Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The fire engine red amanita muscaria stood out like a flare on the East Maroon trail last week. Formed in perfect symmetry with a dotted cap, this festive-looking mushroom pushed its way out of the greenery with hydraulic force.

This wild beauty is poisonous, but amanitas are also said to be psychotropic when taken in the proper dose, not that anyone seems to know what that dose is. The closer I looked at this exotic mushroom, the more I wondered about the properties of such an alluring spore.

Something had decided to experiment with a tiny bite taken from the center of the cap. What kind of creature can ingest a toxic mushroom, but knows to eat only one small bite? I imagined a blithely ebullient squirrel leaping through the boughs of evergreens like a circus acrobat as his nut-munching neighbors remarked, “There goes Philbert again.”

There were dozens of ‘shrooms on the trail that day, some thick and fleshy, others small and delicate, all thriving on the monsoon rains that have been watering forests and wildflower meadows, leaving our high-mountain valleys lush and green and fragrant with the sweet perfumes of the earth.

All mountain flora spring from seeds and spores in life niches that allow them to express their vitality with electric blooms and budding verdure. The earth is ultimately receptive, whether in the crack of a busy sidewalk or in wilderness enclaves of dark conifers or high, rocky cirques where human feet never tread.

Water flows through it all, burbling up in subalpine aquifers, collecting into torrents, and crashing through rocky gorges with a rainbow spray for the sun to light with prisms of color. Nature’s palette is rich and gratuitous to the eye. There is something curative and calming about the green effusion that pours into one’s ocular nerves, just as there is an electrifying stimulus in the hot pink of fireweed, the deep red of Indian paintbrush, the rich purple of a larkspur bloom.

I stood alone at the cloud-swept summit of East Maroon Pass at the head of the long sweeping valley where the towers of Pyramid Peak protruded like the parapets of Mordor through billowing clouds. I let my hiking buddies go on in my selfish pursuit of solitude and let my soul fill with the grand view. At my feet grew a profundity of columbines nodding in a boulder field with natural grace. The pale blue delicacies amid lichen-hued rocks offered a perfect artistic balance to my eye.

The day before, we had crossed West Maroon Pass among a throng of hikers who effused over a carpet of wildflowers drenching us with nature’s most regal pleasures. Humans have evolved an esthetic appreciation that allows us to glory in such spectacles. Why? Because if nature is to survive, it must attract protectors to stave off the rapacity of human industry.

Bob Lewis, a nature mentor of mine, often paraphrased Aldo Leopold: “If we are to save something, we must love it. And if we are to love it, we must first know and understand it.” It is good that humans love wildflowers. Their beauty is reason enough to preserve the wild places where they thrive.

I followed my friends at a distance so that I could hear the rushing river, the chorus of bird calls, the echoes of my thoughts. The blend of grand vistas, delicate beauty, bodily motion, and free association is intoxicating. It makes life vibrant both within you and without you. Such elation is a proven antidote to stress, fatigue, and despair.

Walking a mountain trail is free. Wilderness is open to anyone willing to take a step beyond the paved road. There is a world out there charged with vibrancy, rich in biodiversity, brimming with inspiration. The wild tangle of life – the non-human “other” – is dynamic, uncontrolled, and transformative.

Summer weather patterns in the mountains ensure such fecundity. The hot morning sun draws swirls of mist from the valleys. The mists swell into billowing thunderheads. Afternoon storms drench the mountains in life force.

As I walked down the trail, a light drizzle overtook me. I pulled up my hood and felt the weather encircle me. I sniffed the cool, moist air and witnessed the force of creation pulsing through everything my senses could absorb.

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