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Cherie Nelson's essay "Hazy Skies" originally appeared on Ruminate's online space The Waking on July 6, 2020.
Where I am from, there is a clear sign for when it is time to start the hope up again. In Kansas, each year in late March/early April people burn their fields, light up the prairie. During these few weeks, the sky is dense with smoke, the rolling hills covered in ember-orange ropes that inch across the earth’s contours in a line.
It is assaulting when you first see it—this violence. I grew up hearing stories of out-of-staters placing frantic calls to fire departments while driving across I-70, asking if they knew the world was ablaze all around them.
These controlled burns are a way to clear out the yellowed tallgrass, the plants that have grown woody bolstering themselves against the cold through the winter months, to prepare the earth for something new to break forth. They are a distinct fulcrum between the seasons. Only days after each field is burned, where it has been scorched and blackened and laid bare, bright baby green bursts through the ground, made more vibrant by black ash underneath.
I used to run through these newly revealed hills. The first run after the burn, I bent over, ran my palms over the ground, felt the exposed rock, the hill’s white limestone skeleton dressed in prairie grass every other time of the year. I coated my hands in ash, rubbed my arms and legs to color them gray as if a prayer of thanksgiving for the certainty of this cycle, the green sprouts underneath.
It is easy to draw a metaphor from this. About bone-level truth, about growth that comes back through fire, about a world that moves from black-gray to green every year, nearly overnight. I have loved the certainty of this metaphor and held tightly to it for most of my life.
Where I am living now, the seasons have no pivot. I have spent the last four years in the arid foothills of Colorado’s Front Range looking for one that refuses to be found. Springs are mercurial, senselessly violent in their cold and snow. I experience winter here like a death, wait endlessly for a green that will outgrow my grief. There are no orange lines, no hazy skies, no fire-branded promises of an inevitable certainty.
But I have tried to find spring’s hinge, think for some reason I just may have missed it: at the beginning of March, I look across the trees, try to discern if the nubs along their branches are really new, evidence of a thing coming to life again, or if they had been there the entire time and I have just noticed. I squint my eyes as I am running along the creek trail, stopping every few moments to inspect a patch of green on the ground underneath the dried grass, trying to remember if it is really greener or just a trick of my mind.
It is a compulsion; I cannot stop straining my eyes, crouching low to the ground to see if there is something I am missing.
On an early March run, I traced the top of the foothill ridge at the edge of my neighborhood. As I was running, looking down at the rocky path underneath my feet, I noticed a wildflower: an Easter daisy I had never before seen on this trail, in this place, this early in the spring. It’s white-pink petals and goldenrod centers embedded into the rocky soil, unobtrusively, like an afterthought. I started to cry about this, having not expected, not hoped for it, had not even dreamed of finding anything like it for weeks.
Every few days I run back along the path to check on it, to make sure it has not withered away, has not left me in our subsequent snows. A week and a half after I first found the flower, we got close to six inches. As I watched fluffy flakes cover the ground, I could not keep my mind from wandering to the ridge: the tan soil, daisies with their insides turned up to a sun that was covered, a sky full of cruel cold.
The moment the sun came out and started to melt snow-covered earth, I ran my regular vigil, up the ridge, this time past the fence where the trail had been closed because of the moisture. I ran through inches-deep mud, then crouched down low to see if it survived. In melted pockets within the snow, I saw them there: curled up into themselves like closed fists.
I am tired of holding my breath, of holding vigil, of willing a seasonal fulcrum that can hold my hope. I am tired of watching like this—too tired of noticing an alive thing, needing to return day after day to ensure my fickle spring is certain. I miss what it felt like to live in Kansas: baby green stretching itself from beds of cleared ground, black-gray ash. Knowing my hope was not too early, would not wither, dry up, freeze over with the late May snowfall. A hope that would not turn, rot, and sour inside of me.
And sometimes I wonder if the spring was really this certain when I was in Kansas. If the fires truly acted as a kind of hinge for me, or if this is all being rewritten in my memory. If I did not need them to be a sure sign of the coming spring because I had other certainties.
The truth is I was not looking in the same way I am now.
If it is not these flowers, it will be the tree buds, the crocus plants on my neighbor’s front lawn, the blue streaked sidewalk from the sky’s reflection in the retreating snow, anything that could burn black ash and return to green.
Cherie Nelson (she/her/hers) earned her MA in Literature and MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University where she currently teaches undergraduate literature and writing classes. She is the editor for The Waking: Ruminate Online. Her essays appear in The Florida Review, Speculative Nonfiction, Hobart, and elsewhere. Follow her on twitter @cher_nel.
"Hazy Skies" was originally published in The Waking on April 2, 2020.
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Photo by Jim Richardson
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