I have written about this tree, in an essay about a near-fatal accident and the year-long recovery period that followed. The essay, "Beautiful River, Arms of God," the first I had ever written, was published a few years ago in Camas, a literary journal put out by the University of Montana. The essay uses the ephemeral streams of the desert, with which I grew up, as metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life itself. I don't know if the excerpt makes sense out of context, but here it is anyway:
"I think that life must be like an ephemeral stream. And so I wait for the dream to pass and the waters to return. Sometimes these days I have a flashback that goes like this: I suddenly see the car turn sideways to the highway. I see my arm go up to protect my face as the car starts to tip and roll. I see the ground rising to meet the window. And in that instant a wave of peace washes over me. By way of explanation, I can only say that in that moment I see the ground rising up, I am reminded of beauty.
Recently, only weeks after the accident, I saw a tree in my neighborhood with such a dazzle of autumn leaves I felt stunned, unable to breathe. The leaves were at their peak and just starting to deck the streets with slips of amber and lemon yellow. It occurred to me that the tree probably looked that poignantly perfect exactly one day each year and that, if I was lucky, I had seen (perhaps) that one perfect day twice out of the last ten years. If I project seeing that tree in that state twice each decade, and if I assume, now that I have cheated Death, that I will live another four decades before I die, I might see such perfection exactly eight more times. It now seems to me that a total of eleven days of perfection out of a lifetime of trees is simply not enough, and therefore I must make a concentrated effort to increase my autumn tree perfection productivity.
That I am here at all to see the tree seems to me a notion that fairly shatters the air around me."
"This is the day. There is no other. It turns out that the meaning of life is a terrible knowledge that sharpens the line of the tree and the bite of the wind. It deepens the sky and brings the moon closer. It shows, with brilliant clarity, the perfect line to take around the turn in the stream. It turns out, finally, that it is life itself that cradles us with grace and delivers us into peace."
The tree is probably still a couple of days from its peak, but we had our first freeze last night and I'm going out of town for the weekend to meet up with my sisters and check on the old folks. I thought I'd better get out there and take a picture in case I missed it.
On my travels today, I will pass by the site of the accident and, as always, I'll give a short prayer of thanks to that terrible day for what it taught me about beauty and life in the moment.