Tag Archives: wildlife

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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Walking in beauty

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

Prairie petunia (Ruellia humilis) Osceola, Missouri

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

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

Sweet potato (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri

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

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

Ozark sunflower (Helianthus silphioides) Osceola, Missouri

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

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

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

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

A killdeer's broken wing display

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

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

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

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

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Osceola, Missouri

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

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

Vine-mesquite (Hopia obtusa) Osceola, Missouri

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

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

Partridge pea (Chaemaecrista fasciculata) Osceola, Missouri

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

 

Smoky Valley Ranch: preserving a prairie

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

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

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

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda)

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

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

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

Tansy aster (Machaeranthera tanacetifolia) and friend

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

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

Clammy weed (Polanisia dodecandra)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wavy-leaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum)

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

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

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

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

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

A western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in full voice.

There are more pictures in the Smoky Valley Ranch gallery.

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

Parcels of prairie: the Pawnee National Grasslands

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

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

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

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

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

Pronghorn antelope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

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

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

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

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos)

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

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

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

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

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

Pink cleome (Cleome serrulata)

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

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

There are more pictures in the Pawnee National Grasslands gallery.

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

Songlines 2015: north to Alaska

Songlines-2015

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

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

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Ratany (Krameria bicolor) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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

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

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

Cross-Canyon-Cahone-area-Colorado-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado

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

apache-plume-fallugia-paradoxa-seedheads-Snow-Canyon-state-park-St-George-Utah-by-Betsey-Crawford

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

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

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

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

columbia-lily-lilium-columbianum-near-Yahk-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) near Yahk, British Columbia

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

Tall-purple-fleabane-Erigeron-peregrinus-Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-Alberta-by-Betsey-Crawford

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

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

moose-family-Long-Rifle-Lodge-Glacier-View-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Mother and two babies near Matanuska Glacier

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

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George at the Matanuska Glacier

hand-tram-lower-Winner-Creek-trail-Girdwood-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Hand tram over Winner Creek, Girdwood, Alaska

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

alpine-milk-vetch-astragalus-alpinus-Seward-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus) Seward, Alaska

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

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

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

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

sunset-Spokane-River-Coeur-dAlene-Idaho-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

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

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

Spruce family planning

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

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

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

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

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

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

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

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

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

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

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

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

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

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-dens-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

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

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

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

 

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

Denali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latitude 49º 6′ 33.63″, Longitude -113º 50′ 58.92″

Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-by-Betsey-CrawfordI have located heaven. It’s relatively easy to find, right at the end of a beautiful drive through the prairies of southwestern Alberta, just into Canada north of the Montana border. The latitude and longitude above are the gates. Not pearly, as one was led to expect, though perfectly nice examples of the rather odd Tudor/rustic combination favored by Parks Canada, since on the terrestrial plane heaven calls itself Waterton Lakes National Park. Once inside you drive alongside lovely blue lakes on the left, where, late one evening, I dimly saw a large herd of black-headed elk moving softly in the green dusk, some swimming in the luminous twilit water.  On the right, rolling, windswept prairie flows into mountains.

Western blue clematis (Clematis occidentalis)

Western blue clematis (Clematis occidentalis)

Eventually you come to a small village on the edge of the largest lake, and a campground right off the beach, surrounded by mountains. The entire town could, I suspect, fit into a New York City block. There are hotels and inns, private homes, a few restaurants, some galleries and gift shops. All very low key. In a nod to nutrition, there’s one small grocery store, but the main food in heaven, judging by the number of people eating it all the time, is ice cream, supplied by no less than four shops devoted to it.

Munching bear wandering by

Munching bear wandering by

There you are perfectly willing to stay for the rest of existence. Though, I have to admit, you may change your mind as the local gas station becomes completely covered by ten feet of snow.

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)

Glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)

I came for the Waterton Lakes Wildflower Festival. The first time I was here, in September, 2012, I saw a poster for it, and have been waiting to get back ever since. There were various events, and I took part in several. All were fun, and one, a walk up Rowe Mt. with a man named Edwin Knox, who has worked at the park for 30 years, was so sublime it’s now the touchstone for such days: walk up a beautiful, not-too-steep-in-any-one-place mountain trail with a fun and knowledgeable guide, keying wildflowers on the way up. Eat lunch at a tiny, gorgeous alpine lake. Climb to an alpine meadow full of glacier lilies. (Let the three hardiest members of the group climb all the way to the top.) Wander down slowly enough to take lots of pictures along the way.

