Tag Archives: national parks

The solace of deep time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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Saved by stone: the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills

Black Sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills prairie in central Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Black Sampson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

In the middle of the 19th century, the tallgrass prairie covered 170 million square miles. It stretched from Canada to Texas, and from the middle of Nebraska to an outpost in northern Ohio. The vast ocean of gigantic grasses was the first thing people coming west saw, as the mountains and forests of the east receded. Early explorers spoke of grasses so tall and dense you couldn’t see a man on a horse once he was among them. A marvelous ecosystem of hundreds of native plant species, with roots extending up to 15’ into the ground, it supported hundreds of species of wildlife, from the vast buffalo and elk herds to the burrowing voles and coyotes, to the birds eating seeds from the tops of grasses and flowers, to the fungi, insects and unicellular bacteria helping the grasses break down nutrients in the soil.

Snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Snow on the mountain (Euphorbia marginata) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas

One hundred and fifty years later, only 4% of all that teeming, vibrant life survives, and most of that lies in the middle of Kansas, in the Flint Hills, saved from destruction by the rocks which made it too difficult to plow. A soil layer that can be as thin as 6” sits on layers of limestone and harder shale, remnants of an ancient inland sea. Without plowing, the soil remained structurally intact, so the deep roots, finding their patient way through the shelf of porous limestone — with all their attendant microbes, fungi, worms, and centipedes — could find water and anchor the prairie in place.

Instead of farming, the Flint Hills settlers chose to graze their animals on the nutritious grasses. They thus mimicked the long evolution of the prairie, which became what it was because of grazers, going all the way back to the wooly mammoth 1.8 million years ago. The animals evolved to survive by constantly clipping the nutritious grass, moving onto the next good patch as one was shorn. The grass evolved to tuck its growth points just under the soil, below the grazers’ teeth, allowing it to continually send up new shoots and thrive.

Western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, where there were fields of them

The prairie also evolved with fire. At first the random but persistent fires caused by lightning, and then the intentional fires used by the Native American grassland tribes to renew the prairie, create open spaces to live, and lure animals to the hunt with new, easy-to-eat and highly nutritious grass. Fire removes the woody growth that would become shrubs and trees, as well as the layer of decaying plant matter on top of the soil. Air and light can then easily reach the crowns of the living plants. The tribes were flexible and adaptive over their long history on the plains, leaving an area during drought, returning with increasing rains, never exhausting one place.

The settlers came to stay, and their very staying changed the nature of the prairie. Where they could plow, the prairie was altered irrevocably. Houses, barns, crops, and eventually towns had to be protected from fire, so trees and shrubs got a foothold and grew. Some of the richest soil in the world, undergirding a complex and vital ecosystem, formed over tens of thousands of years, was plowed for crops, which flourished in the wetter years. Dry years drove waves of emigration farther west, leaving soils to wash or blow away, the lean remainder prey to invasive seeds. The Native Americans, first banished to Kansas, soon were forced further west, into limited, less desirable spaces.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

It’s a complex history in every dimension — botanical, geological, human — some fascinating, some heartbreaking. Today there are two main preserves in the Flint Hills. The 8,600 acre Konza Prairie Biological Station lies just south of Manhattan, owned and operated jointly by the Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. The 11,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is an hour further south, and is part of the National Park Service, also in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Both are studying how to conserve and manage the prairie, and both are working with private landowners to help manage the prairies they own in the Flint Hills.

Konza Biological Preserve experimental designThe Nature Conservancy has been very active in this, even working to obtain liability insurance for prescribed burns, so that homeowners will be more confident about trying them. Both preserves are working on best practices for an array of desired results. What’s good for the sloping soil next to a stream, which provides enough water for trees, is different from the approach that benefits grassy areas on the top of dry, windy bluffs. Above is an experimental design for burning and grazing rotations, for both cattle and bison at the Konza Preserve. Below is the actual burn plan for 2016.

Konza Biological Station burn plan for 2016Not burning for as much as 20 years will allow trees to grow, and then clearing and fire will remove shrubby growth to create an open savannah. Burning as frequently as every year will create a lot of blooming flowers, but makes it hard for ground nesting birds. So areas are divided and burned in rotation. Neither burning nor grazing is a clean sweep of the prairie, and the remaining patchiness makes for varied areas of mixed diversity. Increased plant diversity leads to increased animal diversity.

Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Thickspike gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya) in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

It’s a beautiful cycle, but it’s not endless. The only thing that keeps tallgrass prairie going at this point are the actions of groups like The Nature Conservancy, the Park Service, state conservation departments, and a multitude of smaller, local organizations. Plus the willingness of prairie-loving owners to keep the forces of evolution alive on their property. There are many people like me, who mourn the loss of a vast grassland that could swallow up a horse and rider, even though we have never been privileged to see such a thing. Those billions of stalks fell to a philosophy that rules much of our world at this point — that the earth is here to serve us, and everything is for our use. The tallgrass prairie is now corn, milo, sorghum, soybean and wheat fields stretching to the horizon. It’s feedlots and silos, Main Streets and huge box stores in a barren desert of asphalt, skyscrapers and four-lane highways.

I shop in stores and drive on highways, and enjoy many things towns and cities have to offer. I eat the abundance farms provide and depend on the power grid to write this essay. I find beauty in red barns, grazing cows, and rolling farm fields, emerald green one season, gold another. I’m not against  things that sustain and enrich human life. I’m against taking everything down to create something else entirely, something infinitely less diverse, less layered, less alive. Less wild.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

There are solutions to our environmental challenges, and people are working on them with fierce urgency, Despite my mourning for lost wildness, it’s my nature to be optimistic. I have hope that we’ll find more sustainable ways of operating on this planet, and that we’ll continue to save what we can. But more sustainable cities, box stores powered with solar, a parking lot full of energy efficient cars, though much better answers than the ones we’ve given so far, still leave us with an impoverished landscape.

For now, my answer for this sense of loss is to find the remaining prairies, go out among the grasses and flowers, the grasshoppers and butterflies, listen to the rustling of the wind and the dry rasp of cicadas, and report back on what I find there.

Whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and grasshopper taken at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in the Flint Hills prairie in central Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

There are more pictures in the Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie gallery.

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.

It takes a village: the community of lichen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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