Category Archives: Landscape

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 several 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: switchgrass, little bluestem, 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 importantly, 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 a 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.

Related posts:

The solace of deep time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

 

 

Songlines 2016: landscapes of love and prairies

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

Songlines for 2016 start and end in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Purple lines go east and north, magenta go west and south.

When I first described my love for the Aboriginal concept of songlines, the paths taken by the First Beings as they sang the world into existence, I said that one of the ideas I love best is that we are tasked with continuing the work in our own lives. As we walk through our days, we renew and replenish the songs of those beings, enriching our landscapes, continuing to bring life to life.

My songlines this year first had me crisscrossing Marin County, just north of San Francisco, both in the living of my life, and in the search for flowers. I spent lots of time in my ‘backyard,’ Ring Mountain, and treasured the rare flowers found there. I discovered that Marin County is a rarity hotspot, with an unusual number of rare flowers, due in part to the beautiful but deadly serpentine rock underlying much of the coast. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) which appears on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California and nowhere else on earth.

At the beginning of June I left on farther flung adventures. Because my reports on my travels featured many flowers, I thought for this final post of the year I’d celebrate the landscapes I moved through along the way. As a photographer, I focus more on wildflowers, but I am equally passionate about the land around them. The experiences are both different and the same. Being with a flower is an intimate visitation, inches away, often on the ground with them. Being in landscapes is a passage I make while walking or driving through, eyes raised, surrounded by wonder. Both are a meeting of souls, a constant coming home to my connection to the earth. 

Red rock and blue sky, one of many incomparable landscapes in the Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Red rock and blue sky in the incomparable Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah

1. The first landscape is from a favorite area — southeastern Utah — which I visited with a favorite person — my son, Luke. We first drove through here 19 years ago, when he was ten, and we both feel the powerful pull of the magic and mystery of this land. I reposted an essay about the wisdom this ancient landscape teaches us in A Land of Stone Tablets.

Ancestral Pueblo ruins create amazing landscapes at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

The Cliff Palace, Ancestral Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado

2. On this trip we were drawn to the centuries-old ruins of the Ancestral Pueblo people. The remains of their stone buildings, often tucked into cliffs, are a common feature of southwestern landscapes. We happened on several ruins as we explored, and hiked around a wonderful preserved village at Hovenweep National Monument. I’ve always loved the history of ordinary people, and from single structures built into rock overhangs to entire villages, these are intensely moving, a direct connection to the lives of the people who carefully built and lived in them. Mesa Verde National Park protects several spectacular sites, including this one, called the Cliff Palace.

Red rock canyon walls create stunning landscapes along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Red rock canyon walls along the Dolores River between Naturita and Gateway, Colorado

3. Luke flew home from Grand Junction, Colorado, so we got to see the spectacular canyonlands between Naturita, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and Gateway, north of which the lighter limestone formations so distinctive of the Grand Junction area slowly take over. Driving through this whole area is one endless lesson in the history of our planet, and here I was particularly caught by the thin white line. It occurs in the Chinle formation, which formed in the Triassic era, 201 to 252 million years ago. It’s possible the white layer is volcanic ash, though ash layers tend to be shades of gray. It could be limestone, though it’s very white for that, too. It could be gypsum left by a shallow, and fleeting — in geological terms — sea.

Or it could be something else. What we can see at a glance is that it was the result of a relatively brief phenomena, that didn’t repeat itself in this spot for the rest of the Triassic, or into the Jurassic, which is when the upper cliffs were laid down. Like a dinosaur footprint, or the conifer fossils common in the Chinle, it brings us to a moment in time. It could be a moment that lasted 100,000 years, but in our planet’s history, that is still a moment. I find this very helpful for putting the headlines of the day in perspective.

Old-fashioned windmills dot the landscapes of the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado by Betsey Crawford

A windmill in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado

4. I left the southwest for very different landscapes. I was on a quest for prairies, and started with the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado, about an hour and a half north of Denver. The goal of the Grasslands, which form a patchwork with privately owned land, is to restore this very arid land to grazing, which also helps restore the prairie. The landscape is dotted with these windmills, which provide the power to bring well water to the surface to fill drinking tubs for the cattle. In our high tech world I took comfort in their prosaic task and simple talents, but also found them rather haunting, alone out on the prairie, particularly when paired with a wild sky.

