Monday, January 21, 2008

Seeing Things: Single Visions

These things, these things were here
and but the beholder wanting.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

What about the things you know you will only see once in life? Those rare happenings we are occasionally privileged to witness are a special gift. The foothills seem to favor opportunities for serendipity, for the unusual events that engender the unique sights of life. This wonderful in-between world, neither mountains nor plains but with some of the flavor of both, somehow captures a special essence. Today was that kind of a day.

As weather goes, fog is unusual in Denver, but it is even more so in the foothills. On fall mornings we may wake to a bright clear day, with an achingly blue sky, only to find that Denver and its surrounding lowlands are a sea of fog. The hogback seems to act as a dam, holding back the fog, keeping the foothills and mountains clear.

On one such morning, the fog found a low spot in the hogback, and poured westward—a waterfall of wet air, flowing over the ridge and down the valley to settle in Morrison. In other parts of the world, fog seems merely to be—it just sits; but here on the edge it is an active agent whose movements we sometimes glimpse.

This morning was white, even here above the 6000 foot contour. Recognizing an unusual opportunity, I hurried to be on the mountain before it burned off, as the weather man assured us it would. I had barely started before I began to outreach the fog and entered a more typical morning of bright sun and clear skies. But the visions made possible were special indeed. Denver was gone, lost in the mist, but not missed. The very top of Green Mountain was an island, as was Mt. Glennon, adrift in a sea reminiscent of the one that once contained the hogback. One tip of stone was all that remained of Red Rocks Park. The fall colors were brilliant—from red-purple of sumac, to oranges and yellows, all the greens from gray-green to blue-green, all the grass colors from straw to the pink-red of the bluestems—amid all this, what's the attraction of the monochrome of mountain aspen?

But there were more single visions in store, only this once, and only for me, for no one else was there to see them. Coming down, a sight I had missed in my fascination with "Green Island"—a river of white along Bear Creek, barely glimpsed through the trees, but clearly separating Mt. Morrison from Mt. Falcon more completely than Bear Creek ever has.

Unusual, as well as unusually brief, was the vision around the next corner. Perhaps memorable sights are forgotten because they can be so brief we question whether we saw or imagined them. The fog I thought I had left far below had come up behind me—advancing a couple hundred feet in elevation when I wasn't looking. And there it was, in huge breakers, crashing against the foothills as if to engulf them. This was no ordinary fog, but fog with an agenda. The sunny slope, where foxes had played last spring, was now similarly inundated. And seconds later, barely giving time to be noticed, the fog retreated, ebbing down the valleys like a tide that's peaked and lost its momentum, becoming normal quiescent water vapor again. By the time I reentered its cold dampness, it was its old familiar self, and it just continued to lay there until, as predicted, it burned off and the reality of a normal day returned.

It left one more vision, a reminder of the abundance of life in our small local universe. Everywhere in the grass were tiny, three-dimensional spider webs, suddenly visible with the dew. About two or three inches in each diameter, each web was hundreds of threads woven by some spider-being too small to be noticed under normal conditions. But, presumably during the night, these many creatures had been busy, leaving evidence of their existence to day-bound creatures. Once I had seen a similar dance of life, in the air we usually consider sterile. Backlit by a setting sun, the air suddenly appeared alive with insects, bits of down carrying seeds off to new locations, a host of living things going about their business in a medium we consider only as a blend of gaseous elements.

These occasions, too brief and too rare, remind us how little we see most of the time. And they tell us, if we will pay attention, how special is this place in which we live. I wonder how many of these moments, these single visions, I've missed on the days I don't take time to walk up the mountain, or on days when my attention is elsewhere. We are fortunate indeed to share this special place. But how long will it remain a special place if we don't pay attention to it? What will happen if we neglect the everyday beauties and the extraordinary single visions that surround us? Maybe we're already beginning to discover the costs of our failure to appreciate the world we share.

... of nature's poems and pictures we are invited to become a part.
—Joseph Wood Krutch

Originally written 1989.

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