Category Archives: Ecology

A season of birds

Ducklings in Corte Madera Marsh in Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordSpring began with a small avalanche of ducklings. Next door in Marin is the Corte Madera Marsh, a remnant of a vast area of marsh, estuary, and mudflats that once formed the margins of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. For the most part, these wetlands now hold houses, Route 101, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers. But over 1,000 acres have been preserved along the eastern edge of the city of Corte Madera.

An old railroad bed maintained as a dike to prevent flooding creates a lagoon that is a haven for shore birds. The dike has a wide gravel trail on top, so you walk right into the heart of their world. Ducks and geese are regulars, as are egrets, especially in the fall, when pelicans also show up. Black-necked stilts wade the edges on their long, jagged legs. An oyster catcher flies by occasionally.

A season of birds-white pelicans in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThere are great blue herons, though I’m more likely to see one taking off then standing in the marsh. Endangered rails breed here, but I didn’t see any this year. Hawks hover and dive. Dark sparrows flit along the edges of the paths. Red-wing blackbirds announce spring from the tops of reeds.

The first family of ducks showed up before Easter and were quickly followed by another, and another. There were at least ten broods as the season progressed. The sheer adorableness of this cascade of ducklings was so addicting that I began to walk along the lagoon almost every day. As the earlier-born grew to adolescence, a new, tiny bunch would be zipping across the water like bugs, coming to a screeching halt, turning around and zipping back to their mother. When not moving at top speed, they were constantly flipping themselves over. Practice, I assumed, for their later bottoms-up feeding. 

A season of birds-black necked stilt with four eggs in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

They preferred the narrow canal that leads off the lagoon, so they were close at hand. There was one goose family, but it stayed in the larger pond, and could only be seen clearly with binoculars. Later in the season, black-necked stilts suddenly began squawking and dive bombing me as I passed. So I knew that they, too, had babies to protect. Sure enough, tiny balls of feathers on minute sticks of legs were investigating the edges of small pools, tucked away from the other bird families. Stilt parents are far fiercer than ducks, but they have a harder, chancier job. They have fewer babies at once, and their eggs, laid on the gravel on the edge of the water, are precarious. The only two stilt families I saw close at hand had one and two chicks.

A season of birds-black necked stilt chick in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt chick, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

Without a population of predators like fox or snapping turtles, the duck families prospered. They lost some babies to hawks, one family getting down to five from a start of twelve. Their mother seemed to have disappeared, and I worried about them until they grew up. All families lost some little ones, except for one, which had a goose attached. From the time they were bits of fluff until they were fully grown, I never saw them without their goose. She clearly saw herself as a guardian. It was she who hung back for the wayward duckling — and there is always a wayward duckling — when the others moved on with their mother. She even shepherded a duckling from another family, who, lost and madly chirping, realized it had been left behind. The goose made sure all was well before rejoining her brood. 

 

I was fascinated by this menage, which seemed to be a great success. If I had any doubt about the efficacy of having a goose as part of a duck family, it disappeared one evening when the whole feather armada was softly gliding by me. Mother ducks have a quiet flow of chirps and clucks when they want to warn their family. The goose, however, when spooked by someone walking on the other side of the canal, honked like mad. All thirteen ducklings instantly scooted ahead, seeming to skim right across the top of the water, each leaving a wake.

Ducklings grow up satisfyingly slowly, by bird standards. But by the beginning of July they were all grown up. I was somewhat consoled by the stilt babies, though they, in contrast, grew much faster. As I was mourning my loss, black-crowned night herons suddenly showed up, standing stock still at the end of the canal, silent and brooding, apparently unafraid of humans. They breed in a small pond across the highway, so perhaps these were the young beginning their exploration of the world. Several egrets seemed to settle in for the summer, picking their way in slow motion along the shore, stopping, making a lightning jab into the water, and coming up with a small fish held in their beak.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

That I could enjoy living among these birds is a testament to conservation efforts. These marshes have been under assault since the gold rush and early lumbering days, which drove tons of sediment down rivers, into the bays. As with many things in our rush to control and build on top of nature, we didn’t understand the importance of wetlands until we realized — often too late — their role in absorbing flood waters, in providing the bottom elements of the food chain for fish, in buffering inland areas from the constant flux at the edges of large bodies of water, in the life cycle of birds. 

In the nineteenth century, pioneers used to marvel at something the Native Americans had known for millennia: spring and fall skies darkened by the numbers of migrating birds. Flying from forest to forest, meadow to meadow, marsh to marsh, millions of birds would make their way north and south along great flyways for breeding and wintering. At the farthest ends of their range, in the Arctic and in Patagonia, for examples, wild, open spaces still abound. But along the way, their stopping places have lost ground to houses and offices, been broken up by roads and parking lots. Forests have been cut down. Marshes have been filled to make them buildable.

A season of birds-Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordBird populations are in decline without their familiar habitat. In the 1980s, when I first moved into my house at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, the springtime calling and singing of birds would wake me at five AM with delightful, uproarious bedlam. By the time I left twenty-eight years later, that had ceased.

In the Corte Madera Marsh, however, the breeding population is larger than it was a century ago, when egrets and herons were hunted so their feathers could decorate hats, the wetlands were already being filled in for buildings, and the railroad had cut through it. Designed for wildlife and flood protection, the restoration of my bird-filled marsh was the result of a trade made when a local shopping center was constructed. Once a dredge spoil dump for the Army Corps of Engineers, the restored pond not only houses birds that have nested there historically, but new ones, like stilts and the occasional tern, have started breeding there. 

A season of birds-egret, Corte Madera Marsh flying over the Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Egret, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

While restoration can’t recreate the original complexity of an ecosystem millions of years in the making, and is no substitute for preservation, it has a crucial role in fostering the health of our earth and its creatures, including us. Even — perhaps especially — in the midst of urban areas, where we tend to be cut off from the both the solace and importance of the natural world. When I took the picture below, Route 101 was buzzing with commuter traffic at my back. Just south of where I stood is a shopping center. At night, in the preserve across the pond, homeless people take shelter. Human life, in all its complexity, is teeming here. 

Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThe lagoon matters. I stopped to speak to a maintenance man at the pump that lowers the water level when storms are expected. “People call and complain,” he said, “if the water stays low too long.” He was resigned, but I was delighted. It means that the people rushing by are noticing, relishing the links to the larger natural world the preserve supplies.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of blue sky reflecting in still water, birds floating and flying, the marsh and pond are fed by far vaster forces: the ebb and flow of the bay, the power of the rivers flowing into it, the cold depths of the great ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to their immediate visual delight, the birds, descendants of dinosaurs, connect us to the mysteries of deep time, as do the plants on the edge of the pond, evolving through eons to clean the water, create breathable air, feed the birds. These are the wider gifts of preservation and restoration, and the rewards of the work we do to insure them.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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Blessed unrest: the bioblitz

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Silver puffs (Uropappus lindleyi) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I’d never seen the word bioblitz until I got my first invitation to one. It had instant appeal: join a group of volunteers to survey a specific area, in an effort to catalog every species you find. Being on the ground taking photos of plants and bugs is one of my favorite things to do. Doing it to gather information for organizations who protect these lands made it even more appealing. And doing it with a group of people made it fun. So off I went.

