Some things don’t change. Or do they? There is a timeless quality to Charles DeWolf Brownell’s autumn landscape of East Hartford looking west across the Connecticut River Valley. It might have been painted any time during the past month. The autumn colors look very much the same. Despite development, there are still some stately old homes left, some ancient trees. The shape of the land is still the same. But Brownell painted this landscape in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, less than ten years after he painted the iconic view of the Charter Oak for which he is best known today. Such landscapes help to connect us with the past. Peter Lucas, a commercial photographer working in Waterbury, took this color photo of three autumn trees in the 1960s. He might have taken it last week.
It’s comforting to think that certain basic things don’t change and to a certain extent it’s even true. Connecticut’s oaks and maples have always turned russet and scarlet in the fall. But once chestnut trees were a dominant species in Connecticut’s woods and once elm trees lined Connecticut’s trees and grew wild in the water meadows along Connecticut’s rivers. When the first white settlers came, there were hemlock trees hundreds of feet tall growing in Connecticut’s forests. Autumn must have looked very different then, and the trees themselves must have been perceived in a different way, as a resource to be harvested, as an obstacle to civilization that needed to be cut down to make way for orderly farms and villages. At one point in the nineteenth century, there were hardly any trees left. A few scraps of forest survived on steep slopes and in inaccessible valleys. A few woodlots surrounded each town to provide firewood. But most of the land was farmland, laid out in fields and pastures. You would have been able to find many views like Brownell’s painting or Lucas’s photograph, many human landscapes with bright bits of fall color. But you would probably have had to travel quite a long ways to go walking in the woods.
Connecticut’s landscape continues to change with newly introduced—and some downright invasive—adding new notes to the fall palette. Newly introduced diseases threaten to decimate our hemlocks and maples, just as chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease destroyed our chestnuts and elms. Climate change means that species that once flourished here may soon be unable to survive the hotter summers and warmer winters. But we have more forests today than existed during most of Connecticut’s historic past, more access to nature, and more awareness of just how fragile these resources are. Our children and grandchildren will experience a different kind of fall. Will they still recognize the landscapes in Brownell’s painting and Lucas’s photograph as something uniquely characteristic of New England? I think they probably will.