I have been following online the news about the High Park wildfire. It is the third largest fire in recent Colorado history after the tragic Hayman fire started by a forest service employee in 2002 and the Missionary Ridge fire that same year near Durango.
I wasn’t paying too much attention to it at first. Friends from Fort Collins were posting about it on Facebook. Then on the evening of June 10 I looked at my newsfeed. One friend said he had been evacuated from his apartment near Horsetooth Reservoir. At the same time, my sister from Indiana posted something to my wall that the fire looked like it was near Rist Canyon. It’s not in Rist Canyon, I thought to myself. My friend was evacuated from Horsetooth. They’re nowhere near each other. But before I responded to her post I decided I better do some checking. Later, I thought.
I lived in Rist Canyon from 1992 to ‘94 on Saddle Ridge Road. Saddle Ridge Road was near the top of the defensive and inhospitable Whale Rock Road. The first steep ascent was called by everyone “Slide for Life.” This was the winter gatekeeper—if four-wheel drive and chains couldn’t get us up this first climb, it was a three-mile hike to get to our cold, dark home. Other gnarly narrow turns had names too and our favorite was “Gremlin Gulch” for one hairpin turn that was wholly nasty when paved in ice. The mountain didn’t particularly want anyone there. So the people who lived there tended to like arguing with mountains.
This boyfriend I was with at the time had designed a modular geodesic dome. Through a friend of his he had secured the lease of land on Saddle Ridge Road. A buddy of his and he put the dome together onsite in the spring of ‘92. It rained on them every day for two weeks as they struggled to cobble the components of the dome together in the foothills of the state known for 300+ days of sunshine a year.
There was an overwhelming degree of challenge, difficulty and unpleasantness about living up three miles of Jeep trail in a dome heated by a kerosene stove. But nevertheless as miserable as the experience was, I have indelible memories of long hikes on sunny days and the simple sensory delights of wandering into the tart sweetness of wild raspberries, the cool shaded stashes of medicinal herbs, heady views from high vantage points, and a teeth-chattering pool under a small waterfall in a snowmelt fed creek at the bottom of a low ravine.
One summer I took an apprenticeship with an herbalist higher up the canyon. I learned to identify, harvest and prepare the medicinal herbs of Stratton Park, CO, elevation 7200 feet. I would apply my new-found knowledge everywhere I hiked, wildcrafting and either preparing or storing the herbs I collected.
Eventually the unhappiness outweighed the beauty and I broke up with the boyfriend and packed up my herbs and moved back into town. I drifted from rental to rental and eventually my herbs and I ended up in a condo in Denver.
This spring I signed up for a six-week alchemy course. A week or two before the class started, the instructor, a friend of mine, asked if I had decided what herb I wanted to use in my magical tincture. I hadn’t thought about it.
But by the time the first class rolled around on June 3, I had decided that my 20-year old vagabond herbs were probably still fine to work with. The homework assigned on June 3 was to meditate on our herb of choice. As I looked through my herb cabinet that week finalizing my selection, I let all the memories of that time of my life wash over me. I opened the jars, smelled the pungent aromas, remembered the excitement of chance discovery and the studied plan to return at the best time for harvest.
Because Venus was transiting the Sun that week, I wanted a Venus ruled herb. How interesting that a disproportionate number of jars in my collection contained plants ruled by that planet, so I had plenty of choices.
I meditated on a number of possibilities but kept coming back to Achillea millefolium, yarrow. Cunningham assigned it to Venus and water, but other sources said Venus and air. Venus being currently in the air sign of Gemini, I preferred this correspondence as more relevant to my current circumstances. Karen Harrison’s The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook gave the correspondence to Venus and the Sun, perfect for the transit. As I breathed in its twenty-year old sharp tang I thought of Achilles on the battlefield and the plant’s styptic property—it grew freely in the fields where the Trojan War was fought and the soldiers used it to stop the flow of blood from their wounds, so Achilles’ armies healed quickly and seemed invincible. This seemed right to me, even with my focus on Venus, this metaphoric battlefield coagulant seemed somehow needed.
The second class was June 10. I still had not bothered to pay much attention to the news of the fire. Fires are sad, but they seem to happen most years and I had simply noted that this year’s was near Fort Collins. Our task was to meditate on our own alchemical dissolution as we ground our herb in our mortar and pestle. The tiny little petals of the dried white yarrow flowers, yellowed with age, broke down into fibers as I worked the pestle in circles to pulverize them. Then I added the clear menstruum which almost immediately turned the most beguiling clear golden yellow. A jar of mountain sunlight.
Later that week I finally looked at a map of the fire. Yes, west of Laporte. I zoomed in. West of Bellvue, that’s where our post office was. Zoom. Rist Canyon Road, covered in an orange overlay indicating the area of the fire. Zoom. Whale Rock Road. Zoom. Saddle Ridge Road. Seen through the orange translucent fill.
It’s been twenty years since I lived there. Almost as long since I’ve visited. I no longer am in contact with anyone I used to know there. But nevertheless I took it personally when all those memories recently engaged had to be viewed through this orange filter.
Our next couple alchemy steps will be to separate the materia from the menstruum and then burn it with a butane torch. Our class manual says that externally calcination involves heating a substance until it is reduced to ashes. This exposes the Salt of the matter, its earthly form and true nature. Internally this symbolizes a destruction of a part of the ego or an attachment to a material possession.
Last night I dreamed that I could spin myself into water. I just had to turn faster and faster like a whirling dervish and I knew I would transform into a gushing fountain. I could put out the fire and stop the destruction. I spun faster and faster but couldn’t feel any transformation. Just a few drops, I thought. I can almost feel them spurting out of my hair. But I didn’t turn into water. I couldn’t stop the fire. And I woke up in twisted and tangled bedclothes.
Surely I’m supposed to have a profound realization from this process. My Sun in the fire sign Aries, my Moon in the water sign Cancer, my Sun-Moon midpoint in Gemini with Venus creeping back towards that ideal balance. The fact that I’m in the fire grade in my Golden Dawn work, a grade curiously associated with Venus. All of this should have some meaning to me.
I look at the photos of the fire and feel guilty that I find them so beautiful.
I take my jar of sunlight out of the cupboard. Its glowing gold makes me happy. I shake the jar to macerate the materia.
Internally and externally the fire destroys. Internally and externally the flower heals. I macerate the materia. I argue with mountains.
Joy Vernon is a creative writer and tarot reader in Denver, Colorado. Her specialty is the Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which combines energetic and esoteric modalities to help her clients break through blocks and align themselves with their higher purpose. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2012 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.