Category Archives: Place

Songlines 2016: landscapes of love and prairies

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

When I first described my love for the Aboriginal concept of songlines, the paths taken by the First Beings as they sang the world into existence, I said that one of the ideas I love best is that we are tasked with continuing the work in our own lives. As we walk through our days, we renew and replenish the songs of those beings, enriching our landscapes, continuing to bring life to life.

My songlines this year first had me crisscrossing Marin County, just north of San Francisco, both in the living of my life, and in the search for flowers. I spent lots of time in my ‘backyard,’ Ring Mountain, and treasured the rare flowers found there. I discovered that Marin County is a rarity hotspot, with an unusual number of rare flowers, due in part to the beautiful but deadly serpentine rock underlying much of the coast. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) which appears on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California and nowhere else on earth.

At the beginning of June I left on farther flung adventures. Because my reports on my travels featured many flowers, I thought for this final post of the year I’d celebrate the landscapes I moved through along the way. As a photographer, I focus more on wildflowers, but I am equally passionate about the land around them. The experiences are both different and the same. Being with a flower is an intimate visitation, inches away, often on the ground with them. Being in landscapes is a passage I make while walking or driving through, eyes raised, surrounded by wonder. Both are a meeting of souls, a constant coming home to my connection to the earth. 

Red rock and blue sky, one of many incomparable landscapes in the Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Red rock and blue sky in the incomparable Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah

1. The first landscape is from a favorite area — southeastern Utah — which I visited with a favorite person — my son, Luke. We first drove through here 19 years ago, when he was ten, and we both feel the powerful pull of the magic and mystery of this land. I reposted an essay about the wisdom this ancient landscape teaches us in A Land of Stone Tablets.

Ancestral Pueblo ruins create amazing landscapes at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

The Cliff Palace, Ancestral Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado

2. On this trip we were drawn to the centuries-old ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The remains of their stone buildings, often tucked into cliffs, are a common feature of southwestern landscapes. We happened on several ruins as we explored, and hiked around a wonderful preserved village at Hovenweep National Monument. I’ve always loved the history of ordinary people, and from single structures built into rock overhangs to entire villages, these are intensely moving, a direct connection to the lives of the people who carefully built and lived in them. Mesa Verde National Park protects several spectacular sites, including this one, called the Cliff Palace.

Red rock canyon walls create stunning landscapes along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Red rock canyon walls along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado

3. Luke flew home from Grand Junction, Colorado, so we got to see the spectacular canyonlands between Naturita, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and Gateway, north of which the lighter limestone formations so distinctive of the Grand Junction area slowly take over. Driving through this whole area is one endless lesson in the history of our planet, and here I was particularly caught by the thin white line. It occurs in the Chinle formation, which formed in the Triassic era, 201 to 252 million years ago. It’s possible the white layer is volcanic ash, though ash layers tend to be shades of gray. It could be limestone, though it’s very white for that, too. It could be gypsum left by a shallow, and fleeting — in geological terms — sea.

Or it could be something else. What we can see at a glance is that it was the result of a relatively brief phenomena, that didn’t repeat itself in this spot for the rest of the Triassic, or into the Jurassic, which is when the upper cliffs were laid down. Like a dinosaur footprint, or the conifer fossils common in the Chinle, it brings us to a moment in time. It could be a moment that lasted 100,000 years, but in our planet’s history, that is still a moment. I find this very helpful for putting the headlines of the day in perspective.

Old-fashioned windmills dot the landscapes of the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado by Betsey Crawford

A windmill in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado

4. I left the southwest for very different landscapes. I was on a quest for prairies, and started with the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado, about an hour and a half north of Denver. The goal of the Grasslands, which form a patchwork with privately owned land, is to restore this very arid land to grazing, which also helps restore the prairie. The landscape is dotted with these windmills, which provide the power to bring well water to the surface to fill drinking tubs for the cattle. In our high tech world I took comfort in their prosaic task and simple talents, but also found them rather haunting, alone out on the prairie, particularly when paired with a wild sky.

Clouds and farm fields dominate the landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Along Route 40 in western Kansas

5. The landscapes above and below are a pair. My second prairie was in western Kansas, which I described, along with the area’s fascinating and complicated prairie dog wars,  in Smoky Valley Ranch. One evening on my way back from the ranch I drove west on Route 40 to see what I would see, and found myself among vast farm fields. The sky — often more turquoise than I am used to elsewhere — is as important an element of prairie landscape as the land, and on this trip I had the joy of a storm coming in. In the first picture, you can see, at the top, the dark clouds beginning to move over the sun-drenched wheat. In the second, you can see the change in the sky when I drove through on my way back. I escaped the rain this time, but I’ve never been in wilder thunderstorms than Kansas had to offer.

