In late September in northern Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains in the traditional and ancestral lands of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute Nations and peoples, the waist-high grasses turn golden and dry into muted shades of red, copper, violet, and blue. The wind comes more often from the north as each day holds more darkness. And as the wheel of the year turns, so do the grasses’ voices in the breeze: the soft pffhhh of June shifting to the louder shhhh of August, shifting now toward the dry ckkkk of October.
It’s been over three years since I have strayed more than 15 miles from my home here in Larimer County. What began out of the government-enforced and temporary order to suspend travel due to the COVID-19 global health emergency has since emerged as a self-directed and lasting ethical imperative that’s altered my vision. Once I used to think I needed to see the land—bright fall leaves, winter snow—to know when I was in time. Now, I understand that relying only on my sight leaves me balancing on one foot. Now, I say, Blindfold me and let me listen.
I know that we have passed the Winter Solstice because the kestrels appear at the base of the foothills. They greet me each morning on a particular stretch of telephone line above an open field with their klee-klee-klee, swiveling their white, black, and rust-colored heads. I know we are deep in January because all along the creek, the red-winged blackbirds are calling, conk-la-ree, conk-la-ree, a welcome racket after their months of silence. A few weeks later, the northern flickers begin. Their wik-wik-wik-wik sweeps over the blackbirds, a duet that builds around the Spring Equinox, when the flickers pair their wik-wik with drumming on the cottonwood trees, whose buds shine with moisture that can brim into a drop in the cool morning air.
Later, running on crisp April days along the western edge of town, along the seam of foothills meeting the plains, I skid to a stop. I cannot stop smiling because swee-swee-swee-swee-dil-ooo—the western meadowlarks have returned. Each male flashes their bright yellow front, with their black “V” bib on the breast, as they bob on fenceposts and sing, revealing white tail feathers when they turn and fly nestward among the shrubs. Last year, a beloved trail took me near a meadowlark nest, built on the ground. The eggs finally opened, the parents swooped, the fledglings began to fly, and the nest yellowed in the summer sun and scattered in the fall winds. And the wheel of the year goes around again.
I’ve also learned to know when I am through scent. These last three years have opened me from just noticing the brightest flowers to the particular scents of each stage of the turn of the seasons.
Come summer, I cannot move along certain trails higher in the foothills without near-constant goosebumps from the rich, heady scent of the ponderosa pines in full release. When my partner and I first moved here eight years ago, we called them the vanilla trees, but now I think of them more as vanilla and patchouli, or butterscotch and sandalwood, mixed with apricot and coffee. Sometimes, when I return from these runs, my partner knows I was mingling with the pines from the scent of my clothes. A scent somewhere between clarinet and bassoon.
I have loved traveling. Some of my most beloved memories are from my few trips overseas—the cold waves on the shore of northern Denmark, the rose light of summer evenings in the Netherlands. I might cross the oceans again, but I know our world is on fire because of choices like that. Three summers ago, the evacuation line for the record-setting Cameron Peak Fire came less than ten miles from our front door. Ash fell from the sky, and lunchtime was as dark as midnight. How can I get on a plane and burn more carbon in one day than I would otherwise in months? How can I justify using our gas-powered car for more than essential shopping?
Besides, each season in this small circle of space that I have not left for 40 months now is its own kind of traveling. I remind myself that, after all, generations of my ancestors lived and died within Appalachian spaces smaller than this Colorado county. Each week, I walk a two-mile loop around a nearby lake. Before 2020, visiting perhaps once a month, I noticed only the largest changes: new leaves on the cottonwood trees, pelicans on the water in summer, the lake freezing over. Now, each week brings a parade of differences. One week in June: the first orange flowers, the first signaling by the new prairie dog pups, the first time orioles join the dawn chorus, the first time the sun reaches the trail before 6 a.m.
Here, among these shrubs, trees, and grasses, among these birds, animals, insects, and yes, other humans, feels more home to me than, perhaps, anywhere else I have lived. Still, I wonder, sometimes, how long I can stay here, as housing prices along Colorado’s Front Range soar; as the town simultaneously grows and becomes even whiter; as it is a rare two weeks when a driver doesn’t shout, race their engine, or more, as I run these county roads. Each year, multiple friends leave for other states.
Nothing lasts—and everything lasts, just in different bodies. The prickly pear cactus flowers bloom in early summer, a lemon-lime that deepens to buttery gold as the season progresses. After three years of waiting for them, of kneeling beside them and marveling, this is the first year I have witnessed rose-colored blooms alongside the yellow. I still have so much to learn.
Summer now, again, begins to tilt toward fall, with a cool morning, a day of northwest wind, the sky a deep sapphire blue, and the thistles crisping from raspberry pompoms into golden-brown discs falling across the trail, into my hands, into our classroom: a scarecrow’s corsage, a student once said. A faerie’s pillow, another student marveled. Settling deeper into place is an invitation to listen, come closer, be with. So, yes. Let’s begin another turn around the wheel of the year here, marvelous here, again.