And it was just like that. Sponsored by the Marin County Parks Department and an organization called One Tam, volunteers met at Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve and divided into four groups. Ours went to a meadow and immediately began photographing and discussing grasses, seed heads, insects, leaves, flowers. For the most part, we took photos with our phones, because as we went we were uploading our observations to an app called iNaturalist.

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California

California brome (Bromus californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Even though the point of the photos is information, not aesthetics, I’m used to photographing slowly, and the app was new to me. The group spread out, leaving me happily immersed in grasses since the wildflowers had largely finished in that dry meadow. I enjoyed the chatter drifting back as my fellow blitzers debated the finer points of identification. This went on for about three hours, and then we went to a local library to have lunch, continue plant identification, and upload observations to iNaturalist.

In the short time since, the word bioblitz keeps popping up. Memories of my wonderful time in Missouri came back when I received the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s newsletter, announcing an upcoming bioblitz. I looked up others in Marin, and there have been plenty. It’s a popular project with schools. The one I went to was One Tam’s third this season. I don’t know where I’ve been, since the word has been around since the 1990’s, first used by the National Park Service, who do one in a different park every year. Last year they had a burst of them to celebrate the park service’s centennial. They happen all over the world.

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

A clover seedhead in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

There have always been species studies of various kinds. Some are strictly academic, with areas carefully plotted and divided by stakes, then monitored over seasons and years. There are other community species counts, like the Christmas bird counts held in many places. One of the things I loved about my bioblitz was its casual seriousness. The surveys are important for the care and planning of these areas, and some of the people were very knowledgeable. But anyone can come, learn, be part of taking care of the natural world. The more experienced people helped me navigate iNaturalist and identify plants. And I helped one man, who, seeing that I’d switched to my SLR camera with its telephoto lens, came up with a bug on his arm.

On that warm, windy Saturday, out under the blue sky, counting living things, we were one of the millions of threads that Paul Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World. One Tam is the Tamalpais Lands Collaborative, an environmental organization created in 2014 to help coordinate the work of five other groups for the benefit of Mount Tamalpais, its parks and watershed. Their job is to pool the expertise and resources, and coordinate the efforts of the National Park Service, California State Parks, Marin County Parks, Marin Municipal Water District, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

California oat grass (Danthonia californica) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

I heard about the bioblitz via Marin’s chapter of the California Native Plant Society, a real force for knowledge about and preservation of native plants throughout the state. Such groups rely on ardent volunteers for help, and often for their existence. More occasional volunteers show up for days of species counting and cataloging, removing weeds, planting natives.

iNaturalist, which started in 2008 as a graduate project, is now connecting naturalists, professional and casual, all over the world. It has almost 500,000 active users. In the week before my bioblitz, 5,497 of us signed up. My 29 observations were a tiny fraction of the 15,000 that were added in the twenty-four hours between May 20 and 21. A worldwide endeavor to create “a living record of life on earth,” iNat itself, now part of the California Academy of Sciences, feeds its data to other organizations, like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Thus, once home after the bioblitz, and uploading observations to iNaturalist, I was connected to ever more threads in a widening community. I listed my observations on my own page,  and added them to the One Tam Gary Giacomini Bioblitz project. The next thing I knew people in the iNatualist community were filling in missing identifiers. That prompted me to keep exploring to get closer to the actual species. After looking at caterpillars online until my eyes crossed, I remembered that another member of our group had pointed out the one above, so went to see how he identified his photo. He had a question mark on his find, but I kept checking and went with it. The second I typed in ‘white-lined sphinx moth,’ iNat’s Identotron popped up with a page of taxonomy. Then a group called ‘Moths of California’ picked it up.

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist's Identotron

White-lined sphinx moth taxonomy from iNaturalist’s Identotron

This was very addicting. I began to look at bugs. I searched online for ‘gray metallic beetle’, then added ‘insect’ when I got a lot of Volkswagens. The closest one I could find landed me on BugGuide.net. I signed up and posted a bug ID request for the beetle below. Almost immediately someone came back with metallic wood boring beetle, in the family Buprestidae. Since there are almost 400,000 species of beetles, this was close enough to make me perfectly happy. Delighted with that experience, I did another bug, and located its family.

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Metallic wood-boring beetle (Buprestidae)

I’ve written before about how much comfort I take in the millions of people Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest. At a time when so much seems to be unraveling, the idea that a simple bug identification request can link me to an insect lover somewhere in the world, promises something else. The bioblitz I did is connected to all other such days, and the people who participate in them. The preserve I was in is named after a county superintendent who was instrumental in land preservation. The network of groups that sponsored the day represents thousands of dedicated public servants and volunteers, who donate serious amounts of time and money. The North American Native Plant Society has located at least one native plant group in every US state and Canadian province. The California Native Plant Society is a conservation powerhouse with 35 chapters. All that was connected to this one small bioblitz in one small area of the world.

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Slender clarkia (Clarkia gracilis) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

Our earth is at great risk from actions and inactions on many layers — governance, corporate, private. Our definition of economic progress includes seeing the world as a resource to be despoiled for profit. Countering that are millions of people weaving a net both by their individual actions, and by their work as part of a community or organization. We are the embodiment of the beautiful Hindu image of Indra’s net, the web stretched across the heavens by the great god, reaching into infinity.

At every intersection of the threads, he set a glittering jewel, each reflecting every other in the vast expanse. Nothing exists alone. Everything we do radiates from one gem to another, ad infinitum. Action works both ways: every thread that is destroyed echoes through the whole. But every thread that is woven or rewoven also resonates throughout. I like to think of the net in constant motion, like a jeweled spider web in a soft breeze, moving gently but persistently with the steady reverberations of our blessed unrest.

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space bioblitz, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

Unidentified grass in the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

As a landscape designer, I specialized in native plants. When I first started my business in the 1980s, the workers at a local wholesale nursery called me ‘the weed lady.’ I was always asking for plants that everyone else was pulling out. Even clients attracted by my natural landscaping approach would propose that first ‘we get rid of all these weeds.’ I would gently point out that those were the plants that made the landscape natural. I gave lots of lectures about native plants, back in slide-show days, with pictures of the glories all around us. Why, I would ask, live in a house in an area of distinct beauty, and then make it look like everywhere else? By the time I retired, attitudes had shifted enough that local nurseries were competing with each other for the largest stock of indigenous plants, and a couple were growing them from local seed. 

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) orange native plants, El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

With a few exceptions, I didn’t use natives exclusively. In southern New York, at the far eastern end of Long Island, there were too few native perennials to create lush, all-summer-bloom gardens. And the browsing hordes of deer meant that unfenced gardens needed deer-resistant plants, which were not necessarily native. My own property bordered on a preserve, so I had my fill of the beauties of native Long Island: switch grass, little blue stem, bayberry, blueberry, shad, cedar, wild roses. Before the deer decided to include them on their menu, the early summer meadow was dotted with butterfly weed, and the fall meadow would be filled with goldenrod and asters.

