Tag Archives: wildflower photography

One big, happy family: the Asteraceae

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordI took the picture above six years ago this month, standing in a field of sunflowers on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada. It was the first place we went when we started the journey that has taken us to so many wonderful places. I’ve never forgotten the joy of standing in that field, completely surrounded by the happiest of flowers, growing with wild abandon toward the August sun.

With almost 24,00o species, the Asteraceae family is vast and exuberant. It’s literally everywhere you go, except Antarctica. The accompanying photos range from Alaska to the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California. They reflect one of the family’s strengths: the ability to thrive in many different environments, whether hot or cold, dry grassland or wet marsh, in alpine meadows or among desert cactus. Some are important commercially: sunflower, safflower and canola oils. Camomile and echinacea tea. Artichokes, lettuce, tarragon, radicchio, endive. One shrub even produces a form of latex. The horticultural market depends on many of them.

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) taken along Chimney Rock trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The most familiar asteraceae configuration is the sunflower and its relatives: a central circle of disk florets, surrounded by a crown of ray florets that look like and act like petals, attracting insects to pollinate themselves as well as the less showy disk flowers. The family name comes from these composite forms: aster derives from the Latin word for star. But there are a variety of other structures. Some, like the thistle and the arnica below, are discoid, with disk but no ray flowers. Others, like the dandelion, are ligulate, with no disk flowers and ‘petals’ of strappy ligules. 

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

As a group, they tend to develop a fluffy seed head, a pappus of filaments that originally surround the base of the ovary, and grow longer as the flower goes to seed. With their feathery attachments, seeds are easily dispersed by wind, which helps account for the ubiquity of yarrow, fleabanes, dandelions, asters and other family members. Some seeds have hooks on them and spread out by attaching themselves to animal fur or clothing. 

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska

What looks like an individual flower is an inflorescence, a bowl-, vase- or cone-shaped capitulum, holding its lovely arrangement of hundreds of ray and disk florets. The capitulum is held by green bracts, or phyllaries, sometimes many layers of them, constituting an involucre. When you eat the bud of an artichoke flower, you peel off, dip in melted butter, and then eat one phyllary after another, until you get to the heart, which is the capitulum containing the disk flowers. The phyllaries can be plain or beautifully sculptural. Their differences, in number, shape and position, are often a key to identifying close species. 

Analysis of fossil pollen found in Antarctica dates the Asteraceae to 80 million years ago, when the continent was still part of Gondwana, before it floated south to the icy pole. Species were lost during the K-T extinction, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. But those that survived thrived and multiplied during the great flowering of the warm Late Paleocene and Early Eocene epochs, as did every other plant family. The asteraceae in turn benefitted their pollinating insects, and were especially important to the evolution of bee species.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with two butterflies Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

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

They are a pollinator’s dream: one landing, up to 1,000 flowers. The sunflower, our biggest and most dramatic North American native asteraceae, dedicates a most intriguing and charming trait to bees and other pollinators. It starts with buds and young flower heads, still covered with their green, photosynthesizing bracts, following the sun over the course of the day. At night, they work their way back toward sunrise, moving faster near the solstice, and more slowly as the nights grow longer.

 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

This cirdadian heliotropism is driven by growth hormones that spur growth on the east side of the stem during the day, lengthening that side, and tilting the flower head toward the west. At night, another hormone spurs growth on the west side, moving the flower to face east by morning. In experiments that interfere with this sun tracking, plants quickly lose mass and leaf surface, cutting down on photosynthesis and thus vitality and size.

Their sungazing stops at maturity. The ‘clock genes’ turn off, leaving entire fields of sunflower heads facing east. That way they are warmed early in the day, making them five times more likely to be visited by pollinators than experimental plants arranged to face west.  And there are lots of pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, wind, and, in South America, birds. With their warm, open faces offering almost unlimited opportunity for fertilizing, reproduction becomes very efficient, which explains the diversity and worldwide habitat of the family.

