There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places
I’m seated in a wood-slab patio recliner on the east deck of a huge cabin, the legacy of a cigar-chomping Chicago banker and big game hunter.
It’s a clear-blue early morning on the late side of mid-October in the San Juan Valley of Southern Colorado. Ten feet below the sturdy deck, a dew-sparkled gold meadow slopes ruggedly down to a dirt road that winds like a petrified stream through this thousand-acre working ranch. Two storm-toughened ponderosa pine stand guard to the left. Ochre groves of gambel oaks patch the ground nearby, their fall leaves reddish brown, except for a grove close to my right that appears to have been scorched to the bark. Death lurks everywhere, sometimes strikes by fire.
A quarter-mile away, across from the hill on which this cabin confidently sits, a ponderosa- and oak-clad ridge rises from south to north. At the top of the incline sits another house. The cabin I’m a guest in is of modern construction. The pine planks and logs gleam as if new; the grout that glues the shiny logs together is made of modern rubbery composites. Nevertheless, this grand comfortable space has the brief, pleasing illusion of having assembled itself out of the surrounding woods. The other house on the hill is boxy, squarely and green, like a Monopoly house, indifferently placed on the board, more a survivalist shelter than a home.
The strong newly-risen sun over the southeast hills forces me to look northeast. There the southern range of the San Juans rises, its walls a massive undulating murky indigo under a pillowy blue sky. Here distance shades all colors toward the sky’s. The first real clouds since we arrived Thursday night sail in from the northwest, making me realize how barren of drama the sky has been. I feel a little regret that whatever booming spectacle they brought to the north has long dissipated.
Banded Peak’s streaks of snow barely show in the morning shadows. Chama Peak, to the south, rises over bold swatches of dark green fir and bright blazing aspen, the contrasts banging my eyes. The aspens impress me as a giant living organism, which they are, knitted together by a single root system. One of these groves, which, I’ve read, lies somewhere in Colorado, has been called the largest living thing in the world. Big as they are though, eventually they all will give way as Douglas firs march over them toward their own climax. In this case, Death comes with the shade cast by the taller trees.
I also know, looking through binoculars, that there is the tiniest dot of bright red, like a lone maple tree or maybe a human structure, peeking out from somewhere in those forests. What it is I don’t know, but I’m content not to.
The ridge sinks away to the north. Then the ground rises again in another broad slope of sunny aspen and green pine. From my head-on perspective, it launches itself straight up to morph into the bare dusky walls of Navajo Peak and its close companion, Apache Peak. Both mountains seem to stand shoulder to shoulder, magnificent and reassuring in their near-permanence, fearsome in their stern indifference, time as marked by erosion their only worry. I imagine climbers have scaled both summits, but the scars will be scoured and forgotten, quicker then we know. Their massive faces darken pleasingly under the passing sheet of gray and white clouds and gleam when the sun returns.
A light buoyant breeze chills and dries my skin, aging me faster than it does the mountains. The clouds drag their shadows over the hills and mountains, painting pines, oaks and aspens with uncanny shadow.
A raven and a blue mountain jay squawk and dart by, nervous and competitive. The jay rasps, like a screw-top bottle cap being opened. The cleverly disguised artificial stream, dug next to the cabin with water pumped up from a stream two miles below, roils down into two separate silver braids, splashes peacefully, as mesmerizing and genuine as the real thing.
This world seems still with deceptive confidence, calmly exudes a grand power. It’s peaceful on its tricky surface, but strands of violence, of life intertwining with and growing from death, always weave underneath, all of it knit by an unknowable, barely discernible power.
My constant thrum of aches and pains matter less here than they do at the place I call home, my nagging loneliness nothing in the vastness. The only genuinely dark shadow is cast the dark drone of jets passing far overhead, invisible, but a warning that this is my last day.
I’m home, but still not home from that Colorado morning. I live in a fine neighborhood, and I’m grateful for it, but aches, pains and loneliness now crowd my attention. Death stills lurks ruthlessly under the crust we’ve built over Nature. This barrier between us and the Earth we emerged from makes our impermanence seem all the more callous, arbitrary, incomprehensible, absurd. Nature finds it way, pushes up, back and through, with claws and vicious hunger.
Are we really living longer or are we really only drawing out Death’s work, making our dying longer, stretching the agony by days, months, years? We may survive longer but live with less feeling, little wisdom and only a crumbling fig leaf of faith.
I’m told this is a good thing, but I’m still waiting for that paradise I’ve been promised to sprout through the plains of concrete around me. I understand that the Earth’s population will reach 7 billion this Halloween. I’d like to be wrong, but it’s impossible for me to believe that Nature’s not about to ruthlessly burst out of the closet door or reach up from under the bed on which we doze and drag us toward extinction. Seven billion people and an increasingly stressed environment tell me that we’ve sinned greatly and it may be too late for either atonement or forgiveness.
Our skies may eventually clear and that valley will almost certainly be there . . . but we may not be; to wonder at it, to bow to the sacred power of its hidden face.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
(Photos by author)
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.