Tag Archives: travel

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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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.

 

Smoky Valley Ranch: preserving a prairie

The entrance to Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey CrawfordSmoky Valley Ranch was the place I didn’t go to see. I went to Oakley, Kansas to see Monument Rocks and Lake Scott State Park, both recommended by a man named Mike Haddock, who runs a wonderful Kansas wildflower website. Oakley is not a destination site, but there are some interesting things to see there, and when I consulted the slim brochure I got at the Kansas visitors center after driving in from Colorado, I saw the ranch on the list. All I needed to see were the words ‘shortgrass and mixed grass prairie’ and that it is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and off I went.

The roads through the farms and prairie south of Oakley are set out in the familiar grid of towns and counties that grew up in the flat grasslands, but you can’t be sure that any one road in the grid actually goes all the way through. So, I got mildly lost, but eventually found the Nature Conservancy headquarters, a metal barn at the end of a half mile driveway flanked with wildflowers.

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda)

There’s a lot of land in western Kansas, and few people and houses, leaving vast farm fields surrounding the preserve, and even tucked in among its acres. Most grow wheat and corn developed to grow in the dry climate. The rest is grazing land, and the ranch’s 16,800 acres are run as working ranch, grazing both cattle and a herd of buffalo. Having evolved with both grazers and fire, the only way the prairie can prosper is in combination with both. Without these renewing forces, the old grass stems would choke the crowns at ground level and the plants would stagnate.

The mission of Smoky Valley Ranch isn’t just to preserve that particular prairie, but also to further develop grazing and burning methods that can be used more widely to save or renew remaining prairie. The second evening I went to take pictures around the headquarters, I met Matt Bain, the project manager, who seemed happy to talk, despite the fact that it was 7 pm. He described their grazing rotation, moving the herds from pasture to pasture as the season progresses, so that no one section is grazed more than 20% of the time, and each has a chance to recover. This is why I found few wildflowers on the only public trail on the land  — that area had been an early season pasture this year.

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) and friend

Kansas is the wheat capital of the United States. Corn is an industry represented by 20% of the merchandise in our local supermarkets, everything from the actual kernels themselves to corn-fed beef, to the sweetener in most processed foods, to the coating on the box of cornflakes. Farming on this massive scale involves agricultural practices that environmental advocates usually hope to change. I wondered how the local farmers felt about having the Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s premier environmental groups, in their midst. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the descendants of people who crossed an ocean and half a continent, and then slept on the ground under their wagons for their first season in the west, might not take kindly to suggestions about what to do on their land.

Clammy weed (Polanisia dodecandra) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Clammy weed (Polanisia dodecandra)

I had a chance to ask. On my last evening near the barn, a Sunday, a man drove up in his truck and then out into the preserve on an all-terrain vehicle. He came back an hour later, and stopped on his way out to make sure I was all right. A very friendly local farmer, he said he’d gone out to check the water tubs for the cattle so the ranch manager could have a day off. I asked how the neighbors felt about the preserve, and he readily admitted that several were sorry they hadn’t bought the land when it was for sale in 1999. But when I wondered if the preserve’s advocacy for certain ranching practices was an issue, he said there were some nearby ranchers who were even stricter rotational grazers than the Nature Conservancy.

‘It’s not that,’ he said, adding, much to my surprise, ’It’s prairie dogs.’ These are one-foot high, hyperactive creatures that are always poking out of their holes and disappearing into them, chittering at me when I pass their ‘towns.’ I already knew from Matt that he wanted to reintroduce prairie dogs (and prairie chickens) into the ecosystem of the ranch. He’d mentioned that they had to keep them well inside the perimeter of the preserve because neighbors didn’t like them. Kansas law allows counties to exterminate them if they’re deemed pests. Their biggest predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought to be extinct, is only now being reintroduced.

A praire dog poking his head out of his burrow in Bear Creek Greenbelt, Lakewood, Colorado by Betsey CrawfordThis last seemed like a good thing to me, but Tom said no, the local farmers weren’t happy about it. They don’t want easterners — I didn’t take this personally; I assumed he meant easterners from Washington D.C. — telling them they can’t farm a field because an endangered species is on it. There has been talk of adding the black-tailed prairie dog to the endangered species list, as well. But even ranchers in favor of working to restore prairie dog habitat are opposed to their being declared endangered, with all the restrictions that would ensue. ’Google Logan County prairie dog wars,’ he said cheerfully, before he drove off.

