Tag Archives: Alaska

Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth

Mixed lichen and moss on a stick Mount Tamalpais, California by Betsey-CrawfordFor 150 years lichen has been known to be a combination of two life forms. The outside is a fungal matrix, rather like the crust of a baguette,  which gives structure and protection to the softer, more filamentous inside, formed by one of the algae family, or occasionally a cyanobacteria. These latter two provide nutrients for themselves and the protective fungus via photosynthesis. The word symbiosis (Greek for ‘living with’) was coined in 1868 specifically to describe lichen’s interrelationships. When I wrote my first post about lichen two years ago, this is where our knowledge stood. A few months later, that changed. A hidden partner had been found, and the story of that discovery is wonderful. 

As is appropriate to its subject, the entire project was a symbiosis. Montana lichenologist Toby Spribille was inspired by an essay by British Columbia lichenologist Trevor Goward. Trailing like long strands of hair from the branches of Pacific Northwest trees are two lichens formed by exactly the same fungus and alga. But they are different colors. Tortured horsehair lichen (Bryoria tortuosa) is greenish yellow, a result of the production of toxic vulpinic acid. Edible horsehair lichen (Bryoria fremontii), also called wila, is dark brown, does not produce a toxin, and was an important food for indigenous northwest peoples. They were thought to be different until genetic testing came along, so we need to include the genome pioneers in the team.

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Growing up in Montana, Spribille had always been fascinated by the forests of hanging lichen. But he may well never have been in a position to explore them. Despite his yearning to study science, he was home-schooled in a family that didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t do so until he left home. Then he was faced with the hurdles of finding a university he could afford that would accept him without a formal high school degree. He heard that European schools are more open to people like him. Since his family spoke the language, he went to Germany, where the University of Gottingen took him in.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Graz in Austria, Spribille showed up at the McCutcheon Lab at the University of Montana, which specializes in symbiosis. ‘I study lichens,’ he said, and was warmly welcomed by John McCutcheon, who urged him to study genomics, as well. Genetic analysis was crucial to his discovery since scientists have spent many years probing lichens under powerful microscopes without seeing the hidden partner. Inspired by Goward’s query, he began poking around in the Bryoria genome to see what caused the two seemingly identical lichens to be different.

A lichen called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska

Even with genetics on his side, and the McCutcheon team to brainstorm with, Spribille couldn’t find anything new until he decided to expand his search. The fungi long associated with lichen are from the Ascomycota family, and he looked for their genes first. Then he decided to look more broadly at the whole fungal kingdom and discovered genes from the Basidiomycota family, home of the types of mushrooms we’re used to eating. Excited but doubtful, the team wondered if they’d stumbled on a passing impurity or an infection. It wasn’t until he took the basidiomycetes data out of his calculations that he saw that the production of vulpinic acid went, too. That, he says, was the eureka moment.

Actually seeing the fungus cells involved high tech genetic tagging with fluorescent colors to visually separate the alga and the two fungi. It also involved — my favorite detail — a very low tech trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent. The basidiomycetes were under a crust of polysaccharides on the surface of the lichen, and Spribille used the soap to dissolve the coating. That enabled him to tag the newly found yeast cells with their own color and to see that they surround the lichen, embedded in the outer cortex. The yellow Bryoria tortuosa had lots more of the yeast than the edible brown fremontii, which is what enables the former to produce vulpinic acid. 

Old man's beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Old man’s beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Soon after he hit his eureka moment, scientists all over the world got involved, and it was quickly found, now that they knew what to look for, that varieties of the newly discovered Cyphobasidium yeasts showed up in 52 other genera on six continents. As with the Bryoria, their presence helps explain differences in appearance in genetically similar lichen. The team expands, the search continues, and the lichen world is forever changed. 

I’ve planned for a while to update my lichen post. What got me thinking about it now is my fascination with the origins of Project Drawdown, which I wrote about in my last post. It started with Paul Hawken asking a question no one else was asking. In his case, it was ‘what are we already doing that can actually reverse global warming?’ It seems like such an obvious thing to ask, and yet brilliant scientists and policymakers weren’t doing so. Like Isaac Newton wondering why the apples in his orchard fell downward and not sideways, many seemingly simple questions, asked by people who then proceed to pursue the mystery, revolutionize our knowledge and perceptions. 

Snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Photo by Betsey Crawford

White snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Note the light and dark lichen on the rock.

Surprises in the lichen world are rare enough that the story made headlines. The more attention, the better, since lichens are crucial to the health of our planet. We know this because another team pursued a question no one had asked. Climate researchers have long studied the amount of carbon held in oceans and forests. But it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany wondered about the carbon impact of cryptograms, which are photosynthesizers that don’t flower, like mosses, algae, and lichen. 

Together these tiny life forms cover 30% of the earth’s plant-bearing soil surfaces. Lichen alone covers 8% of the planet, which closes in on 16 million square miles. The team found that cryptograms sequester about 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 12.7 gigatons, which is the measurement used in Drawdown. The number one solution there is estimated to make a difference of 89.74 gigatons between now and 2050. Using simple multiplication (though I suspect it’s more complicated than that) lichen and its cohorts could sequester over 400 gigatons by then.

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California

The carbon cycle is the most widely studied and reported aspect of global warming. Also crucial is the nitrogen cycle, which, now wildly out of balance, is producing another dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There, too, the cryptograms shine, by taking close to 50 million tons of nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil each year, where it’s a crucial nutrient. This is part of another important role they play: breaking down rock and creating and stabilizing soil in barren landscapes. 

Given all it provides for the stability of the earth’s fragile atmosphere, it’s ironic, and tragic, that global warming is itself the biggest threat to lichen’s existence. Though most of us rarely think about these life forms, we depend on them. But that shouldn’t surprise us. The slow wisdom of evolution put lichen in place 400 million years ago. DNA analysis shows us that the newly discovered yeasts joined forces with the original partners 100 million years ago. The cyanobacteria that sometimes takes the place of algae in the mix has been here for 2.5 billion years. They were the first photosynthesizers on the planet, creating the oxygen-rich world everything has depended on since.

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first human fossils are a mere 2.8 million years old. Our possibility lay in the same possibility of all the beings we share the planet with: cycles of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, water, soil building, plate tectonics and temperature regulation. These forces create and maintain the thin crust and surrounding atmosphere that provide our delicate envelope of life. Lichen’s carbon and nitrogen regulating abilities aren’t evolutionary accidents. They are traits carefully evolved to provide a living, breathing world for themselves and each subsequently evolving being. 

In a culture where embracing interconnections within our own species is a huge challenge, it may be hard to fathom how deeply our existence is interwoven with a being that is itself created by an interweaving of beings. All of earth’s forms, including ourselves, are both presence and possibility on our paths through existence. The whole planet is a symbiont, a network of intimately and intricately related parts, each evolving detail generating deepening possibilities for the whole.

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. All the white on the ground in this picture from the Tombstone Mountains in Yukon is a leafy lichen. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Here snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) lives up to its name in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon.

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Rights of nature

Mountain top in the clouds in Golden, British Columbia by Betsey CrawfordWhen you look at the mountain above, your reaction is likely to be colored by what is most important to you. Skiers may think of the thrill of the trip down, climbers of the trek up. A mining executive of the coal or metals to be found there. A road engineer of the challenge of finding a way through. A photographer of the play of light and dark, soft and hard, mist and mystery. A conservationist or ecologist ponders the preservation of majesty, ecosystems, and access for everyone. Someone steeped in indigenous thinking sees brothers, grandmothers, cousins in the interplay of beings.

The last two ways of seeing are coalescing into a relatively new movement called the Rights of Nature. In 2008, as a result of dedicated activism, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine such rights into its constitution, stating that “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.” Well-being, defined with both the Spanish buen vivir and the Quechua sumak kawsay, calls for the human community to “enjoy their rights, and exercise responsibilities within the framework of interculturality, respect for their diversity and harmonious cohabitation with nature.”

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

In our corporation-dominant, consumption-obsessed economy, this is virtually a laughable concept, even for some who care deeply about the earth. The idea that the mountain is a being, that the rocks that form it, the plants that flank it, the rivers that fall in cascades off its edges are entities who deserve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we wish for ourselves is inconceivable for many and a steep climb for most. Even with those provisions in their constitution, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador are still fighting an uphill battle against the mining industries, supported by the government, that want to move into their territories.

