Category Archives: Personal

Love, grief, wildflowers

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

After my happy sojourn in Missouri I went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a family reunion. My brother and one of my sisters live there, and both have large families, so when we gather, that’s the sensible place to do it. Nineteen years ago, after another reunion, I’d gone to Madison to see the oldest restored prairie in the world, and vividly remember standing among grasses and flowers so tall I was staring up at their tops. Naturally, to go along with my prairie summer, I wanted to see it again.

The work on Curtis Prairie, part of the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, started when the university bought the land in 1933. Aldo Leopold, one of the foremost conservationists of the twentieth century, was part of the team that launched the project. A third of the land was too wet to plow, so it was remnant wet prairie. The remaining two-thirds had been plowed and cultivated for a century. For years the team experimented with everything they could think of to bring back the prairie: plowing and seeding, seeding and then discing, burning and then seeding, transplanting, growing plants in sods and transplanting those. They also had to figure out how to get rid of plants that didn’t belong there, and how to keep more from invading.

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

This work is never finished. Invisible among the full grown grasses and flower stems are 1,000 metal stakes, marking out grids that are studied to this day, looking for diversity, abundance, invaders, and the results of practices meant to affect all these. From these constant efforts have grown the protocols that restore and maintain prairies today. It was at Curtis that fire was discovered to be the most powerful tool for creating and maintaining the ecology of a restored prairie.

Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Hairy aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

I made the ninety mile trip from Milwaukee to Madison twice. The second time I was able to get out into the prairie itself, walking its paths, squelching through its boggy — and mosquito-y — spots, eyes level with flowers and the feathery heads of grasses. It was late in the season for the full glory of prairie flowers, but the grasses, growing into their russet fall color, were gorgeous, the light golden, the day beautiful.

On my first trip, I took my brother, Perry, but we weren’t able to walk those grassy paths. One of the most vital men I have ever known, he is now struggling with a rare degenerative neurological disease. The body that once climbed trees for a living is slowly failing. The grass trails were too unstable for him, so we chose instead the paved paths of the prairie demonstration gardens, behind the visitors center, where we found not only grasses and flowers, but also the trees he has devoted his life to.

thanksgiving-1952We were the first two of five children. He was here, sixteen months old, when I arrived sixty-five years ago. We were babies together, and cohorts through a challenging childhood. We have always been close, though we’ve never voted for the same person, and our ideas about religion rarely mesh. We seldom talk about our deepest feelings. But there have been many times over the years, sometimes to my surprise, sometimes even in a passing comment, when I realized I was seen and understood by someone who has been lovingly watching me from birth. I hope I have given him that same comfort.

We both had landscaping businesses, though nothing in our childhood would have predicted that. We started fifteen years and a thousand miles apart, and have never figured out why it happened that way. But there we were, wandering the graceful curves of the garden. I talked about flowers, he talked about trees, our usual division of landscaping chat.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

When I turned fifty, an older friend said that the difference between our fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays is that from the latter vantage point you can see the end on the horizon. It may still be a long way off, but it’s visible. And then, and often suddenly, it’s very visible. Watching my beloved brother walk — with as much courage and grace as anyone can muster — into the valley of death, knowing he will have a hard time on that journey, breaks my heart afresh every day. I knew, as we wandered those paths, that he would tire quickly, and need to get back to the truck, that he would sleep on the way home. I knew that this might be the last time we made such a trip.

Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Common boneset (Eupatorium perfiolatum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

God is love, many say, and though that is not my language, I am drawn to the idea that there is an overarching energy that our private loves tap into, that gets channeled through us. Here is a woman who has loved flowers since she picked violets in the cracks of suburban sidewalks as a tiny child. Here is a man who fell in love with the idea of working in trees while watching a crew prune them at our childhood home. Here are two people who love each other because they have shared life together, since the beginning. Our various manifestations of love are mysterious and beautiful. They make life worth living, and hard to leave.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

And yet, despite the anticipation of sadness to come, we were happy, surrounded by the plants we love, talking about their intricate beauties, being with each other. Relishing those moments among the rustling grasses, which surrounded us with the proof of earthly immortality: plants producing seeds in boundless profusion. Neither of us will be here to see the current crop of acorns become spreading oaks, but we are part of that process, the endless renewal of life on earth. Our personalities will fade, but the energies we embody on our passage through life are ever here. There are times, as we face heartbreak and loss, when that is small comfort. And other times, when the bonds of love and the voices of trees connect us to the deepest mysteries, when it’s all that matters.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin taken by Betsey Crawford

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpureum) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

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

Walking in beauty

Prairie petunia (Ruellia humilis) taken in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Prairie petunia (Ruellia humilis) Osceola, Missouri

I’ve been a walker all my life. From grade school through college I walked to school. As teenagers in a small town with nowhere to go, we would take walks to hang out together. I walked to my first job after college. There were a couple of years, after moving to New York City, when I took ballet classes and went to a gym. But then, in my late twenties, after my mother’s early death, I found solace in walking. That began a daily habit that has lasted almost forty years.

