Tag Archives: California

Passion and poison: the thorn in the rose

Yellow David Austin rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordWhat can enclose
this ample innerness?
So soft is this touch,
it could soothe any wound.
From Ranier Maria Rilke’s Inside the Rose

I may belong to one of the smallest groups in history — people who don’t love roses. It’s not that I don’t love the look of many roses, or their subtle variations of color and intricacies of form, or the voluptuous softness of their petals, or the way they hold light in their layered bowls. I love the deep, complex, sensuous perfume of those with scents.  I love the natives, those simpler, wilder roses that grow on the edge of the woods, climb mountains, thrive on the outer coasts and survive arctic winters. With fossils dating back 40 million years, and a likely history of 70 million years, the wild roses are the ancestors of all of the more complex roses in our gardens.

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

In all this, I join an endless line of rose lovers, the first long lost in antiquity. Presumably, our forebears enjoyed the same things we do: their beauty, their scent, their touch. Perhaps their use as food or medicine, since rose hips, the fruit following the flower, are very high in vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Only when they settled into houses on their farms, 10,000 or so years ago, could our ancestors begin to think about growing roses for the pleasure of it. And, just as they discovered that corn, for example, is stronger if its pollen comes from a variety of strains, they discovered that they could breed preferred characteristics into roses. 

Thus, by 300 BCE, the Greek writer Theophrastus, in listing all known roses, included varieties with as much as 100 petals per flower. And Confucius, writing around 500 BCE, noted that there were many varieties growing in the imperial gardens, as well as hundreds of books on roses in the emperor’s library. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that roses from China began to be crossbred with roses from Europe, creating larger flowers and longer bloom time. The descendants of that marriage constitute most of today’s cultivated roses.

Red and white Fourth of July roses in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Despite my appreciation for their beauty, I am deeply aware of the thorn in all of this hybridization: it has created a lot of needy plants. The hardiness of the wild roses is long gone from their cousins, who, though undoubtedly beautiful, with more complex flowers and, for some, the ability to bloom all season, need crutches like pesticides and fungicides to prosper under standard gardening conditions. And a lot of both. I once heard a man with a famous rose garden describe the weekly sprayings and soil drenchings needed to keep it going. He lived above an aquifer that is the only source of drinking water in his area, but stood in front of a group of gardeners advocating routinely soaking the ground with poison in support of his passion.

White single rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

He was not remotely an evil man. He was in love with roses, and willing to do what it took to keep them beautiful in a damp climate. This is one of our complex human challenges: reconciling the desire for beauty, or at least a certain type of beauty, with what it takes to obtain it. And it’s not new. The ancient Romans loved roses so much they insisted that the peasants grow less food in order to make more land available for roses. Today vast rose farms in Ecuador and Colombia, providing the 1.5 billion roses needed for the US florist trade annually, destroy the health of the farm workers and poison the rivers that irrigate peasant farms downstream.

Yellow and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Hybridizers work tirelessly to come up with vigorous plants that provide us with what we want, in food and aesthetics, without needing to be propped up by chemicals, but it’s a slow and chancy process. Shrub roses, in particular, made progress toward fungal resistance. Then, in 2000, Will Radler, an amateur hybridizer in Wisconsin, launched Knock Out roses, one of the few roses I was happy to use as a landscape designer. At the end of a muggy Long Island summer, they were as green and vibrant as they were at the beginning, something unheard of with rose cultivars until they came along. Since I like the look of the simpler wild roses, I like Knock Outs. Apparently, others are also willing to forego the lush look of the exquisite Manito Garden roses pictured here, because Knock Outs are now the best selling roses in the country.

Firelight, a watercolor painting of roses by Cara Brown, Life in Full Color

‘Firelight.’ Watercolor by Cara Brown.