We have largely thought of rights as belonging to humans, either as individuals or groups, like states and corporations. The earth is seen not as something we are part of, but something we own, a vessel for human activities, a source of products and income. If the mountain is destroyed by, say, blowing its top off to get at its coal, that has so far been regarded as the cost of doing business, not just for the coal company, but for all the people relying on coal to fuel their own industries and salaries. In its present form, most of the world economy depends on the exploitation of a planet that only produces so much clean water, fresh air, rich soil, and biological gain in any given cycle. In our persistent overconsumption of these blessings and the destruction of the ecological systems that produce them, we are robbing the rest of the beings we share the planet with, as well as our own future as a species. 

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

Our current economic model prompts us to think of the earth in terms of its perceived value. A field growing ‘nothing’ but grasses and flowers is a ‘wasteland.’ Restrictions a town places on what can be done with certain parcels of land ‘reduce the value of the property.’ Wetlands, one of the most important of our ecological biomes, are pointless from a development point of view, ripe for filling in for buildable land. Wetlands provide, among many other things, the first line of defense against flooding. But though the line from a filled-in wetland to the costs of rebuilding after a flood is a straight one, it is obscured by other perceptions. Few people trying to rebuild their lives after a devastating flood have the energy to spare for the wetlands that should have been preserved to prevent the loss in the first place. The original developers would likely have been incensed had they been expected to respect the rights of the wetland to “live out its vital cycles” free of landfill.

There are enormous questions and hurdles to contemplate. Does the mountain have the right to exist without being blasted with dynamite for coal or roads? Does the air have the right to be free of the mercury and sulfur in coal smoke, or the carbon dioxide-laden exhaust from burning oil, or the threat of radioactive leaks from nuclear power plants? Do the red rocks of Utah have the right to exist without being mined for uranium? Does the ground under our feet have the right to a life without unnamed chemicals forced into it to frack gas? Does a forest have a right to existence without the threat of being cut to the last tree for lumber? Do rivers have the right to be free-flowing, free of toxic chemicals, a home to fish and plants that in themselves carry the right to exist in peace and plenty? Do animals, including humans, have an inherent right to clean water and air?

Red rock formation in the Valley of the Gods in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Valley of the Gods, Utah

In a world where we struggle to grant people who don’t look or think like us the same rights that we want, what hope is there that we will grant a field of wildflowers a right to live its vital cycles without becoming a parking lot? Yet the rights of nature are intimately tied to the rights of human beings. A series of dams in Brazil is displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon basin. The climate changes from our carbon dioxide-saturated atmosphere are forcing Pacific island communities to leave their flooding homelands while a worldwide backlash against refugees rages. Forced development of lands sacred to indigenous peoples rob those communities not just of their place, but their history and culture, the way they define themselves. Dumping of toxic waste in poor communities because richer ones refuse it causes sickness to skyrocket in those areas. The list is endless.

There are environmental laws worldwide, and in some cases and places they are very strict in protecting endangered ecosystems, plants and animals, and in preventing further damage. But, as we are seeing every day, these laws can be dismissed by the next administration, something that happens from the local to federal levels. It’s not just now, either. Cycles of strengthening and weakening the Environmental Protection Agency — along with other protective authorities and laws — have been a feature of political life since it was created in 1972. 

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California by Betsey Crawford

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California

If instead, we recognize that nature has rights on her own, their defense changes dramatically. A river, a forest, a panther, an owl, the atmosphere would then have ‘standing’ in court, the ability for a guardian or group to sue on behalf of the entity itself. Without inherent rights, the only people who have standing to sue on behalf of nature are those who are potentially or actively damaged by a policy or an infraction of a law. In practice, this often means that the case is stronger the more damage that has already been done.

Needless to say, this is an enormous challenge, one that I’m looking forward to exploring. It’s a different way of thinking for the many of us caught up in our current economic and human-centric mode of being. Changing perceptions about life on our planet, and our place in it may well be the most formidable of the obstacles we face. If we can move toward seeing ourselves as an intimate part of the web of life, one member among millions of beings and entities, forming a whole that we are completely dependent on, our relationship to the earth and everything that forms it changes. We can then focus our extraordinary ingenuity on what Thomas Berry called The Great Work: creating a world where the human presence fosters and enhances the earth that forms and sustains us.

