Telluride Daily Planet, Thursday, September 24, 2009
“This time of year, Colorado is quite spectacular. We have aspen trees swathing the hillsides doing what they do best: quaking and turning yellow. My mom talked about aspens the way she talked about lilacs — with the sort of awe reserved for exotics — plants that don’t thrive in Seattle, the land where everything thrives.
This fall in the mountains, we expected a dreary showing from the largest organism on earth. We’d had a hot dry summer — the worst in 500 years according to certain tree ring readers. The hillsides were brown by mid-June, the rivers were trickling, and mushrooms were unwilling to press through the dry forest floor with their magic. The aspens will be tobacco brown, everybody said. The leaves will fall all at once. Maybe we’ll have a good winter.
But then, in September, it finally rained. Hard and often. Lavender bloomed again — that never happens. Shaggy manes, the pigeon of mushrooms, sprang up through driveway gravel. Valleys turned green. Aspen shoots appeared in far greater number than they ever had. Through backyard sod. Next to pansies and sage plants. Between the chokecherry bushes. Everywhere. One shoot in my yard grew seven feet in two months. What would fall be like, everybody wondered as aspens sprouted again.
We held our breaths as the first leaves turned. The yellow deepened and the days got sunny again. Night became chill, the blue of the sky deepened further. And then the slowest, most miraculous fall we’d seen in 20 years unfolded before our eyes. Certain stands of trees turned persimmon. Some pumpkin orange. Some went right to yellow — the deepest holy golden yellow on the face of the earth. How to describe something life this? The Navajo believe through each aspen leaf the entirety of the sun shines. Every day locals wandered into the woods thrilling under an endless, slow-moving, mood-ring mantle of yellow.
Why is this so precious to us in the mountains? Where I live, winter lasts six months. We know what changes a few short weeks will bring. I’m pretty sure that the people in my town feel the same way about aspen yellow the way I feel about it: As we look out at its magnificent brightness, fire comes through our eyeballs and hits the back of our skulls. Once it hits, it drips down like honey into our cores where it keeps us warm all winter long like a flame. We grasp it.
Soon, the leaves will be all gone in the Southern Rockies. Winter will show us the skeletons of the trees and cover them in white. On the coldest days, we will anticipate the next season of budding and unfurling, and the next season after that of quaking in the summer wind.
It’s tempting to think that the end of a life is represented by the winter tree. But as I drove out of the mountains a couple of days ago, I realized something. Cycles happen many times during the course of someone’s life. We can bud at the age of 54 or 80. We can quake at 3 or 16. We loose our leaves over and over so that we can be reborn. But the fullness and richness of a human life I think is best illustrated in tree terms at least by the glory of the flaming tree at its sweetest apex before that first leaf blows into the wind. That’s what drips down into our hearts and stays there.”
A different kind of fall arrives, a storm in fast-forward whose mists and clouds shroud the valley. When it finally lifts, will a white blanket be left in its place?
With the world about to frost over, we all hurry back to the warmth of the forest where gold-leaf embers glow underfoot. September’s stuff of life. We crouch down to gather them, fumble with them, then stuff our pockets. Why not pillows made of aspen leaves, sweaters, or pies?
I fumble with feelings this fall as well. How untidy they are, their own patchwork, spilled at my feet. It seems likely this harsher season will stir up old things — but mysteriously, unaccountably, one day it brings grace instead. Suddenly, I am perfectly clear on my mother’s lifelong grief for the lighthearted self she left in Paris when she and hundreds of other war brides boarded that boat for New York in 1945. How she lived with that, and died with it. My heart breaks, then grows a fraction of a size.