Leaves fall rapidly from our backyard cottonwood trees as I write this, flickering and steadily streaming towards the dead, brown grass. It makes me wonder just what else may be in store for this infamous year of 2012.
I have searched my memory banks as thoroughly as I can, and I just can’t remember seeing leaves in free fall this early in the year. Even in Colorado the autumn season is normally some time away, so that can’t be it. So why then, have the leaves begun to turn yellow and die?
It is the drought of course, as if I needed a reminder. The thermometer on the back of my house reads a hellish 97.7 degrees at 3:30 P.M on another cloudless summer day. The sun is unbearably intense at our mile high elevation, and I don’t think I could even bear to scan the humidity reading. It would be a great afternoon to be a lizard.
It’s difficult to do much of anything outside. Just ask my dogs, who can seem to do little else but pant away in the shade, or our rabbits, who have seemed to have gone to ground. Or ask my wife, who constantly reminds me that I am not putting enough water on her pampered peonies.
Early leaf fall is a sign of biological stress, and of that there can be no doubt. Cottonwoods need a lot of water, and of that there is none. They began to yellow and die in scattered patches some weeks ago, and by now they have used or are using up all of the remaining water in their canopies to survive these toughest of all times. It would appear that the leaves have done the best they could for the tree in this trying year, and they simply have nothing left to give.
I know a little about the magnitude of this drought from what I read in the news reports. I know that almost all of the counties in Colorado have been designated as agricultural disaster areas. I know that the chair from which I write this is sitting squarely in the 25% of the country or thereabouts that is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions. I know that this drought may be a once and a lifetime event for many of us, or so we can hope.
Still, I cannot seem to come to grips with the sight of falling leaves in early august. The calendar seems to be askew, as if I’ve misplaced a month or two. My mind races as it strips a gear, and I don’t know if I can put Humpty Dumpty back together again anytime soon. I am stressed, and I can feel that I am not alone. It’s everywhere, in everyone and everything, and all around.
Global warming, I don’t know? 2012, we shall see? Some folks postulate that it could be all part of a natural cycle, as if humans have been around long enough to offer an opinion. Or is it something…more?
I do know that my heart goes out to all the farmers and farm family’s affected by this terrible drought. I feel for the bears who will have such a desperate time finding food and fat to sustain them through the inevitable winter. I wonder how our once bountiful fruit trees will fare until next spring, and if many of the trees will just give it all up for good. I hope that our drinking well will survive the trials, and somehow replenish itself with non-existent waters. I have many wonders, and worries, as no doubt do you.
Most of all I wonder of the earth, and hope that our modern technological hubris has not damaged her elegant and life-sustaining systems beyond repair. I hope that in the end, she has not given up upon us all.
I am often struck by the power of photographs, and the way they can transport us in time and space, sometimes backwards to a place of fond memories, sometimes forward in anticipation of future adventures. I found such a picture tacked to the bulletin board of our local feed store, and I thought I would share it with you.
Exactly why it caught my attention so dramatically I do not know, but it stopped me in my tracks as I reached for the exit door. I stepped closer, and as I did it drew me deeper and deeper into that perfect recorded moment of experience. Perhaps it reminded me of a past hunt, with the excited chatter of friends or family nearby. Maybe you, like me, can imagine elk in the background and just out of view, hanging on the edge of the timber on their way to cover or feed. I can feel the crispness of the air there, and smell the smoke in the swirling winds. I can smell and taste the coffee too!
This wonderful image was captured by Mr. Frank M. Donofrio of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He calls it “Cowboy Medicine”, and he has been kind enough to let us reproduce it here. It is an unexpected comfort, and a gift for the eye of the restless soul.
Frank tells me that he snapped it a few years back, on a mid November elk hunt in the spectacular high country near Aspen. He says it was a cold, blustery day, and that in his hunter’s wanderings he happened to meet up with a woman in her later years and her middle-aged son. They told him that they had grown up nearby and were quite intimate with the country, having hunted it all of their lives. They were happy to share some of their hard won backcountry knowledge, and more.
The son offered to build a pot of coffee to help stave off the numbing chill, right there and right then. Frank gladly accepted. After all, the company was fine, and the view was pretty good too.
Apparently, the man liked coffee of the cowboy kind, brewed simple, black, and strong. The recipe is not complicated, but ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that it’s proper preparation is still a fine art, freely given, yet earned on a life of many trails.