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

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

Standing in a field of sunflowers, or prairies of thistles, coneflowers and goldenrods,  I am not only surrounded by the sheer exuberance of vividly colored, beautifully shaped flowers, with their attendant bees and butterflies. I am surrounded by a long history of carefully ‘chosen’ evolutionary changes that remain mysterious despite all the genetic information we can now gather about plants. Why so many yellows? And why pink, or white? Why feathery leaves on one family member, big chunky leaves on another? Why is this one so tiny, and this one gigantic? Why a cone on one, a bowl on another? This heavenly exuberance of form and color is a delightful mystery.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

In that sunlit field I’m also surrounded by a form of life — the flowering angiosperms with their nutritious fruits — that may well be responsible for me, a member of a much later species, being able to stand there at all. That nourishment helped my forebears to develop the eyes and consciousness to celebrate the wonder around me. That may even be the point of evolving me at all: a way for the universe to contemplate its glories.

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

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

Relishing the sunny warmth of a summer day, drinking in the beauty and vitality of the flowers around me, grateful for our shared history and destiny — these are moments of transcendence that make life rich and fulfilling. Our beautiful world makes them so available, but we too often rush by. Even when we stop, we feel we must quickly return to the practical tasks that make life possible. But our world is always there, waiting to be treasured. Waiting for the eyes and ears it has gifted us with to turn toward these great and beautiful mysteries. “Life is this simple,’ theologian Thomas Merton wrote. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through all the time.”

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

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Retaining paradise: gardening with native plants

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

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) San Ramon, California

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

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

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California

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

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

Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigidus) San Ramon, California

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

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

California wild rose (Rosa California) Novato, California

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

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

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

Fern leaf phacelia (Phacelia tancetifolia), Novato, California

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spacathea) El Sobrante, California

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

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

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

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Novato, California

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

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

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

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

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

California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) El Sobrante, California

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

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

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

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

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The Work that Reconnects: a weekend with Joanna Macy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild abandon: the mystery and glory of plant diversity

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

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

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

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

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

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

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

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

Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa)

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

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

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

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

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata)

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

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

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

Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

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

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

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

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

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

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

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

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

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

Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia)

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Elegant, wild, mysterious: loving iris

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

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

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

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

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

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

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

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

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Sowing seeds into the whirlwind

Cow clover (Trifolium wormskioldii) Chimney Rock trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Cow clover (Trifolium wormskioldii) Chimney Rock trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Learning, on yet another election night, that progress is not only not remotely linear, but that the way is often bewilderingly and heartbreakingly tortuous, with far too many backward strides, I was reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, February 2, 1968. He wrote it three days into the disastrous Tet Offensive of the Vietnam war, in a year that was to include two deeply tragic assassinations, worldwide rebellion, and a bitter election. 

In the dark of the moon, in  flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

A seedpod from the Fabaceae, or legume, family, in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California by Betsey Crawford

The nutritious seedpods produced by the legume family, this one from the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California, are one of the reasons the human race has made it this far.

Words in poems are not accidents. In the face of grief, fear, and despair, Berry was sowing a member of the Fabaceae, the legume family. One of the most ancient plant families on earth, with fossils 56,000,000 years old, it is also one of the largest, and perhaps the most important for our species. Our evolution went hand in hand with the legumes, the most abundant source of plant protein.

They can prosper even on Berry’s rocky hillside because of an extraordinary ability: to take nitrogen — the nutrient plants are hungriest for — and transfer it from the air to the soil by converting it to another form of nitrogen, ammonia. Rhizobia, bacterial descendants of billions-of-years-old archaic organisms, perform this feat, living in nodules along the roots of the plants. Because they create their own fertilizer, legumes can adapt to a wide array of conditions. Then, while thriving themselves, they enrich and renew the ground they grow on.

White clover (Trillium repens) Cougar Bay trail, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

White clover (Trillium repens) Cougar Bay trail, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

But Berry wasn’t sowing chickpeas, or peanuts, or peas, or soybeans. He was sowing clover, a plant specifically used to nourish both soil and grazers. For millennia farmers have planted clover to bring tired soil, its nitrogen used up by other crops, back to life. It offers extra rich fodder to farm animals. It keeps pollinating bees in the neighborhood by giving them nectar they particularly value. In the middle of war, in the dark of winter, on frozen ground, he is sowing a plant of deep nourishment and renewal, a thread that ties crucial elements of farming — and thus life — together. 