Clouds and farm fields dominate the landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Along Route 40 in western Kansas

5. The landscapes above and below are a pair. My second prairie was in western Kansas, which I described, along with the area’s fascinating and complicated prairie dog wars,  in Smoky Valley Ranch. One evening on my way back from the ranch I drove west on Route 40 to see what I would see, and found myself among vast farm fields. The sky — often more turquoise than I am used to elsewhere — is as important an element of prairie landscape as the land, and on this trip I had the joy of a storm coming in. In the first picture, you can see, at the top, the dark clouds beginning to move over the sun-drenched wheat. In the second, you can see the change in the sky when I drove through on my way back. I escaped the rain this time, but I’ve never been in wilder thunderstorms than Kansas had to offer.

The wild thunderstorms of Kansas create their own landscapes along Route 40 in western Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Storm coming in along Route 40 in western Kansas

An old schoolhouse, one of many striking landscapes in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

An old schoolhouse in the Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills, Kansas

6. Next stop was Chapman, Kansas, my gateway to the prairies of the Flint Hills, the Konza Preserve in Manhattan and the Tallgrass National Preserve an hour south. I’m not often drawn to buildings as subjects for photos. But I loved this old one-room schoolhouse, built out of the region’s mellow sandstone, alone on top of a hill, among the stormy clouds. In Saved by Stone, I described the sad limits of the remaining tall grass prairie, and how the rock in the Flint Hills helped preserve what remains. And, of course, how beautiful it all is.

One of the vivid landscapes seen in Wah Kon Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri

7. My posts from Missouri — Surprised by Delight and Walking in Beauty —  celebrated the beauty and the unexpected amount of fun I had in Missouri, thanks to meeting some wonderful prairie people as well as an adventurous baby bird. One evening I took a walk in the Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, and, once again, the sky and land came together in splendor.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

8. This was a year of family, thus the love in the post’s title. I spent time with Luke, with my sister Ann outside of Denver, with my brother and sister who live in Milwaukee, and the whole family gathered there for a reunion on Labor Day weekend. In Love, Grief, Wildflowers, I wrote about a trip with my brother, who is very ill, to Curtis Prairie in Madison, the oldest prairie restoration in the world. I only had eyes for him and for flowers that trip. I chose this one because thistles were so omnipresent in the prairies that they became symbolic. I grew up in an area where they are invasive pests, but they are so handsome and sculptural — in leaf, bud and flower — that I was delighted to be in places where they are welcome natives.

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota create vivid landscapes by Betsey Crawford

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

9. After leaving Wisconsin, I stopped south of Minneapolis to have breakfast with a friend, and then drove along the northern tier. On an earlier trip through North Dakota I’d been surprised to find that there are badlands there, too. These landscapes are not as spectacular as the ones in the South Dakota badlands, but they are wonderful, and another vivid reminder of the slow, patient work of our planet. This time I planned a stop so I could walk among them.

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, one of many beautiful landscapes in the Rocky Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho

10. After the badlands, I kept going toward Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I think of northern Idaho as a wonderful place to be because Luke lives there. But it’s also spectacularly beautiful, nestled in the mountains, with lots of lakes, unusual for the Rockies. There are some exceptionally deep glacial lakes, and many streams, like this one in an area that used to be farmed. Now the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, what little farming still happens here is designed to provide seed for migrating birds.

After a month in Idaho I drove south to Marin once more, along the Pacific coast landscapes of water, shore, and redwoods, continuing to sing my life into existence. The First Beings, who formed themselves out of primordial mud to take on the task, never said this singing would be easy. Between my brother’s illness, the state of the world, and the myriad challenges that come our way, day after day, it wasn’t. But I had wonderful times traveling my songlines this year.

I’ve come to understand that joy, like love, is a state of being, not a reaction. Fear, grief, anger are reactions. They all have their place, they’re all inevitable, since vulnerability is also a state of being, and one we can never escape. I would love to get to the place where joy is a state I can’t escape, either, but until then, it’s good to know where I can find it: on the ground among the flowers, meeting new friends in unexpected places, being with loved ones in ancient canyons and open prairies, walking toward a sun setting in flashes of rainbow and streams of glory. As the light returns and a new year dawns, I wish everyone an enduring state of joy.

The sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California create beautiful sky and landscapes by Betsey Crawford

Sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California

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

Related posts:

Love, grief, wildflowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both had landscaping businesses, legacies, perhaps, of our early childhood, spent in a wild and beautiful place. We started fifteen years and a thousand miles apart, and have never figured out why it happened that way. But there we were, wandering the graceful curves of the garden. I talked about flowers, he talked about trees, our usual division of landscaping chat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

 

 

Surprised by delight in Missouri

Rose gentian (Sabatia angularis) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rose gentian (Sabatia angularis) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

Two months before, I hadn’t even known there were prairies in Missouri. But there I was, in early August, swerving all over the place on a dirt and gravel road, on my way to one. I wasn’t swerving because the surface was slippery after the night’s rain, but because large, soot-black butterflies with luminous blue patches on their wings were everywhere on the road, sipping water, perhaps drying their wings, and I didn’t want to hit one.

It makes sense that western Missouri would have prairies. Kansas is next door, and ecosystems don’t come to a screeching halt at our arbitrary borders. But on my few trips through Missouri I was mainly struck by how hilly and green it all was, full of trees and farmland. I had pictures of the Ozarks, not vast open spaces. Both are true. Western Missouri is the transition zone from the great plains to the Ozarks and eastern mountains, and there were once fifteen million acres of open prairie. Less than 1% of all that remains, according to the TED talk that introduced me to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s director, Carol Davit, and the twenty prairies under the MPF’s wing.

Woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) on Wayne Morton's savannah, Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Woodland sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) on Wayne Morton’s savannah, Osceola, Missouri

Guided by the map on the foundation’s website, I found an RV park in southwestern Missouri that seemed to be in easy reach of lots of them, and drove there from Kansas. I wrote to Carol, whose office is three hours away in Columbia, and asked if there was anyone who might be tooling around the prairies who would be willing to take me along. She forwarded my email to several people, including Stan Parrish and Wayne Morton. Stan doesn’t pay much attention to email, so it was his wife, Susan, who told him about the letter. He called immediately, and proposed that I come to the foundation’s annual dinner in two days. He then called Wayne, who also doesn’t pay much attention to email, and Wayne called a while later to say he was on his way over with maps. Once he arrived he started filling me in on the history of Missouri, the state of the prairies, and his own efforts to rescue some acres of them.

Poppy mallow (Callirhoe digitata) taken at Linden's Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Poppy mallow (Callirhoe digitata) Linden’s Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri

The next day was the day I was trying to avoid hitting butterflies, on my way to the closest preserve, Schwartz Prairie. When I got there I stopped at the gate and saw that there were no paths from there, and decided I needed more tick proof clothing to wade through chest high grasses and flowers. So I turned around and went back to a stretch of road that had flowers and shade, a very important detail during that sweltering week. While I was dealing with bug spray and changing shoes, a white pickup truck pulled up and a man got out, asking “Are you Betsey Crawford?”

It was Stan, who owns eighty acres that abut the western boundary of Schwarz, bought to expand the prairie there. He’d seen me pull up and away, and figured there couldn’t be a lot of pickups checking out Schwartz. So we went back and drove through his acres to the back of the preserve. A third of the prairie is burned every year, and that was the section burned last winter, and thus has the most flowers this season. These aren’t the many-thousand acre preserves I left behind in Kansas, but small jewels of prairie remnants and restorations. Schwarz is large at 240 acres. The largest, Golden Prairie, is managed cooperatively with a neighboring landowner, bringing the total to 1,100 acres.

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) taken at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

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

There’s an old-fashioned expression I’ve always gotten a kick out of: ‘a round of gaiety.’ And that’s exactly what meeting Stan launched. We went from Schwarz to his home to have a lovely summer lunch with Susan, the first of many lunches and dinners, trips to prairies and a farm, even a couple of yoga classes. The next day I drove to the annual dinner in Columbia with Wayne and Jan, stopping at prairies along the way, so that I would know how to find them later. We even stopped at one on the way back, in the dark. The next week they took me out to see Wayne’s savannahs, areas on his acres where he restores the prairie by selectively removing trees that have grown up to shade the grasses and flowers at their roots.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) taken in Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohioensis) on Wayne Morton’s savannah,
Osceola, Missouri