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) yellow flowered native plants in San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

But near the house, where I wanted a summer full of scent and color, I stayed with the aromatic Mediterranean plants that deer don’t like: sages, lavender, catmint. I mixed these with grasses and deer resistant shrubs. This was an approach that worked with any open, sunny, deer-prone property. But even without deer, people understandably want to be able to enjoy the beauty of a blooming summer. On Long Island that meant non-natives in garden beds. So I looked for plants that behaved like natives: didn’t need lots of water during the heat waves, could cope with wet feet in the winter, and didn’t need to be sprayed for bugs. Most important, for the sake of the nitrate-susceptible waters surrounding us and the aquifer below, plants that weren’t dependent on fertilizer. 

California wild rose (Rosa California) pink flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

It’s in the larger plants that Long Island natives excel, and I planted a lot of native shrubs. Loathing the ubiquitous walls of privet hedge that close off the landscape, I loved to create thickets of native trees and shrubs that would bloom in spring, produce bird-enticing berries all summer, and beautiful leaf color in the fall. Planted thickly enough, this approach produces plenty of privacy. Even better, whether on the property or passing by it, you were looking at Long Island, and not any prosperous suburb anywhere in the country.

During my wonderful weekend with Joanna Macy in early April, I was one of several people in the landscaping business. Susan Friedman, a landscape architect, told me that four of her native plant gardens were on a garden tour on May 7. So, off I went to see the California approach, on that tour and another the following week.

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), purple flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

California has far more native perennials and grasses than New York, so it’s easier to create entirely native gardens. The biggest issue, once the winter rains are finished, is water. Natives are ideally suited for the dry months, since that’s exactly what they evolved to cope with. None of Susan’s clients wanted thirsty lawns, so stonework became an important part of the design: paths, a patio area around a pool, striking boulders set among the plants. Dry stream beds thread through the gardens. They are not only natural design elements — the California coastal hills are very rocky — but act as catch basins, absorbing runoff from winter downpours. This keeps water in the ground longer, protects the soil, and prevents downhill streams from erosive flooding. Among the rocks were the glorious, thriving plants, echoing the hills beyond.

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus 'Butter Yellow') yellow-flowering native plants, in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Purple sage (salvia leucophylla) with monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus “Butter Yellow’) in Novato, California

Why plant natives? In a neighborhood stripped of its natural vegetation and already filled with the artificial environment of buildings and roads, does it really matter what we put in our gardens? As long as we forgo plants that require poisons or scarce water to survive, and choose among the vast array that can be grown organically, what harm are we doing by enjoying plants that are native to Japan, or the Mediterranean, or Eurasia? In many cases, there is no harm, if that’s our criteria. I loved my blue-flowered, fragrant Mediterranean plants, which made bees very happy and were perfectly content to prosper with little water and a yearly dose of compost. I welcome daffodils and tulips in the spring. I’m delighted to catch the scent of luscious peonies in flowery cottage gardens, behind fences covered with hardy roses.

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea), pink-flowering native plants in El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

But there is serious danger, and it’s often too late once the harm is discovered. Purple loosestrife was a popular garden plant, a Eurasian import introduced in the 1800s. It took generations before it was obvious that it was a rampant pest, choking lakes and river banks, and destroying marshes in so many places that it’s banned in over thirty states. Tall, handsome pampas grass from South America seemed an ideal addition to dry California landscapes; now it’s spreading onto coastal hillsides and taking over wetlands. Privet, from China, seemed to be such an ideal hedge you can find it boxing off properties from coast to coast, but it’s filling forest understories in every southeastern state. Autumn olive, an Asian import planted widely for erosion control, was prized for its quick growth and soft, silvery foliage. Now, among many other places, it’s infesting the great river canyons in Utah. 

There’s a long list of noxious garden escapees that are crowding out indigenous species. Nearly half of our at-risk natives, and 20% of the endangered ones, are threatened by non-native invaders. So, if we prize our natural landscapes, exotics of any kind are a potential threat. In a world full of flower lovers, served by a nursery trade dependent on offering new, tempting varieties each year, this is a complicated problem. We are bucking evolution when we move plants from one part of the world to another, whether for gardening or agriculture. The factors that control invasive behavior in one place — birds, bugs, soil chemistry, climate — may not be there in another. Interactions are unpredictable, even when all seems well for many years.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) purple flowered native plants, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

Using native plants in gardens is one solution to this multi-layered problem, but it isn’t the only reason to plant for the place we’re in. Reducing our use of pesticides, fertilizers and water is another compelling reason. As gardeners and homeowners, our vast numbers put us in the forefront of efforts to keep our groundwater, air and soil healthy. Offering birds, butterflies and bees the plants they have evolved with protects their habitat and numbers. One gardener on the tour hosts 46 species of birds, 12 species of butterflies, and more than 200 species of insects. If all the homes in a neighborhood created native plant landscapes, it would form a greenbelt of food and nesting sources. Add on more neighborhoods taking the same approach, and you’re knitting together significant territory for wildlife, who leave areas that get too chopped up.  

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata 'Mt. Garland'), magenta-flowered native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Mt. Garland clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata ‘Mt. Garland’) Novato, California.

These are wonderful reasons for planting natives. And there’s more. For me, preserving the natural landscape is as much a spiritual question as a practical one. Native plants are the soul of their place. The hills surrounding me right now, with their coast oaks, manzanitas, sages, buckwheats, mariposa lilies, sweeps of goldfields, purple needle grass, and hosts of other drought tolerant, hardy, beautiful plants, speak to me of the spirit of the northern coast of California. Their language is very distinct from the oak/hickory forests, full of mountain laurel, sweet pepperbush and swamp azaleas, or the rolling dunes white with blooming beach plum that I knew on coastal Long Island. And both are utterly unlike the blowing grasses, coneflowers, rudbeckias, and sand lilies of the open prairies. Those plants in turn speak a different dialect than those in the deserts of the southwest, or the canyons of Utah, or the mountains of Alberta.

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) white flowered native plants, El Sobrante, California by Betsey Crawford

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

When we replace these varied and specific languages with another, often generic one, we detach ourselves from the spirit of the land we are part of. I was blessed to live for many years in a place of great and wild beauty. Traveling for the past few years has brought me through one paradise after another. The way we have arranged our towns and cities has created far too many dead landscapes, cutting us off from feeling an intimate bond with the unbounded beauty and energy of the earth that created us. This is a great loss, because loving the place we find ourselves gives us the courage and vitality to preserve it. Connecting to the plants that are the life of native landscapes literally roots us in the ground of our being.

Orange California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with purple blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium vellum) native plants in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) with blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) Novato, California

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

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The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum), Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I did something recently that I’ve been putting off for a long time: I joined Joanna Macy and twenty-eight other people for a weekend of the Work that Reconnects, workshops she has been developing and offering since the 1970s. I knew of Joanna as a philosopher of both ecology and Buddhism, full of wisdom and deep practice on both fronts. Over the years I would see opportunities to join her. I’d carefully read the description, which always included confronting our deep pain about what is happening with the earth. It sounded profound; it sounded like something I should do; it sounded very painful. I would decide to do it another time. 

