Category Archives: Alaska

Yarrow: a quiet goddess subdues half a planet

yarrow-achillea-millefolium-Coeur-d-Alene-Idaho-by-Betsey-CrawfordLast summer, while I was enjoying the ubiquitous glories of the vast stands of fireweed stretching from the Canadian border to the heart of Alaska, I noticed something unusual. Almost always, with a stand of fireweed, were a few stems of yarrow, a white, sometimes pink flower, shaped like a flattened umbrella, with stalks of feathery leaves. Except for a stand of pink ones, whose twilit luminosity attracted me, I almost never took pictures of it, and, after weeks of this, began to be intrigued, not so much by the yarrow, but by my lack of interest in it. I take pictures of every flower I come across, why not yarrow?

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Valdezi-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Even the fireweed is having a hard time competing with the coastal slopes of Valdez, Alaska, but the yarrow is almost invisible. You can find one in the left lower corner, and then follow a slight curve up and right for three more

Ever since we started naming them, we’ve tended to pay a lot of attention to the more beautiful, fiery goddesses, and it’s easy to see fireweed — lush, fertile, gorgeous — as the queen of her surroundings, Aphrodite cloaked in magenta. Yarrow, by contrast, is almost invisible with such a companion. Even without fireweed around, yarrow is a quiet and unassuming plant, not, to my eyes, particularly pretty, and not photogenic. Flattish circles of tiny individual flowers are hard for the camera to do justice to, and yarrow, with its lack of contrasting color and texture, is particularly challenging.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

A quiet presence in a meadow in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Kenai, Alaska

Having ignored yarrow for most of my trip north, it then kept tugging at me once I got back to California. Its official name is achillea. Why, I wondered, did Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century father of botanical nomenclature, name quiet yarrow after an ancient Greek hero, known as much for rage as courage? Legend has it that Achilles used yarrow to staunch the blood of his wounded enemy-then-ally, Telephus, though yarrow itself is never mentioned in the Iliad.   But it was enough for Linnaeus, and, since yarrow leaves have traditionally been applied to the skin to stop bleeding, it’s one of the plants he could have used.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Among fireweed leaves on a twilight walk along the road in Moose Pass, Alaska

We know it was used many millennia before theTrojan War, in twelfth century BCE , because 50,000 year old yarrow grains have been found in the tartar of Neanderthal teeth. Since yarrow has known medicinal properties, but is not known for significant nutritional value, researchers concluded that the Neanderthals were up on their available medications. Native Americans had many uses for yarrow, including steeping the leaves for a tea to lower fever, help with sleep, and settle the stomach. Its ability to heighten the effects of alcohol apparently prompted the Vikings to use it in beer specially brewed to be drunk at weddings, which gives a hair-raising slant on Viking nuptials.

yarrow-achillea-millefolium-Coeur-d-Alene-Idaho-by-Betsey-Crawford

A close look at the two flowers that make up the aster family: a central disk flower and the surrounding ray flowers, looking like petals

The whole northern hemisphere could have benefited from the use of yarrow, and most likely did, since it’s native virtually everywhere north of the equator, and is a pharmacopeia in itself. Its very usefulness would have helped its spread, as travellers carried it with them. A member of the vast Asteraceae family, the flowers are formed by its family’s signature two structures — a disk floret in the center, surrounded by ray florets, looking like petals. Each quarter inch yarrow flower is clustered with many others to form a head, which branches out from a stiffly erect, rather brittle stalk covered with delicate, finely cut leaves.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Captain-Cook-State-Park-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

The yarrow in Alaska is Achillea millefolium, variety borealis.

All achilleas share these traits, but there are genetic variations that have allowed them to adapt to higher and lower altitudes, dryer and wetter climates, differences in available light and nutrients. Yarrow’s adaptability is helped by its intriguing genetic promiscuity. Unlike animal genes, where offspring get a pair of chromosomes, one from each parent, plants can have multiple copies of their chromosomes, a state called polyploidy. Those with four copies are tetraploids, six are hexaploids, eight are octoploids.