The wild thunderstorms of Kansas create their own landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Storm coming in along Route 40 in western Kansas

An old schoolhouse, one of many striking landscapes in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

An old schoolhouse in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas

6. Next stop was Chapman, Kansas, my gateway to the prairies of the Flint Hills, the Konza Preserve in Manhattan and the Tallgrass National Preserve an hour south. I’m not often drawn to buildings as subjects for photos. But I loved this old one-room schoolhouse, built out of the region’s mellow sandstone, alone on top of a hill, among the stormy clouds. In Saved by Stone, I described the sad limits of the remaining tall grass prairie, and how the rock in the Flint Hills helped preserve what remains. And, of course, how beautiful it all is.

One of the vivid landscapes seen in Wah Kon Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri

7. My posts from Missouri — Surprised by Delight and Walking in Beauty —  celebrated the beauty and the unexpected amount of fun I had in Missouri, thanks to meeting some wonderful prairie people as well as an adventurous baby bird. One evening I took a walk in the Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, and, once again, the sky and land came together in splendor.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

8. This was a year of family, thus the love in the post’s title. I spent time with Luke, with my sister Ann outside of Denver, with my brother and sister who live in Milwaukee, and the whole family gathered there for a reunion on Labor Day weekend. In Love, Grief, Wildflowers, I wrote about a trip with my brother, who is very ill, to Curtis Prairie in Madison, the oldest prairie restoration in the world. I only had eyes for him and for flowers that trip. I chose this one because thistles were so omnipresent in the prairies that they became symbolic. I grew up in an area where they are invasive pests, but they are so handsome and sculptural — in leaf, bud and flower — that I was delighted to be in places where they are welcome natives.

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota create vivid landscapes by Betsey Crawford

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

9. After leaving Wisconsin, I stopped south of Minneapolis to have breakfast with a friend, and then drove along the northern tier. On an earlier trip through North Dakota I’d been surprised to find that there are badlands there, too. These landscapes are not as spectacular as the ones in the South Dakota badlands, but they are wonderful, and another vivid reminder of the slow, patient work of our planet. This time I planned a stop so I could walk among them.

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, one of many beautiful landscapes in the Rocky Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho

10. After the badlands, I kept going toward Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I think of northern Idaho as a wonderful place to be because Luke lives there. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful, nestled in the mountains, with lots of lakes, unusual for the Rockies. There are some exceptionally deep glacial lakes, and many streams, like this one in an area that used to be farmed. Now the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, what little farming still happens here is designed to provide seed for migrating birds.

After a month in Idaho I drove south to Marin once more, along the Pacific coast landscapes of water, shore, and redwoods, continuing to sing my life into existence. The First Beings, who formed themselves out of primordial mud to take on the task, never said this singing would be easy. Between my brother’s illness, the state of the world, and the myriad challenges that come our way, day after day, it wasn’t. But I had wonderful times traveling my songlines this year.

I’ve come to understand that joy, like love, is a state of being, not a reaction. Fear, grief, anger are reactions. They all have their place, they’re all inevitable, since vulnerability is also a state of being, and one we can never escape. I would love to get to the place where joy is a state I can’t escape, either, but until then, it’s good to know where I can find it: on the ground among the flowers, meeting new friends in unexpected places, being with loved ones in ancient canyons and open prairies, walking toward a sun setting in flashes of rainbow and streams of glory. As the light returns and a new year dawns, I wish everyone an enduring state of joy.

The sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California create beautiful sky and landscapes by Betsey Crawford

Sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, 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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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.

 

Parcels of prairie: the Pawnee National Grasslands

In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordThe Pawnee National Grasslands were born out of grief. After years of drought, farmers of northeastern Colorado, already suffering through the Great Depression, watched as their soil literally blew away. Clouds of dirt rose 20,000 feet in the air, and blew so far east that they eventually settled on boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Left with nothing, many farmers were happy to sell their land to the U.S. government and move elsewhere. Some people weathered the storms, and by changing the way they used the land, their descendants still own their farms, creating a patchwork of private, state and federally owned property throughout the preserve.

Map of the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado, courtesy of the US Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service map of the Pawnee Grasslands; the green squares are public land.

The Grasslands were also born out of redeemed hubris. In 1875 John Wesley Powell, explorer and director of the U.S. Geological Survey, submitted a report on the land of northeast Colorado, saying that the area was not suitable for farming. The average rainfall was 12 to 15 inches, mostly in the spring, the summers were hot, and there was a continual drying wind. It was pointless to plow with the hope of growing crops. Instead, he said, it should be left in grass, for grazing.

