Tag Archives: wildness

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)

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

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Saved by stone: the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

The call of wild beauty

September beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordI lived for many years with a great deal of beauty outside my windows. I was looking at acre on acre of wetlands, salt marsh, patches of meadow, shrubs and trees. Beyond that was the estuary the land bordered. Except for a few flowering shad trees in the spring, and a scattering of vivid autumn color from native blueberry, there was nothing pretty about this. It was full of wildness. Deer moved through the forest of plants, and bedded down in their midst. Red-tailed hawks, and the ospreys nesting along the shoreline, glided above it, occasionally chased by a  flock of nesting swallows. Redwing blackbirds announced spring from the tops of reeds. Rabbit and fox burrowed into roots, alternating years of prosperity. For several springs, glossy ibis stopped on their way north to rest and pick through the wetlands with their long, curving beaks. And always the overarching sky, the clouds, the moon, the sunrise pouring itself over the entire expanse.

Winter beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Winter sunrise in 2001. The meadow was just beginning to give way, in the distance, to the resurgent trees and shrubs.

It was gorgeous in all seasons, spangled with snow or dew, splattered with fall color or spring bloom, in the rich green of summer. But much of it was made of up things that were not in themselves beautiful: gawky native cherries, subtle bayberry, sober, dark green cedars. Plants that belonged there, grew for eons there, on the sandy spit of land left over when the last glaciers pulled back 11,000 years ago. Plants that knew how to grow in that nutrient-poor soil, that knew how to cope with the buffeting winds and the flooding tides of the Atlantic Ocean that surged beyond the harbor and the outer bay.

Late summer beauty on a meadow in Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

My all time favorite picture of the meadow! Dating from the 4-year-old, this would be 1991.

When I first moved there, a neighbor was pasturing horses on the land. Before that, her grandparents and great grandparents had harvested salt hay there. Because she mowed it once or twice a year, it stayed a meadow, a vast sea of switch grass and blue stem, green in spring and early summer, gold in late summer and autumn, silver and copper in winter. Their light, feathery tops moved in nearly constant waves in the slightest wind. After some years, as she boarded fewer horses, she stopped mowing those acres. The shrubs and trees that had been dormant for generations, perhaps centuries, immediately began to push their way up. Though I kept a section of it going on my own property, I was sorry to lose the vast meadow beyond, and amazed at how quickly the plants waiting for their turn shot up. But the resulting mix of grass and shrub and trees had a richness of texture and an abundance of life that the meadow, in all its gentle, undulating splendor, did not have.

Summer beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

This was taken by a drone for the real estate listing when it was time to go. The near water is Accabonac Harbor, beyond the spit at the top left is Gardiners Bay. The straight cut into the primary wetlands (the flat green areas) was part of a plan for mosquito control.

Living on that ancient and vital landscape for twenty-five years had a profound effect on me. It was my call of the wild. Beauty, said the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue, isn’t ‘just about nice loveliness.’  To him, with his youth spent in the untamed Burren region of Ireland, it made a huge difference whether, when ‘you wake in the morning and come out of your house, you believe you are walking into a dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you’re emerging into a landscape that is just as much — if not more — alive as you, but in a totally different form.’

Stormy beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey CrawfordIt was that wild aliveness that called to me, day after day, every time I looked out the window, every time I walked out of the house. When I stood on the edge of the meadow, my feet rested on the pebbly, sandy soil that the tail end of the Wisconsin glaciation had pushed there from farther north, sculpting the 100 million-year-old Cretaceous layers as the massive ice flowed over them. There was a large glacial erratic twenty feet into the meadow, a boulder captured from who knows where, then dropped and embedded in the soil as the ice melted northward. Six feet below the ground under me ran fast moving streams, feeding the harbor and the sea beyond. I’d seen one when we hoped to install a dry well to cope with water in the basement. There, at the bottom of the hole, a small, shallow river flowed rapidly east, connecting me to the estuary I could see, and then to the vast waters beyond my vision.

October beauty on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Beyond the fall blooming groundsel (Baccharis halmifolia) is the flat stretch of primary wetlands, where two types of spartina (alterniflora and patens) dominate.

The ecstatic pulsing life of that land — growing, flowing, flowering, proliferating, changing from season to season and year to year — filled my soul every single day. The ancient bedrock and old soils grounded me. The deep, steady, green breathing of plants sustained me. The line of wild turkey chicks scooting along behind their parents on summer mornings, learning to strip the tops of the grasses for their seeds, filled me with delight. The red fox quietly emerging from the wintry brush in one place, going back into the density in another, its tawny tail disappearing last into the snow, reminded me that fierce and tameless mysteries were lived everywhere around me.

The beauty of a morning mist on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Comparing this misty morning in 2006 to the 2001 winter scene above, you can see how fast the shrubs and trees grew after the mowing stopped.

The Greek word for beauty, kalon, is intertwined with the word for call, kalein.  Beauty both rises from a call in us, and calls to us, perhaps even more so when the beauty is wild. We are connecting to something deep, primordial, a place on the planet that speaks to us of its vast depth, its power, its radiance. An allurement that beckons us far beyond ourselves and our often strange concerns and rickety constructs. Beauty is a transfer of life, the cellist Yo Yo Ma once said, and living on that land was continual heart-to-heart resuscitation.

When it was time to leave, it wasn’t just because the energy to keep the house, the gardens, the business, the life had waned. It was also because, as the call of that land grew, its very wildness transferred itself into me. It was now in my bones, moving my muscles, beating my heart, seeing through my eyes. Propelling me onward, toward more wildness and more beauty.

the beauty of an eastern tiger swallowtail (papillo glaucous) on Accabonac Harbor, East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting the deck.

 

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