Ornaments

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my husband and I made a dash to Moab, over an hour away, to pick up ingredients for my special needs daughter’s designer formula.  Moab has a health food store, Moonflower Market, which sells several of the ingredients we use in her special blend.  This tourist town also sports a large City Market that carries the varieties of yogurt we add to the mixture—higher-quality brands that our local grocery refuses to stock. (We asked; they said “No.”)

When we started home, day had rolled over. The town had glided into shadow that the sandstone cliffs of the Moab Rim west of town cast as early as 4:30 p.m. this time of year. But to the east, straight-on autumn light saturated the landscape.  Golden blush suggestive of ripe peaches deepened reds in any-day-gorgeous sandstones and yellowed up beiges in the Navajo formation. Above the sunlit mesas stood the La Sal Mountains, wearing long, dark beards of coniferous forest, their bald Alpine pates snow-capped.  A ceiling of black and silver storm clouds stretched away into western Colorado.

As we drove through Moab’s premature dusk, my eye shifted back and forth between these zones of light.  Below emblazoned sandstones, cars moved along blue-shadowed highway, the gleam gone off their metallic parts. Only headlights shone here and there. A few vehicles bore cut trees tied to their roofs, presumably procured from the La Sals during family trips into the mountains to find the perfect Christmas tree.  I’ll never again have a cut live tree in my home, but I don’t begrudge folks that still practice it this very old tradition.  We now put up two fiber optic trees. Actually, one stays up year round to amuse my special needs daughter, along with two strings of multicolored lights hung above her daybed.  But my mind holds snapshot memories of the lay of light on unadorned branches and shine tipping needles of pre-decorated evergreens we had in our home when I was a child.  I can see the glass ornaments hanging like red, blue, silver, green and golden toy apples from the tree’s branches.  Strings of lights wrapping the tree in a net of radiant color.  Lightfalls of silver tinsel sending currents of shimmer treetop to floor.  Oleoresinous perfume clouding the room for the few weeks the pine, spruce, or fir stood in the house.

Noticing those trees riding car-top shifted my seeing inward to a recent memory.  Back on November 14th a skiff of snow fell overnight here in southeastern Utah, laying down an inch-thick, shaggy white carpet.  On the morning of the 15th, I put on hiking boots and grabbed my pocket notebook, sunglasses, pen, hat, walking willow and canteen and strode through the snow to Crossfire Canyon.

The sky cleared. The temperature climbed quickly.  By the time I reached canyon bottom, water dripped from trees all around.  At a point where the trail crosses a spring, I turned about face toward the low-hanging winter sun.

Twenty feet away and further, sunlight accentuated snow melting in piñon pines and in Utah and Rocky Mountain junipers lining the trail. As warmth collapsed ice crystals, fat droplets swelled at the ends of needles and beaded up along branches’ bottom edges.  These droplets collected sunlight and with my eye’s cooperation digested it into brilliant colors, mostly topaz yellows and emerald greens with flecks of blue glitter flashing here and there.  On a branch nearer than most of these color-bearing trees, a growing red glint caught my eye.  I witnessed one water pendant form at the tip of a piñon pine’s two-prong needles, flare into a blaze of ruby fire then die down, though if I made the slightest movement the color roared back to life.

Prismatic gleams hung in many of the trees standing to the west side of the trail, but the rubies in that piñon refracted a color of sunshine red I don’t think I’ve ever seen.  It isn’t in coherent rainbows, which by nature run toward the grainy side, being the pointillist compositions of sunlight skidding through countless raindrops that they are.  That section of that one tree was set at the right corner of the angle between the sun and my eyes to produce only red gems.  I watched ruby after ruby plump, quiver, fall out of the light then pop against the ground in a range of tones and tempos.

And it came to me: Those bright blue, green, red, golden glass ornaments that I helped my mom hang—so thin-skinned that when they fell to the floor they shattered with a pop—the baubles I thought designed to accentuate Christmas lights and otherwise add festive notes to the tree—they betoken the rapture of sunlight and snowmelt playing out in living evergreen forests.  It’s a spectacle that the color-loving human eye admits with wild abandon to sensory-sussing depths of the human mind.

Which means that those ornaments are more than just bling for Christmas trees, clinquant to pleasure the human ear and eye.  They do more than symbolize gifts of the magi and invoke other aspects of Christian lore.  They’re all that, plus they invoke the story of the thousands-of-years-old nature-human relationship, especially that of the human abroad in a forest during a winter thaw.  In company with an evergreen tree or tree effigy, these hand-formed globes celebrate the release of water molecules from motionlessness and the rising of warm-season affluence from cold bones of ice.

I stood still, caught up in that daytime son et lumiere.  A Fremont cottonwood tree leaf fluttered down and settled with a noiseless noise (Keats) on my arm.  I took a moment to enjoy its near heart-shape and its mottled yellow-going-to-brown coloration.  I said, “I am not yet the ground,” but let the leaf lie there for as long as I held that position with hands resting atop hiking stick.  I felt my inclusion into the canyon deepen; I learned something of the necessity of my presence in its moment. Then, in a hard act of separation, I let my arms drop and the leaf continue its journey to the soil, put my back to the cosmic gem-smithing and went on my way, thinking, “We should get more glass ornaments for our Christmas trees.”

“And so we shall,” I thought as I emerged from memory onto blue highway outside of Moab.  Yes indeed, we must.

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