A pronghorn antelope in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope

For 11,000 years, until the European settlers came, the indigenous peoples had come and gone, migrating away during hot, dry eras, and returning as the weather got cooler and wetter. They hunted the large beasts that grazed the land, including mammoths and the ancestors of modern bison. By the mid-1800s, the grasslands were home to 60 million buffalo, sacred to the tribes for whom they were food, clothing, housing, and spirit.

In the 1700s the first Europeans came, explorers and fur traders. The rush didn’t come until the gold was discovered near Pikes Peak in 1858, and the first Homestead Act in 1862, which gave every man or woman 160 acres as long as 40 of those acres were plowed and planted in five years. The railroad pushed through at the same time, bringing more people, as well as the supplies to build their homes, stores and schools.

A horned lizard In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

A horned lizard blending with the soil he travels over. His round body is about 2″ across.

The buffalo were first slaughtered to feed the train crews. And then they were annihilated to kill the spirit of the native tribes, at that point Arapaho and Cheyenne, who were forced off the land they had lived on compatibly for millennia. Heedless of Powell’s warnings, the newcomers tried to farm the land. In the few years when there was enough water, that worked. But in the many years of drought, people moved on, leaving the soil weakened and exposed. The grasslands depend on the deep, wide, networking roots of native grasses, evolved to live in the arid climate, to hold the soil in place. Those grasses were plowed under to grow crops that shriveled in the recurring droughts.

A windmill draws water for cattle In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordWhen the federal government started buying the land in the mid 1930s, it was the Soil Conservation Bureau that was in charge. The first task was to replant the bare areas with grasses, not necessarily native; anything that would grow and hold the soil in place. Almost 100 years later, the native grasses are still recovering. They had evolved together with the grazing animals: grass fed the animals, and the animals kept clipping the grass, creating both a dense mat of fresh stems that prevented the soil from drying too quickly, and the deep roots that literally held the ground in place.

So the plan was to bring the grasslands back to managed grazing, which is the dominant use today. There are some small oil and natural gas wells, and an expansive windmill farm to take advantage of the constant wind. Single windmills pump water into tubs for the grazing cattle. There is still conventional farming in the surrounding area, wherever irrigation is feasible.

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

I heard about the Pawnee Grasslands the way I hear about a lot of things: a chance conversation. I was in Grand Junction, clear across the state, and stopped at the visitors center to get information about the nearby Grand Mesa. The friendly volunteer I talked to asked where I was heading afterwards, and I said, ‘To the prairies.’ He told me about the grasslands, even looking it up on his computer, as if to convince me to go. So, I did.

A hawk flying In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey CrawfordI spent three days wandering through the grid of dirt and gravel roads that mark off one-mile-square plots, and got a taste of what the prairie has to offer, starting with 100 degree heat the first day. That was a perfect time for birdwatching from the air conditioned cab of the truck. And there are tons of birds. Three hundred species have been identified, making the Pawnee Grasslands a world class birding site, especially during the spring and fall migrations. But even with the smaller summer crowd, it was great. Black and white lark buntings, Colorado’s state bird, were everywhere. Hawks floated overhead, and took off from fence posts. Young meadowlarks startled up from the grasses along the edge of the road as I drove slowly through, landing on wire fences, looking confused, as adolescent birds often do. A loggerhead shrike joined me on the road, too briefly for a picture.

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos)

The second day was a balmy 88 degrees, and not too windy, so that was the day for flowers. There wasn’t a great variety yet, but enough to make me very happy. There were prickly poppies, new to me, along with familiar yucca, cleome and prairie coneflower. The edges of the roads were lined with tiny morning glories. That evening I drove to the Colorado Buttes, in the northeastern corner of the grassland, in the company of several pronghorn antelope. Towering 250 feet above the prairie, the buttes show you where the ground you’re standing on once was. Five million years of erosion ago, the open prairie was level with their tops.

The Colorado Buttes in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

The Colorado Buttes, with a wind farm barely visible in the distance.

The third day blew in on a strong, non-stop wind, reminding me of the lament of prairie settlers that the constant wind drove them mad. Flowers were rocketing back and forth on their stems, so I gave up on photographing them. I walked to a clump of trees, growing out of a creek that was invisible until you were right next to it, giving the grove a mysterious presence in the middle of the waving grasses. It was exhausting to walk two miles in that wind, so I was glad to get back to the truck and enjoy the storm clouds that were rolling in. Luckily, the wind kept them to the south, a beautifully ominous background to the still sunlit grasses.

