Tag Archives: British Columbia

The geography of hope: saving half the earth

Western meadowlark (Sturnella magna) Smoky Valley Ranch, Nature Conservancy, Kansas by Betsey CrawfordOn spring mornings thirty years ago I woke to a dawn chorus of birdsong so loud and rambunctious and beautiful that it filled me with joy, day after day. The birds had a lot to say as they flew by my windows, building nests, feeding young, fending off whatever they took to be threats. Some simply perched on branches and sang the day into existence. In late May martins, those largest of blue-black swallows, would join the choir. They filled my martin house and spent their days nabbing mosquitos as they swooped over the meadow and the marsh.

By the time I left in 2011, that thrilling symphony was long gone. One spring the martins didn’t come back. The number of songbirds dwindled year by year. There were still birds, especially crows and blue jays. I love their cheekiness and brilliance, but their increasing presence was a sign that the songbirds had largely abandoned the area to them.

Nothing about the surrounding area had changed. The same houses flanked mine, the protected land behind remained wide open. There were acres of trees and shrubs for nests and cover. But the birds’ winter homes in Central and South America were dwindling. Along the Atlantic flyway that supported their migration more and more wetlands were being filled in. Trees felled for houses. Meadows paved for parking lots and malls. Gardens filled with exotic plants that didn’t provide the food the birds had evolved with.

Saving half earth: Emerald Lake, Yolo National Park, British Columbia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Emerald Lake, Yolo National Park, British Columbia, Canada

The same story can be told about many species: wolves, bears, salamanders, owls, frogs, butterflies. The list is long and sad. Biodiversity needs space, and lots of it. Animals need room to roam and migrate. All species need large areas of the world still filled with the plants that have nourished them for eons. They need habitat that provides the shelter they look for. Without room to meet their evolutionary and biological needs, species dwindle in numbers. Isolated, smaller populations court extinction. The disappearance of species destroys ecosystems. Our shared planet, entirely made up of ecosystems, degrades. Voices and visions earth will never encounter again vanish.

Biologist E.O. Wilson has a radical proposal: save half the planet. That’s what it will take to stem the drastic rate of current extinctions, and to provide enough room to preserve the earth’s biodiversity. His Half-Earth Project, “with science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart…is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” 

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

In one sense, the proposal is wonderfully simple. There are still vast reaches of northern boreal forests, tropical rainforests, oceans, coastal mangroves, coral reefs, mountain ranges. It seems you could handily find half the earth to save. But, of course, it’s much more complex. In the first place, although every country on the globe has set aside preserves, only 15% of the earth’s land surface and 5% of the ocean is already protected. A third of those preserves are under pressure from human activities, often sanctioned by the same government that supposedly protected them. Some countries contain areas of more biodiversity than others. In asking them to protect a higher percentage of their land for the good of all, other nations would need to consider compensation.

A profound complication is that we don’t know that much about the beings we share the earth with. Wilson points out that we’ve only identified and named about 2 million species. Of those, a handful has been studied in depth. The fungus crowd advises us to expect 5 million fungal species alone. Estimates for the total species on earth — bugs, bacteria, fungus, lichen, plants, animals — range as high as 100 million. We discover new species all the time. From the current rate of extinction, we can assume many are blinking out before we ever know them. The International Union of Conservation of Nature has assessed a mere 96,500 species. Of those, over 27,000 are on their Red List of species threatened with extinction.

Saving half earth: a wildflower meadow in Glacier National Park, Montana

A wildflower meadow in Glacier National Park, Montana

Knowing our neighbors and where they live will help us decide which areas to save. Yet, while our need to know grows more crucial every day, on-the-ground biological studies are losing students and funding. Thus we understand very little about ecosystems, a science that has been defined for less than a hundred years. We are badly in need of experts in the natural sciences, Wilson says. Their numbers are shrinking in relation to technology and engineering. We are abandoning the wider living environment in favor of the human environment.

Despite political and educational inertia, there are groups and places that are moving forward. Wilson expressed guarded optimism in a 2016 interview on the publication of his book, Half-Earth. We can build, he said, on what is already in good shape: much of the rainforest in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, and New Guinea. Grasslands in the Serengeti and South America’s El Cerrado. South Africa is an especially diverse area. Wilson compares the enormous and teeming Lake Baikal in Siberia to the Galapagos. They are both sanctuaries for diversity and cradles of evolution. Every area of the world still has ecosystems, sometimes vast, that are functioning well.