Animals would not mate across such a variation, but plants, and especially yarrow, do, complicating the effort to sort them into species. Experts have, at different times, classified Achillea millefolium as 40 different species, and then changed their collective minds and lumped all variations into one, retreating into the umbrella term ‘species complex.’ So most likely all the yarrow I’ve seen in my life, including the cultivars for gardens, are versions of Achillea millefolium, the second name referencing its ‘thousand leaves,’ with ‘borealis’ added as I got farther north.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-buds-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMy growing interest in a plant I spent the summer overlooking reminds me of a moving interview with the actor Dustin Hoffman on his role as Dorothy Michaels in ‘Tootsie.’ Before committing to the movie, he wanted to be sure that he could really pass as a woman, so he went to the make-up people at Columbia Pictures to see if that was possible. Once they had done their magic, he said, ‘Great, now make me beautiful,’ and was dumbfounded when they said that was the best they could do. He went home in tears at his own blindness, and was in tears recounting the story. He said he thought of himself, in that guise, as an interesting woman, but he realized that if he were to meet her at a party, he would have ignored her in preference for someone more conventionally showy, the fireweed in the crowd.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3Knowing that yarrow is a determined and talented plant, adaptable to every circumstance except standing water or extreme desert, or that the leaves are full of minerals for browsers, or that my ancestors used it to lower their fevers, relieve stomach cramps, and kill bacteria in their cuts doesn’t make it any prettier than I found it last summer, but it makes that facile judgement seem silly. It changes the way it looks to me, because my experience of it is richer, layered, connecting me to its energies in a way that relying on its surface charms had not. It brings me into the long history we humans have shared with it, and then further and further back into the tens of millions of years it bloomed on this planet before beings like me were here to be aware of it. Eons of blowing in the wind, soaking up the rain, creating a banquet of food and medicine from the sunlight falling on its leaves and the minerals seeping into its roots. This is how we release all bias. Knowledge is not only power, it’s love.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

It takes a village: the community of lichen

hypogymnia-species-alectoria-samentosa-witchs-hair-lichen-lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-Fish-Creek-Hyder-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe farther I went north last summer, the more I found a world full of lichen. It’s everywhere in Alaska, and a dominant species in the arctic tundra. But it’s everywhere else, too, covering 8% of the world’s surface. Lichen holds the desert in place, fills the forests, hangs off branches in cool, damp coastal woods as well as in warm swamps. It’s on the trees in your backyard, slowly covering your grandparents’ tombstones, growing on fence posts, spreading under your feet as you climb mountains.

lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-cladonia-species-moss-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Large lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) ‘leaves’ live with a species of Cladonia among the moss and ferns on a tree in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Lichen is indeed a village: it’s composed of varying forms of fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. Strands of fungi weave together to provide housing, which protects the algae and bacteria from environmental challenges like desiccation and UV radiation. The algae and bacteria provide food via sugars formed through photosynthesis. The resulting body, or thallus, lives on its substrate — wood, soil, rock, occasionally air — along with other members of the community, usually moss, often other forms of fungi and algae, and the trees, ferns, flowers, rocks, and animals of whatever environment it’s growing in.

cladonia-stygia-black-footed-reinderr-lichen-flavocentria-nivalis-snow-lichen-Denali-National-Park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stygia) mixed with snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) in the Yukon tundra

Though I am no lichenologist — identifying the few lichens here that I’ve been able to name was a study in cross-eyed bewilderment — I’ve always been fascinated by them. I went to Denali National Park one day to hike, but, on finding a world covered with lichen, got down on the ground and spent the afternoon with them, in all their variety: tiny, lacy shrubs of one lichen run through with little branchlets of another, next to a large patch of dark brown sheets of felt lichen. A white crustose lichen so completely covered the flange of a tree stump that it wasn’t until I put my hand on it that I realized I was looking at wood, not granite. That white crust was dotted with a pink one. Tiny spires, holding up minute cups, occasionally edged in vivid red, grew all over the rest of the stump, happily embedded in moss.

cladonia-digitata-flavocentria-nivalis-snow-lichen-Denali-National-Park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

A Cladonia species around a tuft of snow lichen (Flavocentrai nivalis)

This plucky, endlessly adaptable, weirdly beautiful, not-plant, not-animal feeds reindeer and caribou. It holds and releases moisture, helpful to the plants that grow with it. It has some medicinal uses, and shows up in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Some are used as dyes, and some in making perfume. But its most important ecological contributions are its ability to take nitrogen from the air and add that essential element to the soil; its ability to live in, stabilize, and form soil in barren landscapes; and its ability to sequester carbon. Lichen, with the mosses and algae they grow among, all tiny and indomitable, take up as much carbon yearly as is released by the burning of forests worldwide. This amounts to 14 billion tons of carbon, as opposed to the 2.2 billion (and falling) tons absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

moss-lichen-tree-stump-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

A tree stump with an entire village of moss and lichen in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

As hardy and amazingly adaptable as lichens are in their natural habitats, they are threatened by several things, especially air pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The first limits healthy growth, the second habitat, and the third will begin to further limit habitat, as lichens sensitive to temperature will have to go to higher and higher altitudes to survive. Those that cannot will die out.