Sweet potato (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Sweet potato (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri

This puts me in excellent company: Aristotle, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, John Muir, Mary Oliver. And Henry David Thoreau, who, in his dual role as both walker and scold, suggested that “We should go forth on the shortest walk in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.”

Ozark sunflower (Helianthus silphioides) taken while walking in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Ozark sunflower (Helianthus silphioides) Osceola, Missouri

Needless to say, he found that he “almost alone hereabouts practiced this noble art.” And he would not have had me as an acolyte. I chafe against the need to apply sunscreen before going on a walk, much less rethinking my will. I love to put on shoes, grab my camera, and walk out the door. There are, however, very few places with beautiful walks right outside my door. Most need driving to get to them. But in Missouri, I had the deep pleasure of leaving the trailer, walking a short bit of harrowing state road, where the little traffic that went by did so at merciless speed, and then finding myself on a country road full of beauties, large and small, morning and evening.

a herd of curious cows in Osceola, MIssouri by Betsey CrawfordThere was nothing particularly special about this road. Everything was lush and green, which was lovely. The roadside ditches were full of wildflowers, which was delightful. There were a few houses, a patch of woodland, some fields, and a pasture with the loudest and most curious cows I’ve ever come across. They weren’t always there, but if they were, they all immediately came to the fence the moment they saw me and stared intently as I passed, several of them bellowing with abandon. Few cars went by. In the evening the sky could be full of color as the sun set. I’ve walked in many more exciting and gorgeous places, but I loved this walk among the quiet roadside beauties of Missouri.

sunset-osceola-missouri-by-betsey-crawfordThe only excitement in three weeks of walking there came one morning when a killdeer flew across the road and started squawking at me. I assumed she had a nest to protect in the field on the left, because she was trying, as killdeer do, to convince me to follow her into the field on my right. On the way back, however, when she started squawking again, I saw that it wasn’t a nest she was trying to protect. A young killdeer, almost invisible against the gray road, was running along its edge.

A tiny, running killdeer is a hilarious sight. They have legs the size of toothpicks, which scissor madly back and forth, carrying their ball-of-fluff bodies. But after being amused for a while, I began to join its frantic mother in her anxiety. The road was narrow, and when a car went by I held my breath, though the little one just kept going after it passed. It jumped, headfirst and sideways, into the tall grass along the edge, when the next car went by, then emerged unscathed and scissored off down the road. A creature with red-brown fur crept from the thicket on the opposite side of the road. It was so quickly scared off by either me or the shrieking mother, that it disappeared before I could see what it was. Dogs ran out to greet me, and luckily didn’t see the bird. I began to wonder how any killdeer makes it to adulthood.

A killdeer's broken wing display

Killdeer protect their nests, which are on the ground, by trying to get predators to follow them in another direction. They frequently pretend to have a broken wing, as this bird is doing, so they look like easy prey. Thanks to Jim Rathert at the Missouri Department of Conservation for this amazing photo.

In the meantime, the little one kept going, now a quarter of a mile from where we’d started. I would have assumed that mother birds have ways of shunting their children into more desirable directions. She did alternate between landing in front of her chick to scold and trying to distract me. But it began to be obvious that birds have no more control over their determined-to-be-free adolescents than we do. As we went down the slope to the state road with its speeding traffic, I realized I was the problem, because they were going to keep going as long as I did. I decided to stop and see what happened, just as a big RV turned and started toward us.

The young one, who occasionally veered across the street and back, had just done so, and was in the middle of the road as the RV roared its way up. Gearing myself for tragedy, I pointed to the virtually invisible bird, hoping the driver would see it. But those tiny legs made it across, dove headfirst into the grass, and the RV went by. Before either mother or child could recover and start off again, I quickly walked to their far side, hoping they would now head toward home. After a long pause the little one emerged, and, to my relief, immediately started scissoring back up the hill, mama squawking after it.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Osceola, Missouri

Other than getting caught up in that family drama, and the passionate lowing of the cows, the walks were quiet and peaceful, always beautiful. In all these years I’ve walked through joy and tragedy, calm and anxiety, humdrum life and frantic life. These lovely walks were about as serene as they get. And they did what all walks do: cleared my head, opened my heart, and placed my feet firmly on the planet I live on, over and over again. I like walking through towns and cities, exploring their details of place and community. But I love walking on coastal trails, woodland paths, along country roads, and being enveloped in the heartbeat of the earth.