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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Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

Laudate si, repictured

Laudate si, repictured

A Rocky Mountain peak south of Lake Louise, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

Laudate si — Praise be! — are the opening words of each of the verses in Saint Francis’s beautiful Canticle to the Sun, and is also the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical defining the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the care of the earth. Last year I discovered that September 1 had been chosen as the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. Since I’m always ready to celebrate the earth, I read the revolutionary encyclical, and chose excerpts which I am presenting again this year, with a new selection of pictures of the great luminous beauty of our world. 

Always reflecting Pope Francis’ deep concern for the plight of the poor, the lengthy letter covers many topics, all relating to the care of ecosystems, and the belief that all livings things have dignity and worth beyond their use to humanity. The encyclical ranges from the devastation of war and the insidious consequences of political corruption, to the dignity and necessity of meaningful work, to the need for orderly and inviting living conditions. Francis issues a call for new models of development, starting with the cooperative efforts of small villages and extending to complex global treaties involving all the countries of the world.

He calls for the easing of consumerism, and even takes the time to urge his readers to return to the small celebration of saying grace before meals. He talks about the importance of appreciating beauty, so that we will want to preserve it. That, naturally, is where I come in, combining Pope Francis’ words and photos of our gorgeous earth.

We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.

Cricket on whole leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Mushroom after a rainy winter in Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird in a native plant garden in Mill Valley, California

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family.

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.

Jacob's ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium acutiflorum) Seward, Alaska

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Common milkweed seedpod (Asclepias syriacus) Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that…dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (Genesis 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland at the southern tip of the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

We take these ecosystems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system. Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence. We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities. So, when we speak of ‘sustainable use’, consideration must always be given to each ecosystem’s regenerative ability in its different areas and aspects.

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

Canadian rye (Elymus canadensis) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguara National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York by Betsey Crawford

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilon glaucus) in East Hampton, New York

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Yarrow: a quiet goddess subdues half a planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

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

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

yarrow-achillea-millefolium-Coeur-d-Alene-Idaho-by-Betsey-Crawford

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

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

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Captain-Cook-State-Park-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

The yarrow in Alaska is Achillea millefolium, variety borealis.

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

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

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

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

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It takes a village: the community of lichen

hypogymnia-species-alectoria-samentosa-witchs-hair-lichen-lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-Fish-Creek-Hyder-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe farther I went north last summer, the more I found a world full of lichen. It’s everywhere in Alaska, and a dominant species in the arctic tundra. But it’s everywhere else, too, covering 8% of the world’s surface. Lichen holds the desert in place, fills the forests, hangs off branches in cool, damp coastal woods as well as in warm swamps. It’s on the trees in your backyard, slowly covering your grandparents’ tombstones, growing on fence posts, spreading under your feet as you climb mountains.

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Large lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) ‘leaves’ live with a species of Cladonia among the moss and ferns on a tree in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Lichen is indeed a village: it’s composed of varying forms of fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. Strands of fungi weave together to provide housing, which protects the algae and bacteria from environmental challenges like desiccation and UV radiation. The algae and bacteria provide food via sugars formed through photosynthesis. The resulting body, or thallus, lives on its substrate — wood, soil, rock, occasionally air — along with other members of the community, usually moss, often other forms of fungi and algae, and the trees, ferns, flowers, rocks, and animals of whatever environment it’s growing in.

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Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stygia) mixed with snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) in the Yukon tundra

Though I am no lichenologist — identifying the few lichens here that I’ve been able to name was a study in cross-eyed bewilderment — I’ve always been fascinated by them. I went to Denali National Park one day to hike, but, on finding a world covered with lichen, got down on the ground and spent the afternoon with them, in all their variety: tiny, lacy shrubs of one lichen run through with little branchlets of another, next to a large patch of dark brown sheets of felt lichen. A white crustose lichen so completely covered the flange of a tree stump that it wasn’t until I put my hand on it that I realized I was looking at wood, not granite. That white crust was dotted with a pink one. Tiny spires, holding up minute cups, occasionally edged in vivid red, grew all over the rest of the stump, happily embedded in moss.