Groundnut (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Groundnut (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri

For post-election solace, I turned once again to the millions of people who are sowing clover all over the world in Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest. For all the benefits to be gained by good legislative policies, governments are perhaps the last places to look for lasting revolutions in human affairs. Political institutions are designed, for good and ill, to perpetuate themselves, and thus are conservative by nature. Any movement too far in one direction calls for counterbalance, often too far in the other direction. “Change,” President Obama reminds us, “doesn’t come from Washington. It comes to Washington.” That’s true for any capitol in the world. Progress, as least as I define it, does lurch along, but the lurches can be sickening, even terrifying. 

Canyon pea (Lathers vestitus) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

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

So, instead, I take comfort in the slow, steady work of ordinary people. In the New York town where I spent most of my adult life, the environmental organizations range from The Nature Conservancy, a world-wide force with a budget in the billions, to a small group of volunteers who faithfully monitor the health of the harbor I lived on. Each village and hamlet in the township has its own group, working to preserve and restore natural areas, advocating for open space, rebuilding dunes and beaches.

Farther afield, the Group for the East End works on issues facing the eastern end of Suffolk County on Long Island. A bay keeper, part of the fast-growing Waterkeeper Alliance, oversees the health of Peconic Bay. The local commercial fishermen, individuals with small boats and businesses, gather together to protect their centuries-old livelihood from the demands of sport fishermen and the tourist industry. 

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Multiply this out, town after town, state after state, country after country. Working for the health of rivers, streams and wetlands, for clean air, for better public transportation. Other groups working for indigenous rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, the right of girls worldwide to an education. More groups concentrating on land, farming and hunger issues. Each issue weaving into all the other issues.

Hawken lists the varieties of organizations: keepers, watchers, friends, defenders, coalitions, alliances, incubators, networks, “each keeping its unique character and focus while adding to the richness of the movement as a whole.” He likens it to the growing understanding of the human immune system as a network rather than an army, where the cure for disease may depend more on fostering the network’s connectivity than on pushing for a ferocious response.

Eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum) Denali National Park, Alaska

Connectivity is one of the most important elements in this worldwide web. Every path that you follow will lead you to related paths, and those paths will lead you to numerous other possibilities. Like the internet on which it depends, this vast movement works toward more opportunity, more connection, more information, more ideas, more ways to gather people together. A one-person campaign to save a stream morphs into a variety of organizations dedicated to changing the upstream practices that cause pollution. The challenges to those practices lead to larger questions about what really serves the human race and the planet we depend on.

This indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) flower in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California clearly shows the characteristics of Fabaceae flowers: the banners at the top, the wings spreading on either side of the keel at the bottom.

This indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California clearly shows the characteristics of Fabaceae flowers: the banners at the top, the wings spreading on either side of the keel at the bottom.

“Most movement activists start like Chico Mendes, believing they are fighting for a specific cause, in his case rubber trees, and realize later they are fighting for a greater purpose: ‘then I thought I was trying to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I was fighting for humanity.’”

I, too, am an ordinary person sowing clover, some of which is on this page, along with other Fabaceae family members. When I wonder if my passion for plants is enough, given the magnitude of the tasks we face, I remember theologian Howard Thurman’s soul-affirming answer to a friend asking a similar question: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

Lupine (Lupinus sericeus) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Lupine (Lupinus sericeus) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

What makes me come most alive is peering into the souls of flowers, and returning with the news I find there. Their stories reach far beyond their luminous petals, eventually connecting, as Berry’s clover does, as Hawken’s immune system does, as all our endeavors do, with all life on earth. This eternal interweaving is why poet Gary Snyder’s advice for the journey, at the end of For the Children, can be so simple. One thing leads to everything.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Feather plume (Dalea formosa) Organ Mountains, New Mexico by Betsey Crawford

Feather plume (Dalea formosa) Organ Mountains, New Mexico

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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Happy Halloween: slightly ominous, very orange

Orange flowers-Globe flower (Trollies species) taken in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordWhen I first saw the picture of the trollius above, taken at a lovely garden in Manito Park in Spokane, Washington in 2012, I was struck by how ferocious it looked, though the trollius itself didn’t inspire that thought when I took it. It was the only time I’d ever associated the word ‘ominous’ with a flower. I was reminded of it this fall, as I took pictures of fading flowers and my beloved seedheads. I realized that some, in their withered and darkened states, were slightly spooky. Others were ghost-like. One even had a seed pod like a withered claw.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Spooky petals and fierce spikes: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

So I decided to do a Halloween post celebrating the slightly ominous in flowers. As I went through my collection, I was amazed at how many I found to fit this theme, whether it was a shape, or the play of the light, or the possession of spines, or the dark lure of fading petals, or simply Halloween’s emblematic color. I have photos to celebrate Halloween for years. For this one, something fairly typical of me happened — I was attracted to all the orange flowers.

