Roots in the Red Earth

When I was 17 and impatient for my life to begin, I dropped out of college and ran away. To Aspen.

Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.
Red cliffs near Maroon Lake, above Aspen.

My freshman semester at CU in Boulder had been rough. I couldn’t understand what Beowulf, Grendel, and his monstrous mother had to do with my life. I was desperately lonely. At Christmas, mourning the loss of a boyfriend, who dumped me, and parents who wouldn’t let me move back home, I bought a bus ticket and ran away.

I wanted to run far, far away. I craved a place that was exciting, exotic — safe, and familiar.

So, Aspen it was. In those days before cell phones, RFTA and the internet, it was indeed, far, far away.

But I knew this valley. I had gone to Outward Bound in Marble. I came here to ski, hike and climb. On family trips across the continental divide, I would gaze out the window, and as the gray eastern rock gave way to the red strata of the western slope, I began to unwind. It started around Vail, where the soil changes color and the aspens begin to crowd out the pines. By the time I got to Glenwood Springs, I felt at home.

When I ran away, I was, to paraphrase John Denver, “coming home to a place I never lived before.”

Below Snowmass Village, Colorado, fall of 2010. All photos by Nicolette Toussaint.

It was a wonderful winter. I lived in Snowmass Village with a tribe of other young ski bums, and in the spring, when our jobs melted away along with the snow, I hated to leave. A nice older gentleman – he was probably about 30 – gave me a ride to the bus station in Aspen so that I wouldn’t have to hitchhike. I sat there looking at the red hills with tears streaming down my face.

“You’ll be back,” he said. “You will be back.”

I didn’t believe him.

Author skiing at Snowmass, fall of 2012.

I had worked three jobs here, and I found out what it was like to wait tables and clean up other people’s bathrooms. I had learned that Grendel’s mother was, in fact, a famous red-haired actress who owned a condo in Snowmass Village. We hotel maids would draw straws to see who had to face that particular monster.

I wanted better, and to find it, I knew had to go back to school. And forward into the unknown.

My prospects were not bright. When I looked in the paper, all of the jobs I wanted were listed under “Help Wanted Male.” Help Wanted Female held jobs for secretaries and teachers, and didn’t offer much in the way of making money: I was too short to be a stewardess, too shy to be a Playboy bunny.

So I uprooted myself, got on with my life, and forgot that nice man’s prophecy.

Fast forward forty years, give or take a few.

Author’s xeriscape garden, summer of 2013.

I have just come home, and I am rooting in the red soil of my garden. It’s a xeriscape, filled with scent and color: columbines, lupines, salvia, sage, silvermounds, roses and rock cress. I do this every evening during the summer, taking time to unwind when I come home from my job.

I work as an online writer and website designer – work I could not have imagined 40 years ago, when I left Snowmass with the tears running down my face.

That nice man’s prophecy has come true. After many years, and losses far greater than those I knew at 17, I did come back.

Bee on a bachelor's button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden -- I think. (It's hard to count bees and I'm no expert.)
Bee on a bachelor’s button. The garden is filled with native plants, in part an effort to combat monoculture and provide food for these cultivators. I have counted four kinds of bees in the garden — I think. (It’s hard to count bees and I’m no expert.)

Between here and there, there was so much I could not have imagined at the 17: Kent State. The war in Vietnam. The falling of the Berlin wall. Divorce. Friends lost to AIDS, The suicide of Mason’s daughter. September 11th. The first black man in the white house. Columbine.  The death of my favorite cat. The melting of the glaciers. The drowning of island nations. Nine billion people on our beloved planet.

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

As I bend down to dig up a volunteer, and replant it in a better spot, the roots that sink down into this red, red soil are not just green ones; they are my own roots.

I’m not the first to live here, of course. Urban gardeners everywhere get the chance to become archeologists. My first garden in San Francisco yielded broken rice bowls, blue and white china shards. In my second, I found pesos and Saint Joseph, buried upside down. Here, I dig up rusted horseshoes and bits of barbed wire.

The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.
The stone commemorating Snowy the Mammoth, found near Ziegler Reservoir in Snowmass.