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A Cladonia species around a tuft of snow lichen (Flavocentrai nivalis)

This plucky, endlessly adaptable, weirdly beautiful, not-plant, not-animal feeds reindeer and caribou. It holds and releases moisture, helpful to the plants that grow with it. It has some medicinal uses, and shows up in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Some are used as dyes, and some in making perfume. But its most important ecological contributions are its ability to take nitrogen from the air and add that essential element to the soil; its ability to live in, stabilize, and form soil in barren landscapes; and its ability to sequester carbon. Lichen, with the mosses and algae they grow among, all tiny and indomitable, take up as much carbon yearly as is released by the burning of forests worldwide. This amounts to 14 billion tons of carbon, as opposed to the 2.2 billion (and falling) tons absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

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A tree stump with an entire village of moss and lichen in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

As hardy and amazingly adaptable as lichens are in their natural habitats, they are threatened by several things, especially air pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The first limits healthy growth, the second habitat, and the third will begin to further limit habitat, as lichens sensitive to temperature will have to go to higher and higher altitudes to survive. Those that cannot will die out.

And here is where the larger questions come in. If you ask people whether they would prefer to drive cars to work or save lichens, most people would ask, “What’s lichen?” It wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would seem obvious that we’re more important than a bunch of fungus and algae mashed together and ruining our wooden fence. We’re letting species go extinct every day. Why would a few little lichen matter?

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Tiny pink splotches of the interestingly named fairy barf lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) in Denali National Park, Alaska

We don’t know why lichen matter. That’s the problem with every extinction. We see the stakes through human eyes. We want to get from place to place in our cars, we love computers, we need homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. My home is tiny footprint, but I drove it to Alaska and back last year. Would I give up such incredible experiences to preserve the right environment for lichen? A challenging question!

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Brown felt lichen (Peltigera praetextata) with a Cladonia species in Denali National Park, Alaska

We are part of the biome, and we need habitat. There is an infinity of things we can do to reduce our effect on the planet, but even if we do every one of them, humans will still have an outsized footprint. Species will be edged out. Others will hang on, threatened.

We know some of these extinctions will matter. If bees die out, we face a world without fruit, flowers, nuts. If lichen dies out we’ll first lose their ability to sequester carbon, which will be released into an atmosphere already threatened by rising carbon dioxide levels. So temperatures may rise further, endangering more and more species.

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A section of the desert’s biological crust, in Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah

We would also lose a crucial soil producer and stabilizer. It’s hard for us to see, in the brown crusts of the sandy desert, how important a role those tiny, combined elements play in securing nutrients, water, and footing for roots. Hard to imagine the time span taken to break down rock into soil. To us, dirt has always been here, but we’re newcomers on the planet, perhaps even passers-by. The ramifications of such losses spread out like waves. Whatever we do to allow lichen to go extinct might well mean we’ve created a world inhospitable to us.

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Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

These questions are important, but they are also human-centered, asking of everything how it helps us. Cyanobacteria are 2.5 billion years old, the first photosynthesizers on earth, producers of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that all subsequent biodiversity depends on. The earliest lichen fossils  are 400 million years old.  The earliest human fossil is 2.8 million years old. The forces that created the earth with infinite slowness ticked lichen off the formation list much earlier than humans. Perhaps we’re here to help lichen.

Every form in nature is part of a whole, a web woven together with meticulous evolutionary care. We can only pull so many of those threads out before the fabric begins to weaken. And there may be some combination of threads which, when pulled, will destroy the integrity of the whole. The problem is, we don’t know which ones, leaving us with the great challenge of caring for the entire village on our finite globe.

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Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) along a trail in Stony Hill, Amagansett, New York

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:

Grizzly bear in Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Songlines 2015: north to Alaska

 

 

Ashes to petals: wildfire and rebirth

wildfire-Dalton-Highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOn the way north last summer we were stopped by a wildfire in British Columbia. It had jumped Route 97, and the RV park where we spent the night slowly filled with people who had kept driving and been turned back. The manager warned us that we might be roused from sleep and asked to evacuate further south, but late the next morning we were allowed to drive through, still in a fog of smoke. I’d never seen a forest right after a fire. The pitch black trunks were stark along the road, grayer farther back, where the dense haze softened them. Smoke rose slowly from the still smoldering black ground, rough with burned plants. Nothing green was left. I was longing to stop for a picture, but we were the first in line after the pilot car guiding us, there to keep crazy people from stopping in a still smoldering fire to take pictures. But that vertical black and shifting gray landscape was unforgettable.