There were several threads that went into joining Joanna this spring. I am in Marin for now, just across the San Francisco Bay from her home in Berkeley. She is in her mid-eighties, and I wanted to be able to work with her before she completely passes the baton to others. I listened to an interview with her which made me realize how delightful she is, so I could assume delight would be part of the workshop. And I was in such pain at the drastic backward lurch we took with last fall’s election, that I figured I couldn’t feel any worse. I might even see my way to some clarity and faith, since the weekend was called, after her book of the same title, “Active Hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy.” 

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) taken in Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

As with many things we dread, it wasn’t what I feared. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend. The work was even familiar, similar to practices I’d done some years ago at my beloved Genesis Farm, a spiritual and ecological center in New Jersey. There, as here, I sat in circles large and small, paired up, went off alone, all to explore not only what I felt, but where such feelings could lead me, how to operate with them and beyond them. Once again, with Joanna’s group, I learned how much I share with others, and how much comfort their presence on the journey gives me.

There is, sadly, an unending amount of pain and anger to be felt when we are alive to what’s happening on our planet: the loss of habitat, the rate of extinction, the pollution of oceans and rivers, the unraveling of polar integrity as the climate warms, the struggles of species, including our own. The list is literally endless. Though I spend a lot of my time in continual concern about and celebration of plants, when I answered prompts that asked for my worst fears or deepest hopes, my first response was often about the suffering of people:  hungry children, trapped women, exploited workers, refugees with nowhere to go, indigenous people losing their homes and sacred places. The thinking behind the devastation of the natural world is the same thinking that exploits and degrades humans.

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue curls (Trichostema lanatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

This heightened awareness led to one of the most memorable moments of the weekend. I’ve always assumed that the earth could survive us better than we can survive each other. That, if necessary, she would eventually shrug us off her beautiful shoulders and get on with her very long life. Animals and plants are resilient. Cities would eventually crumble, plants would take root in the rubble, creatures would spread out into their ancient habitats. Other life forms would eventually evolve. There was a certain grief-filled comfort in this. 

Then Joanna led an exercise called ‘milling,’ where we walked around our space aimlessly until she had us stop. We took the hands of the person nearest us and looked into his or her eyes while Joanna spoke of the profound beauty of seeing this unique and precious being, the only one that will ever be. Then we moved on. After about five encounters, we stopped.

Later that day, in another context, a young, radiant rabbi, pregnant with her first child, said that she, too, had always thought the earth would be fine without us. “But,” she said, “when we were milling, I realized that the earth loves us.” 

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) taken in the Charmlee Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) Charmless Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I was very moved by her, and by everyone there, especially the young people, finding their way. There were heart-rending moments. A man in his mid-twenties wept at the speed of the earth’s losses, and the despair that he can do anything to stop them. Several of his contemporaries wondered if they should bring children into this world. A young woman whose baby had just turned one talked about how much she feels mothers are shamed in our society. Our rabbi spoke of having to be strong for her congregation, who are terrified of the anti-semitism unleashed in the last year.  One woman is afraid the ocean will be dead by the time her 12-year-old daughter, who wants to be a marine biologist, is ready. Another young man talked about trying to resist the lure of violent protest.

Anguish and rage can rise easily, when we let them. But we are often afraid to give them space, because we have no idea what to do with their force. By closing difficult emotions off, we risk numbing our ability to respond to the urgencies of this time. Or we can be all too willing to feel them, but not to release them, and then be immobilized by a tangle of despair and fury. The constant barrage of things to feel bad about is overwhelming and deeply dispiriting. No matter how much we want to help, we feel like hummingbirds taking a drop of water to a wildfire

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Joanna has been a Buddhist since the 1960s, when she went to India for the Peace Corps, with her husband and children. Her work took her among newly arrived refugees from Tibet: the young Dalai Lama and the monks that had fled Chinese occupation. Inspired by the peaceful good humor radiating from them, despite all they had been through, she began to study Buddhism, and eventually became a teacher.

So it would be natural that her solution to the problem of pain is simple, ancient and very challenging: be present. Allow it. Breathe it into our hearts and give it room, give it time. Let ourselves mourn and rage. No matter how large or overwhelming, grant whatever comes the space it asks for. And then, breathing out, release it. In all, a process that might require a lot of steady breathing.

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

I loved being with Joanna. She is an embodiment of the work she offered us — by turns joyful, angry, full of grief, impish, wise, questioning, organizing, open to the flow. She’s a living version of The Guest House, Rumi’s poem about embracing everything. 

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) taken in Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

That was the steadily opening heart of the weekend: embrace it all, accord whatever comes its place, release it back into the flow, carry on with your thread in the fabric. These difficult emotions arise from our greatest gift as humans: compassion. Joanna moved us through an ever-renewing spiral, from gratitude, to honoring our pain, to renewing our vision, to going forth with the part of the work that we have chosen, or that has chosen us. “Our approach,’ she says in her book, Active Hope, ‘is to see this as the starting point of an amazing journey that strengthens us and deepens our aliveness.”

The pictures chosen for this essay come from a time when my only choice was to live with pain. My partner, George, was dangerously ill with kidney failure, from a reaction to blood pressure medication. There was no possibility of fending off the dread and heartache. I could only do exactly as Joanna said: allow it. I would walk into the Santa Monica Mountains and feel one emotion after another: sadness, fear, anger, love, pity. And, with all of that, transcendence. It was spring, wildflowers were blooming, and they were my solace. Grief, which rose from loving, could also be comforted by loving. 

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) taken along the Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) Mishe Mokwa Trail, Santa Monica Mountains, California

Damage to the world and its people, which comes from greed and obliviousness, will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings that we are a part of. This is no simple, ‘love, sweet love’ invocation. The kind of love we need is complex, educated, dedicated to human and more-than-human community.

To rethink the way we do things, we need to rethink what we treasure. We need to re-embed our wisp of human history into the long, deep time of earth history. A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world is the most nourishing gift we can give both the earth and ourselves. If it’s clear that we are the planet, instead of on the planet, our choices — and our courage to make them — will change dramatically. 

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) taken in Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) Solstice Canyon, Santa Monica Mountains, California

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

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Wild abandon: the mystery and glory of plant diversity

Plant diversity: Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica)

If I stand on the rocky ledge that is Ring Mountain on a spring day, within sight of San Francisco and bustling, built-up Marin County, I will be surrounded by a staggering variety of life. Wildflowers will be blooming: three different mariposa lilies, orange poppies, pink checker bloom, blue dicks, yellow and white tidy-tips, pink and white buckwheat, two different wild onions, milk maids, iris in all shades of purple and white. They will be growing among a mix of grasses, some three inches high, others up to two feet, with narrower and broader leaves, and tight or airy inflorescences. Above their heads hawks and vultures will be wheeling. Sparrows, thrushes and wrens will be nesting in shrubs edging stands of wind-sculpted live oak. A coyote might emerge from among the rock outcroppings, stop at the sight of me, and choose another direction. A snake will make a quick, sinuous getaway at a movement of my feet.