It’s possible to grow roses organically. That’s how everything was grown until a few decades ago. One way to start is to choose plants strategically. My friend Cara, who was clearly put on earth to grow and paint roses, was mystified when I talked about all the fungal problems roses present. But I’m from humid New York, and she’s used to dry California summers. She has many more options for growing roses than does an east coaster who doesn’t want to spray fungicides. From there, the usual organic practices apply: create rich soil, irrigate efficiently, use biological controls when needed. It’s not complicated or arduous. Nor is it complicated to buy organic cut flowers from easy-to-find suppliers like Organic Bouquet or the floral members of Fair Trade USA.

White and pink rose in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

At this point, despite its exponential growth in recent years, organic production is not remotely scaled to meet our massive demand for either flowers or food. Nor is the mindset there, or the willingness to pay any extra cost upfront, at the grocery store or florist, rather than have it buried in unintended consequences. Organic gardening and agriculture are not simply lists of alternative steps to take, but a way of thinking, a different relationship to the earth, to soil, to water, to insects and animals, as well as to our fellow human beings. It’s sympathy for workers and concern for children. It’s understanding bees are just as much a part of the cycle of life as we are. It’s the realization that three things keep us going on this earth — air, water, soil — and degrading them is ultimately deadly to all life, including our own.

Pink and yellow rose with close up of stamens, Oakland, California by Betsey Crawford

Oakland, California

This is a vast topic, and it may seem a little unfair to pile it on roses’ soft petals. But people often wonder what they can do to help heal the environment, given the damage done. Supporting organic production is something that can be done every single day, in our own gardens, and with every dollar spent on organic food or flowers. As small an action as it seems, it’s part of dismantling the poisonous idea that it’s okay to do whatever we want with the earth, or to ask certain people to face more of a toxic burden than we ourselves are willing to bear. It’s acknowledging that we are not in charge of the earth, but are one part of — and utterly dependent on — the richly varied life our planet supports.

Yellow rose in full bloom in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington, by Betsey Crawford

In Manito Park, where several of the rose photographs come from, rose gardener Steve Smith keeps spraying to a minimum by choosing resilient varieties. He’s also blessed with a dry climate full of summer sun.

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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Elegant, wild, mysterious: loving iris

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

I’m indiscriminate in my love for flowers. There are few that I don’t like, and many that I love. But there is something about my feeling for irises that sets them apart. Which is interesting, because I don’t find them to be the prettiest of flowers, or easy to deal with. As garden plants they are fleeting, leaving you with a mass of sword-shaped leaves to contend with for the rest of the season. They grow from horizontal rhizomes which need to be divided frequently to keep the flowers coming. Their color range is limited, often to whites and shades of purple, though bearded iris cultivars can be many shades of yellows, peaches and maroons.

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Unlike roses or peonies, which open slowly into luscious, inviting, petal-filled bowls, irises are architectural and, though beautiful and elegant, a bit stiff. They start as sword-shaped buds and then open so quickly that I watched last spring as the petals of one almost snapped into place. They are with us for a few days, and then start to fade. That swift passage and their rigid stems make them difficult cut flowers. As photography subjects they are frustrating. Their stiffness and multiple planes make them relatively unphotogenic. It’s hard to find good angles and close to impossible to get all of their ten, often moving parts into focus. 

And yet I love them. And I am far from alone in this love. For centuries, they have been one of the most popular garden flowers in Europe. Even in Linnaeus’ eighteenth century, gardeners had cultivated so many colors he named them after Iris, the Greek messenger goddess, who journeyed to earth on rainbows. The Japanese cultivated and painted them. Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet, among many others, painted them. Chinese brush painting has a calligraphy devoted to them. Georgia O’Keefe dove into their most intimate parts.  They are found in ancient Egyptian palaces as well as Greek frescoes dating from 2100 BCE.