Vine-mesquite (Hopia obtusa) taken while walking in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Vine-mesquite (Hopia obtusa) Osceola, Missouri

More than anything else, this constant interaction with our green and breathing planet has told me that I belong here, that I am woven deeply into the fabric of life. Graceful stems bending slightly with the weight of luminous flowers, grasses shimmering with light, cows lowing, leaves rustling above sturdy tree trunks, clouds still vibrant with a sun already out of my vision — all are threads so interlinked with me that it is impossible to disentangle us. This sense of belonging is a great gift, a lifting of the weight of separation and loss that our disconnect from nature engenders. Soon enough I am back in the world of clocks, lists, plans, errands. But I bring with me a heart that knows paradise is not lost.

Partridge pea (Chaemaecrista fasciculata) taken in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Partridge pea (Chaemaecrista fasciculata) Osceola, Missouri

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

 

A land of stone tablets, once again

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

[In Moses in Utah, I described driving into southeastern Utah for the first time with my then 10-year-old son, Luke. Nineteen years later we returned together, and spent a week with the mysterious energies that have such a strong pull for both of us. When I was there last year I celebrated the great beauty and deep wisdom of that unique landscape, and I’m reposting that celebration in honor of our recent visit.]

I’m still wandering the desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp. So there are a number of demanding gods out there.

Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordWe’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets. As it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.

The great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer — made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms — called a biological crust. It prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.

Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created. They proceeded to meld and blend and be forged in the three-billion-degree heat of the earliest stars, eventually forming the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Whatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it. The same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos. Instead we use it to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness. But our earthy bodies know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.

Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

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

Ring Mountain and saving the world

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Celebrating my wild backyard in the last post got me thinking about the multiplicity of backyards I’ve had since heading out on our journey in 2011. Some of them have been spectacular: the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, the Pacific in Malibu, the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California, the red rock bluffs of Utah. But the reality of RV parks is that they are, at bottom, parking lots. Some are greener and prettier than others, some have rivers running by them, some have magnificent views when you lift your eyes above your neighbor’s motor home. In urban areas, the cost of land doesn’t allow extra space for greenery, so you’re even more dependent on borrowed landscapes.

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Greenbrae, California, twenty minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of my home bases. RV parks like to be handy to highways for easy access, and this one is next to the only north/south freeway in this neck of the woods, Route 101, and a couple of blocks north of a small shopping center with the indispensible Trader Joe’s. I do have a fence covered with ivy and morning glories, with a big palm tree on the other side, outside my back window. Over my neighbor’s roof I see Mount Tamalpais, which reigns like a queen over the whole area. There’s a fascinating conglomeration of rackety houses on stilts just north of us, along a boardwalk taking you well into our neighboring wetlands.

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Our literal backyard is the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, a vast marshland that attracts shore birds all year: egrets, ducks, pelicans, herons, godwits, and the endangered Ridgeway rail. The preserve, sadly, suffers from a full-blown invasion of non-native plants — acacias, pampas grass, and fennel so large it towers over me — so it’s not a place for me to find native wildflowers. For that I go farther afield, starting with what I consider my backyard hike, Ring Mountain, since one of the access points is only two miles down the road. That entrance takes me to the Phyllis Ellman trail, a rambling, curving path up the steep, 602’ mountain that traverses some of the best wildflower displays in the area. The hike is named for the woman who started the movement to save Ring Mountain from development in the 1970’s.

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

It’s easy to see what it would be like without Ellman, and the people she gathered to help, by looking at the surrounding neighborhood of large homes, high fences, driveways, lawns, and exotic gardens; the way the rest of wealthy Tiburon looks. Instead, the preserve’s 400 acres remain free of all that, with grasses blowing in the wind, enormous rocks peacefully holding space, wind-sculpted trees leaning into each other. Small, delicate wildflowers, some extremely rare, abound in spring. There’s the broad access of the fire road that runs steeply up and down along the top of the ridge, and plenty of smaller trails leading off that, some so narrow that the grasses brush your shins as you walk them. From the top there are spectacular views in all directions: toward neighboring Mt. Tam, the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco lies to the south, often with blankets of fog rolling in or out; the Marin hills are to the north.

