01 September 2008

Barr Lake Story

One evening I walked along the road that circles Barr Lake, northeast of Denver.

This was unusual for me. Most times, I go out to the lake in the early morning, arriving half an hour or 45 minutes before sunrise. I can watch and listen to the world waking up that way.

Barr Lake is a prairie reservoir 30 minutes from the city. It is a magnet for many kinds of migratory birds in Spring and Fall. It is a beautiful place to walk and listen to and enjoy the many faces of such a prairie habitat.

I have been there dozens of times, in all seasons. The place is a marvel of change. Since it is a man-made water project, the level of water in both lake and the canal that skirts it is always changing. And as the water rises and falls, the landscape changes with it. The path that circles the lake sweeps in some big curves around bowl-shaped meadows that will turn, in another season, into big circular coves of the lake itself, meadow grass now all submerged, while at another time the same area will be a marsh, cattails bursting with red-winged blackbirds' squeaky trills.

A 9-mile dirt road, used by park rangers and water department officials circles the lake.

It's my habit to walk a portion of this road, clockwise from the visitors' center.

One attraction that greets me about half a mile along the road is a huge old lightning-blasted cottonwood. It is, without a doubt, my favorite tree.

It's hard to say how I have come to love this particular tree. Certainly, I have visited it more than any other tree I can think of, except those of my childhood. I have seen the huge, double-trunked creature at all times of year, at many times of day and night, in many weathers. I've seen it hard and gray and leafless, surviving through the winter. I've seen it rising out of a lake of its own fallen leaves. I watched as one of its two trunks was besieged by motile armies of ants, and watched that trunk die, and came back later to see the huge thing fallen, cracked right off, laying underneath the remaining trunk and branches.

So this one evening I was walking specifically to make it to this tree, to my tree. I didn't have much time, and just this short excursion would have to do. It was getting dark quickly. I walked just to get to the tree.

The huge cottonwood stands sentinel at one curve of the path,
a short scramble down the bank. There are no trees around it. It stands there powerful and alone.

When I reached the tree, color had mostly leached out of the day. It was as if the world was taking on the grey of the tree. I hopped and slid down the short bank in the dusk to reach the massive barky trunk. I touched it gently with my hands and talked quietly to it.

I turned around and leaned up against the trunk. I felt with my back the huge solidity of this thing, this creature. I felt tiny and insignificant in comparison. The fact that I could move and the tree lived its entire life rooted to this spot seemed a paltry consolation.

I'd like to be able to say that I felt the tree's life, that I tapped into its ancient consciousness, but that's not it. That's not what I felt.

Here I was with my spine resting against this immenseness. As I looked out, a tiny thing in the shelter of this hugeness, I saw its branches, black against the almost dark sky, hanging down all around me like a complicated network of blood vessels and capillaries. And at my feet and stretching out all around was a thick rich mulch of leaves that had fallen over the season and over the years. All this, too, was part of the tree's life. The tree presided over a huge swath of land and of sky.

The life of the tree was giant and grey and slow and powerful. I might as well have been one of the ants crawling up its trunk.

What happened next cannot have happened. It's the kind of thing you might imagine happening, or dream of, or see in a movie that you'd later call corny. But it is this very quality that assures me that it actually did occur. It was ridiculously awesome.

I rested there in the tree's embrace, looking out through its blood-vessel branches hanging down against a nearly black sky. And down and across that sky, from right to left, exactly where I looked, a single bright meteor arced.

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