Summer and Smoke: Forty Seasons of Rough Beauty

Summer and Smoke: Forty Seasons of Rough Beauty
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After a tough childhood, award-winning poet Karen Auvinen moved to the Colorado mountains, “living wild” in the Rockies. In her new book, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, the award-winning poet and University of Colorado Boulder instructor meditates on the meaning of solitude and connection, and what remains after a fire consumes every word she has ever written and almost all of her possessions. In this excerpt, Auvinen moves to a primitive cabin, where she embraces all of the beauty and brutality that nature has to offer.


Summer warmed suddenly, as it often did. One day was spring with lilacs and forsythia popping out along the apron of mountains that led to the plains, and the next, the temperature blasted into the eighties. Up on Overland Mountain, after weeks of ululating highs, the days quite suddenly shifted to a perfect seventy-eight degrees, wildflowers exploding in the meadow behind the cabin and around the peeper pond. As people in Boulder sweltered in near-ninety-degree heat almost three thousand feet down-canyon, I stalked the meadows with Elvis in temperate air, collecting flowers for my notebook: the soft fuzzy heads of pussytoes, which looked exactly like delicate cat paws; the lemony, pod-like flowers of golden banner; or the faded purple of lupine.

Beneath each variety, flattened and taped to the page, I wrote its name and the date in an honest attempt to get to know my neighbors.

When I’d first moved to the Bar-K cabin, staking my claim on landscape was the equivalent of stubbornly planting a flag and proclaiming territory. It was an act of conquest: I would seize the wild. I’d gotten exactly what I’d asked for: the unharnessed life I’d sought shoved its way into view the day my house burned down. I didn’t know then the strength of my own desire.

I’ve never been someone who takes the easy road. Something in my body gravitates toward rocks and sharp edges, toward storms and umbrage. The summer I spent living in the tent in James Canyon after I’d changed my name, I decided what I needed was a few nights alone on a mountaintop contemplating my soul. I would fast and sleep out in the open. So I set off with a rain tarp and some water, and climbed straight out of the gulch to the top of Castle Peak, pulling myself hand over foot up its steep face, trying not to look down or think of falling. It was August hot, and by the time I reached the summit, I had drunk most of my water. That evening, a thunderstorm rolled in. As I watched lightning flick and stab, moving closer and closer, I realized I was sitting on the highest point in any direction. Unwilling to give up, I lay flat on the ground and sang to the storm.

The next day, out of water, I returned early along a path I’d discovered on the back side of the mountain that meandered sweetly into the gulch.

I’d softened a bit over the years; now I wanted kinship not conquest. At the High Lake cabin, I wanted to become part of the pattern, the passage of seasons. So I wrote it all down: the first pasque to the final purple aster that bookended the growing season; the weasel who lived beneath the house and turned snow white in winter; the chipmunk who led her pups to drink rainwater from a basin carved out of a rock just east of the garden; the two pine siskins I drove to the wildlife rehabilitation center after I found them sluggish beneath the bird feeder. Over time, I’d fill notebooks with what I saw, and in those details grew the story I shared with Overland Mountain.

Don’t try to write the poem about love, I often tell my students. Write the poem about making apple galette for your lover. Or about your grandfather’s hands as he ties flies. Let love rise out of the details. So I collected plants and weather, wildlife and birds, and in between the spaces of my notebook, love rose like a fish to the surface, like clouds of pine dust in air.

Author Karen Auvinen and Elvis.
Author Karen Auvinen and Elvis.
Rowan Turner

The garden Judith and I planted was beginning to take root. Lady’s mantle fanned out along the fattest edge of the bed, presenting wide, palm-size leaves, and the oregano flourished, sending up deep blue-green tendrils. Nearby, purple-tinged veronica had begun its long, slow bloom, like a Polaroid coming into focus.

Judith was right: What the garden lacked in flamboyant color, it made up for in charm and magic. The lady’s mantle collected droplets of moisture like shimmering translucent stones after a good rain, and the light splashed across plant stems and leaves was ever-changing, filtered through the two large aspens just off the deck. I placed a pine stump that curled onto itself like a heart upright near the rock outcropping that divided the yard from the driveway just at the thinnest part of the garden’s S shape, where a trio of smaller aspens met. On top of the stump was a flat palm-size geode whose “window” was clouded over, another fire remnant. A reminder of how I got here. A testament to the unknown and unknowable forces of nature.

Nearby, a steer skull lay among finger sage and white yarrow, natural volunteers that grew along the curve of its horns. I had learned to let nature make its offerings. So kinnikinnick and a bit of lichen-covered stone infiltrated the shallow rock-filled soil near the stump, and marigold-orange wallflowers sprouted along the edges.

On the solstice, Elvis and I encountered a curious coyote, who stepped absentmindedly between two junipers toward us as I sat in the late afternoon of the longest day near an overlook just past the peeper pond. I had discovered a roughened stone spiral in a grouping of rocks and gathered more to fill in its gaps—my own personal semaphore—to welcome summer, whose official arrival, I mused, marked the now dwindling days. The spiral contained the mystery of that contradiction—a beginning that presaged an end, the ever-changing flux of seasons—but it also recalled my hard and soft edges, the unraveling I had begun to feel. Not the unraveling of the fire, the way I’d been shorn of everything but grief, but the unraveling of fists held tight for too long, of borders becoming porous, my body slackened, opening to pleasure. I was staring at the spiral’s arms radiating out and radiating in when the coyote came into view.