Edwin, wildflower ID book in hand, leading the way up Mt. Rowe

Edwin, wildflower ID book in hand, leading the way

In a world full of spectacular beauty, Waterton Lakes is still a place apart. Part of it is the confluence of its elements: the prairie rolls from the Great Plains in the east into the Rocky Mountains to the north and west. The spruce, fir  and pine clad mountains cradle eighty lakes and ponds, as well as more than sixty miles of rivers and streams, within the park’s 195 square miles.  There are 1,000 species of plants in this small area, from minute unicellular algae to towering Douglas firs. Of those species, 179 are considered rare; 22 of those occur in Waterton and nowhere else on earth.

Mountain lady's slipper (Cypripedium montanum)

Mountain lady’s slipper (Cypripedium montanum)

Other creatures love it, too. Bears cross the street as you take pictures of orchids, pulling up roots to munch on. Hummingbirds pollinate paintbrush. Butterflies meet up on lovely purple fleabane. Wild sheep rest in the shade on the road as you drive, while a mother and baby pass by, so close you could reach out and feel the mother’s horns.

Big horn sheep resting in the handiest shade

Big horn sheep resting in the handiest shade

The sheer exuberance of this profusion is breathtaking. But there’s more than beauty here. With neighboring Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, Waterton Lakes forms what is called the Crown of the Continent, one of the last truly vast preserved wild places in our two countries. The Blackfoot people call it the ‘Backbone of the World.’ Its peaks reach to nearly 10,000 feet. Its wildlife can roam they way they always have. It holds the headwaters of several major river systems. A drop of water that falls on the crown can end up in the Arctic Ocean via the McKenzie River watershed system, the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia or Fraser system, the Atlantic via the Sasketchewan system that flows into Hudson Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri River, making tiny Waterton an integral part of a vast arterial network.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) hosting butterflies

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) hosting butterflies

Thus, many beautiful and powerful forces both meet and spread out from here: water, rocks, mountains, sky, trees, meadows, waterfalls, flowers, wind, elk, bear, eagle, big horn sheep, bison. On the ground, where I spent a great deal of time, all was quiet and beautiful beyond measure. But though I was dealing with the gentlest of elements — wildflowers, grasses, leaves — the exhilarating sense of sitting among these immense energies was very strong. The world living as it was meant to live.

Heaven is within us, the sages say. A lovely, challenging idea. But there’s no denying that some earthly places are more heavenly than others, and Waterton Lakes, the beautiful blooming bowl held in the mountains, is one of the heavenliest.

(More images are in the Waterton wildflowers gallery, which is here.)

Waterton-Lakes-National-Park-by-Betsey-Crawford

Mysteries at my feet

lines3The lines showed up one morning, on a section of my walk where the sand, driven over by the owner’s tractor, is unusually soft, and shows an imprint easily. Lizard tails, I thought. I checked carefully for any sign of tiny lizard feet, but didn’t see any indentations along the lines.

About a mile on, they showed up again, this time in the dry desert sand. So it had to be something with enough weight to mark that crustier sand. Still no footprints. Snakes, I thought, and, when I saw that several lines converged at a hole in the desert floor, I took that as confirmation.

lines-hole2More lines showed up each day. They kept converging on holes. They often led to the base of bushes. They hadn’t shown up until it was pretty hot. All that pointed to snakes, who like the warm weather, though coil themselves in the shade of desert shrubs when it’s too hot. They live in holes in the desert floor, protection from both too much heat and too much cold.

Then I remembered that snakes move in curves. I checked. They can move in straight lines, by straightening their scales and scooping themselves forward. That sounded exhausting; something a snake would only occasionally do. Then I was back to lizards. I took my pictures to a ranger at the State Park office, and she went through the same line of reasoning I did: lizards, then snakes, then back to lizards. Except where were the feet? The cluster of lines around the hole made her think it might be a family of snakes.

birdfeet2-5610I showed her other lines. Ravens walking in the same soft sand. Something with small, round footprints that, she said, might be a young coyote.

pawprints5627I don’t see a large variety of creatures on those acres. Tiny lizards occasionally zip by. I hear coyotes calling and yipping at night. There were a couple of vultures sailing overhead for most of Easter, which was intriguing.

ant2There are lots of roomy ant hills, with armies of industrious ants, like this one, who, with a dozen compatriots, was taking seed heads from one place to another. I’ve seen one rattlesnake, but would have missed it if it hadn’t given me a mild rattle to keep me in my place. I’ve only seen one lizard big enough to make these lines — a handsome white one, eighteen inches long, with a sculpted head and back, regally crossing the street one hot afternoon.

rattlesnake2

White winged doves coo and forage, two ravens perch on a telephone pole on a semi-permanent basis, hummingbirds routinely buzz the back of the trailer and then disappear. Speckled beetles move swiftly in varied directions.