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

As with most flowers, I prefer the simpler, native forms, found in their native places, but the complex bearded cultivars bred for gardens are beautiful and fascinating, and make it easy to spy on the iris’ sex life. At the top of the hanging sepals, the falls, is a ‘beard’ of filaments, leading between the upright blades of the petals, or standards. This inviting doorway, often marked by vividly colored nectar guides, gives pollinating bees, plenty of room to land and a clearly marked way in. As they arrive, they brush against the stigma, the tiny, purple horizontal shelf above the beard. Here they deposit the pollen carried from the last flower, thus starting the fertilization process. Then, as they sip nectar, more pollen from the anther tucked under the stigma collects on their bodies. On leaving, they back out, under the stigma, so they don’t lose their new load of pollen. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by BetsyCrawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The native irises are simpler, unbearded, smaller and finer textured than the garden varieties. The standards and falls are less opulent, as well as less colorful, being largely limited to pure white, cream, lavenders and purples. On the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, where I spent many years, the blue flag, Iris versicolor, was a rare and lovely sight. I was thus unprepared for my first spring on the Pacific coast. 

The central California natives, like Iris douglasiana and fernaldii, produce nectar for their long-tongued, pollen-laden bees in three tubes formed as the sepals and petals curve into the ovary. They can also be wind pollinated, with plenty of wind available. And they colonize open meadows and woods vegetatively, spreading via their rhizomes. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

All this reproductive vigor means that in March and April, the California coastal hills are an iris addict’s dreamscape. Though individual flowers last only five days, more keep coming, so that you can walk among them for weeks, depending on the places you go. The more they spread out their blooming, the more nectar the community produces to attract bees, and thus more seeds get fertilized. The staggered opening of flowers on one stem, and the pooling of nectar in the first flower to open, discourage bees from visiting more than one flower per stem, which means they take their pollen load to neighboring stems. This approach strengthens the colony by cross-pollination, and often creates hybrids by crossbreeding with neighboring species. 

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Producing such large and intricate flowers creates an advantage in attracting and accommodating pollinators, but takes a lot of energy. To provide large stores of sugar to tuck in their rhizomes, the upright leaves catch the sun from all directions and are among the few that photosynthesize on both sides, rather than just the top. All this evolutionary intelligence means that iris have found homes on every continent, and almost every state and province in North America. Though native stands are threatened, as ever, by bulldozers and the loss of pollinating bees, the flower communities themselves are strong and resilient.

All of these details explain how the flowers grow and prosper, but they don’t explain irises, and therein lies the mystery. These evolutionary choices are themselves mysterious. Why upright petals? Why stiff stems? Why purple and not orange? Why attract bees and not flies? Those are all fascinating to ponder. Yet flowers, like the rest of us, are not their reproductive habits, their petals, their relationships to bees, their beauty, their extraordinary ability to turn pure light into sugar. They are voices of the great forces that have brought — and are still bringing — the whole cosmos into being. Their alluring beauty wasn’t designed for us; they preceded us by 130 million years. We, more likely, were designed for their benefit, with the right eyes and brains to perceive and love them.

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California

Why would we evolve to love them? Is loving beauty part of the design, to keep us attached to life and the earth we arose from? Is it part of the earth’s ability to protect herself? In the last week, President Obama added 6,230 acres of land to the California Coastal National Monument. There is science in these decisions, relating to issues like marine and coastal health. There are considerations of the public good, the environmental benefit, the preservations of natural treasures.

But it’s not abstract theory that inspires us to preserve the beauty of the world. It’s the utter gorgeousness of the planet itself that drives people to say, don’t bulldoze this, don’t make this a parking lot, don’t drill an oil well here. We have certainly not paid enough attention, and have let go of enough treasure to break our hearts anew every day. We need plenty of theories to even partially mitigate our losses. But, in the end, the impulse to preserve the coast wasn’t supplied by ideas, but by standing on the bluffs with the wind off the sea, the waves crashing below, knee deep in irises, deeply in love.

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

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

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Songlines 2016: landscapes of love and prairies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A windmill in the Pawnee National Grasslands, northeastern Colorado

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

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

Along Route 40 in western Kansas

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

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

Storm coming in along Route 40 in western Kansas

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

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

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

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

Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie in El Dorado, