Halfway through November, the temperatures rise into the 70s. I savor the extended autumn, bracing for winter that I know will arrive soon. Leaves have already been raked and hauled away by the bagful for composting. For today, the roses still bloom crimson and the lavender grows taller, it’s purple stalks a late, sweet feast for the bees. This is unusual, I’m told. Most years, there’s already been one or two snowfalls before pumpkin pie baking and turkey roasting begins.
There are no songbirds to wake me each morning, but other birds have finally discovered the feeder in the backyard between the giant spruces. Screeching Blue Jays and large Magpies with their striking black and white markings take turns bullying the smaller, chirpy juncos, vying for the sunflower seeds strewn on the ground. The squirrels don’t seem to mind sharing the trove, and they grow fat and satisfied, skittering along the fence tops to the evergreen branches to the ground. I will leave the feeder out through the winter and keep it filled for all of them, but mostly for me.
Dawn and dusk offer sufficient cover for the rabbits, which confidently hop out into the lawn, searching for the still-green grass or fading dandelion leaves hiding there. Small piles of black scat lie beside naked pinecones, stripped of their nuts, at the base of the pine, evidence that a raccoon is enjoying night visits there. A few weeks ago during an early morning walk, I crossed paths with a solitary, very thin, juvenile coyote, all ears and lanky legs, loping along the yards in the neighborhood. He seemed to be lost or confused and reminded me of a wayward teenager getting caught sneaking home way past curfew. We both stopped in our tracks, he with his nose to the air toward me, sniffing out my presence, and me with my silver whistle around my neck ready to cause shrill pain to his sensitive ears should he approach me, and we cautiously eyed one another for a moment to consider the meeting. He turned then and quickly slunk away between two houses, toward the greenspace located behind them. The rabbits, stock still, taking cover under the shrubs nearby, silently thanked me, twitching their noses again after the danger passed.
Nature is my companion in these bittersweet days. I yearn to make this unfamiliar place my home.
Last week, I hiked with a new friend up in the foothills west of the city. I had confessed to her how the desert brings inspiration to me, so she led the way along a dusty trail upward through the scrub into the pines, a place she thought I would find to be desert-familiar. We chatted as we climbed, my lungs working hard in this high altitude, not yet accustomed to the thin air. I lamented to her about my impatience; how I want and need to feel at home in this new place, how I long for the comfort derived from belonging, how I miss the birdsong that used to wake me each morning on the red plains.
As we picked our way up the path, winding through pines and spruce, sage and thorny things, the silence enfolded us, no wind whispering a welcome to us through the needles on the branches above us, no chatter of squirrels or flitting of birds to cheer our progress…only the soft sound of our footfall and my labored breathing. The quiet seemed to mock me, to tease my feelings of isolation, and instead of receiving the calming comfort in nature that I sought, melancholy began to rise from my guts to my chest with a heaviness that constricted my inhaling even more. Here on the front range, the Rocky Mountains boast of wild beauty, gray-purple peaks rise above us to the west with sunlit blue sky as background canvas, and in spite of my genuine appreciation for this place that literally leaves me breathless, this is not yet my home, as much as I will it to be.
We slowed on a shady plateau, and I raised my gaze from monitoring my steps below on the uneven trail to check the way ahead. Beside us, among the many trees along the path, stood an old pine, crooked and gnarled, it’s thick, ropey roots exposed in places on the incline, clinging desperately to the dry earth. The tree with twisted branches often bent at right angles, scarred from its many seasons, its green needles sparsely interspersed at the tips of the limbs, has survived, resilient through times of drought and wildfire, hail storms and wind, blizzards and tall drifts of freezing snow.
The tree called us nearer, and we regarded its trunk. It was substantial in diameter, and a large hole in the trunk on the slope-facing side revealed that the tree was, in fact, hollow. Taking a closer look, we saw that the hole had served as home to some woodland creature, an owl or squirrel perhaps, which had built up a cozy nest inside with soft, dried leaves and grasses and pine needles.
Damaging wounds had opened the very heart of the tree. Because of them, it provided sustenance with life-nurturing shelter. With them, the tree was hollow and still living. Drawn to that tree, the bent aged branches, the empty trunk deceptively devoid of strength, the nest inside… it reassured me, offered to me what I needed.
Far from the life I once loved on the flat prairie, I am emptied but still living. In this quiet, high desert place, the sunshine still soaks my shoulders with warmth, crisp-cooled air revives my breath, the rocky peaks point the way to the heavens, and steadfast trees surround me, evergreen. I am open, ready for home. I will build one here.