The animal’s mottled gray and russet fur blew in scruffy patches along her neck; long legs dangled loosely from her body. Her eyes were gold. Gently, I put out my hand to hold my dog’s harness. Elvis’ ears moved forward and his tail made a friendly swish in the dirt, but he didn’t so much as growl. “It’s okay,” I breathed. Even he sensed the extraordinary nature of what was happening. Fifteen feet away, the coyote took four automatic steps toward us before she saw us. Clearly, she’d come this way before. As fluidly as she’d appeared, she disappeared, turning with neither alarm nor hubbub, angling back over the small rise.
Just another animal in the landscape.

To friends off the mountain, I was in peril. I lived outside a presumed net of safety—one knit together by proximity to society—people, hospitals, law enforcement—things it was implied that as a woman, I required.

“I don’t know where you get this,” my citified grandmother said when I recounted a bear story or when I lit out for territory with Elvis, as if I’d developed a sudden appetite for eating animal carcasses and wearing pelts. This from the woman whose husband had herded sheep in Utah by himself when he was fourteen. It was in my blood.

I would take my chances with nature any day. There was an open-door policy on the mountain, and like a lot of people, I left my door unlocked whether I was home or not. Joey kept the key to the Merc above the front door, a habit that occasionally resulted in folks helping themselves to coffee or cigarettes. Karen Z stored the keys to her pickup in the ignition of her unlocked vehicle. I liked living in a place where it wasn’t necessary to bolt the door, where I didn’t feel a dangerous someone was outside trying to get in.

Naïvely, I’d carried this attitude with me when I left Jamestown the first time for Milwaukee, a city where doors were necessarily secured and chained. The second week I was there, someone swiped my Gore-Tex shell through the open slider window of my locked truck. And in my most embarrassing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm moment, I witnessed a robbery without comprehending what was happening. A man exited my neighbor’s house carrying a blue plastic storage bin and disappeared into the alley.

He’s doing something he shouldn’t, I thought absentmindedly, stirring soup on the stove. Twenty minutes passed before it occurred to me to call the police, and then I had to explain, red-faced, to the responding officers why it had taken me so long to report the crime.

I was golden in nature, a rube in the city.

Even if I was living in some remote wilderness—and I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination—I was safe, from the ancient root sol, meaning whole. And I found my wholeness in solitude and space. “Everything in nature,” says the writer Gretel Ehrlich, “invites us constantly to be what we are.” Not who but what. On the most basic level, I was landscape too. Even though my intention in moving to the mountains may have been rooted in escape, the natural world coaxed me back into myself. It wasn’t unlike what Hindu mystics tell us happens to the self over time with meditation practice. You learn to let everything drop away. Ehrlich says it this way: “We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.” We are all that and none of it at all.

A week after the solstice, Elvis and I hiked east past the peeper pond, down a narrow draw that stopped near a spring. Just before the small mud-lined pool, he took an abrupt right turn, climbing an embankment under a downed lodgepole—another path. We must have passed it dozens of times on our way to Overland Mountain, not ten minutes from where I now stood. Curious, I followed my dog through the narrow opening to a small glade. Hundreds of Colorado blue columbine dotted the sides of the thin trail overgrown with rare ferns and wild carrot. Light splashed through tree limbs framing luminous white-faced blossoms strange as orchids.

I felt as if I had stepped into a cool stone church on a hot afternoon. There was a peculiar quiet to the place. Not the quiet of absence, but the quiet of presence, the quiet of magic. The sound of birds chattering fell away and a hush descended like a large cotton cloth falling from a window. Starched white heads fanned with blue were everywhere. I found a spot near the center and sat down, entranced by the place whose sentience was palpable. A remnant of the wild earth.

A slight early-summer breeze made the aspens clack and rearranged the lacy heads of hemlock in a kind of sinuous dance. Elvis settled into my lap, sitting upright between my crossed legs. He leaned his back into me, giving me his weight, the same way he’d done when I met him for the first time at the animal shelter.

With Elvis, an animal who’d fused himself to me the way I was told wolves do, I moved more instinctually, alert to the things that drew his attention. It was as if the tether I’d used to train him to stay with me had become an extended invisible cord: He was my sixth sense. At first I was simply more aware of whatever could get him killed—ledges, wildlife, hunters with guns—but that awareness deepened to take in texture and sound and smell, the nuances of terrain. With him, I became more present. And now, as it so often had, the feeling of his body next to me anchored me to the physical world, filling me with a calm I seldom felt. My mind wanted too much to go tumbling down the hill, getting ahead of the day and whatever was just beyond the tip of my nose, but the still-wild husky gathered it back. Elvis had long been my eyes, my ears, but now I realized he was also my guru, my guide: His presence reminded me to play now, sleep now, explore now, be now.

The fairy forest, with its “dappled things,” its “landscape plotted and pieced,” would become a kind of secret garden. A place I felt was all my own. We all need ground for stillness. But I wanted beauty too—to gather it in my fists and drag its skirts across the landscape of my days.

Excerpted from Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, by Karen Auvinen. Copyright © 2018 by Karen Auvinen. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Karen Auvinen will speak about and sign Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 10, at the Aspen Grove Tattered Cover, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Find out more about Karen Auvinen here.

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