And here is where the larger questions come in. If you ask people whether they would prefer to drive cars to work or save lichens, most people would ask, “What’s lichen?” It wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would seem obvious that we’re more important than a bunch of fungus and algae mashed together and ruining our wooden fence. We’re letting species go extinct every day. Why would a few little lichen matter?

icmadophila-ericetorum-fairy-barf-lichen-Denali-National-Park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Tiny pink splotches of the interestingly named fairy barf lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) in Denali National Park, Alaska

We don’t know why lichen matter. That’s the problem with every extinction. We see the stakes through human eyes. We want to get from place to place in our cars, we love computers, we need homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. My home is tiny footprint, but I drove it to Alaska and back last year. Would I give up such incredible experiences to preserve the right environment for lichen? A challenging question!

peltigera-praetextata-felt-lichen-cladonia-species-Denali-National-Park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Brown felt lichen (Peltigera praetextata) with a Cladonia species in Denali National Park, Alaska

We are part of the biome, and we need habitat. There is an infinity of things we can do to reduce our effect on the planet, but even if we do every one of them, humans will still have an outsized footprint. Species will be edged out. Others will hang on, threatened.

We know some of these extinctions will matter. If bees die out, we face a world without fruit, flowers, nuts. If lichen dies out we’ll first lose their ability to sequester carbon, which will be released into an atmosphere already threatened by rising carbon dioxide levels. So temperatures may rise further, endangering more and more species.

biological-crust-Butler-Wash-Bluff-Utah-by-Betsey-Crawford

A section of the desert’s biological crust, in Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah

We would also lose a crucial soil producer and stabilizer. It’s hard for us to see, in the brown crusts of the sandy desert, how important a role those tiny, combined elements play in securing nutrients, water, and footing for roots. Hard to imagine the time span taken to break down rock into soil. To us, dirt has always been here, but we’re newcomers on the planet, perhaps even passers-by. The ramifications of such losses spread out like waves. Whatever we do to allow lichen to go extinct might well mean we’ve created a world inhospitable to us.

lichen-on-stone-Butler-Wash-Bluff-Utah-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

These questions are important, but they are also human-centered, asking of everything how it helps us. Cyanobacteria are 2.5 billion years old, the first photosynthesizers on earth, producers of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that all subsequent biodiversity depends on. The earliest lichen fossils  are 400 million years old.  The earliest human fossil is 2.8 million years old. The forces that created the earth with infinite slowness ticked lichen off the formation list much earlier than humans. Perhaps we’re here to help lichen.

Every form in nature is part of a whole, a web woven together with meticulous evolutionary care. We can only pull so many of those threads out before the fabric begins to weaken. And there may be some combination of threads which, when pulled, will destroy the integrity of the whole. The problem is, we don’t know which ones, leaving us with the great challenge of caring for the entire village on our finite globe.

cladonia-rangiferina-reindeer-lichen-Stony-Hill-Amagansett-New-York-by-Betsey-Crawford

Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) along a trail in Stony Hill, Amagansett, New York

Ashes to petals: wildfire and rebirth

wildfire-Dalton-Highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOn the way north last summer we were stopped by a wildfire in British Columbia. It had jumped Route 97, and the RV park where we spent the night slowly filled with people who had kept driving and been turned back. The manager warned us that we might be roused from sleep and asked to evacuate further south, but late the next morning we were allowed to drive through, still in a fog of smoke. I’d never seen a forest right after a fire. The pitch black trunks were stark along the road, grayer farther back, where the dense haze softened them. Smoke rose slowly from the still smoldering black ground, rough with burned plants. Nothing green was left. I was longing to stop for a picture, but we were the first in line after the pilot car guiding us, there to keep crazy people from stopping in a still smoldering fire to take pictures. But that vertical black and shifting gray landscape was unforgettable.