Plant diversity: Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

Butterflies of varied hues will float by. Different species of bees will be busy with the wildflowers. The dirt at my feet will be filled with billions of microbes, yeast, and fungi. When I aim my camera lens at a flower for a close up, I might find it full of tiny beetles I couldn’t see without magnification. If I raise my eyes to neighboring Mount Tamalpais, I’ll know of lives there that aren’t here: orchids, trillium, hounds tongue, varieties of ferns cascading down hillsides. Bobcats are roaming there, and the tapping of woodpeckers softly echoes through the forest. Just a few miles north, the redwoods will start. Three hours east alpine plants and bears are coming to life under the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Another hour and I’d be among the desert plants of Nevada. Just west, beyond Mt. Tam, I’ll float among whales, dolphins, seals, and the countless fish and plants that make up the life of the Pacific Ocean.

That’s just a tiny sample of what’s living in one tiny area of the world. And an area that is also full of a wide spectrum of humans, along with our buildings, cars and roads. It’s not remotely wild here. And yet the sheer exuberance that has characterized evolution is on full display. It’s estimated that there are between 500 and 600,000 plant species on the earth. We’ve identified about 250,000 of them. More are evolving all the time. A 2011 study postulated that there are 87 million species on the planet, but the fungus crowd immediately disagreed with the study’s parameters, saying that fungus alone could eventually account for 5 million species. 

Plant diversity: Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa)

In other words, we don’t know. It’s a noble effort to track all of this, and crucial for species preservation in the midst of a frightening rate of extinction. But lists don’t tell us why we have all this exuberant abundance of forms, on an earth that itself offers a wide array of habitats: mountains, ponds, forests, rivers, deserts, savannah, estuaries, rolling hill country, prairie, arctic tundra, valleys, mud flats, rain forest, oceans, canyons. Evolution clearly chose variety as a driving force. There is innate wisdom in diversity; we’re living proof of its benefits. The mammalian world, including us, exists today because tiny mammals survived the meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Plant diversity: Floral diversity: Douglas iris (Iris douglasiuna) on the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata)

Genetic diversity within a species is also a strength, which is why sexual reproduction dominates the planet. Having genes from each parent keeps subtly mixing the gene pool, which makes it more likely that plants will gain resilience so they can prosper in their particular habitats. Combining new genes, generation after generation, allows for mutations that give rise to different colors, shapes and adaptations, leading to a wider variety of species.

But still, I puzzle about this. Why the unbelievable profusion of forms? Why so many sizes, shapes and colors, so many wondrous and sometimes odd variations? I accept the idea that the wildflowers surrounding me on Ring Mountain evolved to compete with each other for resources and pollinators, but that just moves the question laterally. Why are the pollinators so diverse, and why are their tastes — in nectar, color, pollen, approach — so varied? 

Plant diversity: Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) taken in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

Though I’m delighted with the way things worked out, I can imagine an evolution that included less diversity. There are many more yellow flowers than purple, pink or red, implying that yellow has an evolutionary advantage. Why didn’t nature stick to yellow? Pollinators could have evolved to suit an all-yellow-flower world. It’s almost as if the creative forces just couldn’t help themselves. Wide petals! Strappy petals! What’s the oddest shape we can think of? Let’s fill California with orange poppies! Let’s surprise everyone and give luminous, silky flowers to tough, prickly cactus! Let’s perfume the roses!

It’s easy to understand why people for millennia would think all this has been put here for our benefit and joy. But those luminous cactus flowers were there for bees and hummingbirds, for the propagation of more cacti, not for human delight. The ancestors of the wind-blown wildflowers on Ring Mountain, and the tiny, vivid spring orchids on Mount Tam were around for up to 100 million years before we cast our receptive eyes and processing brains on them and found them beautiful.

Plant diversity: Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Carl Sagan and Thomas Berry, among others, have postulated the appealing idea that the universe evolved humans to be able to contemplate itself through those eyes and brains. I love this idea, but I also find it hard to wrap my head around. What kind of a universe would this be?   Humans have long attributed consciousness to the cosmos, called by various names, all under the general category of gods. But our gods have always been a lot like us. The Hebrew bible says that humans were created in God’s image. But in reality, the often temperamental god depicted there shares a lot of traits with a warlord living in the Bronze Age, when the stories were first written.

I don’t attribute our brand of consciousness to the creative powers that brought us here with infinite slowness and incredibly elegant detail. But to say that we evolved so the universe can contemplate itself implies a mystery of intent that I struggle — happily — to fathom. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by a particular link between our mind and the universe. I find the idea that every rule governing the cosmos can be expressed — and predicted — by mathematical formulas both astonishing and hard to comprehend. But those who understand this language are filled with its beauty. It intrigues me that a cosmos bound by this intricate code eventually used it to evolve a brain capable of understanding it.

Plant diversity: Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

I love all of these questions, but when I’m standing on Ring Mountain — in the middle of a circle that includes ocean, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, rock, sky — I don’t think about math. I celebrate the gifts showering my senses — breeze, color, scent, birdsong. “The most beautiful and deepest experience one can have,” Albert Einstein said in My Credo, “is the sense of the mysterious.” How did I get here, one of millions of manifestations of the surrounding cosmos? Why did this wild abundance come into being?  How did we come to sense all these wonderful things? These delightful mysteries are part of the beauty and joy of this sunlit spring moment.

Plant diversity: Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) at Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia)

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

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The intimate bond: humans and dirt

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,00 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,00 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. (Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Every subatomic particle in an apple pie appeared in the first second after the universe expanded into being 13.7 billion years ago. He could have said the same of mud pies, though it wouldn’t have sounded as delicious. But, before apples, and every bite of nourishment that we put in our mouths, the universe needed to invent dirt.

My last two posts, on deep time and on our challenging love of roses, got me thinking about dirt, the devastating loss of it due to current agricultural and extraction practices, and the vast history it has taken to create it. Those first, basic particles were the seeds of the entire universe. But dirt’s— and our — particular possibilities were planted when the great mother stars swung into action a billion years later. These are among my favorite characters in the history of the universe, because they are literally our ancestors. Since Carl Sagan first said it, it has become wonderfully commonplace to say that we are made of stardust. Those unimaginably ancient stars are the ones who, in their eventual disintegration, provided the dust.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, Alaska

Water all over the earth grinds rock into ever smaller particles.

The ‘dust’ consists of elements that could only form over billions of years in those massive, seething balls of three-billion-degree fire, among them carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium. These and their fellow elements are the building blocks of all that we know. If you look down at your bare feet, standing on a patch of dirt, you are looking at two versions of the same things, an intuition acknowledged by many creation stories. In Genesis, God takes earth, adamah, and forms the first. Through Adam he creates Eve, hawwah, the source of life.

Creating beings out of clay and breathing life into them was a story shared by traditions as diverse as the Maori and the Sumerians, who presaged the Genesis story by a thousand years. The Egyptian god Khnum formed the bodies of children from clay, on his potter’s wheel. After the goddess Heket breathed life into them, he placed them in their mothers’ wombs. The ancient Romans’ word for human, homo, came from their word for soil, humus.

