Monthly Archives: October 2015

Going to seed

fireweed-seedhead-epilobium-angustifolium-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) about the send off its abundance of seeds.

Some years ago I took a photography workshop at the New York Botanical Garden. At the end of a day spent shooting the vast array of flowers in the perennial gardens, Allen Rokach, our teacher, told us to come back next morning with two favorites to share. Everyone else brought in pictures of flowers at their crispest and dewiest. I brought in a fading iris and the seedheads of giant alliums.

giant-allium-seedheads-allium-giganteum-New-York-Botanical-Garden-Bronx-New-York-by-Betsey-Crawford

Giant allium (Allium giganteum) seedheads

Allen was forbearing, even rather fascinated by this choice. It’s not that I don’t love flowers at their freshest. But there is something about the fading flower, the seed heads, the seeds themselves that I am drawn to. This is part of the life of the flower. In fact, this is the point of the flower. While we enjoy the exquisite beauty of form, the softness of petal, colors ranging from the subtlest to the wildest of shades, the whole design is to attract pollinators, get pollinated, and produce the next generation.

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky at Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

So all that beauty isn’t about the joy and refreshment of our eyes. We were 100 million years from the horizon when angiosperms (fruit producing plants) first appeared. It’s likely that we owe our eventually showing up to the benefits their nutritious fruits and seeds brought to the animal kingdom. The goal of floral beauty is to create structures for seeds to develop, and to lure bees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, bats, butterflies and other pollinators to help with the task.

Color, scent, form, and those inviting, exquisite petals signal that sugar is available. While the nectar, deep in the flower, is sipped, the anthers at the end of the flexible stamens brush pollen on their guest. It’s common in spring and summer to see bees, their legs swollen with yellow fuzz, diving drunkenly into flower after flower, dropping some pollen off, picking up more.

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Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in bloom and beginning to form a seedhead

At each flower, the pollen brushes off the carrier onto the stigma, the top of the tiny stalk (the style, barely visible above) nestled in the center of the stamens. The pollen’s DNA information then proceeds to the ovary at the base of the flower. The ovary, often still small when the petals fall, like the columbine above, swells into fruit as the seed matures. Eventually the ripened, swollen fruits begin to dry and split open, emptying their abundance of seeds.

SeedheadsThe abundance can be staggering. That long curve of fluffy seeds in the fireweed at the top of the post is from one flower, on a stalk containing dozens of flowers, among millions of fireweed stalks.

Seeds must then move from pod to receptive ground. In the case of harvesting fruits and seeds for eating, farming or gardening, we have a huge role to play in this, and a minor role, which we share with our dogs and other local fauna, in carrying sticky seeds from place to place on our pants and socks. Other seeds simply fall at the feet of the flower stalk. Not content to wait for creatures to walk by, many seeds are attached to feathery filaments that allow the wind to disperse them.

creosote-bush-larrea-tridentata-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

All of this can be going on at the same time. The desert creosote above has a fresh flower, with its anthers full of pollen, a fruit at the top, and two stages of open pods: one with the seed filaments just emerging from the dried and split fruit, and one beginning to disseminate its feathery seeds.

monkshood-with-seedhead-aconitum-delphinifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Monkshood bud and seed pod (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I like the tossed-aside-lingerie look of fading flowers, but it’s the pods, or seedheads — sculptural, often a bit wacky, with dried-in-place curves and unexpected twists — that I particularly like.  I love the way the designed-for-wind filaments catch the light before they fly off, and the increasing translucency of some pods as they dry.

desert-chicory-rafinesquia-neomexicana-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

Loving flowers takes a certain existential fortitude. They are a fleeting lot. This is especially true of wildflowers. In a garden, you can create bloom all season, all year in warm climates. You can make space for wildflowers, and even plant them, but you have very little control over what they do and where they go. This is why cultivars — flowers bred for particular traits — are so important to the garden industry. They are tamed wildflowers.