wildfire-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMany people associate wildfire with devastation, and it was easy to see why, driving through that suddenly barren and spooky landscape. The power of a forest or wildland fire can be terrifying, the destruction incomprehensible. Easy, also, to see why earlier forest service personnel felt that as many fires should be fought as possible. But we have slowly learned the costly lessons of trying to outflank nature. Without fires, there would eventually be no forest. Fires keep the lands they burn healthy, whether they are forests, meadows, or deserts. A lot of the strength of current wildfires is fueled by centuries of fire suppression — leaving the forest full of flammable material: crowded, aging trees, heaps of fallen branches, dried shrubs, not enough green, succulent growth on the forest floor to slow new fires.

wildfire-fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Banff-National-Park-Alberta-by-Betsey-Crawford

Fireweed doing what it does best: moving in quickly after a fire

2015 was both the hottest year on record and had the most wildfires. One of our fellow campers that night was returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska. “The whole state is on fire,” she told me. These days, more and more fires are allowed to burn unless they pose a hazard to life or property, and, once in Alaska, we saw plenty of evidence that a lot of the state had burned earlier in the summer. After our arrival in mid-July, the weather grew steadily wetter. But we passed vast stands of black trunks, often interspersed with swathes of lighter trunks from earlier fires, trunks that had shed their burnt bark and were weathering to a silvery gray.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

A wildfire doesn’t immediately leave behind a pretty landscape. Those blackened trunks can stand for years while the growth around them recovers. It takes decades for trees to grow tall enough to replace the forest. But a fire opens the ground to sun, eliminates competition from tree roots and shrubs, and its ash fills the soil with nutrients. New growth is almost instant. By the time we drove down Route 97 six weeks later, the ground under the burned trunks was a vivid green. Native Americans used controlled fires to create these conditions, because the extra nutritious new grasses and plants attracted wildlife, and made hunting easier.

heart-leaf-arnica-arnica-cordifolia-yellow-hedysarum-hedysarum-sulphurescens-paintbrush-castilleja-miniata-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Yellow flower: heart-leaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia); white flower: yellow hedysarum (Hedysarum sulphurescens), red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

The next arrivals are wildflowers, springing from seeds dormant for years, sometimes decades. In many areas deciduous trees sprout up, growing quickly, racing past the slow evergreens that will eventually outcompete them. During their long maturation, you will have years of glowing wildflowers. Then, depending on where you are, you may have years of aspen turning the mountainsides gold every fall, shimmering vivid green in the spring, their trunks silver above the snow in the winter. The conifers will slowly catch up, and take over, eventually blocking the light from the wildflowers and grasses, which will retreat into dormancy, waiting for the next fire to burn through and release them.

tall-purple-fleabane-erigeron-peregrinus-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus)

When I was in Banff, Alberta, I went into the visitors’ center to ask where I could find wildflowers. As soon as the friendly young woman said there had been a wildfire at Stanley Glacier in nearby Kootenay National Park, I was ready to go. The flowers accompanying this post are from that hike. Since I was so smitten with the flowers, I never took a picture of the terrain, which was full of three and four foot high lodgepole pines, lushly green and healthy. Around them grew fireweed, of course, mixed with wild orchids, and paintbrush in the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. Columbine and fleabane were everywhere.

harsh-paintbrush-castilleja-hispidus-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Harsh paintbrush (Castillleja hispidus)

The fire happened in 2003, so it’s taken that long for the forest to get to 4’. We are used to fixing things quickly. If a house burns down, there can be a new one in months. If a forest burns down, it requires a very different mindset: rebuilding is the work of decades. A house is no good until it’s finished, but each stage of a growing forest is as vital as all the others. The wildflowers growing among the toddler trees at Stanley Glacier are just as much the forest as the trees that succeed them.

yellow-columbine-aquilegia-flavescens-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

Life on earth is a ceaseless conversation. Growth, death, change, renewal. Fire, flowers, aspens, lodgepole pines, fire. Ashes, petals, bark. Fireweed next to blackened trunks, wild orchids among the baby pines. It’s an ancient dialectic that we interrupt at our peril, because we don’t comprehend the infinity of factors that go into the earth’s forces. It has taken from colonial times until recently to understand that interfering with wildfires damages everything we think we’re saving. We must when houses and people are at stake, but even then, suppression comes at at the cost of making the next fire hotter and more dangerous, the soil more unstable, mudslides more likely. One of the many complex challenges facing us as we assess our footprint on the planet.

white-bog-orchid-habaneria-dilatata-paintbrush-castilleja-miniata-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

White bog orchid (Plantathera dilatata), paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

 

Songlines 2015: north to Alaska

Songlines-2015

Warm colors go west and south, cool colors north and east.

