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Hunting for Red October - A Cultural Geography of Foliage Season in Vermont

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11/17/2004

Leafpeepers over-run Vermont each autumn, contributing as much as $1.6 billion to the state's income. Whoever thought up the idea of driving around in cars looking at dying leaves? Is it a modern form of an ancient ritual or just a clever marketing scheme? Why does Vermont's landscape draw so many visitors? Do real Vermonters peep? Intrigued by the apparent power of red and orange leaves to attract visitors by the thousands, Katharine (Kit) Anderson began research on Vermont's foliage season as a geographical phenomenon. She consulted archival sources on the history of tourism, interviewed tourism experts, conducted ethnographic research among leaf peepers and long-time residents of the state, attended festivals, and examined online sources that provide guidance for prospective peepers. In this talk she discusses the natural and cultural factors that led to the origins of foliage as a season in the mid-20th century. Changes in land use, new forests, the automobile, brilliant marketing of the Vermont image, and shifting social attitudes toward nature are among the forces that created this new "season." Using examples from her field work, she describes some of the many ways people experience the Vermont landscape in fall and how foliage season continues to evolve. The increasing emphasis on "peak," with hotlines, live Webcam coverage, and even precise predictions of day and time for peak suggest time has topped place in the hunt for red October. Kit Anderson completed her Ph.D. in cultural geography at Louisiana State University in 1997. Her previous life included editing National Gardening magazine here in Vermont. She is the author of Nature, Culture and Big Old Trees (Texas University Press, 2003) and "Ira's Acres" (a history of the UVM Green). Since 1996 she has been teaching courses in Ethnobotany, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Trees and Landscapes at the University of Vermont.

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