These stories reveal a profound, intuitive truth. When our ancestral bacteria first moved out of the volcano-warmed oceans onto land, they began to digest rock, helping to form the mud that gave them the perfect chemical and hydrologic soup to continue to evolve into, ultimately, every living thing, including us. We share our substance with all aspects of life. What differentiates rock from worm from rose from human is the way these substances manifest themselves, determined by a wondrous variety of chemical and physical processes, and the magic of the carbon strands that form our DNA.

Even the tender tips of plant roots help break down rock by Betsey Crawford

The tender tips of plant roots help form dirt, as they find their way into rock, breaking it down, thus expanding their bed of nutrients.

We consider ourselves more advanced because we have evolved to stand up and walk erect, use our hands skillfullly, and ponder all of this. But having handy thumbs and enough prefrontal cortex to invent and manipulate a smartphone doesn’t mean we are not of this earth. Not only are we made of the same elements, but we survive by ingesting more of the same, eating the plants that grow in dirt, siphoning vital chemicals up their stems and into their leaves and fruits, recombining them into even more nutrients. 

We also survive because both dirt itself, along with the plants it grows, keep carbon dioxide and oxygen in the balance we evolved to suit. When we clear a forest, we not only lose the trees that are keeping that balance, but open the forest floor to erosion. We then lose the dirt that  makes the whole system possible. This loss is extremely difficult to remedy, at least in our short time span. Dirt is, at bottom, tiny particles of rock. Decaying plants, fungi, lichen and billions of microbes eventually play crucial roles. But first you need enough rocks to break their tight bonds to create the matrix of particles for all that microbial life. 

Lichen covered stone path in Comb Ridge, Blandings, Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt takes a long, long time for rocks to break down. Those archaic bacteria started feeding on them 2.6 billion years ago, and, after all that time, dirt is still a very slight skin — much thinner, in proportion, than our skin — on the surface of the planet. The rock path above is invisible under a subtly colored layer of lichen, which is slowly breaking those molecular bonds. Rain and the splitting action of frost also help. But if I return to Utah hundreds of years from now, I will still be walking on that same rock.

Each photo in this essay illustrates one of the slow ways in which dirt is formed. The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado has been cutting the canyon below for 160 million years. Some of the eroded particles form the dirt that grows the trees; the rest were carried by the river, deposited over eons in valleys when the river slowed after the rush of spring melts. If enough roots establish themselves in that silt, the dirt will more likely survive subsequent spring floods, creating habitable valleys and deltas. Those are the places our ancestors settled when they turned to agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Dolores Dirt in the making: Dolores river canyon along Route 141, southwest Colorado by Betsey CrawfordDepending on where you live, it’s relatively easy to dig down to solid rock. It might be two feet in some places, 6 feet in others. As you dig, you’ll notice that under the topmost layer of fine particles mixed with plant matter and threaded with fungal mycelium strands, the rock particles get progressively bigger, until just above the solid rock are small boulders. Percolating water, acids from the soil above, changes in temperature — all these work on the rock substrate, breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. 

If this process happens on flat terrain, or gentle slopes, with green matter, worms and microbes available, the dirt has a chance to replenish. If the slope is steep, or there are no roots to hold the dirt in place, it washes away. In the last hundred years — in the name of building, mining, mono-agriculture, manufacturing, meat production — we’ve laid waste to millions upon millions of acres of green, breathing plants. In doing so, we have lost more than a third of our topsoil, leading to a world-wide crisis of desertification.

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests are among the most prolific dirt producers. By Betsey Crawford

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests, with their steady replenishment of decaying plant material, are the most prolific dirt producers on the planet.

We are not going to get the lost topsoil back in short order, but we can stop the devastation and, by replanting and better practices on a multitude of fronts, reclaim some of what has been lost. The technology is neither complicated nor hard to come by. It’s the first step that may be the hardest — to convince ourselves that dirt is even more precious than its compressed cousins, rubies and diamonds. Things are ‘dirt cheap,’ we say, but we are dead wrong. It took 13.7 billion years to get to the thin layer we had 100 years ago, and we risk everything by throwing it away. The only things as valuable as dirt are air and water.

A decaying tree trunk will one day be dirt, helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes by Betsey Crawford

A forest creating dirt: a decaying tree trunk — helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes — can take years, but is certainly faster than rock. 

It may be even more challenging to convince ourselves that we are throwing away our own being. From a historical — and especially agricultural — point of view, it’s easier to see that dirt and human culture are entwined. Loss of soil has been the downfall of civilizations. It’s not as easy to see that humans and dirt are facets of a whole that we separate  at our peril. Yes, our form is more complex, more ‘brainy.’ But we would not have evolved those traits without the community and innate intelligence of dirt. It’s an integral part of our own bodies, grounding us on the breathing planet at our feet, which in turn links us to the deepest and oldest forces on earth, taking us farther and farther back, through the mother stars, all the way to the invention of the universe.

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw. By Betsey Crawford

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw.

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Passion and poison: the thorn in the rose

Yellow David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordWhat can enclose
this ample innerness?
So soft is this touch,
it could soothe any wound.
From Ranier Maria Rilke’s Inside the Rose

I may belong to one of the smallest minorities in history — people who don’t love roses. It’s not that I don’t love the look of many roses, or their subtle variations of color and intricacies of form, or the voluptuous softness of their petals, or they way they hold light in their layered bowls. I love the deep, complex, sensuous perfume of those with scents.  I love the natives, those simpler, wilder roses that grow on the edge of the woods, climb mountains, thrive on the outer coasts and survive arctic winters. With fossils dating back 40 million years, and a likely history of 70 million years, the wild roses are the ancestors of all of the more complex roses in our gardens.

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In all this, I join an endless line of rose lovers, the first long lost in antiquity. Presumably our forebears enjoyed the same things we do: their beauty, their scent, their touch. Perhaps their use as food or medicine, since rose hips, the fruit following the flower, are very high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Only when they settled into houses on their farms, 10,000 or so years ago, could our ancestors begin to think about growing roses for the pleasure of it. And, just as they discovered that corn, for example, is stronger if its pollen comes from a variety of strains, they discovered that they could breed preferred characteristics into roses. 

Thus, by 300 BCE, the Greek writer Theophrastus, in listing all known roses, included varieties with as much as 100 petals per flower. And Confucius, writing around 500 BCE, noted that there were many varieties growing in the imperial gardens, as well as hundreds of books on roses in the emperor’s library. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that roses from China began to be crossbred with roses from Europe, creating larger flowers and longer bloom time. The descendants of that marriage constitute most of today’s cultivated roses.

Red and white Fourth of July roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Despite my appreciation for their beauty, I am deeply aware of the thorn in all of this hybridization: it has created a lot of needy plants. The hardiness of the wild roses is long gone from their cousins, who, though undoubtedly beautiful, with more complex flowers and, for some, the ability to bloom all season, need crutches like pesticides and fungicides to prosper under standard gardening conditions. And a lot of both. I once heard a man with a famous rose garden describe the weekly sprayings and soil drenchings needed to keep it going. He lived above an aquifer that is the only source of drinking water in his area, but stood in front of a group of gardeners advocating routinely soaking the ground with poison in support of his passion.