For the first Songlines post last spring, I wrote about how much I love creation stories that not only have the world sung into existence, but also have us continually bringing life to life as we relish our own passing presence. What a great joy it is to be given the task of singing of all that we touch, everything we see, every note we hear, everyone we meet. To celebrate a year of wonderful songs, of so many great adventures on the road to Alaska and back, I thought of choosing my favorite photographs from each place I stopped for any length of time, but I didn’t want to repeat any that I’d used in previous posts. That still left plenty, but, as I looked through my photos from the year, I found myself drawn to those that brought back small, special memories. Not, for this post, the wild transcendence of being at Denali, but rather finding myself at a roadside stop unexpectedly filled with flowers, or taking a hand tram across a rushing gorge, or having dinner with a family of moose. That criteria still made for a quite a list, and I’ve done my best to restrain myself.

ratany-krameria-bicolor-elephant-tree-trail-Anza-Borrego-desert-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Ratany (Krameria bicolor) Anza Borrego Desert, California

l) I started both this year’s adventures and this website in the Anza Borrego Desert, and though I wrote of how much I loved being there and my joy in walking with its mysterious creatures I didn’t have time to include flowers, which is one of this winter’s tasks. Among the many, I chose ratany because I was enchanted by its tiny beauty, and had never seen it before. The flower is less than an inch in diameter, and grows profusely on a small, silvery, very stick-y shrub. I didn’t find out the name until I got to Arizona, and dragged a ranger out to see one growing outside the information center at Saguaro National Park.

feather-dalea-dalea-formosa-Dripping-Springs-Las-Cruces-New-Mexico-by-Betsey-Crawford

Feather dalea (Dalea formosa) Dripping Springs, Las Cruces, New Mexico

2) After Saguaro I gave the luminous cactus flowers their due, both in a post and gallery, and then went to Las Cruces, in far southern New Mexico, to visit a friend. On a hike in Dripping Springs Natural Area I discovered a shin-high shrub that appeared to be a haze of silvery gray. On closer inspection, the haze turned out to be thousands of tiny, squirrely, fuzzy seedheads. There were a few magenta flowers remaining, but I was perfectly happy with the state I found it in. Once found I ran into it everywhere, much to my delight.

Cross-Canyon-Cahone-area-Colorado-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado

3) The story behind this picture is an extra happy one. Before I got to Utah, I emailed the Four Corners Native Plant Society to ask about finding wildflowers. I instantly heard back from Al Schneider, who is the FCNPS, as far as I can tell. He was extremely helpful and friendly, and said to call him when I got there and we’d go out wildflower hunting together. Which we did, three times, with other flower lovers, enjoying wonderful hikes and picnics out in the desert. One day I went with Al and Betty, his wife, to Cross Canyon, just over the Utah border in Colorado. We were out of the red rock territory that’s so characteristic of southern Utah, and which can be seen (until I get to the Utah galleries!) in Moses in Utah and A Land of Stone Tablets. While we were hiking and taking photos of wildflowers in Cross Canyon, I looked back from a perch high above the valley floor and saw my truck in isolated and tiny splendor among juniper and sage, sitting on the Dakota Sandstone that makes up that canyon walls and bottom. Al has been cataloging the wildflowers of the Four Corners (of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona) for 15 years. His website is a masterpiece.

apache-plume-fallugia-paradoxa-seedheads-Snow-Canyon-state-park-St-George-Utah-by-Betsey-Crawford

Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Utah

4) I love seedheads! As was clear in both the Going to Seed post and the gallery. Who could resist these? I found them in a garden showcasing Utah native plants outside a restaurant (where we had a delicious lunch) on the outskirts of St. George, in southwest Utah.