Looking north from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking north from Ring Mountain

The preserve’s rare flowers and fascinating geology deserve their own post. For this one, I want to celebrate the fact that the Ring Mountain preserve exists at all. Phyllis Ellman, and millions like her, are part of the vast movement that environmentalist Paul Hawken calls ‘Blessed Unrest’ in his book of that title. The subtitle is heartening: “How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.”

This movement consists of people working all over the world to clean rivers and wetlands, bring fish and animals back to their natural habitat, reinstate indigenous rights to land and water, fight the dumping of toxic waste in low-income neighborhoods, renovate housing, clear the air, preserve ancient forests, save wild and beautiful land for everyone. There are billionaires involved, and there are subsistence farmers and hunters who don’t have a money economy. One person operates here, 7 people there, 100 gather in a city, one entire tribe works to preserve the rain forest, several work together to bring salmon back to the dammed rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Some organizations have millions of members, some have three. All of the groups, Hawken says, “are dedicated to creating the conditions for life, conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment and freedom from external tyranny.”

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain

Hawken discovered the size of the movement when he set out to create a database of such groups. Speaking at the Bioneers conference in October, 2004, he marveled that there were more than 130,000 such associations. A list started scrolling behind him on a giant screen, with the names of all he had found. If the audience were to sit for the entire list they would, he said, be there for 4 days. Only two years later, when he spoke again at the conference, he said that reading the scrolling list, now including additional groups that had been identified and hundreds of thousands that had started up in the interval, would keep the audience there for a month. There may well be over two million such organizations worldwide, working on the intertwined aims of environmental sustainability and social justice.

Grassland on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Grassland on Ring Mountain. This was after the dry winter of 2013/14.

I first heard a recording of Hawken’s second speech of at one of those organizations — my beloved Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey. I was there in the summer of 2007, taking one of the last of the Earth Literacy courses the farm offered. I loved his idea that the earth itself was gathering all of us, inspiring and working through us, for her own regeneration. We are her immune system, tending wounds — so many truly grievous —that we have inflicted through strife, misuse, misunderstanding, greed, tribalism, and all the other isms that limit our vision of ourselves, our fellow beings, our world, and our profound interconnections.

I’m not easily discouraged, but I feel a lot of pain for the damage our planet and its beings, including us, have suffered. Whenever I remember the fact that it would take a month to watch those names scroll by, I’m cheered. And that was 10 years ago; many more people have gathered together by now. I’m writing this the week 175 countries are signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It has been long in coming, and there are a lot more steps that need to be taken, by all of us. But getting that many separate, sensitive, self-protective nations to agree on any program is an astonishing accomplishment, and a sign that those two million groups, all those dedicated immune cells, are at work healing the world.

Looking east over the San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking east over San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain

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

The call of wild beauty

September beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordI lived for many years with a great deal of beauty outside my windows. I was looking at acre on acre of wetlands, salt marsh, patches of meadow, shrubs and trees. Beyond that was the estuary the land bordered. Except for a few flowering shad trees in the spring, and a scattering of vivid autumn color from native blueberry, there was nothing pretty about this. It was full of wildness. Deer moved through the forest of plants, and bedded down in their midst. Red-tailed hawks, and the ospreys nesting along the shoreline, glided above it, occasionally chased by a  flock of nesting swallows. Redwing blackbirds announced spring from the tops of reeds. Rabbit and fox burrowed into roots, alternating years of prosperity. For several springs, glossy ibis stopped on their way north to rest and pick through the wetlands with their long, curving beaks. And always the overarching sky, the clouds, the moon, the sunrise pouring itself over the entire expanse.

Winter beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Winter sunrise in 2001. The meadow was just beginning to give way, in the distance, to the resurgent trees and shrubs.

It was gorgeous in all seasons, spangled with snow or dew, splattered with fall color or spring bloom, in the rich green of summer. But much of it was made of up things that were not in themselves beautiful: gawky native cherries, subtle bayberry, sober, dark green cedars. Plants that belonged there, grew for eons there, on the sandy spit of land left over when the last glaciers pulled back 11,000 years ago. Plants that knew how to grow in that nutrient-poor soil, that knew how to cope with the buffeting winds and the flooding tides of the Atlantic Ocean that surged beyond the harbor and the outer bay.

Late summer beauty on a meadow in Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

My all time favorite picture of the meadow! Dating from the 4-year-old, this would be 1991.