White single rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

He was not remotely an evil man. He was in love with roses, and willing to do what it took to keep them beautiful in a damp climate. This is one of our complex human challenges: reconciling the desire for beauty, or at least a certain type of beauty, with what it takes to obtain it. And it’s not new. The ancient Romans loved roses so much they insisted that the peasants grow less food in order to make more land available for roses. Today vast rose farms in Ecuador and Colombia, providing the 1.5 billion roses needed for the US florist trade annually, destroy the health of the farm workers and poison the rivers that irrigate peasant farms downstream.

Yellow and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Hybridizers work tirelessly to come up with vigorous plants that provide us with what we want, in food and aesthetics, without needing to be propped up by chemicals, but it’s a slow and chancy process. Shrub roses, in particular, made progress toward fungal resistance. Then, in 2000, Will Radler, an amateur hybridizer in Wisconsin, launched Knock Out roses, one of the few roses I was happy to use as a landscape designer. At the end of a muggy Long Island summer, they were as green and vibrant as they were at the beginning, something unheard of with rose cultivars until they came along. Since I like the look of the simpler wild roses, I like Knock Outs. Apparently others are also willing to forego the lush look of the exquisite Manito Garden roses pictured here, because Knock Outs are now the best selling roses in the country.

Firelight, a watercolor painting of roses by Cara Brown, Life in Full Color

‘Firelight.’ Watercolor by Cara Brown.

It’s possible to grow roses organically. That’s how everything was grown until a few decades ago. One way to start is to choose plants strategically. My friend Cara, who was clearly put on earth to grow and paint roses, was mystified when I talked about all the fungal problems roses present. But I’m from humid New York, and she’s used to dry California summers. She has many more options for growing roses than does an east coaster who doesn’t want to spray fungicides. From there, the usual organic practices apply: create rich soil, irrigate efficiently, use biological controls when needed. It’s not complicated or arduous. Nor is it complicated to buy organic cut flowers from easy-to-find suppliers like Organic Bouquet or the floral members of Fair Trade USA.

White and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

At this point, despite its exponential growth in recent years, organic production is not remotely scaled to meet our massive demand for either flowers or food. Nor is the mindset there, or the willingness to pay any extra cost upfront, at the grocery store or florist, rather than have it buried in unintended consequences. Organic gardening and agriculture are not simply lists of alternative steps to take, but a way of thinking, a different relationship to the earth, to soil, to water, to insects and animals, as well as to our fellow human beings. It’s sympathy for workers and concern for children. It’s understanding bees are just as much a part of the cycle of life as we are. It’s the realization that three things keep us going on this earth — air, water, soil — and degrading them is ultimately deadly to all life, including our own.

Pink and yellow rose with close up of stamens, Oakland, California by Betsey Crawford

Oakland, California

This is a vast topic, and it may seem a little unfair to pile it on roses’ soft petals. But people often wonder what they can do to help heal the environment, given the damage done. Supporting organic production is something that can be done every single day, in our own gardens, and with every dollar spent on organic food or flowers. As small an action as it seems, it’s part of dismantling the poisonous idea that it’s okay to do whatever we want with the earth, or to ask certain people to face more of a toxic burden than we ourselves are willing to bear. It’s acknowledging that we are not in charge of the earth, but are one part of — and utterly dependent on — the richly varied life our planet supports.

Yellow rose in full bloom in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

In Manito Park, where several of the rose photographs come from, rose gardener Steve Smith keeps spraying to a minimum by choosing resilient varieties. He’s also blessed with a dry climate full of summer sun.

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The solace of deep time

Comb Ridge along Butler Wash, Bluff to Blanding. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn his 1981 book, Basin and RangeJohn McPhee gave us a good analogy for the scale of deep time. Stretch out your arm sideways, and imagine that the 4.55 billion-year timeline of earth’s history runs from the tip of your nose to the tip of your middle fingernail. A quick swipe of a nail file would wipe out human history. So, a lot happened before we showed up. Vast seas came and went. Continents formed, coalesced, split apart, regrouped. Mountain ranges were pushed up and eroded away. More peaks were shoved up out of the remains. Volcanoes spewed untold amounts of lava and ash.  Great ice sheets advanced and retreated for eons. Plates moving over the surface of the earth met and groaned as one was forced under the coming edge, or crushed against it. Running water slowly eroded everything it passed over, forming great rivers that cut deep-walled canyons over millions of years. Life startled into existence and began its long evolution.

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt was wild. And I’m sorry I missed it, though the 300 million-year stretch of meteor bombardment would have been harrowing. The wonderful news is that we can still see into earthly deep time; all we have to do is look at rocks at any road cut, on any mountain or desert trail, along any coast. One of my favorite places for reading earth history is southern Utah, where you can literally drive through deep time. It’s not only an open book but it’s in vivid color. It’s almost in pages: layers of sandstone, limestone red with hematite, white limestone without, volcanic ash, volcanic tuff, tidal-flat mud, dinosaur footprints, ancient conifer and fish fossils.

Mancos Formation shale erosion along Route 24 in southern Utah. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe photos above and below were taken on the same drive, a couple of hours apart. Above is the lunar landscape left by the erosion of the Cretaceous era Mancos Formation. Some 95 million years ago mud quietly sifted out onto tidal flats, between the toes of dinosaurs, on the edge of an inland sea. The white rock in the picture below is Navajo Sandstone, laid down by wind in a vast desert of sand in the early Jurassic Era, which began 201 million years ago. It sits on top of the Kayenta Formation, whose layers were deposited in rivers, also in the early Jurassic. There was plenty of time for both. The early Jurassic lasted for 27 million years.

Trail in Calf Creek Recreation Area, Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordIn the eleventh century, two widely separated but equally brilliant polymaths, Shen Quo in China and Ibn Sina in Persia, theorized about the geologic upheavals that might have formed the mountains surrounding them, and the seas that had apparently left behind the fossil-laden strata at their feet. They also conjectured about the vast length of time these processes must have taken. Shen Quo postulated that climate changed over time when he saw fossil bamboo in an area where bamboo no longer grew. But in Europe — where, despite many dissenters, the biblical account of creation held sway — it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century, with the writing of Scottish geologist James Hutton, that a more modern view of the formation of the earth began to take shape.

White, red and brown stone layers in southern Utah but Betsey CrawfordHutton lived near the Siccar Unconformity. Looking at stratified rocks at a 45 degree angle lying over older strata, tilted to the vertical, he saw something we now take for granted: the inconceivably long history of an earth where layer upon layer of silt sifted to the bottom of whatever sea was current at that time. In the ebbing and flowing of these ancient waters, layers were added onto lower layers, weighing them down until they hardened into stone, sometimes separated by breaks called unconformities. Hutton guessed that geological forces, which we know as the meeting of tectonic plates moving on the surface of the earth, pushed these strata off their horizontal axis. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordJohn McPhee is credited with the modern use of the expression ‘deep time,’ but I’d never heard it until the work of Thomas Berry entered my life. Both meant the same thing in scientific terms, though Berry was concerned with even deeper time — the 13.7 billion years since the universe came into existence. Berry’s thought was also infused with his spirituality and his deep appreciation of indigenous wisdom. The beauty of his philosophy is that he didn’t look at our eyelash-sized sliver of human history as an accident or addendum to the vast forces that had existed for so long before our arrival. Nor did he see us as a culmination of such forces. Rather, we are another manifestation of these great energies. Our unusual consciousness was not meant to set us apart from — and certainly not over — the rest of creation. We hold a way for the universe to see, feel, and ponder itself. 