David-Austin-rose-Manito-Gardens-Spokane-Washington-by-Betsey-Crawford

David Austin rose in the Manito Park rose garden, Spokane, Washington

5) After Utah I spent a month in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where my son, Luke, lives. My posts from there explored the concept of home, contemplated what made wildflowers take over my life, and shared an adventure with Luke and Splash. Since I don’t, at least so far, write about garden flowers, the unbelievably photogenic David Austin roses at Manito Park in nearby Spokane might never see the light of day, so I’m including one here.

columbia-lily-lilium-columbianum-near-Yahk-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) near Yahk, British Columbia

6) On the way from Coeur d’Alene to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, for the Waterton Wildflower Festival, I pulled into a roadside rest stop for a short walk and soon found myself unexpectedly surrounded — and completely enchanted — by glowing orange lilies. My favorite was this one, delicately folded over a grass stem.

Tall-purple-fleabane-Erigeron-peregrinus-Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-Alberta-by-Betsey-Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

7) This photo of very common, lovely, and exceptionally photogenic fleabane was taken at the Waterton Lakes Wildflower Festival, where I found myself in heaven. It’s in the Waterton Lakes gallery, but I wanted to include it here, because it’s one of my favorite photos of the entire year. It reminds me of a line I love from a Robert Hass poem: The light in summer is very young and wholly unsupervised.

moose-family-Long-Rifle-Lodge-Glacier-View-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Mother and two babies near Matanuska Glacier

8) I loved Alaska and loved writing about it — how we lost track of time, falling in love with Homer, the amazement of Denali, the beauty of fireweed everywhere, the extraordinary music of The Place Where You Go To Listen. I did a gallery of landscapes, and a gallery of wildflowers. So, it’s been well covered, though there are more! But these three pictures have their own Alaska stories. This mother moose with her two babies showed up to browse behind the restaurant where we ate after visiting the Matanuska Glacier. I convinced George to walk to the edge of the glacier with me, which was a challenge for him, and you can see the slightly dubious look he gave me in the picture below. But he got close, and made it back, with a bit of help on a tricky section from a sweet, hearty young man. After all that we were starving, so we had dinner with the moose family.

George-Matanuska-Glacier-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

George at the Matanuska Glacier

hand-tram-lower-Winner-Creek-trail-Girdwood-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Hand tram over Winner Creek, Girdwood, Alaska

9) I gather hand trams were once common in Alaska, since this one advertised itself as a ‘real Alaskan experience.’ It’s the only way to continue on the Lower Winner Creek Trail in Girdwood, which I wanted to take, so over I went. It’s very zippy until you get to the center, where you hang for a moment, swaying, looking down at the rocks and rushing water 15 feet below. Then you have to haul yourself ‘uphill’ to the other side, a longer trip than it looks in the photo. On my way out, I found two 14 year-old boys happily pulling people across, so that part was easy. I was a bit worried about how I’d get back, since it looks like it takes stronger arms than mine. However, I decided it would all work out, and it did. Everyone helps pull everyone else over, with lots of jokes and good humor, which, to me, is another real Alaskan experience.

alpine-milk-vetch-astragalus-alpinus-Seward-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus) Seward, Alaska

10) I love this photo because it captures the feeling of lots of ground in Alaska — full of plants, moss, and lichen, spongy to walk on, lush and lovely. However, I’ve never fully identified the flower. I’m hoping, for my sake, it’s alpine milk vetch, but it could be an invasive pest vetch, also purple, and growing abundantly on roadsides. So, until I know, I won’t put it into the Alaska wildflower gallery, but I wanted to include it here.

alpine tundra along the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, including bearberry (arctostaphylos alpina) and lichen by Betsey Crawford

Alpine bearberry (Arctostaphyos alpina) and lichen, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon

11) There are words that bring up the mystery and beauty of the north instantly: muskeg, aurora borealis, midnight sun, tundra. This is a bit of tundra, which I was determined to find, easy if you’re willing to drive far enough north. We drove up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, as far as Tombstone Territorial Park, and found a beautiful world of mountains and tundra. Had we gone on, we would eventually have gotten to the Arctic Ocean, but the next day a big, snowy storm blew in, so it was a relief to be back in Dawson City, where it only rained. I left already envisioning a return trip, when I’d drive up in July for the wildflowers, and back in August for the fall color. Such a short growing season, with lots of dry cold the rest of the year, creates a treeless biome of dwarf plants and lichen. These are barely 2 inches high.

sunset-Spokane-River-Coeur-dAlene-Idaho-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Sunset over the Spokane River in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Back to 5) You can catch fantastic skies everywhere, but Coeur d’Alene, with its unusually beautiful cloud formations, produces them routinely, giving me the perfect visual metaphor as the sun sets on 2015. I wish everyone an adventurous, fun and joyous new year.