Wildlife overpasses, like this magnificent one in the Netherlands, allows roaming and migrating animals to get to all areas of their territory. Thanks to photographer Siebe Svart, who holds the copyright.

Wildlife overpasses, like this magnificent one in the Netherlands, allows roaming and migrating animals to get to all areas of their territory safely. Thanks to photographer Siebe Svart, (©Siebe Svart)

We can also connect land already preserved, a vital step. Preserves separated by roads, industry, or private property prevent animals from migrating to their accustomed places. Or to new areas if climate disruption means their traditional homelands can no longer sustain them. Even cutting a small dirt road through a preserve can mean the introduction of non-native plants. With no natural controls and rapid life spans, they can displace native plants and wreak havoc quickly. On Wilson’s list of the most important places to protect is such a corridor: the pine and oak forests extending through the US southwest into the Cordilleras of Central America. This ancient ecosystem is home to a quarter of Mexico’s native plants and winter quarters for the monarch butterfly.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is working on a corridor from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming northward along the Rocky Mountains to the vast Peel watershed in the Yukon. There are many magnificent national parks and wildlands in this 2,000-mile stretch. Connecting them will protect one of the last intact mountain ecosystems in the world. The maps below show the progress, in yellow, in Y2Y’s first twenty years. The landscape photos accompanying this post are all from this corridor.

Saving half the earth: these maps, courtesy of Y2Y.net, show progress made in their first twenty years

Maps courtesy of Y2Y.net

To give an idea of what it takes to manage such a feat, Y2Y, starting in 1993, has enlisted over 300 partners. They include Native American groups, conservation organizations, landowners, mining and lumber companies, government agencies in both the US and Canada, and donors. They recognize that land preservation has to work as well as it can for as many of the stakeholders as possible. Ways have to be found to work with ranchers so the burgeoning number of grizzlies in a preserve isn’t an ever-increasing threat to the cattle’s calves. A major mining company agreed to spend 19 million dollars on land to augment the Y2Y corridor. Land planners are brought into the circle to provide wildlife with ways to cross roads and migrate through settled valleys. Convincing a developer to set aside an extra 300 feet can make or break a usable wildlife corridor. 

So, it’s complicated. All that negotiating and planning by one group, operating in one area of the world. But it’s doable. Such groups are on the ground and tireless. Half of California — a state closing in on 40 million inhabitants, with the world’s fifth largest economy — is protected land. There are fifteen national parks and recreation areas. The Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in the country, and one of 300 in the state. Towns of every size actively acquire open space for preserves and parks. An hour north of me a cross-state corridor is being created to connect protected land in the Coast Mountain Range. The California Native Plant Society is a political and environmental powerhouse. But it’s a never-ending task to make sure what is preserved is actually protected.

Saving half earth: Map from California Protected Areas Database

Map from California Protected Areas Database

That’s because setting aside half the earth for our fellow species is half of the solution. Actually protecting that land involves thinking differently about the other half. How do we house and transport people? Grow and provide healthy food? Create a just and meaningful economy? Mitigate climate disruption? Ensure clean air and water? Create ways to live sustainably? Plan cities that regenerate the way forests do? The world is on track to build the equivalent of Manhattan every 35 days to accommodate the expected 10 billion people by 2100. China pours as much concrete in four years as the US did in the entire twentieth century. The challenges are both staggering and wonderful. There is so much scope for creatively rethinking how we operate.

In his 1984 book, Biophilia, E.O. Wilson posited that humans have evolved an innate love for life and the living process. But we have lost touch with it by lack of contact with nature. In Half-Earth he is calling for a shift in our moral reasoning. I agree, but, echoing Thomas Berry, I would instead say that we need a new story, because our morals arise from our stories.

Saving half the earth: Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

The western story, which has seeped into all corners of the earth, is one of ‘heroic’ conquest. Once by rulers and individuals, now largely by corporations and their political enablers. The wild world that we arose from, filled with our close kin, isn’t part of the story, except to celebrate mastery over it. The cultural shift comes when, for example, we choose the living forest over the board feet of lumber it supplies. But the shift is not just in loving the forest. It’s also in designing new ways to make everything from buildings to toilet paper to allow forests to live their full lives undisturbed.

