Legend of the fall

Even Martha Stewart Living recognizes Greene County is the place to be for autumn leaves

GREENE COUNTY -- Fall's beauty creeps up on a visitor slowly in this southwestern-most corner of Penn's Woods.

The county's prodigious variety of trees -- hickory, tulip tree, black gums, dogwoods, red maples and sugar maples -- will, over the next three weeks, flush scarlet or gold or vermilion across a landscape whose loveliness in autumn, or in any other season, is intimate rather than spectacular.

More sunshine, more color!

Trees use sunlight and chlorophyll, the green pigment in leaves, to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar, a source of energy. When days grow shorter and temperatures drop, chlorophyll begins to break down, causing other pigments masked by the chlorophyll to emerge. Sunny days prompt trees to produce sugar, which intensifies pigments.

-- By Mackenzie Carpenter

There are no 3,000-foot-high ridges in Greene County, just endless rippling topography, like a slightly choppy sea. Twisting west from Waynesburg along Route 21, the road dips and bends to reveal a white "bank" barn nestled in a field, while cattle graze near a copse of sugar maples. It's a picture-postcard scene repeated frequently.

It's perhaps not surprising that the garden editors at Martha Stewart Living in New York found out about Greene County's woods and, in its September issue, recommended them to readers as one of the two best places in the mid-Atlantic -- along with the Hudson River Valley -- to look at fall foliage.

Local residents weren't surprised, but they were amused by the recognition.

"Maybe Martha caught a glimpse of us on her way down to West Virginia," joked Bill McCormick, owner of The Captain's Watch Bed and Breakfast in Greensboro, referring to Ms. Stewart's time at a minimum-security penitentiary in Alderson, W.Va., a few years ago.

Since that rough patch, Ms. Stewart's media empire, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, has rebounded, and several of her employees from Western Pennsylvania recommended Greene County to Margaret Roach, the company's editorial director, and Andrew Beckman, editorial director of gardening for Martha Stewart Living Magazine.

"One woman's family had a hunting cabin there, and when we did some more research on the Web, we found lots to admire abut the foliage there," said Mr. Beckman in a recent phone interview.

There's solid forest science behind Martha's testimonial.

Bordered by West Virginia to the west and south, Washington County to the north, and the Monongahela River and Fayette County to the east, this quiet little patch of Pennsylvania sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which means an unusually rich supply of different hardwoods, said Ralph Campbell, a service forester for the state assigned to Greene County.

Unlike the northeastern and northwestern parts of the state, with their black spruce and tamarack, and the oak forests along most of the state's southern tier -- oak is not known, especially, for its fall colors -- Greene County is unusual because it has what foresters call a "mixed mesophytic forest." These are relics of ancient woods that once covered much of the temperate Northern Hemisphere but now can only be found in the Southeast region of North America and in eastern and central China.

Starting in the southern Smoky Mountains, those forests just reach the southwest corner of the state, into Greene County but not much farther than that, said Mr. Campbell.

These are dazzling, biologically diverse woodlands -- beech, basswood, cucumber-tree, yellow buckeye, Ohio buckeye, white ash and black cherry. To the east along the Mon River, trees are found that favor riparian conditions -- sycamores and silver maple, box elder, American elms, red elms, black willow, green ash, black ash, black walnut and red maple.

"Someone once told me there are 101 types of hardwoods in Greene County," said David Lesako, a western Greene County artist who uses the region as his palette. "I believe it."

The annual fall spectacle usually peaks around the third week of October, and this year's show should be "decent," said Mr. Campbell, perhaps with a forester's understatement. A warm dry summer, along with sufficient rain to prevent stressing the trees, and a two-day cold snap during the second week of September provided a modest jump start to the leaf-turning process, and "if it stays dry, there should be a nice show."

It's also a display that can be viewed in a day trip from Pittsburgh, since there are no great distances here -- the county can be easily crossed in an hour or two.

"I suggest people get lost," Mr. Lesako said. "Most of the roads eventually end up on Route 21 or Route 18, and the best is really when you get on the back roads, the gravel roads, where the little hollows are and log cabins."

Expect to find more woods the farther south and west you go. Over the years, in the central and eastern parts of the county, more land has been cleared for farms -- and for mining, gas and oil drilling, and timbering -- but there is much that remains unspoiled.

While Greene County's tourism infrastructure isn't exactly ready for prime time -- there are very few "upscale" restaurants or lodging establishments -- almost every little town or village has a general store where you can pick up basics, and in the larger towns there's usually a family restaurant or two.

On Waynesburg's main street -- called High Street -- there's a restored Victorian that is home to a tearoom, "Sisters 4 Tea," that will pack a picnic lunch if you call ahead. Or you can linger in the tearoom, select your own antique china cup and fortify yourself first before setting out on the road again.

Tourists need to remember: This is Appalachia, not the Napa Valley. Greene County, in fact, is Pennsylvania's third poorest county, and the back roads' explorer will encounter some all-but-deserted villages, sagging barns and ancient houses where the family has moved out and, right next door, put up a modular home instead.

But for every neglected property, there is a neatly kept farm, a freshly painted one-room school house, or a restored covered bridge -- there are seven in all -- nestled in a hollow aflame with sugar maples.

And slowly but surely, Greene County is being discovered and settled by people interested in nourishing and promoting its strengths: artists, artisans, innkeepers and farmers of specialty crops and livestock.

There's Sandra Brown, of So'Journey Farm, who raises Scottish Highland cattle and French roasting hens and conducts rug hooking workshops. Elysian Fields' Keith Martin sells his pure bred lamb to high-end restaurants, including Thomas Keller's fabled French Laundry. Deer Orchard, on Route 21 -- past Wind Ridge and closer to the West Virginia border -- has a great selection of apples in different varieties.

To the east, in the historic town of Greensboro, several artists have bought properties, and Riverrun Books and Prints, situated in a large 19th-century house on the Mon River, is a real find.

Unlike Fayette County's Laurel Highlands, Greene County's hills top only 1,500 feet at most, but their convolution makes for a bewitching play of shadow and light on a late fall afternoon. Like so much in life, the beauty here is in the small and the simple: Krause's one-room schoolhouse on Golden Oaks Highway, or the memorial statue in Jollytown of Jesse Taylor, the first Greene County soldier killed in the Civil War -- which you might miss if you drive too fast.

"Some mornings I wake up, and there is this purple haze across the ground. The way the light hits the hills and the long shadows late in the day really inspires me when I go out to draw," says Mr. Lesako, who lives in a log cabin near New Freeport. "You can have oak and hickory and sassafras, in tints of purple and bronze or orange yellows to bright red all in one setting."

To his artist's eye, the county yields every kind of magnificence -- in miniature.

"During the past month we've seen these subtle changes day by day," he said. "From my window in the kitchen, there's a wild cherry tree with little hints of yellow starting to happen. And when it's dark here, it's really dark. Last night the stars were just incredible."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published September 30, 2007 4:00 AM


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