When I first moved there, a neighbor was pasturing horses on the land. Before that, her grandparents and great grandparents had harvested salt hay there. Because she mowed it once or twice a year, it stayed a meadow, a vast sea of switch grass and blue stem, green in spring and early summer, gold in late summer and autumn, silver and copper in winter. Their light, feathery tops moved in nearly constant waves in the slightest wind. After some years, as she boarded fewer horses, she stopped mowing those acres. The shrubs and trees that had been dormant for generations, perhaps centuries, immediately began to push their way up. Though I kept a section of it going on my own property, I was sorry to lose the vast meadow beyond, and amazed at how quickly the plants waiting for their turn shot up. But the resulting mix of grass and shrub and trees had a richness of texture and an abundance of life that the meadow, in all its gentle, undulating splendor, did not have.

Summer beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

This was taken by a drone for the real estate listing when it was time to go. The near water is Accabonac Harbor, beyond the spit at the top left is Gardiners Bay. The straight cut into the primary wetlands (the flat green areas) was part of a plan for mosquito control.

Living on that ancient and vital landscape for twenty-five years had a profound effect on me. It was my call of the wild. Beauty, said the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue, isn’t ‘just about nice loveliness.’  To him, with his youth spent in the untamed Burren region of Ireland, it made a huge difference whether, when ‘you wake in the morning and come out of your house, you believe you are walking into a dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you’re emerging into a landscape that is just as much — if not more — alive as you, but in a totally different form.’

Stormy beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordIt was that wild aliveness that called to me, day after day, every time I looked out the window, every time I walked out of the house. When I stood on the edge of the meadow, my feet rested on the pebbly, sandy soil that the tail end of the Wisconsin glaciation had pushed there from farther north, sculpting the 100 million-year-old Cretaceous layers as the massive ice flowed over them. There was a large glacial erratic twenty feet into the meadow, a boulder captured from who knows where, then dropped and embedded in the soil as the ice melted northward. Six feet below the ground under me ran fast moving streams, feeding the harbor and the sea beyond. I’d seen one when we hoped to install a dry well to cope with water in the basement. There, at the bottom of the hole, a small, shallow river flowed rapidly east, connecting me to the estuary I could see, and then to the vast waters beyond my vision.

October beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Beyond the fall blooming groundsel (Baccharis halmifolia) is the flat stretch of primary wetlands, where two types of spartina (alterniflora and patens) dominate.

The ecstatic pulsing life of that land — growing, flowing, flowering, proliferating, changing from season to season and year to year — filled my soul every single day. The ancient bedrock and old soils grounded me. The deep, steady, green breathing of plants sustained me. The line of wild turkey chicks scooting along behind their parents on summer mornings, learning to strip the tops of the grasses for their seeds, filled me with delight. The red fox quietly emerging from the wintry brush in one place, going back into the density in another, its tawny tail disappearing last into the snow, reminded me that fierce and tameless mysteries were lived everywhere around me.

The beauty of a morning mist on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Comparing this misty morning in 2006 to the 2001 winter scene above, you can see how fast the shrubs and trees grew after the mowing stopped.

The Greek word for beauty, kalon, is intertwined with the word for call, kalein.  Beauty both rises from a call in us, and calls to us, perhaps even more so when the beauty is wild. We are connecting to something deep, primordial, a place on the planet that speaks to us of its vast depth, its power, its radiance. An allurement that beckons us far beyond ourselves and our often strange concerns and rickety constructs. Beauty is a transfer of life, the cellist Yo Yo Ma once said, and living on that land was continual heart-to-heart resuscitation.

When it was time to leave, it wasn’t just because the energy to keep the house, the gardens, the business, the life had waned. It was also because, as the call of that land grew, its very wildness transferred itself into me. It was now in my bones, moving my muscles, beating my heart, seeing through my eyes. Propelling me onward, toward more wildness and more beauty.

the beauty of an eastern tiger swallowtail (papillo glaucous) on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting the deck.

 

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

Eostre and the universe story

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California

Humans are story making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian belief in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

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

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the profoundest way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s Universe Story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, but by the time I was hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, there was barely a shadow of that connection left. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

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

Transcendence on the headlands

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

One of the most transcendent moments of my life happened on the Marin headlands, within view of the glittering city of San Francisco and the elegant curve of the Golden Gate bridge. It was March 9, 2014, and the wildflower season had started. I had been hiking and photographing them for three hours, working my way uphill, out of sight of the ocean. I’d come through a variety of landscapes: the mostly dry meadows at the beginning of the hike, full of California poppies, cut through by a stream that gave willows a foothold. Then the rocky ups and downs of the even drier hills, their gravelly trails edged with pockets of shooting stars and milk maids. As I got closer to the juncture with the coastal trail, chaparral gradually took over, filling the air with the pungent smell of sagebrush.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey-Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

By the time I got to the top of the headland, tired, ready to head downhill and find my car, it was dusk. The Pacific, living up to its name, lay serene and luminous ahead of me. In memory, the city isn’t there. It was all silver light, on the rolling hills behind me, the pale gray twilit leaves, the stone escarpment in front of me, on the  sea, in the air. The warm spice of the feathery sage filled me, contrasting with the cool light.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) taken at Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), Terra Linda Open Space Preserve, San Rafael, California. Each flower is about the size of a quarter.