There were several wonderful results of all this. First, I had a LOT of fun. I got to see prairies with people who know and love them. There was an unending amount of great conversation. I went to a delicious and hilarious dinner at the beautiful property of another friend, Bob. I had lunch in an ancient, much loved diner with elderly friends, Lowell and Betty, so I could hear the story of Golden Prairie, which Lowell’s family donated to the foundation, as well as the history of the now-dying small town of Golden City. His long and energetic career there included stints as farmer, rancher, mayor, furniture and hardware store owner. He’s still, in his mid-eighties, owner of the funeral parlor and publisher of a surprisingly amusing newsletter for the funeral industry, The Dead Beat.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) taken at Schwarz Prairie, Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) Schwarz Prairie, Osceola, Missouri. I love the fringe-y buds.

And while I was having all this fun, I was learning a lot — about the beauty and history of Missouri, about the prairies, and, most moving of all, about people who love prairies. Stan delivered mail for a living, Susan taught high school French, Wayne is a country doctor. These aren’t people who can buy and preserve eighty acres of land without a blink. This is real love. And Wayne keeps buying land — a prairie here, one there. His friends have lost track. Bob, Wayne and Stan have all been part of the foundation since the beginning in 1966, and all have been both on the board and president of it over the years. They, and other dedicated prairie lovers, have overseen the slow acquisition and endless tending of the twenty prairies that the foundation so far owns and manages.

Royal catch fly (Silene regia) taken at Linden's Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Royal catch fly (Silene regia) Linden’s Prairie, Mount Vernon, Missouri

When they are together the talk ranges all over the place, but continually comes back to the prairie, the plants, the history of each preserve, and all the care that goes into keeping these precious acres going. Especially the burns, which, in their telling, become mystical experiences. I could hear it when Bob described a December night on Schwartz Prairie. After the day-long burn, he went to his campsite on a rise above the still burning grasses. Throughout the dark night he could see the periphery of the fire still glowing and flickering. “It was magical,” he said, in a voice that left no doubt.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) at Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

On my last night, after three wonderful weeks in Missouri, Stan and Susan came up to their acres, where they have a trailer to stay in, bringing Bob with them. We had a picnic, with tomatoes from their garden and unspeakably delicious peaches from a local farm. After dinner we took a long walk on the prairie as the sun dropped below the neighboring treetops, twilight grew, and darkness set in. After weeks of sweltering, muggy heat, it actually got cool, the air clear, the stars more and more vivid against the darkening sky.

We wandered from plant to plant, luminous in the late light, all for our various reasons. Stan, Susan and Bob talked about them, and, really, to them, as if they were old friends, which they are. Some of the Missouri prairie plants are known to me, too, but many are new friends, as were the three people I was with. That star spangled night symbolized my whole stay in Missouri, where I found the best of everything: adventure, friendship, nature, the joy of being alive.

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado Springs, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

There are more pictures in the Missouri 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.

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.

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.

Native plants: the genius of their place

Native plants tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) against a background of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) against a background of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

When we use the expression ‘genius loci’ today, we don’t usually mean something religious, but rather the spirit — or, in more secular terms, the essence — of a place. The classical Romans, from whom we inherited the term, were speaking of literal spirits, guardians not just of a specific place, but everything that went with it. Roman life was filled with genii of all kinds, protecting families, buildings, towns, their senate, their legions, their emperor. Even a god could have a guardian sprit.

In the eighteenth century, poet and gardener Alexander Pope brought the idea into modern landscape and architectural design with his admonition to the Earl of Burlington to ‘Consult the genius of the place in all…” He wrote in the midst of a resurgence of classical Roman architecture, launched by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio a century before. At the time, highly formal gardens planted in strict designs were the norm for those who could afford them, and Pope urged his admirers to forsake such strict conventions.

Native plants shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on Tubbs Hill in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on Tubbs Hill in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

He wasn’t recommending wild gardens, by any means. Near the grand house they remained quite formal. Farther out they became ‘wilderness,’ which meant that the plantings and ornaments were carefully contrived to look natural, not that the landowner was to leave things to chancy nature. This was the Age of Enlightenment, after all. Fixed dogmas of all kinds were to be replaced by reason, balance, rationality, and science.