wildfire-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMany people associate wildfire with devastation, and it was easy to see why, driving through that suddenly barren and spooky landscape. The power of a forest or wildland fire can be terrifying, the destruction incomprehensible. Easy, also, to see why earlier forest service personnel felt that as many fires should be fought as possible. But we have slowly learned the costly lessons of trying to outflank nature. Without fires, there would eventually be no forest. Fires keep the lands they burn healthy, whether they are forests, meadows, or deserts. A lot of the strength of current wildfires is fueled by centuries of fire suppression — leaving the forest full of flammable material: crowded, aging trees, heaps of fallen branches, dried shrubs, not enough green, succulent growth on the forest floor to slow new fires.

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Fireweed doing what it does best: moving in quickly after a fire

2015 was both the hottest year on record and had the most wildfires. One of our fellow campers that night was returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska. “The whole state is on fire,” she told me. These days, more and more fires are allowed to burn unless they pose a hazard to life or property, and, once in Alaska, we saw plenty of evidence that a lot of the state had burned earlier in the summer. After our arrival in mid-July, the weather grew steadily wetter. But we passed vast stands of black trunks, often interspersed with swathes of lighter trunks from earlier fires, trunks that had shed their burnt bark and were weathering to a silvery gray.

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

A wildfire doesn’t immediately leave behind a pretty landscape. Those blackened trunks can stand for years while the growth around them recovers. It takes decades for trees to grow tall enough to replace the forest. But a fire opens the ground to sun, eliminates competition from tree roots and shrubs, and its ash fills the soil with nutrients. New growth is almost instant. By the time we drove down Route 97 six weeks later, the ground under the burned trunks was a vivid green. Native Americans used controlled fires to create these conditions, because the extra nutritious new grasses and plants attracted wildlife, and made hunting easier.

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Yellow flower: heart-leaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia); white flower: yellow hedysarum (Hedysarum sulphurescens), red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

The next arrivals are wildflowers, springing from seeds dormant for years, sometimes decades. In many areas deciduous trees sprout up, growing quickly, racing past the slow evergreens that will eventually outcompete them. During their long maturation, you will have years of glowing wildflowers. Then, depending on where you are, you may have years of aspen turning the mountainsides gold every fall, shimmering vivid green in the spring, their trunks silver above the snow in the winter. The conifers will slowly catch up, and take over, eventually blocking the light from the wildflowers and grasses, which will retreat into dormancy, waiting for the next fire to burn through and release them.

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Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus)

When I was in Banff, Alberta, I went into the visitors’ center to ask where I could find wildflowers. As soon as the friendly young woman said there had been a wildfire at Stanley Glacier in nearby Kootenay National Park, I was ready to go. The flowers accompanying this post are from that hike. Since I was so smitten with the flowers, I never took a picture of the terrain, which was full of three and four foot high lodgepole pines, lushly green and healthy. Around them grew fireweed, of course, mixed with wild orchids, and paintbrush in the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. Columbine and fleabane were everywhere.

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Harsh paintbrush (Castillleja hispidus)

The fire happened in 2003, so it’s taken that long for the forest to get to 4’. We are used to fixing things quickly. If a house burns down, there can be a new one in months. If a forest burns down, it requires a very different mindset: rebuilding is the work of decades. A house is no good until it’s finished, but each stage of a growing forest is as vital as all the others. The wildflowers growing among the toddler trees at Stanley Glacier are just as much the forest as the trees that succeed them.

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Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

Life on earth is a ceaseless conversation. Growth, death, change, renewal. Fire, flowers, aspens, lodgepole pines, fire. Ashes, petals, bark. Fireweed next to blackened trunks, wild orchids among the baby pines. It’s an ancient dialectic that we interrupt at our peril, because we don’t comprehend the infinity of factors that go into the earth’s forces. It has taken from colonial times until recently to understand that interfering with wildfires damages everything we think we’re saving. We must when houses and people are at stake, but even then, suppression comes at at the cost of making the next fire hotter and more dangerous, the soil more unstable, mudslides more likely. One of the many complex challenges facing us as we assess our footprint on the planet.