Pink cleome (Cleome serrulata) in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

Pink cleome (Cleome serrulata)

The Pawnee Grasslands are short grass prairie. There’s not enough water for the taller grasses and flowers that grow farther east. Coming down from the grandeur of the neighboring Rocky Mountains, you might find these grasslands unexciting, even featureless, at first glance. As with other quiet worlds, it takes time, and presence, to get to the heart of their beauty. Three days gave only a taste of the vast sense of space, the subtly changing colors, the calls and songs of birds on the wing. The near invisibility of a tiny horned lizard against the stony soil. The sky as a presence, even a drama, in that profound expanse. A quiet so great it becomes an entity in itself. Even the wind — with no corners to howl around, and few branches of rustling leaves — is quiet. It moves steadily across the prairie with a rushing whisper, scattering the details of your life, leaving you as buoyant and receptive as the flowing grass.

In the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado, by Betsey Crawford

There are more pictures in the Pawnee National Grasslands gallery.

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

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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.

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.

The mysterious Yukon

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordIf you want tundra, you have to either go far enough north or high enough up, so a trip up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon was perfect for my longing for arctic plants. Two days of careful driving over the dirt and gravel road will take you into the Northwest Territories and to the Arctic Ocean, but we chose to drive as far north as we could for one afternoon. It was late August, the last day before a wintery storm was blowing in, and we grabbed our chance, driving through Tombstone Territorial Park, a stunning land of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, and a landscape carpeted in glowing fall colors.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Tundra, though one of the magical words that embody the mystery of the far north for me, has a perfectly rational explanation. The word itself is Russian, and simply means a treeless land, something the forest-loving Russians would be sure to have a word for. Trees can’t grow when permafrost keeps the soil too shallow for their roots, with a growing season too short to foster their large growth. Dwarf perennials and shrubs hug the ground, where they use the scarce water wisely and protect themselves, and each other, from the cold and wind.

Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

There were plenty of trees along the first part of the Dempster Highway, as the Northern Klondike River wound through and by it like a ribbon, but they petered out the higher we got into the Tombstone Mountains, named, as far as I can tell, from the shape of the mountains in the range, not anything more dire. This is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Teet ‘it Gwich’in territory, and the Han people still live on, use, and revere the land, as their ancestors have for 8,000 years.

tundra-alpine-harebell-campanula-lasiocarpa-lichen-empetrum-nigrum-crowberry-bog-cranberry-arctostaphylos-alpina-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Alpine harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa), lichen, crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) bog cranberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)

By late August, the wildflowers were long gone. I found only a few purple alpine harebells still around, one flower at a time, cozily poking out of the lichen around it, and often nestled for warmth against the black igneous rock that speaks of the area’s ancient volcanic history. For the rest, there were acres of more lichen, crowberry, cranberry, occasional tufts of grass. The largest plant was dwarf birch, which could get as high as my knees, and had beautiful fall color.

dwarf-birch-betula-nana-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Dwarf birch (betula nana)

The plants aren’t just for my delight. They feed a lot of wildlife — caribou, dall sheep, wolves, foxes, musk ox, lemmings, bears, moose, voles, marmots — none of which we saw, sadly. I was hoping for a hoary marmot, a squirrel relative, or at least to hear its piercing whistle, since I’m unlikely to run into them elsewhere.

The Yukon has always conjured up a sense of mystery to me, though I have no idea why. The neighboring Northwest Territories don’t do that, and, though Alaska had its own powerful lure of beauty and wildness, that didn’t include mystery. I don’t remember reading  about the Yukon as a child, beyond whatever Jack London book was required reading in school. Perhaps that was enough, but, more likely, it’s another example of places that call to us for reasons we can’t fathom.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-4I’m not alone. I read an interview with a man billed as the territory’s preeminent businessman, who has lived in the Yukon since he arrived there as a child in 1944. When asked about what make the Yukon special said, “The magic and the mystery.”

He didn’t try to explain. Perhaps we can’t, and, even more important, is there any point in trying to penetrate the mystery? There is something in my being that leapt to connect with the land around me when I was on the Dempster Highway. That doesn’t always happen, however wondrous a spot I’m in. I can revel in the beauty of a place, but not feel that leaping connection, so when it shows up it’s part of the mystery. I get to answer one mystery with another.

net-veined-willow-lichen-Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Net-veined willow (Salix reticulata) with lichen

There is in all of us, creatures of this earth, a call and response to wildness, beauty and the magic of place. I can’t make it happen, although I can make it more likely by standing on a windswept, far-north slope covered with the ankle-high, adaptable plants I’ve come to find. But still, you never know where you will connect, what part of the earth is yours, even though you’ve never been there, never even knew about it, may never go back. Something in you connects to the soul of that place. You’re touched by it, you’re never the same, and, perhaps, neither is the spot where your souls met.Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

Denali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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