What that gorgeous birdsong told me thirty years ago was that I belong to the larger order of beings. The birds whose voices we hear today have been singing in the dawn for 65 million years. Their passionate daily celebration reminded me that I’m part of the continuing creative energies of the universe. Their loss taught me how fragile the fabric of life can be. Birds can disappear. Lots of species are disappearing. But I find courage in the idea that Nature didn’t form us over eons with exquisite care and creativity so that we could turn around and destroy her. She is rising in us now, calling to each of us. There are those who can’t hear yet. But the many who can are adding their voices to the chorus, working to safeguard the nest.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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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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Beautiful vampires: the castilleja genus

Alaskan coastal paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis) taken in Moose Pass, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Alaskan coastal paintbrush (Castilleja unalaschensis) in Moose Pass, Alaska

I first saw a paintbrush, a member of the Castilleja genus, in Idaho. Then again in southern California, and then northern. Then Colorado and Utah, British Columbia and Alberta, and then Alaska. I haven’t yet seen them in Wyoming, but it’s the state flower, so I know they’re there. In other words, if you’re west of the Mississippi, it’s easy to find Castilleja. They grow in almost all conditions except swamps or deep woods and are able to withstand toxic serpentine soils when they have to. There is one species in the 250-strong family that grows in the east, but I’d never seen one before coming west.

In most places they’re hard to miss: many are as vivid a red or orange as you can find, they usually stand one to two feet tall, and they grow in patches. The vivid color is not the flower, but modified leaves called bracts. These surround and protect the inconspicuous flowers, whose petals wrap around each other, forming a tube. Though the flowers are bright green, they can’t hold a candle to the brilliance around them. The colorful bracts do the job that petals normally do: lure pollinators, especially butterflies and hummingbirds.

Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) taken in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

Paintbrushes are also white, pink, yellow and purple. As common as they are, it’s impossible to take them for granted, because they change with the available light, so you never know what you’re going to find. On a cloudy day, high on a mountain in British Columbia, were alpine versions — one red, one magenta — that glowed in the muted gray light. The luminous yellow Alaskan native does the same thing in the long summer twilights. I found a red one on fire against the bright rock of a Utah trail, and a chrome yellow one in front of a blackened log in a burned forest. A white one shone in the shade at the edge of the woods in Waterton Lakes, and a red one, along a woodland path, glittered in a shaft of sunlight.

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) taken on Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers, British Columbia

They are everywhere, and irresistible, and interesting, because they’re parasites. They have green leaves on the stem below the bracts, and then a cluster of leaves at the base. That means they can photosynthesize, but usually they find a host to help out, often a grass or sagebrush, but it can be other flowers and shrubs, as well. They send out haustoria, specialized roots that penetrate the host’s roots, slithering between cells. There they find water and nutrients to supplement their own photosynthesizing.

They’re not alone in this. Castillejas have recently been put into the Orobanchaceae, a whole family of parasites. Some are completely parasitic;  some, like the Castilleja, partially, or hemiparasitic. At first glance, it’s hard to see why evolution thought this was a good idea. It certainly benefits the parasite, and some do no discernible harm, but most affect their hosts in some way. About 10% of the 270 parasitic genera are invasive pests, causing serious problems for farmers, and capable of killing hosts in natural settings.

Coast Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) taken in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Coast Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California. You can see the spiky green flowers, protected by the bracts, as well as the fine white hairs that many Castilleja share.

Castillejas don’t kill their hosts, though studies have shown that the hosts are less robust than they otherwise would be. That sounds like a negative, but one of its effects may be to allow more diversity in an area by preventing one or two species from dominating.  Castillejas are usually biennials, growing from seed one year, blooming the next and dropping their seed to germinate the following spring. Taking advantage of the mature, deep roots of the perennial plants around them means a ready source of nourishment and water, allowing them more vigorous growth in their short life. That fast cycle has another possible good effect: they quickly return nutrients to the soil through their decaying leaves.

Desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) Butler Ruins, Blanding, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) Butler Ruins, Blanding, Utah

So, while they are not symbiotic, with obvious mutual benefit to both plants, they really aren’t vampires, despite my inability to resist the title. Parasite is from the Greek for ‘next to’ (para) and food (sitos), thus giving us ‘next to the food.’ Which, while accurate, is pretty dull. And this underground search for food is anything but dull. It brings us back to the fascinating question of what plants know, and how they know it. Although roots can bump into each other, evolution wouldn’t favor their chance meeting. Are the Castillejas sensing chemical signals given off by the roots of the host plant? The stems of dodder, the most famous of the invasive parasites, can ‘smell’ its highly desired tomato plant and sends its tendrils that way.  But those chemicals are airborne. Can plant ‘scents’ travel underground?

