Finding brilliance in fall and beyond

In New England, a few trees have started to blush with fall color. But once all the red and gold leaves have fallen, many people will begin to really notice their local landscapes.

Without fall's finery, neon signs appear much brighter. Fast-food chains and strip malls loudly announce their presence. And towns that once had some individualism may now appear to be faceless clones.

I noticed this several years ago when I was driving around eastern Massachusetts with a friend who was visiting from another state. Not long into our trip she said, "This town looks familiar. Didn't we pass through here already?"

We hadn't.

Later, she said, "I thought New England towns were supposed to be distinctive." To her, one commercialized strip piled upon another like a heap of dry brown leaves.

But as Ross Atkin explains (see story at right), some towns are finding ways to restore their local color. A community's personality can be enhanced, and a hint of nature can be brought back to public spaces.

The first step is to look unflinchingly at our stark surroundings.

That is one timely, and timeless, lesson of the season. Perhaps each leaf that falls isn't just a reminder of the year's fading glory. Perhaps they hint at choices we can make in the coming months.

I will remember this the next time I pass a tree that is starting to turn bright orange or an unabashed scarlet.

And if that tree is standing in some generic town square, I will try to imagine what the place could look like if some of the town's former brilliance were restored.

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