Every time the leaves change, a pang of existential awareness courses through my veins. This may be some primordial instinct reminding us to gather resources for winter, or it may just be the most fleeting and visible reminder of the passage of time, a marker of another year.
A year ago was the first fall I’ve spent among the larches, those mysterious needly trees that turn brilliant yellow and shed their leaves—the only conifer that does so. This fall, spotty patches of screaming yellows and muted oranges as the drought-stricken Yampa Valley cranked up the saturation then went full monochromatic in a matter of days.
As I look across town towards the barren mountain, I think, this is not how I thought this would go. And yet, I feel a certain kinship with the scraggly leaves on the aspens in my yard. The expectation is to sing sweet rustling tunes all summer, to become a pleasing, brilliant yellow right on cue.
There is a set expectation of our natural beings. Any number of things can blow us off course. A mid-morning gust early in the springtime, a summer drought that forces us to curl up and look inward. A fire that consumes us or makes the air so thick that we are thrown into confusion and turn a pallid gray while the days are still warm.
I want to be bright, to be strong, to follow that natural path from bud to green to brilliant and appreciated. To be the forest and the trees, to be the one leaf that falls just right and is picked up by some contemplative passerby before my delicate colors fade.
We all want that.
This year has not been kind to the trees, at least not here. Historic windstorms, massive wildfires, and a severe lack of rain has made it hard to hold onto leaves. As a leaf, it is hard to hold on.
We all want to hold on.
We yearn to show our true colors, to display our brightest greens and most vivid yellows, to gracefully grow through the seasons of life for the audience we treasure. Perhaps even to see ourselves become what we are destined to be, to feel pride at who we are.
The most exasperating experience is being cut short, no longer heard or seen after one strong gust or summer drought interrupts our resolute path. The wind blows after one too many dry days, and a neighboring spruce finally gives up. It tumbles and takes our entire limb with it, and in an instant all our plans are shattered. Or perhaps it is just a rough year, and we never get to turn yellow before sullenly falling to the ground, only to be buried in the dust and grit.
It takes a patient and thoughtful eye that chooses to return to see that we can still become something beautiful. Perhaps we are fuel for a raging blaze, which clears the earth and makes way for the resplendent wildflowers unique to burn zones. Maybe we quietly rot in place, becoming part of the detritus that provides a home for ferns, porcupines, fertile soil for the very tree from which we came.