Apparently. Plants use their aromatic phenolic compounds, the same family of chemicals that give us, for example, flavonoids and other antioxidants,  to ‘talk’ to each other. In the case of root parasites, the host’s phenolic molecules move through the soil and are converted by enzymes in the parasite into ‘haustorium-inducing factors.’ The haustoria get underway, following the chemicals back to the host’s root system. There they penetrate the cell walls without destroying the cell membrane and begin to pipe nutrients, carbon, and water back to the parasitic plant.   This exchange is facilitated by the higher transpiration rate of some parasites. Evaporation is faster from Castilleja leaves, which pulls water away from the more slowly transpiring host’s roots.

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus) growing in a burned forest along the Stanley Glacier Trail, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispidus) growing in a burned forest along the Stanley Glacier Trail, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

While we stand enchanted by their vivid and luminous beauty, Castillejas are busy.They have a lot to do in the two years they live, and have to pack all the nutrition they can into their seeds. All to continue to lure hummingbirds, get pollinated, and keep the family line going. Of course, they are not ‘thinking’ about all of this, but there is an intelligence at work, and I find that profoundly moving. Though our evolutionary ways parted company two billion years ago, we share common ancestors, and still share a quarter of our genes with plants. What became our prefrontal cortex has its origins in the same rudimentary processing cells that our ancient relatives once shared.

Orange paintbrush (Castilleja integra) Green Mountain Park, Lakewood, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Orange paintbrush (Castilleja integra) Green Mountain Park, Lakewood, Colorado

In order to prosper, all living things have to be able to respond and adapt to the world around them. Some people have a hard time calling this intelligence, reserving that trait for the human mind, and perhaps for animals that show signs of operating from more than instinct. At the end of his fascinating book, What a Plant Knows, botanist Daniel Chamovitz suggests instead that we think in terms of plants being aware of the world they inhabit. But I have no trouble with the word intelligence. I like his idea that “‘human’ may be only a flavor, albeit an interesting one, of intelligence.” This concept helps open the boundaries we’ve used to set us apart from the rest of creation, a crucial step in the care and preservation of the natural world.

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) taken in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

There are more pictures in the Castilleja gallery.

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

 

Living on the ledge: ingenious bitterroot

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey CrawfordThis is a story about a difficult and fascinating terrain, a beautiful, adaptable flower, and a maddening claim. Bitterroot is far from rare in the western states of the U.S. and Canada. It’s Montana’s state flower, has bequeathed its name to the Bitterroot River and Valley there, as well as to the Bitterroot Mountains and the Bitterroot National Forest, which separate Montana and Idaho,   It grows from northern British Columbia to southern California, and west to Colorado. It was a major food source for Native Americans for thousands of years.

Serpentine rock outcrop on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey CrawfordBut in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where I’m spending my spring, it only grows in two places, and very sparsely. One of those spots is on a small ledge of serpentine on Mount Burdell, in Novato. If I hadn’t been on a walk with Marin County naturalists both times I saw it, I would never have found it. There are tons of small rock outcroppings on walks in Marin, and sometimes they don’t even aspire to the term ‘outcrop.’ They just look like bare, rocky soil.

But this isn’t any rocky soil. Serpentine is named for its dominant mineral, serpentinite. There’s more of it in this neck of the woods, going north into British Columbia, because it forms at the edge of old continents, where the inexorable plates moving along the planet’s surface meet. One dives under the other, scraping massive piles of rubble onto the edge of the upper plate, and taking equally massive amounts deep into the earth. After eons of heat and pressure, that rock finds its way to the surface again, the crystal structure it once had completely altered.

Serpentine rock on Mount Burdell, Novato, CaliforniaAmong these metamorphic rocks is serpentine, noted for its blue and green coloring, though it can have lots of colors, even orange. Serpentine is poisonous for most plants since it contains a much higher ratio of magnesium to calcium than is usual for the the earth’s crust, or is at all comfortable for plants. It has high levels of heavy metals toxic to plants, like manganese, chromium and nickel. It even has asbestos in it, which makes it ironic that it’s the state rock of California, a state with a ‘this causes cancer’ sign everywhere you go.

Whatever plans to grow on the thin, pebbly soil that erodes from serpentine has to have adaptations that allow it to deal with this toxicity, and to be able to live without the potassium and phosphorus that are crucial to most plants. Some have developed ways to selectively absorb the calcium they need, and others — called metal hyper-accumulators — have evolved to be able to store the toxic metals in their leaves and the ground around them. This not only solves the problem of the excess metals, but protects the plants from browsing animals and various forms of bacteria.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

This bitterroot still has its fleshy, cylindrical leaves, though they often disappear before blooming, and return after the heat of summer.

