, 24, was killed after a fall in Diagonal Gully in Huntington’s Ravine on Mount Washington. It was March 1976.

"It was bloody and terrible and I heard life basically leaving her,'' he recalled.

It was a transformative moment that taught him important things about the natural world.

Such as? "The importance of life. The magic of every day. Things can go horribly wrong. It’s good to know what you’re doing and don’t be afraid to get out there and live a vigorous life. All of it happened right then and there.''

What followed was his hard-earned love affair with nature.

He has pitched a tent on Mount Washington, measuring the water potential in leaves. He spent time in Sweden, learning the language and working with that country’s forest service

He has studied Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir woods in southern New Mexico. As a grad student, he worked with a decorated professor at the University of Vermont, examining acid rain’s impact on Green Mountain spruce trees.

When a county forester’s job came open in 1997, Mike Snyder tossed his hat in the ring. After Peter Shumlin was elected governor here in 2010, he named Snyder as his forest commissioner. Governor Phil Scott asked him to stay. He agreed.

"It’s been pretty wild,'' Snyder told me as we walked through the woods.

There is more to his job than pretty landscapes. He supervises 140 full-time employees. He oversees a $28 million budget.

But when the trees begin their colorful ballet and the calendar turns to October, foliage becomes the center of his universe. Again.

"Beginning in late summer, folks start calling from all over the world,'' he said, recalling the familiar questions: "What’s it going to be like? When’s peak? Why does this happen? Why is yours better?''

And now there’s another one: What about this drought?

"By and large it’s still really nice,'' he said, not far from a covered bridge that dates to the 1870s. "Great color. You can see some is past. Most of the white birches are in-between. The maples are very much peaking. You have all conditions here right now.''

Conditions such as fewer defoliating insects. Fewer fungal pathogens on the leaves because of dry weather. Relatively healthy forest conditions.

"People always ask: When is peak?'' he said. "Well, I’ve got a little hashtag going that says, ‘Find your peak in Vermont.’ One thing I’ve learned is that people have different aesthetics and sensibilities.

"Some people like a little more green. Some people love the yellows and the goldens. And that’s one of the things about Vermont: We have this tremendous variation in landscape. The hills. The valleys.''

And all those trees.

Before I drove south, the commissioner couldn’t help but offer a little foliage humor.

When’s peak?

"Right before the big windstorm strips all the leaves off.''

What is Vermont’s foliage like?

"Well, it’s a lot like skiing. When it’s good, it’s really good. And when it’s off, it’s still pretty good.''

Those sound like job-protecting bromides.

Until you look around and take in the rolling landscape under a brilliant afternoon autumn sun, and watch those tourists with their cameras trained on all the trees painting the hillsides orange and red and yellow.

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