Pope’s counsel launched a philosophy that informs designers and architects to this day. In the twentieth century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and landscape designers like Jens Jensen led the way toward working with the details native to a particular place: its plants, terrain, stone, wood, water, light, air, vistas. This was the spirit I tried to follow in my years as a landscape designer, though it’s a challenge in built-up, suburbanized areas, where so much of the native landscape has been demolished.

Native plants hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California

Now that I’m free to wander and find native plants and flowers wherever I go, I often remember the spirit of a place by the plants that I saw there. The quiet of the north Idaho woods. Windswept California meadows full of tidy tips and California poppies. The wild-scented sage chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can follow a desert trail of cactus from southern California through Arizona, on to New Mexico, and north to Utah. The thought of creosote instantly brings up the pungent smell of the Anza Borrego Desert after rain.

Native plants tell me a complex story about the place they’re in: what the soil is like, how much sun and water falls on them, whether they are adapted to unique conditions, how hardy they are, how close to the ocean or forest, what their companion plants are likely to be, who and what pollinates them. They bring back the scents, the bird song, the sighing of wind, the feel of the air, the rock and soil under my feet. They hold the long history, and, I sincerely hope, the future of the places where I find them.

Desert wildflowers and native plants bloom for the first time in years in Borrego Springs, California

Desert wildflowers bloom prolifically for the first time in years on land rescued from wild mustard in Borrego Springs, California

They are far from indomitable, being all too easily displaced by aggressive invaders, plants that find it easy to grow under many different conditions, that are quick to take advantage of any niche they find, that are prolific seed producers. Everywhere I go there are groups dedicated to eradicating non-natives. Last year in Borrego Springs, California, acres of desert flowers bloomed for the first time in many years because volunteers had spent countless months pulling out invasive mustard. They were given a final boost when a drought went into its third year. The mustard couldn’t handle it, and its seeds were destroyed. But the native seeds, used to going dormant to deal with dryness, were waiting, and sprang up the second they had a chance.

Native plants apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) in Snow Canyon, Saint George, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) in Snow Canyon, Saint George, Utah

The loss of native plant habitat is a human-induced phenomenon. Clearing ground for roads and buildings opens soil for invaders. Cargo from ships, trains and trucks crosses the country. Seeds can travel as far and fast as we can, attached to our tires, our shoes, our suitcases, our pets. Gardening brings exotic plants to areas that can’t resist them. Agriculture brings a host of seeds to an area, as does growing fodder for livestock, so that hay, for example, has replaced the native grasses on the California hills.

Native plants yellow monkey flower (Mimulus gutattus) in Beluga Slough, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Yellow monkey flower (Mimulus gutattus) in the luminous, long, northern twilight. Beluga Slough, Homer, Alaska

The efforts to wrest habitat back from the brink are heroic, and crucial. But, because it works backward from destruction, it’s often a losing battle. The soil is full of the invading seeds at that point. Clearing the California hills of hay is not going to happen. The best answer is to preserve habitat to begin with, but since this involves collaboration among government agencies and boards, builders, homeowners and developers, it’s a process beset by all the things politics, money and human relations are usually beset by. People love wildflowers and trees and the native landscape; they will go far out of their way to enjoy such things. But it’s a different story when those same plants are perceived as being in the way.

Native plants creosote (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Creosote (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

This is why I’m sorry we’ve lost the original meaning of genius loci. If we thought of our native plants as spirits, as guardians of their place, we might be much less willing to destroy them. And they are guardians and protectors of their neighborhood, part of the network of beings and entities — trees, soil, rocks, flowers, grasses, animals, insects, fungi, lichen — that both create and hold that habitat together. Some of it will inevitably be supplanted by houses, offices, stores, roads. I’ve loved my homes. I happily use the roads that take me on so many magical adventures. Our cities and towns and shopping centers aren’t going anywhere, and more are coming.

But how differently we would design them if we thought the earth they stand on was alive and sacred. If we could recognize that the natural landscape is important in ways that we can’t fathom. Imagine thinking that it’s as important as we are. Perhaps even more so, since the earth can survive without us, but we can’t survive without its bounty. What if we took Pope’s admonition literally, and consulted with the spirit of the place in all our endeavors? If the question ‘How can I protect this?’ preceded ‘How can I use this?’ Then each of us, too, would become genius loci, a guardian spirit of place.