There are plants that have adapted so well they can only live in such soils. Bitterroot is not one of these serpentine endemics, though its habitat is always rocky and dry. It solves its water needs with a large root for such a small plant, thick like a forked carrot, and very nutritious. Like many members of the Portulacaceae family, it has fleshy, almost succulent leaves and stems, which also help with water storage. These leaves go dormant in the summer, sometimes even before the flowers bloom, which also helps the plant cope with dryness from sun and hot rocks. The whole plant stays low to the ground, so is less affected by drying winds.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

This year the flowers were paler than the blooms of 2014.

Given all these strictures — metal toxicity, water deprivation, low fertility — bitterroot’s flowers are startlingly large and lovely, opening out like waterlilies strewn on rock. They bloom briefly, and often intermittently, preferring sunny days to cloudy, and sometimes afternoons to mornings. Having seen them blooming gloriously on one visit to Mount Burdell in 2014, I was looking forward to seeing them again. But this April they seemed to be struggling. Their leaves had gone dormant by mid-month, the tips of the buds were dry, and the few flowers I found blooming were paler in comparison. All, perhaps, the result of early, unusually hot weather. And proving, once again, that loving the ephemeral beauty of wildflowers requires a certain existential fortitude.

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolin capitata) growing on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Growing next to bitterroot on Mount Burdell, the rare and delicate Marin dwarf flax also thrives on serpentine.

At least I’m not depending on them for food, which the Native Americans did for millennia. And that brings us to the third part of the story: the maddening claim. Bitterroot’s Latin name is lewisia rediviva, named by German botanist Frederick Pursh for Meriweather Lewis, who brought back samples (still at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) from his great exploration. Rediviva refers to its ability, after years in Lewis’ luggage, to revive when planted, although it never bloomed.  Naming plants for the Europeans who came across them in their travels has been standard practice ever since Linnaeus’ introduction of botanical nomenclature in the 18th century. Given that it was a European system, that was perhaps inevitable.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) on Mount Burdell, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California is covered with poppies in the spring, and though fewer on serpentine, those there seem to thrive.

What I find maddening now, however, is to read the claim that Lewis ‘discovered’ bitterroot. Here are some of the people who discovered bitterroot long before Lewis and Clark arrived in Montana: the Washoe (California and Nevada), Owens Valley Paiute (California), Northern Paiute (California, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon), Western Shoshone (Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah), Gosiute (Nevada and Utah), Northern Shoshone (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah), Eastern Shoshone (Wyoming), Southern Paiute (Utah), Northern Ute (Utah), and Salish (Idaho). Also, the Upper Nlaka’pamux, southern Shuswap, Okanagan-Colville, and southern Kootenay of British Columbia. North of bitterroot’s blooming range, the  Nlaka’pamux, Lillooet, northern Shuswap and northern Kootenay peoples traded for the roots, which were so valuable a bag of them could buy a horse.

Round headed gilia (Gilia capitata) Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Another neighbor on the outcrop: round headed gilia (Gilia capitata)

The wholesale dismissal of people living here for 10,000 years before Europeans arrived has had a thousand infinitely more dangerous and debilitating manifestations than the claim that Lewis discovered bitterroot. But it still seems worth pointing out that this is another dismissal. These cultures had a long and intimate relationship with the beauty and durability of bitterroot, living on its energy through the winter and timing their spring foraging migrations by its bloom. It was the second most commonly collected root for food, after camassia, the source of crucial nutrition for untold generations. And yet it’s credited to and named after a man who only mentioned it in his journals to note that he found the bitterness of the boiled roots ‘naucious to my pallate.’

Cream cups (Platystemon capitata) growing on Mount Burdell, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

There were a few tiny cream cups (Platystemon capitata) prospering on the serpentine

It seems a little harsh to sandwich the gentle, fleeting beauty of bitterroot between the toxic realities of serpentine and the tricky prejudices of language. But there are complex and deeply interwoven histories among humans and plants, cultures and habitat, politics and policy. My Irish forebears came here because Ireland was devastated by the Great Hunger of 1845-1852.  The famine was caused as much by disastrous political conditions as by the fungus-like Phytophthora infestans, which laid waste the potatoes that almost half of the population — due to those political realities — relied on as their sole source of food. There are thousands of such stories in human history, and more to come as climate change and population pressure alter the conditions and places in which plants can grow. These stresses will cause both strife and inventive adaptations, as plants, the earth, and humans continue their completely inseparable evolution.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California 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.

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.

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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.

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.)