These are profound energies that I walk among — lizard, coyote, raven, snake, hummingbird — acknowledged by their long and deeply held roots in many cultures’ lore. Though I don’t often see them, I see the lines they leave as they weave their lives with mine, our song lines intersecting.line-footprints4

We are woven together by more than our interlacing footprints. Evolution holds us all in its patient embrace. I share 85% of my DNA with the coyote whose call heralds the desert night. Though my ancestors and the lizards’ ancestors parted evolutionary ways a few hundred million years ago, we are still tied by many strands of DNA, governing the most basic elements of our mingled lives.

When I was looking at pictures to include with this post, I found this one of a desert thoroughfare: Siegfried’s tractor, my footprints, Splash’s paw prints, some other small round footprint on the lower right. Lots of lines. thorofare3And I realized that the lines on the mid and upper right do look like they have feet on either side of them. So now I’m back to lizards. But they are the only ones that look like that, so snakes are still a possibility. Or both. Or something I haven’t thought of yet. It’s a mystery.

And will remain so. I went out on my last morning to check again for footprints along the lines. But another profound energy had swept in — a 35 mile-an-hour wind — and all lines and footprints had been softened into gentle undulations in the sand, all distinctions erased.

Disappearing into a beautiful void

 

In the Painted Canyon in the Mecca Wilderness, California by Betsey Crawford

In the Painted Canyon in the Mecca Wilderness, California

I love to tell people I’m going to the Anza Borrego desert. They never know where it is, even Californians, and it’s most of southern Cali, over the mountains east of San Diego. I’m not even sure how I found out about it. So, what with the lilting name and it’s complete invisibility, there’s a nice mystery to it, like I’m disappearing into a beautiful void. And to some extent that’s true. It’s a place of great desert beauty, with not much to do, not much internet or phone reception, lots of hammock-inspiring heat in the middle of the day.

spotted beetle in Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey CrawfordThere’s a town of Borrego Springs, with the state park headquarters, a library, a few stores and even fewer restaurants, mostly tilting Mexican. The place where we stay, the Leapin’ Lizard RV Ranch, is 20 miles out of town, in Ocotillo Wells, though Ocotillo Flats would seem more appropriate. It’s a vast plain between brown, stony mountains that turn blue at the end of the day, bordering on the largest off-highway vehicle park in the country. So, while much of the time you hear nothing at all — when I took the picture of this inch long beetle, it was so quiet I could hear the dry skittering of its minute feet on the sand — Friday evenings and Saturday mornings are abuzz with people going off into the reserve. I seldom hear them come back, which is interesting, and they apparently keep a Sabbath, because on Sundays quiet descends again, except for the shushing breeze, desultory traffic, the cooing of mourning doves, the nighttime yip of coyotes.

There is the occasional descent of military helicopters, who use this area for practice. I was once hiking in a canyon at the end of Split Mountain Rd, the main Ocotillo Wells road, and a huge — certainly in that context — black helicopter came swooping in, hovered not far above us, turned, flew out. I was pretty startled, but my companions simply said, ‘Practicing canyon flying,’ and on we went. They were showing me the two million year old shell and fish fossils lying casually in the sand that once was the bed of a vast sea.

Two million year old fossil shell in Ocotillo Wells, California by Betsey Crawford

Two million year old fossil shell in Ocotillo Wells, California

The owners have created trails around and through their acreage, and that’s our morning walk, early, before it’s too hot, especially for my black dog. There are other hikes I do alone, and I sometimes join communal hikes, of which there are many, sponsored by the state park, so I don’t get lost going deeper into the desert. One Saturday I was out with a group of 15 photographers for 11 hours, in heat that hit 94. It was a magical time, to places I would never find, but required a full hammock day to recover.

The top picture isn’t from the AB desert. It’s from neighboring Painted Canyon, about an hour from here, which has the only road into the Mecca Wilderness, another evocative, almost biblical name, though Mecca, in this incarnation, is a small farming town at the north end of the Salton Sea, smelling strongly of things I suspect are sprayed on the citrus trees.

A borrego in the Anza Borrego State Park, Borrego Springs, California by Betsey Crawford

A borrego in the Anza Borrego State Park, Borrego Springs, California

Anza Borrego is named after two unrelated entities, though they presumably eyed each other as they passed. Juan Francisco de Anza was an early Spanish explorer, of some note and intrepidity. Borrego is the local wild sheep, with graceful curling horns, native to this area. I don’t really approve of naming places after conquistadores, and the combination is slightly ridiculous, like naming a state park in New York the Hudson White Tailed Deer Preserve. However, that’s all left brain caviling. The right brain loves all those musical syllables, as well as the silence and beauty of the desert, and revels in being here.

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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