As I began to move again, I was suddenly overcome with the wildness of the place, and my place in it. Completely aware of this living, breathing convergence of life — the soft wind off the shimmering ocean, the ancient rocks, the growing dark, the scent from the ghostly plants, the woman walking. I was both dissolved into it and moving, whole, embodied, through it, a wild creature myself. I felt a great, exultant love for every pulsing molecule around me, and equally for the feeling of being in it, part of it, the part that could move through itself, through the lingering heat and the cooling breeze. That could feel the silver light work its way through my cells.

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) King Mountain, Tiburon, California, by Betsey Crawford

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

I would love to live in that state of open-souled awe every moment of my life. All sorts of things — grocery store lines, traffic, dentist appointments, the grief at a loved one’s illness —  work against such a possibility. I am often, in the poet Wordsworth’s words, surprised by joy; but after opening his poem with that line,  the rest speaks only of loss. Transcendence routinely rises, and is swept away by the mundane. The memories — I still remember another night of silvery, windy light under a full moon when I was 18 — can stay a long time. And there are many small, seemingly inconsequential moments of joy — a sleepy child’s arms around your neck, sunlight filling a winter room,  the sudden call of cicadas, telling you midsummer has arrived. But feeling completely dissolved into the natural world I love so much is rare, and I have been hugging that moment since.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken at King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Though perfectly happy to feel transcendence without figuring out why we have this wonderful ability, as a lover of all things DNA I am intrigued by philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that awe has been chosen by evolution to more firmly attach us to life on this earth. The more delight we take in living, the more we will strive to survive and reproduce. He feels that our pleasure in being alive and connected to the beauty and enchantment around us is the basis for an innate spirituality, something we knew long before we created religions to explain it.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’m a little resistant to reducing awe to the biological imperative to reproduce, though I love the idea that evolution would choose something so entrancing to ground us to our planet. I prefer the thought — echoing cultural ecologist Thomas Berry, Buddhist Alan Watts, cosmologist Carl Sagan — that consciousness is the result of the long, slow evolution of the universe’s ability to contemplate itself, to turn eyes on its wildflowers and silver seas, ears to its birdsong and rushing water, skin to the feel of stone, of bark.

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamine californica) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are the size of a dime.

But even this lovely thought doesn’t quite reflect what I felt that evening on the Marin headlands. I didn’t feel that I was the universe reflecting on itself, I felt like I was the universe. And not merely one infinitesimal expression of it. And not — though I love this fact — that I and the radiant molecules around me were all made of the same elements, descended from the same stars. I felt, briefly and gloriously, that there was no distinction between me and the vast, wild, perilous, gorgeous cosmos.

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) King Mountain, Tiburon, California

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

Samhain in New Jersey

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2I didn’t know I was going to a place I love in New Jersey until two weeks before I went, and had no idea I’d be celebrating Samhain there. But it’s the sort of place where that happens, so I might have guessed.

Miriam McGillis is a friend, mentor, teacher. She started Genesis Farm, an ecological and spiritual center in western New Jersey, 35 years ago. I heard her speak in 2000 at a native plant conference in Pennsylvania. She, petite and indomitable, stood in the center of an enormous auditorium and held hundreds of us tree huggers spellbound as she quietly wove together nature, the cosmos, the path of evolution, and our place in this great rush of creative energy. Dozens of us mobbed her at the end. I told her I’d been waiting all my life to hear what she had said.

common-milkweed-seedhead-asclepias-syriaca-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus)

Not everyone’s experience in the Catholic Church was the same, but mine had no place for nature, no place for me to be in nature. It was the ‘other’ — outside of us, unimportant except as it could be of use, largely hostile, something to be endured on the way to, one devoutly hoped, heaven. I don’t remember ever hearing a word about the world around us from anyone connected to the church or the Catholic schools of my childhood.

autumn-peach-leaves-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Peach leaves in the Orchard of the Ancestors, Genesis Farm