Start with a healthy slug of water, freshly drawn from a sparkling mountain stream. Bring to a roaring boil over a fire of spruce and pine, and throw in a handful or three of coffee grounds as you back the hissing pot from the hottest part of the flames. Let it simmer down a bit, and then throw in a splash of water or two or maybe a fist-full of snow to cool it down. Take it from the fire and set it on the ground awhile to let the grounds settle, but not for too long.
It’s always best served piping hot, and there is something to be said for a dose of grounds in the mix. The old cowboys used to say that you could tell when it was right when you could stand up a spoon in it. It’s about texture too, and if you look real hard you can see them there, squinting past weathered brows while chewing on their coffee behind big handlebar mustaches. Or at least I would like to think so.
Now kick back and wrap your hands around a steaming mug of mountain medicine for warmth and moral support. Enjoy the ride. Savor the moment. It’s the doing of it that counts and where you are that matters.
That place be elk country, and there is no finer location on terra firma to drink a’ cup a’ Joe.
I wish to be somewhere just like this next fall, god willing, squatting behind a cowboy fire on a rugged ridge of the Rocky Mountains. There may even be some horses close by, nickering and pawing in the soft white powder.
We’ll keep an extra tin cup in the outfit, just for you. Hope to see you there!
*I have always heard references to the fact that the old-time ranch cooks would not think of forgetting to add a raw egg or some egg shells to a pot of their boiling brew. It turns out that this is true, as the egg or eggshell attracts sediment like a magnet and makes for a cleaner presentation.
Well, I have tried adding the eggshell, and it does work. For now I’ll withhold judgement as to whether this makes a difference in the taste, but it might. I haven’t tried the raw egg yet, but in the camps I generally inhabit a raw egg is a much too precious commodity to mix in my morning caffeine. But I don’t mind being wrong, and I shall try it sometime soon.
Of course if I do that will mean that I have shared another elk camp, and that would be more than fine.
I’ll be sure to let you know how it all works out.
I arrived home past midnight last night, to find a small herd of elk feeding in an open pasture to the west. My neighbor keeps his horses here, and I have an unobstructed view of it from our house on the hill. I spotted them as I walked over to our dog kennel on the fence line, and as I studied them I saw a big cow raise her head, just to let me know that she was watching me too.
I don’t suppose I will ever tire of seeing elk. They have a way of taking over the conversation, you might say, to make you pause in mid sentence when you spy one, to make you completely forget whatever you had been doing at the time, as if the world is a mere background created just for them. It has always been this way between the elk and I.
They looked particularly surreal this night, quietly feeding on a blanket of fresh, white powder, surrounded by the mystical light of a high, full moon. I am struck by the picture quality of it all, the sharp crispness of the image frozen in the cold night air. I can only smile. It is a perfect moment in time.
My dogs knew they were out there, of course, being that they were no more than 100 yards away with just some old wire to separate them. They had probably been watching them for some time, waiting for me to come home, whining nervously, and wishing they could run over and join up. The elk, for their part, paid us no mind, as they pawed in the snow. They had seen this show before and are not as impressed as us.
We see quite a few elk around our property when the snows grow formidable in the high country. It is one reason to look forward to winter. They especially like to feed at night in a large hayfield below us, and at first light they bunch up and head for the cover of rougher grounds and cedar trees on the properties and public lands to our North. To my everlasting delight, they like to cross one small corner of our property as they leave the hayfields, and if we are lucky, we get to watch. I often sit in an overstuffed chair behind our big picture window, waiting, hot coffee in hand, enveloped in the approaching day as the rest of the world wakes up.
We have seen herds of one hundred elk and more, although smaller groups are most common. One morning I sat transfixed as a herd of about fifty or so lined up to jump the fence at the edge of the field below our house, then crossed our field on a run and passed along our fence line next to the house. I counted seventeen bulls, some small, some large, surrounded by foggy breath when they stopped. I can see it in my mind’s eye, just now.
At times, a small herd will bed down for the night under our apple trees. Once I looked out to see several lying contentedly in the sun, with freshly laid snow still shimmering on their backs. I’ve seen them browsing in the remnants of our flower garden or standing next to our birdbath, and I wave and say hello. Welcome, I say, and good morning to you.
Last night, I reach my door and turn one last time to watch the elk and try to lock this image in my memory bank for all time. It is the quintessential Rocky Mountain postcard, a picture postcard for the soul, and I wish I could send it out to you, to all, with good tidings and cheer.