Mount Zion National Park. Deep time in Utah by Betsey CrawfordI wish I could say that this billions-of-years perspective means I’m not buffeted by day-to-day affairs, either personal or political. But I am, whether from private concerns about my loved ones, or public fears for people I will never meet, but nevertheless cherish. Too much suffering is at stake. The damage to the earth, with more to come, is heart crushing. I mourn my former confidence in the strength of our institutions. For the first time since childhood I’m worried about nuclear war.

And yet, under the wash of day-to-day anxiety, Berry’s vision of deep time offers me a sense of strength and an underlying peace. When I stand on layers of stone in Utah, or indeed anywhere on the planet, I’m grounded into those molecules and the forces of those unfathomable years by the simple fact that I am part of them, made of the same stuff, here for the same reasons. I bring to them the gift of being able to reflect their beauty and mystery. They bring the literal ground of my being.

Along Route 12, through Grand Staircase Escalante. Deep time in Utah by Betsey Crawford

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Elegant, wild, mysterious: loving iris

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

I’m indiscriminate in my love for flowers. There are few that I don’t like, and many that I love. But there is something about my feeling for irises that sets them apart. Which is interesting, because I don’t find them to be the prettiest of flowers, or easy to deal with. As garden plants they are fleeting, leaving you with a mass of sword-shaped leaves to contend with for the rest of the season. They grow from horizontal rhizomes which need to be divided frequently to keep the flowers coming. Their color range is limited, often to whites and shades of purple, though bearded iris cultivars can be many shades of yellows, peaches and maroons.

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Unlike roses or peonies, which open slowly into luscious, inviting, petal-filled bowls, irises are architectural and, though beautiful and elegant, a bit stiff. They start as sword shaped buds, and then open so quickly that I watched last spring as the petals of one almost snapped into place. They are with us for a few days, and then start to fade. That swift passage and their rigid stems make them difficult cut flowers. As photography subjects they are frustrating. Their stiffness and multiple planes make them relatively unphotogenic. It’s hard to find good angles and close to impossible to get all of their ten, often moving parts into focus. 

And yet I love them. And I am far from alone in this love. For centuries, they have been one of the most popular garden flowers in Europe. Even in Linnaeus’ eighteenth century, gardeners had cultivated so many colors he named them after Iris, the Greek messenger goddess, who journeyed to earth on rainbows. The Japanese cultivated and painted them. Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, among many others, painted them. Chinese brush painting has a calligraphy devoted to them. Georgia O’Keefe dove into their most intimate parts.  They are found in ancient Egyptian palaces as well as Greek frescoes dating from 2100 BCE.

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

As with most flowers, I prefer the simpler, native forms, found in their native places, but the complex bearded cultivars bred for gardens are beautiful and fascinating, and make it easy to spy on the iris’ sex life. At the top of the hanging sepals, the falls, is a ‘beard’ of filaments, leading between the upright blades of the petals, or standards. This inviting doorway, often marked by vividly colored nectar guides, gives pollinating bees, plenty of room to land and a clearly marked way in. As they arrive, they brush against the stigma, the tiny, purple horizontal shelf above the beard. Here they deposit the pollen carried from the last flower, thus starting the fertilization process. Then, as they sip nectar, more pollen from the anther tucked under the stigma collects on their bodies. On leaving, they back out, under the stigma, so they don’t lose their new load of pollen. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by BetsyCrawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The native irises are simpler, unbearded, smaller and finer textured than the garden varieties. The standards and falls are less opulent, as well as less colorful, being largely limited to pure white, cream, lavenders and purples. On the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, where I spent many years, the blue flag, Iris versicolor, was a rare and lovely sight. I was thus unprepared for my first spring on the Pacific coast. 

The central California natives, like Iris douglasiana and fernaldii, produce nectar for their long-tongued, pollen-laden bees in three tubes formed as the sepals and petals curve into the ovary. They can also be wind pollinated, with plenty of wind available. And they colonize open meadows and woods vegetatively, spreading via their rhizomes. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

All this reproductive vigor means that in March and April, the California coastal hills are an iris addict’s dreamscape. Though individual flowers last only five days, more keep coming, so that you can walk among them for weeks, depending on the places you go. The more they spread out their blooming, the more nectar the community produces to attract bees, and thus more seeds get fertilized. The staggered opening of flowers on one stem, and the pooling of nectar in the first flower to open, discourage bees from visiting more than one flower per stem, which means they take their pollen load to neighboring stems. This approach strengthens the colony by cross pollination, and and often creates hybrids by crossbreeding with neighboring species. 

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Producing such large and intricate flowers creates an advantage in attracting and accommodating pollinators, but takes a lot of energy. To provide large stores of sugar to tuck in their rhizomes, the upright leaves catch sun from all directions and are among the few that photosynthesize on both sides, rather than just the top. All this evolutionary intelligence means that iris have found  homes on every continent, and almost every state and province in North America. Though native stands are threatened, as ever, by bulldozers and the loss of pollinating bees, the flower communities themselves are strong and resilient.

All of these details explain how the flowers grow and prosper, but they don’t explain irises, and therein lies the mystery. These evolutionary choices are themselves mysterious. Why upright petals? Why stiff stems? Why purple and not orange? Why attract bees and not flies? Those are all fascinating to ponder. Yet flowers, like the rest of us, are not their reproductive habits, their petals, their relationships to bees, their beauty, their extraordinary ability to turn pure light into sugar. They are voices of the great forces that have brought, and are still bringing, the whole cosmos into being. Their alluring beauty wasn’t designed for us; they preceded us by 130 million years. We, more likely, were designed for their benefit, with the right eyes and brains to perceive and love them.

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California

Why would we evolve to love them? Is loving beauty part of the design, to keep us attached to life and the earth we arose from? Is it part of the earth’s ability to protect herself? In the last week, President Obama added 6,230 acres of land to the California Coastal National Monument. There is science in these decisions, relating to issues like marine and coastal health. There are considerations of the public good, the environmental benefit, the preservations of natural treasures.

But it’s not abstract theory that inspires us to preserve the beauty of the world. It’s the utter gorgeousness of the planet itself that drives people to say, don’t bulldoze this, don’t make this a parking lot, don’t drill an oil well here. We have certainly not paid enough attention, and have let go of enough treasure to break our hearts anew every day. We need plenty of theories to even partially mitigate our losses. But, in the end, the impulse to preserve the coast wasn’t supplied by ideas, but by standing on the bluffs with the wind off the sea, the waves crashing below, knee deep in irises, deeply in love.

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

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