white-bog-orchid-habaneria-dilatata-paintbrush-castilleja-miniata-Stanley-Glacier-Kootenay-National-Park-British-Columbia-by-Betsey-Crawford

White bog orchid (Plantathera dilatata), paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

 

Songlines 2015: north to Alaska

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

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

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Ratany (Krameria bicolor) Anza Borrego Desert, California

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

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

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

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Cross Canyon, southwestern Colorado

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

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

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

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

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

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Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) near Yahk, British Columbia

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

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

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

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Mother and two babies near Matanuska Glacier

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

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George at the Matanuska Glacier

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Hand tram over Winner Creek, Girdwood, Alaska

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

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Alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus) Seward, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spruce family planning

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

White spruce (Picea glauca) with many cones during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree, in this case white spruce (Picea glauca).

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

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

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

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

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

The leafy den of a red squirrel (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

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

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

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

Many dens of red squirrels (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

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

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

White spruce (Picea glauca) cones on the forest floor during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

 

 

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Going to seed

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) about the send off its abundance of seeds.

Some years ago I took a photography workshop at the New York Botanical Garden. At the end of a day spent shooting the vast array of flowers in the perennial gardens, Allen Rokach, our teacher, told us to come back next morning with two favorites to share. Everyone else brought in pictures of flowers at their crispest and dewiest. I brought in a fading iris and the seedheads of giant alliums.

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Giant allium (Allium giganteum) seedheads

Allen was forbearing, even rather fascinated by this choice. It’s not that I don’t love flowers at their freshest. But there is something about the fading flower, the seed heads, the seeds themselves that I am drawn to. This is part of the life of the flower. In fact, this is the point of the flower. While we enjoy the exquisite beauty of form, the softness of petal, colors ranging from the subtlest to the wildest of shades, the whole design is to attract pollinators, get pollinated, and produce the next generation.

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky at Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

So all that beauty isn’t about the joy and refreshment of our eyes. We were 100 million years from the horizon when angiosperms (fruit producing plants) first appeared. It’s likely that we owe our eventually showing up to the benefits their nutritious fruits and seeds brought to the animal kingdom. The goal of floral beauty is to create structures for seeds to develop, and to lure bees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, bats, butterflies and other pollinators to help with the task.

Color, scent, form, and those inviting, exquisite petals signal that sugar is available. While the nectar, deep in the flower, is sipped, the anthers at the end of the flexible stamens brush pollen on their guest. It’s common in spring and summer to see bees, their legs swollen with yellow fuzz, diving drunkenly into flower after flower, dropping some pollen off, picking up more.

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Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in bloom and beginning to form a seedhead

At each flower, the pollen brushes off the carrier onto the stigma, the top of the tiny stalk (the style, barely visible above) nestled in the center of the stamens. The pollen’s DNA information then proceeds to the ovary at the base of the flower. The ovary, often still small when the petals fall, like the columbine above, swells into fruit as the seed matures. Eventually the ripened, swollen fruits begin to dry and split open, emptying their abundance of seeds.

SeedheadsThe abundance can be staggering. That long curve of fluffy seeds in the fireweed at the top of the post is from one flower, on a stalk containing dozens of flowers, among millions of fireweed stalks.

Seeds must then move from pod to receptive ground. In the case of harvesting fruits and seeds for eating, farming or gardening, we have a huge role to play in this, and a minor role, which we share with our dogs and other local fauna, in carrying sticky seeds from place to place on our pants and socks. Other seeds simply fall at the feet of the flower stalk. Not content to wait for creatures to walk by, many seeds are attached to feathery filaments that allow the wind to disperse them.

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Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

All of this can be going on at the same time. The desert creosote above has a fresh flower, with its anthers full of pollen, a fruit at the top, and two stages of open pods: one with the seed filaments just emerging from the dried and split fruit, and one beginning to disseminate its feathery seeds.

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Monkshood bud and seed pod (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I like the tossed-aside-lingerie look of fading flowers, but it’s the pods, or seedheads — sculptural, often a bit wacky, with dried-in-place curves and unexpected twists — that I particularly like.  I love the way the designed-for-wind filaments catch the light before they fly off, and the increasing translucency of some pods as they dry.

