Andersen: Observances on a fall afternoon | AspenTimes.com

Andersen: Observances on a fall afternoon

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

I needed to get out, to free myself from screen time and all that screens entail — work, news, emails, social media. But I didn't want to turn the key, start the car, seal myself into that space capsule and drive.

A no-car day spent in my backyard offers a break from all that, so I laced up shoes, dropped a water bottle into a pack and set off for wherever the game trails would take me.

As I worked my way up through the dwarf forest of pinon and juniper, half a dozen deer stood from their pine-duff beds and watched me pass. Recent arrivals from the high ridges of Red Table Mountain, they were skittish and suspicious. In a few weeks, they will barely take notice of me.

Fresh snow has begun driving the deer down. Earlier that morning, my wife and I watched a doe with twin fawns nibble their way through the remains of our vegetable gardens. The deer are fat and plump, their coats thick and smooth from a summer of high mountain living. By early spring they'll be gray and a bit gaunt from the privations of winter.

Passing the deer, I soon reached the base of the towering red cliffs of Seven Castles, which are notorious for loose, crumbling rocks. A clattering of rockfall above caught my attention.

A dozen bighorn sheep — ewes and lambs — sprinted up the talus for higher ground. I slowed my pace to give them space. Soon they were gathered on the cliffs overhead, looking down on me with curiosity, safe and secure on their vertical perches.

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Begging their pardon, I played through and continued up to a favorite lofty high point that jutted into the deep-blue sky. Now on my own high perch, seated on a slab of redrock, I saw the sheep drift off into the trees. Turning my gaze to the Fryingpan Valley, there was a swath of gold as the last colors of fall tinged the cottonwoods along the river with gilt.

Something caught my periphery, and I glanced left to watch a huge golden eagle 30 feet off my perch nonchalantly flapping past. We met eye to eye, and I realized that this was no ordinary day, that nature was granting me something memorable — a series of gifts, the rewards for staying home.

As soon as the eagle flew out of sight, my eyes were led to another flying form. A sharp-shinned hawk was floating far below, working its way up on a thermal that brought it higher and higher.

The hawk rose up on invisible currents with a delicate adjustment of wings and tail. I sat totally still, admiring the idea of flight, realizing that birds are perhaps the most gifted of all species for their mastery of the air, one of the most artfully evolved of all animals.

With a slight turn of wing, the hawk leveled out and headed directly toward me, locked on me with intent. Its eyes burned into mine as the guidance system for a feathered missile, a keen predator of the air.

The hawk saw me as a perch, and had I not moved, my head would have been the landing zone for two sets of needle-sharp talons. I allowed the raptor to advance within 20 feet. Not ready for a scalp-piercing, I waved my hand. The hawk adjusted its trajectory and veered off, passing close enough for me to reach out and touch a wing.

Now my senses were enlivened, my heart and mind keen and receptive. What a stimulant is wild nature! I continued up the narrow ridge, which is populated with enormous, ancient trees sacred to my Druid sensibilities. I touched them as I passed, feeling a sense of the ages from these wizened beings rooted to the rocky earth.

Far up the ridge, a flurry of birds stopped me in my tracks. A flock of evening grosbeaks gathered in a huge juniper, their bright strips of yellow flashing in the dazzling sun, a convergence of wild nature on a special day in the backyard.

Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays when he's not out wandering Seven Castles. He can be reached at andersen@rof.net.