The truly wild ones come and go on their own tens-of-millions-of-years-old schedules. If it’s too dry, too cold, too wet, they may choose dormancy. If all is right, they will grow riotously. If there’s too much competition from invasive plants, they will bide their time, the seeds remaining dormant for years. Once they bloom, they slow or speed up their flowering and fading according to the weather.

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Wild geranium seedhead (Geranium erianthum)

While they’re blooming, I don’t think much about all this. I just want to see them. It’s when they fade and the pods ripen that I remember that they’re not here for me. The seedheads remind me that we are part of their history, not the other way around. We have taken full advantage of this process to grow food, harvest seeds, enjoy gardens. But it’s not a cycle for us. It’s a cycle we fit into. Watching this ancient unfolding roots me in the history of the earth, in the forces that, with slow and infinite care, brought us here, blessed with the ability to see and love beauty.

cotton-grass-eriophorum-angustifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)

Wayside beauty

Donald-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Donald, British Columbia

One of the things that is constantly, and wonderfully, borne in on me as I travel is how utterly beautiful our world is. Everywhere I go, there is beauty easily at hand. And for someone who spends as much time driving from place to place as I do, the gorgeous scene along so many roads is as important as the beauty that can be found hiking into the wilderness.

Hatchers-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska

While I can’t hear birds or crickets, or silence, or smell sagebrush, or feel a soft breeze while I’m in the truck, I can see dappled sunlight in forests, mountains with crowns of clouds, deserts stretching to the horizon, streams flowing past, cascading waterfalls. I can see the history of the planet in the jagged upthrusts of rock, and the millions-year-old canyons cut by patient rivers. I can see storms in the distance, sunsets, slivers of moon.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsey-Crawford

On the Dempster Highway, north to the Arctic Ocean, through Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory

This tends not to be true of the places where we live. Our willingness to meet the grandeur of the world with strip malls, box stores, glass office buildings and square houses on flat rugs of grass means that getting off the road in a habited place is often an exit from the sublime into dreariness. Because the landscape gets wilder and wilder as you go north, the roads in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska are startlingly beautiful. Mile on mile of the wonders of the world.

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Route 1 between Anchorage and Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Driving through all that wayside beauty has a bewitching effect: the catch of breath and expanding heart that comes as a snow-capped volcano rises from shimmering blue water happens over and over again. Around another bend magenta flowers frame a glacier in the distance. Another bend, sunlight glitters on the cascade of water down a lush, green coastal slope,

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Golden, British Columbia

Driving becomes an open heart meditation. Even after a whole day, and a complaining back, it can be hard to stop and return to the reality of towns, RV parks, dinner. We are here to see this, to be the consciousness of the universe reflecting on itself, to be participants in its continual unfolding.

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, to road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, the road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory. The white in the foreground is lichen.

Of course, it’s best to be out in it, not driving through it. But since traveling around requires plenty of the latter, I’m celebrating the great gift of the moving panorama I can see from the road. Magically lit mountains, still water at twilight, the coming of fall on the Yukon road to the Arctic, clouds, rivers, reflections.

Route-97-south-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Route 97, going south, in British Columbia

The Irish poet John O’Donohue said that one of the gifts of the Celtic imagination is that landscape isn’t just matter, that it’s as alive as we are, in a totally different form. It may be that my love of the earth is a legacy of my Irish heritage. But most, if not all, indigenous cultures feel the same way, and, not so long ago, we were all indigenous to a living landscape somewhere on our planet.

Columbia-River-Kamloops-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

The Columbia River near Kamloops, British Columbia, a surprise landscape of sagebrush and high desert.

Perhaps it’s this ancestral sense of kinship with a vibrant world, of emerging from it, being an integral part of it, that gets stirred when we leave our settlements, and go out into a landscape that speaks to us of history, endless beauty, mystery, presence.

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

(The photo collections from my Alaska adventure are now up on the Galleries page.)

The Place Where You Go to Listen

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

Cook Inlet from Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

At some point in the recent past I realized that daylight has a different sound than night does. Not the usual distinctions, like birdsong, crickets, traffic. When the sun rises, I hear a difference in the world, a tone — very, very subtle — with more vibrance in sunlight than the velvety sound of night.