So it’s interesting and ironic that the lure of Genesis Farm and the work done there is grounded in the thinking of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest, who saw, in the growing knowledge of the origins of the universe, a new way of looking at our place in it, a new genesis: the universe itself as an ever-expanding (literally) creation story. An energy that has manifested itself for 13.7 billion years, from seemingly nothing to inchoate matter, to stars, to elements, to more stars, to planets around the stars, to seas, to mountains, to the first cells, to the first beings, plant and animal, to an endless array of beings, coming, not finally, but for now, to us, on this one planet among billions of planets, with their infinite manifestations that remain profound mysteries.

winterberry-ilex-verticillata-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

By the time I heard Miriam I’d been a landscape designer and an environmental activist for years, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t found a place in nature, or hadn’t become its champion in my own way. The strings that her vision tied together were there to be gathered, and led me through a door to my place in the whole, grounded on the earth not only by my presence here and my love for its astounding beauty, but by the fact that the building blocks of the soil under my feet are the same as the building blocks of my body.

farm-field-sky-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

The main farm field, Genesis Farm

She represented a turning point in my life, though it was not a time when my life could turn. I had a child in school, a mate, a business to run. Genesis Farm’s Earth Literacy courses took up to 12 weeks, so that made them out of my reach until Luke graduated from high school. At that point, 25 years in, the programs changed to shorter, more intense courses, and I took several of those for three years, which was a great blessing, because, after 28 years, the enormous energy to create and run the Genesis Farms programs had run its course, and the mission began to change.

cattail-typha-angustifolia-seedhead-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Cattail (Typha angustifolia)

At the beginning of October Miriam asked me if I would help her with a project she has in mind. A few days after I arrived, we celebrated Samhain (pronounced sah-win), the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season that falls at the midway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

grass-autumn-seedheads-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordIt was a time of coming death and dormancy,  when the veil between the underworld and the living world felt thinned, and the ever-present ancestors were honored, along with their connection to the primordial chaos and fertility of the dark world. The sheep and cows were brought down from the pastures where they’d spent the warmer season grazing. Fires were kindled against the gathering dark, and people dressed in costumes and traveled from house to house, where they were given food from the Samhain feasts.

autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Christianity, as was its custom, adopted these ancient rites, and so we have All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day. But, in a world where Halloween is a $7.4 billion dollar industry and a heavily rhinestoned Elvis costume can cost $1400, the original reason to celebrate Samhain has largely gotten lost, which is also true for its three counterparts: Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassad.

In an agrarian world, intimately tied to the the subtlest changes of the seasons, these were important dates, and had their own individual rituals, varying by region across Eurasia, revolving around the preparation, sowing, tending and harvesting of fields, the care of flocks, and both celebration and preparation for the season to come.

witchhazel-hamamelis-virginiana-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

In our present day, living in cities and towns, far from the production of food, these dates may seem unimportant. But every one of us has centuries of ancestors who grew food, and epigenetics is now teaching us what cultures who reverence their ancestors have long intuited — we carry with us changes in our DNA expression created by our forebears’ reactions to their lives.

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe rituals they performed at Samhain, and similar festivals across the world, celebrated the harvest that would see them through to the next growing season. They lit bonfires, prepared meals, and played games to express gratitude for the harvest and to stave off the gathering dark, rites that are still alive in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. These holidays may look like they’ve morphed into several months of shopping, but the old traditions live on in gatherings of friends and family, extra light against the dark, feasting, singing and music, and even trick or treating on Halloween.

autumn-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Not only are we not separate from the ground we walk on, we’re not separate from the people who walked it before us. We carry them in our cells, hitching rides on our DNA. We reenact their customs, even when we’ve lost their beginnings in the intervening centuries. We feel anxious with the dying of the light, and stronger by banding together in the face of it. We remember our dead, and ask for their presence and guidance. If we’re lucky, we get to stand on a sunny hill at the end of October and open the portal to Samhain, carrying all the richness of our ancestors, flowing through us into the future.autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

In love in Homer, Alaska

Fields of wildfowers at Eveline State recreation Site with Grewingk Glacier in the background

Fields of wildfowers at Eveline State Recreation Site with Grewingk Glacier in the background

I fell in love with Homer as we drove down the uninspiring last slope of Route 1 into the town, but I have no idea why it happened then. I’d been driving along the Cook Inlet for the last hour, with one magnificent snow capped volcano after another looming up across the water, so Kachemak Bay, though incredibly beautiful, wasn’t a surprise. At that point I hadn’t yet seen our small, slightly wacky RV park, attached to an old inn, with its extremely friendly staff and beautiful view. I didn’t know that we’d find more charm, and art, along the main street than we had in the other towns we’d visited. Nor did I know that there was a pretty cafe in a quaint, old building across the street from the RV park, with enormous salads and delicious breakfasts.