So I did, and unleashed an online tempest. Ranchers fear that the dogs eat crops and compete with cattle for the grasses both depend on. They also object to the formation of prairie dog towns, created by a network of underground tunnels that can stretch 50 feet in all directions, and the piles of dirt that are thrown up around the many entrances to the burrows. This creates, one farmer said, a ‘moonscape,’ with further loss of grass, and with holes that, so it is feared, could be dangerous traps for cows’  and horses’ hooves.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

There’s nothing I approve of more than matching your moth to your outfit: blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)

The wars don’t directly involve the prairie dogs on the preserve. There are two local farmers who want them on their property, and feel strongly that they not only belong on the prairie, but are an important part of the ecosystem. Which, traditionally, they have been. When they eat grass around the burrows, and snip off tall grass surrounding their town to more easily see predators, the dogs are reducing competition for other plants, especially flowers, whose seeds then feed the endangered prairie chicken and other birds. The steady clipping of plants also insures a continual crop of new shoots, which have more protein and nitrogen than mature stalks.

In this more diverse and nutritious landscape other lives prosper, as well. Some are predators, like the swift fox and the ferruginous hawk. Some coexist, like the prairie chicken and mountain plover. Some animals live in the burrows with the prairie dogs, like mice, the burrowing owl, and snakes and other reptiles. Even the black-footed ferret — the one that eats prairie dogs — lives in the burrows with them, which is a very interesting arrangement. Bison and pronghorn antelope like the higher nutrition of the new shoots. The burrows themselves bring rainfall further down into the deep root systems of the prairie plants.

Wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum) in Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey Crawford

Wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum)

So, from nature’s point of view, it’s a good idea to have prairie dogs, as long as  the whole predator cycle is working to keep the population within sustainable bounds. From the human point of view, it’s endlessly complicated, with cross currents of angry neighbors comparing the dogs to an infestation of rats, and local governments, based on a hundred-year-old state law, poisoning the dogs and sending owners the bill. Some federal agencies are weighing unwanted interventions, another is accused of not intervening enough. Local ranchers are adamantly opposed to anything that would limit their ability to use their land as they see fit, or threaten their investment in crops and cattle. Wildlife advocates say the poison is killing other animals, as well. And while all this is being fought, there and elsewhere, the prairie dogs have lost 95% of their habitat.

Land use issues are everywhere, and though the west is famous for them, eastern towns and cities have plenty to contend with. There are so many layers to all of these controversies: taste and preference, the common good and how that’s defined, the rights of owners, the rights of neighbors, the rights of the earth, the economic ramifications of limitations on use, the peace and prosperity of the community. And that’s just a handful of possible concerns. As I visit different prairies I have no doubt other aspects of these same tensions will show up.

A limetone outcrop in the praire at Smoky Valley Ranch, a prairie preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy by Betsey CrawfordThis is all far from the calm and beauty I found wandering the ranch’s acres. Matt told me a couple of places to go to find wildflowers. Just jump over the fence, he suggested, with a young man’s wild overestimation of a 65-year-old’s jumping abilities. And then added, be careful of electric fences. But I found openings that rewarded flexibility over vaulting and spent wonderful hours wandering the prairie, sometimes climbing unexpected hills, or walking among the trees in the Smoky Hill River valley, or along an outcrop of limestone holding 250 million-year-old fossil shells, remnants of a vast inland sea. We humans will never not be contentious, and perhaps shouldn’t even bother to contemplate such a homogeneous state, though we can strive for compassion when dealing with our differences.

And we can go out into ancient landscapes, that evolved long before we did, and have wisdom we still aspire to, reminding ourselves that we are part of a long process, a tiny piece of a project billions of years old. In the prairie I am surrounded by thousands of mysteries, large and small. Birds, descendants of dinosaurs, sing from the tops of last year’s flower stalks. Grass roots reach deep into the earth under my feet, knowing how to find water. Flowers produce nutritious seed through their ephemeral beauty. Ancient sea life crunches in the dirt at my feet; thunderstorms blow wildly through; bison move in the distance. Multicolored grasshoppers leap up, buzzing, flying ahead of me as I walk through the grass. When they land again they magically turn into the color of the prairie. They know things I’ll never know. I love that idea. I’m filled with peace.

A western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) sings in the Smoky Valley Ranch prairie preserve by Betsey Crawford

A western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in full voice.

There are more pictures in the Smoky Valley Ranch 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

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

Yarrow: a quiet goddess subdues half a planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The yarrow in Alaska is Achillea millefolium, variety borealis.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Songlines 2015: north to Alaska

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

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

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Ratany (Krameria bicolor) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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

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

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

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Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) near Yahk, British Columbia

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

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

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

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Mother and two babies near Matanuska Glacier

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

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George at the Matanuska Glacier

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Hand tram over Winner Creek, Girdwood, Alaska

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

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Alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus) Seward, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spruce family planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

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

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

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

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Squirrel apartment building

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

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

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

Samhain in New Jersey

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

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

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus)

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

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Peach leaves in the Orchard of the Ancestors, Genesis Farm

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

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

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

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The main farm field, Genesis Farm

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

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Cattail (Typha angustifolia)

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

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

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

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

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Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

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

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

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Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

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