Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 5, 2018
I arrived in Telluride in late August 1984 during a summer that saw more than 45 days straight of afternoon thunderstorms. Looking out the eastern bunkroom window at the Oak Street Inn (a youth hostel at the time, and the reason I drove into town in the first place), it was all in-your-face Ajax Mountain and the big, fat silver ribbon of water running down Ingram Falls. Puffy clouds, pierced by late afternoon rays of light, signaled the end of every day before the moon’s rise in the valley; and then the morning would arrive, sparkly and sunny, at least for a little while.
In those first days (right before I actually took a job at that inn), assorted fungophiles were showing up in the early evening to cook their foraged specimens in the living room fireplace, a stand alone thing with a pull screen and rock rim. The brandy, butter and mushrooms mixed in with the smell of rain was more than good; it was intoxicating. And as I considered these cozy looking hobbits in raincoats, emitting their pheromones of mycological contentment, I wondered: What other world is this I’ve entered, with its rainbows, its deep shadows, its deer and bear padding around in the dark, forest-y background?
When fall came, I think it was probably spectacular enough, but then I hadn’t started comparing them yet. I’d never seen aspens before or big swaths of color doing their slow-mo stadium waves. I’d been back East, where the fall was much more about nine-inch maples leaves crunching underfoot at Central Park, and the eventual freezing of the duck and sailboat ponds.
The San Juans were something else. The vast mountains were alive and speaking. Entire geographies of scrub oak and aspens were transmutating. One of the first people I met in Telluride used the term “tunnels of fire” to describe the 22K gold envelope of aspens lining a trail as we walked up and through it.
In a sense, yes, on first glance, tunnels of fire, with visuals of orange and red and yellow licking flames. But the feeling was different. It was warm and interior and soft, a yellow that actually felt like it was being understood and absorbed by my body in a way I imagined the sun was understood and absorbed by plants. The gold light coming through the leaf? I could taste it, identify it landing on the back of my skull. Swallow it, sense it deep within and also right under my skin, as if my body, heart and soul needed a visible-spectrum vitamin to survive the coming cold.
When my mom passed away, almost 15 years ago now, I felt I needed to speak in part about aspens. It was that time of year in Colorado, they were on my mind, and we’d had a fall of extraordinary scope that just went on and on and on. But also, my mom, a fine and knowledgeable gardener, had been fascinated with this particular tree that she considered exotic simply because it didn’t thrive in the Northwest. I think I compared her passing to a tree having lost the last of its sun-drenched, living, breathing leaves.
Looking back, I think I was actually reaching at aspens to indicate, imperfectly and imprecisely, what fall does to the senses, to memory, to the heart, to our eroding notions of cycles, and time passing or standing still. To help me grasp big important things better, to help me grasp them at all. Every year since, I have tried to figure out my response to the slow-rising color in the turning aspens.
This year, with the drought and high heat, it’s the individual trees I’ve been observing and reacting to — the way it feels standing under one as the leaves quake and glint in the wind and sun. The quality of the micro-pockets of shade, the dark and the light all around, the dappling of the ground, that radiant yellow light streaming through the leaf portals to reach you, to infuse you with warmth before the yearly invasion of ice crystals, to call your attention to an aspen tree’s magnificence in the scheme of things.
When I try to recall the details of years of aspens turning, it really feels more like trying to slip back into a dream to gather it up, to secure the location, stand in it and attempt to feel it while looking around at whatever details I can glean. Like a traveler in time — and a tiny one, for sure — shooting through a wormhole of gold to get to a spot where the present moment can ring, briefly, but clarion-like and golden yellow.