Coast indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

Coast indian paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis)

I didn’t foresee the moose browsing in the twilit marsh just down the block, or walking on the beach as two bald eagles flew by, just above eye level, fifteen feet in front of me, heading to a cluster of trees to roost for the night. I knew nothing about the Homer Spit, a 4.5 mile long, flat extrusion into the bay — home of beaches, marinas, RV parks, restaurants, tee shirt shops, adventure guides, commercial fishing — that shares a lot of the rackety charms of Montauk, New York, a place I’ve loved most of my life, on the far side of the continent.

Enormous devil's club in the lush rainforest of Peterson Bay

Enormous devil’s club in the lush rainforest of Peterson Bay

I hadn’t eaten the halibut tacos at the farmers market, or the Thai curry down on the Spit, with chunks of just-caught salmon and halibut. I knew little about the temperate rainforest in the blue mountains, with their snowy crowns and icy glaciers, across the glistening water of the bay, with devil’s club so enormous it towered over us as we walked, starfish the size of my head, seals basking on the beach, fungus so large and strong we could have used it as a stepping stone to climb the tree hosting it, and puffins on the way home. I had no idea Homer would have the most wildflowers of any place I’d go in Alaska.

Grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

Grass of parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

Or what great flowers they would be. Lots of the luminous yellow paintbrush native to Alaska. Sharp-beaked, dark-veined, strangely beautiful monkshood, hiding a neurotoxin so poisonous the indigenous Alaskans tipped their spears with it to kill whales. Sunlit, lavender wild geranium. Windswept cotton grass. Sweeps of fireweed. Tiny, delicate grass of parnassus, with its glass bead interior. Fierce, blue-black star gentian. The small bells of pink pyrola, nestled in knee-high forests of horsetail and fern, and the wide bells of the minute single delight.

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum)

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum)

Like a lot of love, there was no explaining its arrival. Even though none of the things that were to prove so endearing about Homer were evident on the ride in, I loved it on sight. We were planning to stay two nights. The next day, after lifting the shade on the back window to horizontal stripes of vivid magenta fireweed, pale blue bay, deep blue mountains, ice blue glaciers, luminous blue sky, I promptly went to the office and said we’d stay a week. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I wanted to see a lot more of Alaska before winter, and the fact that the RV park cost exactly twice our hoped-for budget, I’d still be there.

From left: star gentian (Swertia perennis), cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), pink pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia)

From left: star gentian (Swertia perennis), cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium), pink pyrola (Pyrola asarifolia)

It took me no time at all to find the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and their Carl E. Wynn Nature Center, with five miles of trails flanked by an abundance of wildflowers. They were also the group I went across Kachemak Bay with, for a day of hiking and tide-pooling in Peterson Bay. It took a little longer to find out about the Eveline State Recreation site, eighty acres donated by a man in memory of his wife. There the trails wound through 5’ high wildflowers and grasses, like walking through a prairie. One trail went through muskeg, a word that has always seemed to echo out of the wilds of Alaska, with its scraggly spruces and vast beds of moss that you can sink into to your shins. It has calm enough origins, however: it comes from the Cree word for low lying marsh, maskak.

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum)

Single delight (Moneses uniflora)

Single delight (Moneses uniflora)

In Homer I found another facet of the deep mystery of place. I’ve never, ever thought about living in Alaska. It’s expensive, too far away, and the last thing I’m looking for is a place with long, dark, cold winters. So it’s close to impossible that I will find myself here. But Homer is the second place, in all my travels, that I could see myself settling in. (The other was Port Townsend, in Washington.) Yet this isn’t the same as the heart recognizing that it already knows a place as Home, a place mysteriously full of ancient echoes, the way I described South Dakota and Utah in the Moving Hearts post. There are no calls from Spirit in Homer, no deep recognition that this is a place already held in my heart. But it’s a place full of things that matter to me — plants, wildlife, water, beauty, art, fresh food, easy to find adventures — and I tore myself away with deep reluctance, already wondering how and when I’ll get back.

Crossing Kachemak Bay from Peterson Bay toward Homer

Crossing Kachemak Bay from Peterson Bay toward Homer

 

 

 

 

Timeless in Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lakes and bogs in the Mat-Su Valley

By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.

I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska, across the Cook Inlet

And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.

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Fireweed, beautiful and ubiquitous, lights up Alaska all summer

So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.

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Along the Alaskan Highway between the border and Tok, Alaska