I haven’t found an explanation for this. I wasn’t aware of it in my childhood, in a home of five noisy children waking up and getting ready for school, or in my many years of getting up via alarm clock to get both my son and me started on our days. But, once I had the leisure of waking up on my own time, and in a quiet place, I was able, over time, to hear the difference. It both delights and mystifies me. I love the idea that the universe has its own music, available to us if we quiet ourselves enough to hear it.

Coastal Indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

Coastal Indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

So when, in Alaska, someone told me that there was a place in Fairbanks called The Place Where You Go to Listen, where the music was composed to reflect a constant stream of information from seismic shifts, geomagnetic changes, and the flow of time and weather, I instantly decided to go. I hadn’t even planned on including Fairbanks in the trip until then.

raven-dalton-highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe Place Where You Go to Listen is named for Naaliagiagvik, on the Arctic Ocean, home to a legend about an Inupiak woman who went there to listen to the earth speaking to her, through birds, whales, water, wind. It’s a small room in the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska. On one wall are five glass panels in a row, glowing with light, whose depth and color depend on the time of day. There’s a bench in the middle of the room. From all around you comes the music of the world, composed by John Luther Adams. Because I went in the well-lit evening of an Alaskan August, the panels were yellow and blue, and unchanging. What I was listening to did change, subtly, into a range of vibrant, light tones, the Daylight Choir, which, infinitely more vivid than the tiny change I hear, was startlingly lovely to listen to.

Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Matanuska Glacier

Underneath the daylight music are resonant bass tones, and these do change, minute by minute, with seismic activity in the earth. There were no earthquakes while I was there, but the bass swelled and ebbed as the world below me went about the business of being the earth. At a couple of points the sound was strong enough to make the details in the walls — speakers, vents, frames — vibrate into noise themselves. The aurora borealis, invisible in the daylight, was just strong enough to send occasional, delicate bell tones across the ceiling.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

I was unspeakably thrilled with all this. Alone in the room, I lay down on the bench, my head on my folded sweater, and gave myself completely to the singing of the earth. It lulled me into a trance, though the swelling bass would lure me out of it, then settle me back as the sound calmed. It was one of the most profound meditations I’ve ever experienced.

Muskeg along the Cook Inlet, Kenai, Alaska

Muskeg along the Cook Inlet, Kenai, Alaska

What made it so moving wasn’t just the beauty of the tones Adams chose to convey the glittering daylight, but the effect of the living earth on the music itself. I could listen as the subtlest of moves under my back changed the resonance around me. There are lots of wonderful sounds on the earth’s surface — thunder, rain, crickets, birdsong, rushing water, wild wind, the icy whisper of snow — but this was the planet itself swelling our human notes in real time. This is the grace of the best of art, to take apart the texture of life and piece it back together in ways that change our perceptions forever.

Siberian aster (Aster Sibericus)

Siberian aster (Aster Sibericus)

Western columbine bud and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa)

Western columbine bud and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa)

I loved it. I stayed a long time, often alone, sometimes not. At the end I was joined by a young couple. After I left, the woman came out while I was still standing at the top of the stairs, and we talked about our experience. She had just graduated from art school, and had come all the way from Oregon to be in that room. “I’d heard that there was a place in Fairbanks where you could hear the world breathe,” she said, and so she and two companions had driven up in an old VW bus.

Lying in that room, held by the subtly shifting music of daylight, and the sonorous sounds of the ground deep under me — recording its stretching, contracting, breathing, living — once again brought home something I love to contemplate: that we and the earth around and under us are one. We grew out of its waters, rocks and mud.  This is the great gift, and challenge, of hearing the earth breathe: to know it’s alive, a being in its own right, that its seas and mountains, forests and plains, its atmosphere and the great plates floating over its surface, its unfathomable depths, are all manifestations of the same creative energy that continually brings us all into being. This isn’t a planet we are on, it’s the planet that we are.

A large gull and a small human share the beach in Kenai, Alaska

A large gull and a small human share the beach in Kenai, Alaska