Spruce family planning

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOne of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

The female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree.

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Every few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counter example was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden got more and more lush, and even unusually deep in color.

east-hampton-garden-designed-photographed-by-Betsey-CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-dens-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

I love all this, because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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.

western-columbine-with-seedhead-aquilegia-formosa-Valdez-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

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.

wild-geranium-seedhead-geranium-erianthum-Hatchers-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

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.

Route-1-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

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,

Golden-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

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

Denali

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a great mystery on this journey: the fact that I seem to choose some places to go, and that others call me to come. Alaska called. Before leaving home in 2011, I never gave any thought to going to Alaska; in the mayhem of leaving I barely gave thought to where I was going once I pulled out the driveway. But almost as soon as we left, Alaska started calling. And, every time I looked at the map, the voice seemed to be coming from Denali, the ‘Great One’ in the Athabascan language, the mountain and its surrounding wilderness, which create one of the largest preserved areas in the country. The only vast wilderness in Alaska with a road through it: a single road, two lanes at its best, 92 miles long.

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

From left: monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum), tall Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Despite that persistent call, the realities of visiting the park almost put me off.  In order to penetrate this wilderness, you need to spend 8 to 11 hours, depending on how far you go, on the equivalent of a school bus. This had little appeal to me, though I would have done it. But it would have been impossible for George. He is happy to have me go off on my own adventures, but this was a call to go together.

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

From left: Siberian aster (Aster sibericus), one-flowered cinquefoil (Potentilla uniflora)

One evening, at our RV park in Seward, I started chatting with our neighbor. We discovered we were from the same part of the world, both full time travelers, so had lots to talk about, including the places in Alaska she had already been. She told me that they were able to get a pass to drive their own car through Denali because her partner has MS, and would not have been able to deal with a day on the bus.

An entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the right to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the left

Lichen needs close-ups, but I was enchanted with this entire lichen village taking over an old tree stump, from the white and pink (common name: fairy barf) on the left to the tiny, gray green golf tees of cladonia cryptochlorophaea growing out of moss on the right. A click will give you a somewhat larger view.

So we went, and got the pass, good for four days, from a warm and helpful ranger. As we drove in the first day, I got teary, and George told me he had goosebumps. I went all four days, George three. The second day I planned to hike and see what wildflowers were still around, but, on discovering the amazing lichen world in the park, spent most of the afternoon lying on the ground. The third and fourth days we had a quick view of Denali itself, shimmering in the distance, having briefly emerged from its usual shroud of clouds. The last day we just kept driving, and went the entire 92 miles in and back, a nine hour adventure, discovering, at the far end of the road, a world of bog and muskeg different from the rest of the drive.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordDenali, though full of beauty, isn’t the most beautiful or the most intriguing place I’ve seen, and people don’t go for that reason. Its lure is the ability, via the road, to see the wildlife living and roaming freely within a sliver of its 5 million acres. The original impulse to create the park was to conserve this wildlife. And there’s plenty of it: we saw caribou, moose, eagles, ptarmigan, and lots of grizzlies, one digging up roots less than 20 feet away from us. (We were in the truck, needless to say.)

grizzly-bear-ursus-arctos-horribilis-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordI loved seeing the animals and birds, and the flowers and lichen, but there was something about the land itself that made it hard to take my eyes off it. Denali is subarctic wilderness, definitely not a showy landscape, with lots of low shrubs, dark green spruce, small scale wildflowers and grasses, acres of moss, tons of lichen. They are all native to their place. With few roads to carry plant invaders, native plants have been able to form a vast, millenia-old ecosystem that supports both the animal life of the park, and the Athabascans, who have a 13,000 year history there, and still use the park for subsistence hunting and gathering.

denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2It filled my soul to float through mile on mile of this subtle tapestry of greens, browns, tan, yellows, punctuated with rivers and ponds, rimmed with snowy mountains, usually under a moody gray sky. To see the mountain itself show up one evening as the sun set on its western flank, and then to see her luminous presence the next morning, before the clouds veiled her. To lie on the ground with lichen. To see the last of the wildflowers. To have caribou walk by on the road, heading in the opposite direction. To watch a bear at close range.

caribou-rangifer-tarandus-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThere is a crucial magic about this. It’s not just about seeing the animals, or the landscape. It’s about knowing, as we build and pave and improve and fix, that there are enough places left for life to go on as if humans were not rushing to dominate the rest of the planet.  Denali is one of the places where the heart of the world can beat undisturbed, and that is what makes it so important.

