I had bragged to a famous photographer that in my high valley there were three or four days - and you had to know the valley to see them coming - when the color rivaled New England. He gave me his card, believing, and said, ``Please call me. I'm extremely busy. But I'll stop everything and come out.'' I had admired his color photographs for years, though I had never been able to afford one, tastefully framed in native aspen or oil-rubbed cedar. He knew little about me, except for five minutes after a gathering one Sunday when we were introduced.
The time approached and I was watching for him. Would I get it right? Would the trees be perfect for him? He had looked in my eyes and said, ``Call.'' I knew I would see it when I saw it.
I had bragged so knowledgeably about this valley, snug up against the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos, which burn pale in breathless sunsets, red to pink, with gold-green light of pinons lit like evening candles beneath. Then when the sudden nights of invigorating arctic air come to the Rockies and bite stands of aspen and cottonwood, the heat of the last cricket-jumping, sunflower-glory afternoons is gone. This heat and cold of colormaking lasts only hours; then wind spins the dirt roads and it's leaves and branches on my roof, bringing in a winter so beautiful one rarely notices the cold. I watched the trees along the river I live on, flecked gold and red, but they are always early over that water that flows out of the glacier on Mt. Blanca. I tramped the valley above me and below; it still seemed to be resisting.
On a Saturday walk up the pass it was still glory of late summer, with morning heat evaporating light frost on the wild mint and the late-blooming purple sage. A rich fragrance, though the aspen leaves were a paler shade of green. Beautiful. But not what I promised to deliver.
If only I hadn't put in my phone, first in three years living here, last June, I could have told the photographer to call my neighbor. How was I going to get it right? How many times had I bragged to relatives in Maine (when you can brag to Maine about what's outside your window, you've got a corner of the world) that I could see 200 yards across fields to the gate, and thereafter two miles of uninhabited meadows to the foothills of the distant giants the conquistadors named.
IN the big meadow is a tree, fed by a nearby spring, a huge-limbed cottonwood, in leaf the shape of a transatlantic balloon. I have never put words to it, but I have watched it for seasons and I would say it was the leader, a Robin Hood tree, of all the trees of this stand of middle altitude (9,000 feet). By itself, it's worth photographing for its magnificence. I would choose it for Solomon's metaphor: ``As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved.'' I knew I could deliver what I love. The photographer would see it. I'll probably get the other trees in the valley right by that one.
On the morning of clear skies when the great cottonwood was so light-filled and uplifted by glory I thought it might lift off the earth, I made the call. To my shock the photographer could not make it for 24 hours. I fretted that night, the clear cold of shooting-star skies, as temperature dropped into deep frost. But in the morning the golds and reds were intact, burned a shade of passion deeper. I was alarmed as morning clouded up and a wind began, aspen leaves clicking their ominous teletype of a storm.
In the swirl of a minor whirlwind on the road, the photographer arrived, and with him only half-blue skies over the Rockies. It was cold. But a warm-colored, heroic moment was gathered. The photographer was able to contrast the picturesque old wood of an abandoned cabin on the river with the light brown grasses mixed with hearty wildflowers and sun-warmed stones on the river. He caught a blue and darkening sky above a floodlit curtain of a stand of high color, these trees in their last moments after giving the cycle of bud-to-leaf, then shade, then sweet murmurings and healing green to the eyes, and now trees as beautiful as older people. As we had tea back at my cottage, the storm swept down.
Now as I look at the branches of the snow-covered cottonwood in the meadow, solemn, resigned, a second image of it warms the white of my adobe walls. Framed, my favorite tree on the appointed day, so close to that last storm, has arrived as a gift. I delivered what I loved. And yet it has come back to me, warm beyond the hot glow of pinon in the stove near my desk.