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Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

Loving flowers takes a certain existential fortitude. They are a fleeting lot. This is especially true of wildflowers. In a garden, you can create bloom all season, all year in warm climates. You can make space for wildflowers, and even plant them, but you have very little control over what they do and where they go. This is why cultivars — flowers bred for particular traits — are so important to the garden industry. They are tamed wildflowers.

The truly wild ones come and go on their own tens-of-millions-of-years-old schedules. If it’s too dry, too cold, too wet, they may choose dormancy. If all is right, they will grow riotously. If there’s too much competition from invasive plants, they will bide their time, the seeds remaining dormant for years. Once they bloom, they slow or speed up their flowering and fading according to the weather.

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Wild geranium seedhead (Geranium erianthum)

While they’re blooming, I don’t think much about all this. I just want to see them. It’s when they fade and the pods ripen that I remember that they’re not here for me. The seedheads remind me that we are part of their history, not the other way around. We have taken full advantage of this process to grow food, harvest seeds, enjoy gardens. But it’s not a cycle for us. It’s a cycle we fit into. Watching this ancient unfolding roots me in the history of the earth, in the forces that, with slow and infinite care, brought us here, blessed with the ability to see and love beauty.

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Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)

Wayside beauty

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Donald, British Columbia

One of the things that is constantly, and wonderfully, borne in on me as I travel is how utterly beautiful our world is. Everywhere I go, there is beauty easily at hand. And for someone who spends as much time driving from place to place as I do, the gorgeous scene along so many roads is as important as the beauty that can be found hiking into the wilderness.

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Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska

While I can’t hear birds or crickets, or silence, or smell sagebrush, or feel a soft breeze while I’m in the truck, I can see dappled sunlight in forests, mountains with crowns of clouds, deserts stretching to the horizon, streams flowing past, cascading waterfalls. I can see the history of the planet in the jagged upthrusts of rock, and the millions-year-old canyons cut by patient rivers. I can see storms in the distance, sunsets, slivers of moon.

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On the Dempster Highway, north to the Arctic Ocean, through Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory

This tends not to be true of the places where we live. Our willingness to meet the grandeur of the world with strip malls, box stores, glass office buildings and square houses on flat rugs of grass means that getting off the road in a habited place is often an exit from the sublime into dreariness. Because the landscape gets wilder and wilder as you go north, the roads in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska are startlingly beautiful. Mile on mile of the wonders of the world.

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Route 1 between Anchorage and Matanuska Glacier, Alaska

Driving through all that wayside beauty has a bewitching effect: the catch of breath and expanding heart that comes as a snow-capped volcano rises from shimmering blue water happens over and over again. Around another bend magenta flowers frame a glacier in the distance. Another bend, sunlight glitters on the cascade of water down a lush, green coastal slope,

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Golden, British Columbia

Driving becomes an open heart meditation. Even after a whole day, and a complaining back, it can be hard to stop and return to the reality of towns, RV parks, dinner. We are here to see this, to be the consciousness of the universe reflecting on itself, to be participants in its continual unfolding.

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, to road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory

Autumn starts along the Dempster Highway, the road to the Arctic Ocean, in Yukon Territory. The white in the foreground is lichen.

Of course, it’s best to be out in it, not driving through it. But since traveling around requires plenty of the latter, I’m celebrating the great gift of the moving panorama I can see from the road. Magically lit mountains, still water at twilight, the coming of fall on the Yukon road to the Arctic, clouds, rivers, reflections.

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Route 97, going south, in British Columbia

The Irish poet John O’Donohue said that one of the gifts of the Celtic imagination is that landscape isn’t just matter, that it’s as alive as we are, in a totally different form. It may be that my love of the earth is a legacy of my Irish heritage. But most, if not all, indigenous cultures feel the same way, and, not so long ago, we were all indigenous to a living landscape somewhere on our planet.

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The Columbia River near Kamloops, British Columbia, a surprise landscape of sagebrush and high desert.

Perhaps it’s this ancestral sense of kinship with a vibrant world, of emerging from it, being an integral part of it, that gets stirred when we leave our settlements, and go out into a landscape that speaks to us of history, endless beauty, mystery, presence.

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

Across Cook Inlet from the parking lot at Captain Cook State Park, Kenai, Alaska

(The photo collections from my Alaska adventure are now up on the Galleries page.)