Why the call? I have no answer. The calls seldom explain themselves. The landscapes they leave on the heart take time to make their difference. I may never look back and say, this happened because I was there. But Denali called, I went, and I am changed.denali-denali-national-park-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

The Alaska icon: fireweed

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

If my passion were for fishing, or climbing mountains, or volcanoes, or glaciers, or mighty rivers, or wildlife, or liquid carbon geology, I might have chosen a different icon: salmon, Denali, Mt. Redoubt, the Matanuska Glacier, the Yukon River, the grizzly bear, the moose, the bald eagle, or even the Alaska pipeline. But, though I treasure many of them, not only is my passion for wildflowers, but all of those other icons never seem to appear, in summer, without fireweed somewhere in the picture. So, it’s my icon.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

Fireweed along the Alaska Highway

It’s the flower of summer, and it’s literally everywhere. It can match my height in the temperate rain forest, or cap out at less than a foot in the alpine tundra. The roadsides are magenta, open meadows are filled with it, the views of mountains and glaciers are seen through the tall, many-flowered racemes, dark green spruce forests form the backdrop of vast stands of it.

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

Fireweed is beautiful, sturdy, prolific, and always up to something. The new shoots can be eaten like asparagus. The leaves can be dried for tea. The flowers bloom over a long time, slowly opening from the lower stem to the tip. The first thing a local resident told me when I arrived in Valdez is that summer is over when the bloom gets to the top. While blooming, they make bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds very happy. According to a beekeeper, fireweed bees produce a white honey. Farmers’ markets sell pink fireweed jam.

As they bloom and fade, the ovaries under the petals continue to grow into long, slender pods, filled with so many seeds an individual plant can produce as much as 80,000. The pods continue the color scheme, sometimes almost as vivid as the flowers.

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

A pod splitting open on a windy day

After a point, while flowers are still opening above them, the pods begin to split open, curving away from a slender, erect center, into four thin bracts, and 300 to 500 seeds from each pod start to float through the air. Once open, the curving bracts continue to encircle each other. As they dry, the color becomes gold in the sunlight. The leaves turn a bright, deep red, a memory of the vivid summer color still lingering on the roadsides as the flowers disappear completely.

Pods completely reflexed in autumn color

Pods completely reflexed in autumn gold

Eventually all those seeds land somewhere, and wait. If on open meadows or disturbed roadsides, they can germinate the next spring and bloom by their second year. If in the forest, they wait on nature. At some point, fire sweeps through, and, without the tree tops blocking their sun, or the roots taking all the water, fireweed is the first flower to burst into bloom, which is where it gets its name. It isn’t just fire —  it was the first plant to blossom in bomb craters in London in WWII, will take over a roadside immediately after the surfacing crews have left, and fills the swales of housing developments if it isn’t mowed down. Once established, the roots create rhizomes, spreading mat-like through the soil, forming a strong network of plants.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Everything happening at once: flowers still blooming at the top, bright pods keeping the roadsice color going, fluffy seeds beginning to fly

So, it was a constant thrill. And now my truck is filled with these seeds. I picked a split pod one day and was intrigued to see clearly, for the first time, that slender center ‘pole’, and wondered if that tiny surface held all those hundreds of seeds, with their attendant feathery hairs caught by the four bracts as they curved away, pulling the seeds with them. Testing this further, I picked three pods that were just splitting open at the top, to see if I could catch this magic in the act. I put them on the dashboard, planning to take them back to the trailer and watch them.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Stewart-British-Columbia-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordA short time later I realized they had all burst wide open, right there on the dashboard, and the seeds were beginning to float around. They floated the whole day, showing a particular affinity for George, who had to keep blowing them away. I was utterly delighted. The next day, when I got into the truck, not a single feather was to be seen anywhere. Even the curling bracts had disappeared from the dashboard, though I later found one on the floor. Some of the seeds must have gone out the window on the trip, or the door when we got out, but the rest — hundreds of them — are still in there. So I have this vision of the truck, after many years of service, being put out to pasture, doors open, letting in sun, rain, dirt slowly accumulating, and all those fireweed seeds springing to life.fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford