The Ancient Modern
A Thousand-Year Storm / Joshua Alan Sturgill
When I lived in Colorado, I had a favorite tree. When the weather was warm enough, I would take a little battery-powered alarm clock, set it for three hours ahead and sit with my back against the trunk, facing East toward the Wet Mountain Valley. I would sit still for so long that the field mice who lived in the roots of the tree would all come out of hiding and resume their business as if I wasn’t there. They had such gentle eyes.
My tree stood all alone at the center of a meadow on the side of Horn Peak. It was a Blue Spruce, and was so massive, I couldn’t wrap my arms all the way around it. Sap from the tree continually dripped from the bark and branches; I always wore old pants and a jacket I didn’t mind getting covered in the fragrant resin. The taste of the sap was sweet and sharp.
When I walked to the tree, I passed along a little road with several small vacation homes and cabins. The forest in that part of the Sangre de Cristos is predominantly Ponderosa, with some Lodgepole Pines and Aspens. Ponderosas have dark, almost grey-green needles, and when the road opened out into the meadow, my tree, big and blue, stood there in such a contrast that it was like a vision of the ideal Tree all the ponderosas were trying to imitate in their straining, crowded way.
The blue needles, the wide extent of its growth and its deep, deep shade; my tree was an island. Because there were no other trees around it, and it could gather unhindered sunlight, it had an almost perfectly symmetrical shape—a conic Christmas Tree—except for an elegant and very slight tilt into the direction of the prevailing wind.
I moved from Colorado, but I would go back to visit once or twice a year, and I would always make time to sit under the tree. From beneath it, I could see a long way—as far as Pike’s Peak up north, and south to Greenhorn in the Wet Mountains. And if I was sitting under my tree in the evening or at night, the twin towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff glittered below me like bio-luminous coral reefs at the bottom of an ocean.
At night, the warm air of the valley and cold air of the mountains would change places in little gusts and calms; it was a pleasure to sit still long enough to notice the temperature rise and fall slightly with the wind on my face and hands. I could always see shooting stars. I don’t remember a night when there weren’t a least a few, and sometimes, there would be several every minute. When the moon was full, she made everything into a bright black-and-white silent film. And when she was new, the stars were so many and so bright, it was difficult to distinguish separate constellations.
Recently, I made a backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristos, and as usual, I planned a few hours to sit under my tree before the hike. But when I arrived, the tree wasn’t where I expected to see it. I passed the bend where the road leads out of the forest, and in the meadow I saw a pile of sawn lengths of trunk, dried and peeling in the sun, and the stump of my tree. My grief was unexpectedly strong. I was angry, too. I assumed that someone had, for no reason I could discern, taken a chainsaw and wantonly it down. My relationship to the landscape was altered, too. The meadow was just a scar on the mountain, the granite boulders just so much clutter, the other trees dry and aloof.
The unexpected and unexplained loss of the tree affected my mood for the whole week of my camping. It made me think about limits and mortality. I thought, too, that there must be other people who loved and were sheltered by the tree. The connection was more deep than appreciation, and some echo of the Fall and Eden stirred up in me.
After returning from the hike, I stopped for a night with some friends who live up in the mountains. I asked about news and events—which always means neighbors and weather—and they mentioned an incredible storm. They called it a thousand-year-storm, with straight-line winds of over a hundred miles an hour. The storm caused avalanches and destroyed buildings all over the Custer County. And it blew down so many trees that loggers came from neighboring states to help clear the mess.
Even as I’m typing this, thinking deeply about the tree I loved so well, I can recall the texture and smell of it. I remember the birds always in and out of its branches. I remember the mice that wandered around in its shade. I call it my tree, and since I am foolishly mystical, I believe I belonged to the tree as well. We were joined by hours of mutual meditation and silence. I entered the stillness of the tree, and I took the tree with me wherever I walked.
I still go for hikes in that part of the world where I used to live. And I still wander out to the place where my tree used to be. And I think about how deep its roots were, and I wonder why and how it came to grow in the middle of that meadow, where no other trees grew or have grown since. And I think of the people who might pass by now, who don’t know that a perfect and majestic tree, a tree from Eden, once stood right there—where they only see a bare and open field.