Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
I’m splitting firewood at dusk last week on a winter afternoon. The double-bladed ax rings as I chip off blocks from cottonwood logs. The sound echoes into the woods beyond my house where red rock cliffs rise up from a pinon-juniper forest. There is no other sound but my ax.
Between swings, my ears pick up something in the distance, a muted warbling. I listen as it moves up the valley. Suddenly it’s before me, a faint black wave of at least a hundred small, black birds flying in an undulating crest accompanied by a high-pitched vibration.
Mouth open, I watch the wave pass overhead. In five seconds, they’re gone. The sound recedes and fades. I stand in the quiet aftermath of something ephemeral and magical. Winter birds.
A few days later there’s fresh snow on the evergreens. It’s a powder morning, and my wife is giving me a ride to the bus for a day of skiing. Driving down the Fryingpan, we notice a bald eagle lifting off from the river. It paces us, its white head and yellow beak thrust forward, black wings pumping against the blue sky and red, sunlit ridges capped with snow.
The eagle veers off to find a fishing perch. As we go on, I search the treetops. A mile farther down the valley is another bald eagle, this one perched in the top of a cottonwood along the riverbank, broad-shouldered and magisterial with its hook-beaked profile.
Half an hour later, I’m on the Snowmass bus going up Brush Creek Road. People are talking, typing out texts on their phones, reading newspapers. My gaze explores the side valleys and shale escarpments. In a stand of cottonwoods, another bald eagle perches – for my eyes only. I’ve had a three-eagle morning.
Two days later, it’s my 61st birthday. I spend most of it by myself ski touring from Sopris Divide to Hay Park, a five-hour round trip. I’m using wax, a lost art, and I glide along through a few inches of fluff making hardly a sound.
I cross a sun-streaked meadow where a pair of ravens chortles overhead, their guttural voices reverberating through my solitude. I stop and watch them swoop gracefully into the valley like aerial gymnasts.
Climbing through a shaded spruce-fir forest, the air turns bitter cold. My skis grip well, and I push the climb to keep warm in the single layer I’ve stripped down to. My bindings begin to squeak. No, it’s something else. I stop, hold my breath and listen.
The delicate chirps of black-capped chickadees pierce the cold air. Looking up into the crowns of the evergreens where the sun is hitting, I see them darting about. I appreciate having company in this quiet patch of dark timber that I’m sharing on a cold winter day with a flock of gregarious winter birds.
Our communion is ethereal because they disappear suddenly. The woods are silent again. My hands are cold, and my ears burn. I push up the hill into the warming sun, where the dark timber opens to an airy aspen grove where tree shadows streak the snow.
I stop in a sunny gap between the aspen trees. The snow is textured like wall spackle compound. Defrocked sunflower stems stand tall, their long shadows like pencil marks across the snow, the shadows of their caps forming exclamation points.
A jet rumbles incongruently overhead, stretching its chemtrail across a sky muddied by other jets. Its thrumming engines mark the heavens and vibrate the atmosphere. Finally it fades, returning the woods to the comfort of silence.
I relax, close my eyes and feel myself melding with the aspen grove, the snow, the mountains. I am losing myself in their timeless stories. My own story of 61 years is a mere blip compared to their millennia. I find this a humbling salve for my middling concerns.
Faintly, like peripheral vision, I pick up a sound. A single bird voice, high and clear, rises and dips, rises and dips. The whistle is pure, far away. It carries like the ring of a crystal glass when a wet finger rubs the rim. A lone bird calling. Another solo traveler. Hello, there.