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People often ask us when we think we’ll run out of ideas for The Big Something. It’s a good question, and all things have beginnings, middles and ends. But without trying to sound cheeky, we truly believe there are an infinite number of ways to see things with new eyes every day without straining too hard. And so, theoretically at least, we would never run out of ideas. That’s one of the reasons why we chose local author Ann Zwinger’s book Beyond the Aspen Grove for our Book Club. It’s a textbook and a Bible for the art of noticing. As you’ll see if you read the book, the more she looks, the more she sees (though the place in space and time that she observes, Constant Friendship, is markedly finite).
The book has nudged me, personally, to keep noticing and learning from a particular place I’ve been walking with my mom since we moved to the West Side in 1986. It’s a loop of trails that starts at the end of Fillmore Street on an unmarked trailhead that leads you up the Niobrara Trail to the Ute and up around on Chambers trail past the old Valley Reservoir above Rock Ledge Ranch and back. My mom used to walk her dogs there and I would tag along sometimes. We walked it clockwise and it always took just about an hour, though time always fell away. Sometimes we’d see a rattlesnake, other times an owl or coyote. Mom showed me Mountain-mahogany and Scrub Oak, Sage, Rabbit Brush and wild garlic flowers. Having even a basic grasp of the names of the flora made me feel as though I were friends with the place and this was a tremendous gift.
As I got older, the walk became a sanctuary. I liked going on other hikes or walks to see something new, but it never felt quite like that loop and its well-worn familiarity, which forced me to actively look for differences in the flora as the seasons changed, or the the way the light or the clouds changed the way it looked and felt depending on the time of day. I went out at night and early in the morning, watched the magpies dart between the tops of cedars and noticed the flat spots where the deer had slept in the grass or the way the wind made waves in it. When I moved back here in 2001 I took my son there. He discovered nautilus fossils in the Niobrara formations and tossed dirt clods to lure the bats at dusk. We spent a whole evening watching a pair of Prairie Falcons in a stand of Cottonwoods. It has always been the same place, but always different.
But even after all these years, I realize as I read Ann Zwinger’s book, I still know very little about the loop I’ve walked hundreds of times. I don’t know anything but the most rudimentary facts about its geology or human history. I’ve spent very little time just sitting and looking, which is often when the most interesting things about a place are revealed. Over the next year I plan to keep looking and through a cycle of seasons. Presuming I don’t run out of things to see, I’ll write about some of what I learn here on The Big Something. I think I’ll call these entries “The Empty Reservoir Diaries.”
So this is my first entry—a slideshow of pictures I took yesterday. Maybe because the sky was so gray I found myself noticing little spots of brilliant color: shoals of dessicated orange Scrub Oak fists still clinging to their branches, electric lichens, brushstrokes of dry grass against purple clumps of Mountain-mahogany, the pineapple yellow base of a yucca. There’s always a reward on a walk when you’re paying attention and at the mid-point in the Cottonwood grove I saw the iridescent cobalt wing of a magpie that had probably been torn apart by a hawk.
After living a long way away from the nearest large park in Brooklyn last year, I can say with great conviction that we are incredibly lucky to have open spaces and parks like Garden of the Gods (though it may seem at times that you’ve seen them too many times to see them anymore) all around us and within our city.
We hope you’ll buy a copy of Ann Zwinger’s Beyond the Aspen Grove from your favorite independently owned bookstore and join us at Poor Richard’s Bookstore on February 18 at 6 p.m.
The song beneath the slideshow is “Midwinters Dream & Birth of the Bear” by the Scottish duo Nalle. You can listen to the whole song (over 11 minutes) and dowload it for free here:
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