The dying spring bowed out this year in a sunset the likes of which I have never witnessed. At dusk, the simmering atmospheric energy erupted into rain squalls throughout the Shields River valley at the base of the Crazy Woman Mountains, though in the west the sky remained clear. As the rays of the setting sun angled through the rain, their light was refracted by a million raindrops, transforming the normally gray rain shadow into a glowing, amorphous mass that hovered in front of the snow-covered mountains like an undefined extraterrestrial presence. The light was at first white, but as the sun sank toward the horizon it mellowed to gold, and then a rich, rosy red. A few strands of sunlight that had somehow wormed their way through windows in the clouds streaked the prairie like living embers. Above, clouds piled in discreet horizontal layers below a sky startling in its clarity.
This morning -- the summer solstice -- dawned cold blue overhead, while shreds of cloud clung to the mountain peaks. As the sun climbed and strengthened, these clouds parted like a magician's prop to reveal four or five inches of new snow, as precise in its definition as last evening's sun squalls had been vague.
Moments of beauty such as these -- startling, abrupt, unanticipated -- exist only because of their fleeting nature: their beauty -- and, it can be argued, all beauty -- is a function of the ephemeral nature of the manifestation. If amorphous golden globs hovered over the prairies every day, they'd no longer be considered rare and beautiful. A post card view of a mountain lake may be pretty or scenic, but without context -- and a sense of loss -- the picture lacks soul, and can never achieve true beauty.
Tourists realize this: they attempt to add context to a view by inserting themselves into the landscape. But the end result is two disparate, unconnected images with no unity except space, like a rolling pin and a hairbrush sitting on a table. Connection to a landscape must be earned. And the only way to earn this connection is through loss, pain, and sorrow.
Our meadow supports a small, tenuous grove of aspen trees, maybe twenty in number, that somehow have been able to survive onslaughts from Busbee's cattle, over-wintering elk, high winds, and droughts. But a series of late frosts this spring appears to have sounded the death knell for these heroic souls. On each tree, perhaps a hundred leaves flutter like trapped birds in the drying wind. The aspens might live to next year if enough rain falls during this summer. If there are no more late frosts. If the elk stay out of the meadow. If the tent worms don't devour the remaining leaves.
And if not, the trees will die. For twelve summers I have been soothed by their leaves as they duet the wind, have plucked lupines grown in their shade, and leaned my back against their smooth, olive bark as I watched the alpenglow play off the bare rock of the mountain known as The Sleeping Giant. During every moment that I spent with those trees, I knew that they were doomed: there is a reason that this grove never flourished. Cold air sinks to the floor of a U shaped meadow: any given summer night could bring death by frost.
But death, because it is so closely entwined with beauty, will always come with hope. The northern lights will calm us with their graceful flow of color. Alpenglow will guild high peaks at sunrise and sunset. Snow will startle with its absolute whiteness. Geranium leaves will crimson with frost.
This is the day to celebrate summer, to celebrate life and hope and beauty -- and, yes, death. Because all thing of value on this earth are fleeting, and that is what ultimately gives beauty to life.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources