His real name is Jeff Folger, but in the world of extreme leaf peepers — those who won’t settle for anything less than postcard-perfect — he is known by a title that is both a tribute and an obligation. They call him Jeff Foliage, the “arboreal oracle.”
And when the colors of fall begin their annual explosion across New England, the peak geeks and the media and the state tourism boards all want the same thing from Jeff Foliage: Where, oh where, they say again and again, is the peak foliage? And where will it be tomorrow?
Jeff Foliage can answer that question as well as anyone, but it is not an easy answer. Fall foliage is a movable feast. There are some rules of thumb. It generally moves from higher elevations to lower elevations, north to south. But there’s a reason they call it a forecast; it’s as unpredictable as the New England weather it depends on.
And so, come fall, Jeff Foliage lives under the gun, constantly on the “chase,” constantly trying to find that movable feast.
It’s 5 a.m. in Salem, Mass., and Folger is getting a late start. He wants to be in a peak spot when the sun rises, so that he can snap a magic hour photo and that means driving. A lot. In a two-week span, he can easily log upwards of 4,000 miles on the back roads of New England, one eye on the road and the other on the colors, constantly fielding and making calls to his sources — the other peak geeks — as he tries to find peak, photograph it, and then spread the word.
Jeff Foliage is something of an accidental creation. Folger grew up in Pennsylvania, and after retiring from a 22-year-career in the Air Force, the 53-year-old found himself in Salem, partly to look after his aging father.
That year, “the fall showed up, and it was pretty impressive,” he says as he drives up Interstate 93 in the predawn. “So I just started wondering, ‘Where do I go to see it at its best?’ And I found that the information wasn’t always current. We get this gift in the fall, but it lasts for such a short period of time.”
‘I’ve always found it hard to quantify why the colors are so thrilling. This is really sappy, but it just makes me happy.’
He made it his mission to figure out how best to open that gift, to “figure out how fall flows, how it works.” And then he wanted to share it.
He connected with the folks at New Hampshire-based Yankee Magazine, long the institutional home of fall in New England, won one of its photography contests, became a presence on its Internet foliage forum, and, later, was asked to be its leaf blogger. It was an editor there who gave him the name “Jeff Foliage,” and a radio host began calling him the “arboreal oracle.” He liked both names, and now he’s running with them.
A wedding photographer by trade, Folger has long made a nice side living capturing the sort of scenes you see on postcards and calendars. But last year, when he went out on his own with the launch of jeff-foliage.com, he began trying to establish himself as one of the leaders in that corner of the Web. It is not an easy task, because like meteorologists, a foliage forecaster is only as good as his predictions, which he starts making months in advance.
“I’ve set myself up for a little bit of failure, because my thing is putting the information out. I can tell someone within a week of where you need to be, but you almost have to be lucky. Unless you live up the road, the chance of getting something in good light and good weather, in full peak, is very slim.”
This year, according to Folger, peak came as much as a week early in some spots, but the colors are performing better than average. Last year was a dismal performance, due in part to Hurricane Irene, which blew leaves from trees and turned much of the rest brown with salt water.
For Folger, foliage is something that started as a passion and morphed into something of a profession, but the passion is still there. As the first light peaks across the tree canopy, he is constantly stopping midsentence to say, “Ooh, there’s some color” as the car heads north, into the peak. Folger still proudly gets off on what is known as C4SC — color for the sake of color. Some photographers won’t take the lens cap off unless it’s peak; Folger gets excited to shoot most anything.
As the sun rises, he is in Henniker, N.H., scooting down some wet rocks with his tripod to the banks of the Contoocook River. There’s a photo he has wanted to get for a while, looking under the arch of a stone bridge to a covered bridge in the distance. It’s not quite peak, but there’s C4SC, and the rainy morning gives the photo a mood. “I still haven’t gotten that,” he says as he heads back to his car. “The chase continues.”
He will spend the next 10 hours in his car looking for that quintessential fall scene — the right colors in the right light with the right subject. He will visit a covered bridge in Woodstock, Vt., where he will run into two ebullient women from New Zealand who have come all this way to gush over New England fall. He will visit Jenne Farm in Reading, Vt., one of the most-photographed spots in New England, and get a solid handshake from a fellow photographer who is proud to meet Jeff Foliage. And he will stop constantly when he sees his favorites — white church steeples, red barns, and still water.
He keeps a digital voice recorder hanging on a string from his rearview mirror so he can record his observations as he drives, and he’ll blog about them each night when he gets back to Salem. He will tell people where to go, but he will also tell them where not to go.
“The tourism boards always describe the colors as ‘glorious,’ but I have no allegiances,” he says. Sorry, cute town, but Jeff Foliage says your fall is a dud.
“I’ve always found it hard to quantify why the colors are so thrilling,” he says. “This is really sappy, but it just makes me happy.” And with that, he spots another burst of color, stops the car, and goes off with his camera. It’s not peak, but Jeff Foliage has a little secret: Peak is a myth.
“It’s all in your viewpoint,” he says. “Peak is finding color and being happy with what you find. If you want to experience peak, you need to enjoy fall colors for what they are: a gift.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.