(About a 5 minute read)
Earlier, Don and I drove out of town south into a hazy fall afternoon. We speculated the haze could be coming from the large California fires, for there seemed no other source for it. It’s happened before that smoke has drifted hundreds of miles into Colorado from large fires as far away as California. Was that happening today?
No way of to be certain. But the distant mountains to the south and west were obscured by the haze while above us the sky still embraced the royal blue depth of a perfect autumn day.
I hadn’t driven south of Colorado Springs in well over two years. You forget how beautiful the hills and canyons are. The colors are mostly understated and subtle in the fall. Olive junipers dot the yellow grasses, cling to the sandy red cliffs like freckles. The deeper greens of ponderosa and pinon pines crowd the junipers, and the scrub oak has copper leaves. All respectable earth tones. But then along the water courses, the light bursts as it falls onto the luminous yellow leaves of the cottonwoods.
Gorges and canyons, mesas and buttes. The land seems eternal here. It’s hard to believe people own it — you think more of the land owning them.
There’s defiance of the land in some of the houses people have built. Houses whose architecture is traditional in distant parts of America — in the northeast, for instance — but not here in Colorado. You can’t look at those houses without imagining some newcomer has tried to transplant a bit of the lush eastern United States, complete with well watered bluegrass lawns, to the rocky, thin soils of the arid west. Maybe he got homesick for a more congenial landscape. Maybe he’s in denial he no longer lives in Massachusetts, Georgia or Kentucky. Whatever the case, it’s not really your problem — yet in this land, his home is an alien.
Some miles south of the Springs, Don and I turned off the main road and, after a few miles, entered Phantom Canyon. Phantom Canyon is a narrow gorge whose rock walls rise 150 or 200 feet. It winds for miles up into the Rocky Mountains — right into the heart of the high gold country. The road changed from asphalt to gravel, and then from gravel to earth. The walls were mostly red rock deeply fractured by the weather, like an old man’s face; and brilliant cottonwoods lined the floor of the canyon.
It’s strange how in some parts of Colorado you can see everywhere the evidence of people — you are after all, traveling a road built by people — and yet you almost feel you are the first person to explore the land. Twice in the Canyon cars passed us coming from the other direction and each time the occupants waved to us as if we were the first people they’d seen all month. I think that feeling of being a little bit beyond the boundaries of society doesn’t just come from the scarcity of people on the Phantom Canyon road. I think it comes from the way the world rises up 150 to 200 feet above you. I think it comes from the way the trees, the grasses, and the brush obey their own laws — not some gardener’s laws. I think it comes from the uncivilized quiet that confronts you when you finally stop and step out of your car. But whatever the source of it, the effect is to give you a slightly different perspective on yourself.
It’s not the beauty of nature that most inspires me to reflect on myself. Nature is not always beautiful. But nature is always indifferent. And it’s that indifference that inspires both thought and feeling about the human condition.
You can never really put what you learn about yourself from nature in words because what you learned, you didn’t learn from words. Rather, you simply experienced a truth. You can write all the commentaries you want about your experiences, but you cannot recreate them through those commentaries. Words never brought a fractured rock cliff into existence.
At times, it seems that societies revolve around the ego. Perhaps it can even seem they are huge conspiracies to make the ego primary in this world. I think the ego is just as much a part of us — of who we are as a species — as our eyes and noses, and I reject any ideology that calls for the permanent annihilation of the ego. Yet, I don’t think the ego is of primary importance. I think it has its place, but that place is not central.
I believe I see that most clearly when I am out in nature, away from society, away from its tendency to make the ego primary. Yet, it is also out in nature when I feel I am being most true to myself. Is that a paradox?
Originally published October 28, 2007.