Earth & Sky

EA-i take to the sky, wings spread in their full glory, lifting me above the treeline with ease. I flit above the jagged tops of Ponderosa pine and Aspen, careful to avoid snagging myself in the dense branches. They stand at attention, row upon row of green-jacketed soldiers, marching up the slope to the crest of a long-dead volcano.

It is a glorious morning, still cool and breezy. I should’ve worn a jacket, but it’s too late for that now, as I’m airborne and I don’t feel like heading back to our campsite. We’re spending a weekend in the Coconino National Forest, which means a cramped tent but open sky. I am queen of an enormous vista, above the hawks that drift lazily, above the red clay roads that snake along the terrain, above even the occasional tuft of cloud with its tender sprays of mist and chill.

I can forget, all the way up here, everything that keeps me grounded and leaden most of the time. I can forget that I am 50 and my blood pressure is higher than the treetops, and my weight shouldn’t be letting me off the ground so easily. A fat woman flying is not a pretty sight, but, like the missing jacket, there is nothing to be done about it at the moment.

My wings catch a thermal and I spiral upward, doing precious little work. It’s all air currents now. I remembered my glasses, at least, so the wind isn’t forcing me to squint. I’m above a bare stretch of pasture burned raw 20 years ago in a wildfire that left tree trunks scorched in ragged patterns across the landscape. Thousands of burned trees lay where they died, like toothpicks dropped from a height and scattered at crazy angles, waiting for the slow onslaught of erosion and rot to do its work.

A friend pointed out that the Ponderosas with golden trunks are the oldest ones. I spot more than a few that stood over this landscape before the Declaration of Independence was signed, when the Apache still made these mountains their summer home.

Up in the air, just below the clouds, the sooty scars remain on the tree trunks, both the felled ones and those still standing. There isn’t much that separates the two — the dead and the living. Some were more in the path of the fire than others, or were better able to withstand the hellish heat. There is no straight line that marks where the fire devoured or merely singed; it’s all mixed together, just as with people.

There is no real reason why some are born to fly and others remain prisoners of gravity. We are the product of our genes, but also of our dreams, and what we let ourselves dare to do. Right now, this second, as you read this, I am above the forest, spreading wings of a hundred shades of brown and amber. And beneath me, mixed together, are the greens and blacks of the living and the dead, but mostly, it seems, we are some of both.

There is always a part of us that remains rooted in the spot where we plant ourselves. We can reach for the sky, we can be majestic and proud and withstand whatever blast from hell rips through us, but we are still roots and limbs and twiggy hopes that bend and snap. We try to rise above, but then it’s still morning and a bit chilly, and I’ve forgotten my jacket, which I’m feeling very sorry about as I shiver and hug my arms to my chest.

Below me, my husband waves and calls out. He’s cooking eggs. I have warm tea waiting — water doesn’t get terribly hot at this altitude, only the fires do. I circle around, looking for another dead patch where I can safely land.

In time, all things return to the Earth.

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