Native plants strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

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

The mysterious Yukon

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordIf you want tundra, you have to either go far enough north or high enough up, so a trip up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon was perfect for my longing for arctic plants. Two days of careful driving over the dirt and gravel road will take you into the Northwest Territories and to the Arctic Ocean, but we chose to drive as far north as we could for one afternoon. It was late August, the last day before a wintery storm was blowing in, and we grabbed our chance, driving through Tombstone Territorial Park, a stunning land of jagged mountains, luminous lakes, trees turning gold, and a landscape carpeted in glowing fall colors.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Tundra, though one of the magical words that embody the mystery of the far north for me, has a perfectly rational explanation. The word itself is Russian, and simply means a treeless land, something the forest-loving Russians would be sure to have a word for. Trees can’t grow when permafrost keeps the soil too shallow for their roots, with a growing season too short to foster their large growth. Dwarf perennials and shrubs hug the ground, where they use the scarce water wisely and protect themselves, and each other, from the cold and wind.

Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

There were plenty of trees along the first part of the Dempster Highway, as the Northern Klondike River wound through and by it like a ribbon, but they petered out the higher we got into the Tombstone Mountains, named, as far as I can tell, from the shape of the mountains in the range, not anything more dire. This is Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Teet ‘it Gwich’in territory, and the Han people still live on, use, and revere the land, as their ancestors have for 8,000 years.

tundra-alpine-harebell-campanula-lasiocarpa-lichen-empetrum-nigrum-crowberry-bog-cranberry-arctostaphylos-alpina-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Alpine harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa), lichen, crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) bog cranberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)

By late August, the wildflowers were long gone. I found only a few purple alpine harebells still around, one flower at a time, cozily poking out of the lichen around it, and often nestled for warmth against the black igneous rock that speaks of the area’s ancient volcanic history. For the rest, there were acres of more lichen, crowberry, cranberry, occasional tufts of grass. The largest plant was dwarf birch, which could get as high as my knees, and had beautiful fall color.

dwarf-birch-betula-nana-Dempster-Highway-Yukon-Territory-by-Betsy-Crawford

Dwarf birch (betula nana)

The plants aren’t just for my delight. They feed a lot of wildlife — caribou, dall sheep, wolves, foxes, musk ox, lemmings, bears, moose, voles, marmots — none of which we saw, sadly. I was hoping for a hoary marmot, a squirrel relative, or at least to hear its piercing whistle, since I’m unlikely to run into them elsewhere.

The Yukon has always conjured up a sense of mystery to me, though I have no idea why. The neighboring Northwest Territories don’t do that, and, though Alaska had its own powerful lure of beauty and wildness, that didn’t include mystery. I don’t remember reading  about the Yukon as a child, beyond whatever Jack London book was required reading in school. Perhaps that was enough, but, more likely, it’s another example of places that call to us for reasons we can’t fathom.

Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-4I’m not alone. I read an interview with a man billed as the territory’s preeminent businessman, who has lived in the Yukon since he arrived there as a child in 1944. When asked about what make the Yukon special said, “The magic and the mystery.”

He didn’t try to explain. Perhaps we can’t, and, even more important, is there any point in trying to penetrate the mystery? There is something in my being that leapt to connect with the land around me when I was on the Dempster Highway. That doesn’t always happen, however wondrous a spot I’m in. I can revel in the beauty of a place, but not feel that leaping connection, so when it shows up it’s part of the mystery. I get to answer one mystery with another.

net-veined-willow-lichen-Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford

Net-veined willow (Salix reticulata) with lichen

There is in all of us, creatures of this earth, a call and response to wildness, beauty and the magic of place. I can’t make it happen, although I can make it more likely by standing on a windswept, far-north slope covered with the ankle-high, adaptable plants I’ve come to find. But still, you never know where you will connect, what part of the earth is yours, even though you’ve never been there, never even knew about it, may never go back. Something in you connects to the soul of that place. You’re touched by it, you’re never the same, and, perhaps, neither is the spot where your souls met.Tombstone-Territorial-Park-Yukon-Territory-Canada-by-Betsey-Crawford-3