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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Some say these tourists pose a grave danger to other motorists’

Since COVID-19 quarantine began last spring, many television news commentators and personalities have been broadcasting from home.

A dog jumps off the sofa behind a news anchor and trots away. Small exuberant children come barreling into the room where a parent is holding forth on matters of state. What do the color scheme, the furniture, the decor have to say about the speaker? We try to read the titles of the books in the bookcase. And is the room always this tidy?

Cleverly taking advantage of this phenomenon, comedian and “Late Night” host Seth Meyers has made sure that a copy of the 1977 bestseller “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough is visible somewhere in the background as he speaks. Why? Viewers wonder. I mean, it just seems so random.

“Read Diane Ackerman’s ‘A Natural History of the Senses,’ again,” my sister suggested to me the other day when we were discussing once-popular books, like “The Thorn Birds,” that we hadn’t read, or even thought about, in years.

Open Ackerman’s “A Natural History” anywhere, and you can find a tidbit of information that relates to your life, kind of.

Fall colors, for example. We have been seeing red leaves here and there since the middle of August.

Soon the autumn foliage appreciators — also known as leaf peepers — will come pouring into the North Country. Some say these tourists pose a grave danger to other motorists, due to their proclivity for watching the scenery instead of the road ahead, and lurching to sudden, unpredictable stops. I can’t in all unfairness complain too much about this, since I am guilty of leaf-peeping myself. As my daughter Molly has been known to remark, “Mom! You’re veering off again!”

This summer, following the COVID-19 shelter-in-place spring, has been busier in the Adirondacks than some of us expected. Usually after Labor Day students go back to school, and we see a decline in tourism before leaf season begins in earnest. This year, we don’t know what to expect. Will students go back to school? Will the hiking trails and roads be quiet again?

I am wondering, as I do every year, how peak leaf color will be this year. Talk about mysterious. Talk about something that nobody understands.

Peak leaf is always beautiful, but some years are spectacular. Why? In off years, the old-timers blame a comparatively bland leaf season on too much rain — always followed by “but we needed it,” no matter whether it rained cats and dogs all summer or the area experienced a drought. No one seems to accurately predict the outcome more than a week in advance, however.

In “A Natural History,” Ackerman writes, “The fiercest colors occur in years when the fall sunlight is strongest and the nights are cool and dry.”

Yellow and orange are the result of the presence of carotenoid pigments in leaves, she explains, while red and red-violet come from anthocyanin pigment. Anthocyanin is affected by climate.

“The most spectacular range of fall foliage occurs in the Northeastern United States and in Eastern China,” Ackerman states. “In Europe, the warm, humid weather turns the leaves brown or mildly yellow.”

The color is present in leaves all summer but begins to show only when the tree ceases to produce the green chlorophyll that camouflages the red, orange and yellow.

“A turning leaf stays partly green at first, then reveals splotches of yellow and red as the chlorophyll slowly breaks down,” the author explains.

As I mentioned, Ackerman discourses on many subjects in “A Natural History.” She doesn’t stick to leaf color, by any means.

“Our horror films say so much about us and our food obsessions,” Ackerman exclaims.

Molly has always liked horror films.

“You should watch ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ Mom,” she advised when I was writing about zombies. The scariest thing I have ever been able to watch, however, is “Jurassic Park.”

“Our real passion, by far,” Ackerman writes, “is for the juiciest of horror films in which vile, loathsome beasts, gifted with ferocious strength and cunning, stalk human beings and eat them. …The plain truth is that we don’t seem to have gotten used to being at the top of the food chain.”

I don’t know, but for days after watching “Jurassic Park,” every time I looked out the window I thought I’d see, not the changing colors of the sugar maples, but the eye of a T-rex peering in at me like a giant chicken.

Have a good week.