Asked to choose my favorite color I would find something on the lavender/purple spectrum.  I keep my environments relatively neutral. I like the soft browns and greens of earth tones. Neither pure red nor pure yellow is at all becoming to me. But I’m drawn to orange, both in flowers and clothes. One of my most vivid childhood color memories is of a bright orange dress, pleated from the shoulders to the hem, that I wore in second grade. Another is of a coat, the color of the cactus below, that my mother bought me for Easter one year.

Orange flowers-Gander's cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) taken in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California by Betsey Crawford

Sharp spines and scary buds: Gander’s cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

It’s not a common color for flowers, particularly in the wild. On Mike Haddock’s wonderful Kansas wildflowers site, he includes 10 orange flowers in a section with pink and red flowers. Yellow flowers get their own section to accommodate 192 different flowers. Blues and purples are a close second at 186. Whites dwarf them all at 312. They are even more rare in the desert. There is a wider variety of orange flowers for gardeners and florists, because growers and propagators aren’t depending on native plants alone. They find plants all over the globe, and encourage the colors they want by creating cultivars of likely prospects.

Our color readers are cone shaped neurons embedded in our retina, six million in each eye. Almost two-thirds of them preferentially read the longer wavelengths of the warm colors — red, orange, yellow — and are able to distinguish more color variation in those tones than in blue or purple ones, which are transmitted by only 2% of our cones. The remaining third are dedicated to green wavelengths. From those ranges come all the color variations we are sensitive to.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken in Sandpoint, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Skeletal petals: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Sandpoint, Idaho. The bright colors in the background are orange leaves on the ground.

The carotenes in orange flowers — the same chemicals that make orange fruits and vegetables so good for us — selectively absorb and reflect light waves of specific lengths. The reflected ones enter our pupils, excite the cones that are receptive to that length, and our brain tells us that we are looking at orange. Like the proverbial tree falling alone in the forest, creating sound waves no one hears, without brains to interpret the messages brought by these wavelengths, there would be no color. The flower would still have carotenes, the light from the sun would still both be absorbed and bounce off it, cones would even get stimulated. But they only telegraph their excitement. The brain — ours, a hummingbird’s, a butterfly’s — translates the result.

Orange flowers-Orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) taken at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Lit from within: orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah. Malviflora sounds a bit ominous, but it only means it has mallow-like flowers.

Human enjoyment of its color isn’t a flower’s first priority. Their gorgeous hues are designed to lure pollinators, and did so for eons before we showed up. Hummingbirds see in the near-ultraviolet spectrum, which makes reds, oranges and bright pinks pop out for them. Our biblical heritage, where the earth was presented to us to use and enjoy, makes it hard to accept that these beautiful colors aren’t designed for our pleasure. Where does our delight fit in? The joy of the little girl twirling in her bright orange pleats, the joy of the woman sitting among cups of orange light? It’s hard to think of ourselves as bystanders of all this splendor, able to enjoy it, but having no reciprocity. Do flowers know they’re loved? Have they, in fact, enslaved us by their beauty, ensuring millions of us will spend hours each day growing more and more flowers? What a great plan!

Orange flowers-Monkey flower (Limulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

A light in the dark: monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California

The idea that beauty nurtures us in order for us to nurture beauty reminds me of my discussion of Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that our ability to feel awe has been chosen by evolution to more deeply connect us to the earth we inhabit. To make what can be a very difficult life worth living. And the even larger idea, first introduced to me by Thomas Berry, that our consciousness has evolved to allow the cosmos to reflect on its own luminous creations. I love the thought of the creative energies patiently working, on a time frame we can’t begin to fathom, to insure that there will one day be enough hyper-sensitive cone-shaped neurons nestled in the retina, and a powerful enough optic nerve traveling to a large enough brain. All so that the universe can contemplate its own beauty, reflected in vivid orange flowers.

Orange flowers-Columbia lily (Lilium columbarium) taken at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Just for beauty: Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

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

Love, grief, wildflowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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