But the soil tells far older tales too. When we dug out the lawn, we found hard clay, and under that, river rocks. Hundreds of them! They come in a wildly improbable palette: red, green, white, gold, gray. Those rounded stones tell of the passing of glaciers, of rivers and peaks washed down over the eons to create the wide sunny spot we call Carbondale.

We filled the xeriscape with soil that our gardener Shara called “dino dirt”. It’s peat that came from a pit near the Ziegler reservoir in Snowmass Village – near the spot where Snowy the Mammoth and 26 other extinct animals were found. Our garden soil is filled with creatures that, in the words of Mary Oliver, were “wild and perfect for a moment” and are “now nothing – forever”.

Because this soil is full of the organic matter that our yard lacks, it makes plants reach for the sky with mad green abandon.

The othniella stone.
The othniella stone.

Along the garden’s spiraling path, I have placed river rocks that pay homage to those who have lived here over time. On the stones, I have painted pictographs of animals and references to when they lived: 225 million years ago, an othnielia, something like a velociraptor, walked by here. 200 million years ago, a plesiosaur swam by in an inland sea.

I wanted my stones to be spaced out to indicate the time between prehistoric eras. But I soon learned that I couldn’t come close to scaling that vast passage of time. I would have needed to place the ammonite out along I-70 near Grand Junction! The first fish would need to be located out near Yellowcat, Utah!

The mountain goat stone.
The mountain goat stone.

As it is, the terminator pig – a favorite of the neighborhood kids who come to visit my rocks – is much too close to the critters that lived in Snowmass. Terminator pig lived 35 million years ago, and he’s just a couple feet from the ice-age camel from 100,000 years ago. Snowy the Mammoth is only a foot from Smiley, the sabre tooth tiger, who was in our neighborhood 15,000 years ago.

Of course, the creature that — in a geologic twinkling of an eye — has so altered the earth, the climate, and the futures of all earthlings, is where he has always imagined himself to be — at the center of everything!  Here he is, the featherless biped, along with his domesticated dog. They crossed the Siberian land bridge together about 10,000 years ago. And here’s his friend the horse, re-introduced by the Conquistadors just 500 years ago.

The large oval stone at the center of the spiral is painted with a human figure that resembles petrogylphs in the Grand Canyon. It also bears a quote from a great native American, Chief Seattle. It reads:


The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.

Although this garden is my getaway, I understand that there is no escaping our interconnectedness. It was the biologist Barry Commoner who first made the statement, “There is no away.” One of his four laws of ecology states that “Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things made by humans can be thrown.”

I know that our garbage dumps are just product graves, and if our kind is not terminated like the terminator pig, perhaps in time, some archeologist will be digging up I-Phones along with our thigh bones.

About a month ago, Mark Kloster and I joined Barbara Palmer to plan TRUU’s summer services. As we sat on Barbara’s deck, alongside the Colorado River, the air filled with tiny wheeling insects. Their wings glittered as the sun sank in the western sky. They were mayflies, insects that live for just one day. There was something poignant in seeing that flash of life against cliffs 5 million years in the making.

In the grand evolutionary scheme of things, I am like the mayflies, as are we all.

In time, my own bones will be part of this red earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Seed to stem. Bud to blossom. That’s the way my body will be reincarnated. In the meantime, I walk a sacred spiral path, cherishing my humble and silky life and seeking an angle of repose.

Spirit of Life, Let me heal and not hinder. Help me to accept my place in this fragile and miraculous web of life.

May it be so.


This post was originally a sermon delivered to the Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carbondale, Colorado, on July 7, 2013.
Peonies  By Mary Oliver
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
   to break my heart
     as the sun rises,
        as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and they open–
   pools of lace,
      white and pink–
       and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
    into the curls,
      craving the sweet sap,
        taking it away

to their dark, underground cities–
   and all day
      under the shifty wind,
       as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
   and tip their fragrance to the air,
     and rise,
       their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
    gladly and lightly,
      and there it is again–
        beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
    Do you love this world?
      Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
       Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
      and exclaiming of their dearness,
       fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
    their eagerness
      to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
        nothing, forever?


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