Colorado Blue Spruce

A local news station has a recurring segment they run called “The Most Colorado Thing I Saw Today.” Viewers send in photos, or one of the reporters comes across something quaint or quirky. You know the sort of thing. Cowboys skiing at Steamboat. Ranchers riding their horses through Walmart. Folks fly-fishing a flooded cul-de-sac in Boulder. Moose skiing at Steamboat. And those are all very Colorado things, no question, though arguably nothing was more Colorado today than the fact that it was 48°F, brilliantly sunny, with the kind of buoyant high pressure that draws migrants from the upper midwest. And that’s because in the midwest this time of year, particularly this actual year, it’s cold. Cotton, Minnesota, began the day at -56°F, giving wry credence to the notion that cotton kills (a phrase that every Coloradan just knows, without really being able to tell you where they first heard it). Also in Minnesota, they recorded a wind chill temperature of -77. Which coincidentally was the total points scored by the Denver Broncos during the 2018-19 NFL season.

The most Colorado thing I saw on December 8, 2018, was this.

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It’s a Mountain Chickadee on a blue spruce. Admittedly it’s a bird we share with the rest of the Four Corners states, and then on up through the forests of Alberta and British Columbia, but it likes us best and only goes to those other places because of family obligations, returning as quickly as possible. You can identify a Mountain Chickadee by the fact that it hangs upside down in trees, or perches above, as this one did, staring fixedly down. And they’ll stare with beady intensity for a freakishly long time, until you start experiencing brief psychotic breaks. Why is he looking at me like that? Is there something wrong with my face? It’s my nose, isn’t it? It’s shaped like a sunflower seed — sharp, oily, rich in vitamin B1. Oh my god! He’s going to win this staring contest and then crack my nose like a pecan. My wife’s going to find me noseless at the bottom of a spruce tree. How do you recover from that kind of trauma?

By the time you’ve completed this troubling scenario in your mind, the bird has long since gone. You find yourself gazing blankly at the tree itself, realizing for the first time that the needles really aren’t the least bit pine-green but a kind of pale powdery teal. It’s Picea pungens, alright, the state tree of Colorful Colorado, but it’s the pale bluest of blue varieties — a “Mission Blue” cultivar — with a relatively narrow base and good height. Up to 50ft in gardens and parks; higher in the wild. It’s considered a slow-growing tree, but ours has leapt up the last seven years, in full sun, slightly acidic well-drained soil, winter low temps to -16/-20F, and a little more moisture than in Ft. Collins 700ft below. In other words, ideal conditions for this tree.

Do you ever think about first impressions — not of people but of place? How, moving to a new home in a new city, perhaps, you loved or disliked it, couldn’t understand why there was no municipal bus service, why it had no Ethiopian restaurants, why everyone pronounced things funny, everyone wore hiking boots or earth colors, no one ever used their car horns, not even when the guy ahead at the intersection had been looking at his phone from the moment the light turned green and a string of SUVs, also silent, queued behind you? But how, on the other hand, no one seemed to be able to use a traffic roundabout? When we first moved to Fort Collins we had no reliable car. We had lived in Portland and Vancouver, B.C., two cities with extensive public transit systems. Portland has been serving as a national model for that sort of thing for what seems like forty years. Vancouver’s bus system includes a SeaBus of low-slung Star Trek design, seamlessly integrated — as much as it’s possible to be when the ground stops and the Pacific Ocean begins — into the terrestrial network. But at the time, Fort Collins had a system both basic and inscrutable, organized not for the convenience of citizens but according to a severe logic of financial outlay and income, as though it had been designed by Mr. Potter, the bitter miser in It’s a Wonderful Life. It took us years to fully appreciate that the counterbalance for this failing of vision was a remarkable system of foot and bike trails, which has only grown, and grown better, over the last two decades. Sometimes first impressions suck. And they’re wrong.

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But that isn’t the case with the blue spruce on the south side of the house, the one I found myself staring at after the Mountain Chickadee had worked his cruel magic and flown. We bought the house for its view, for two floors that could be easily segregated for three unsociable cats, and for the ravine, the shop — a host of sensible reasons. But I bought the house — as that irrational half of the buying couple — because it had one of the most beautiful blue spruce trees I’d ever seen. It repaid my love by growing twice as fast as we’re told Picea pungens actually grow. Soon it will swallow my herb garden, and I will forgive it. It knows that, because despite the fact that we bought the place, it owns me.

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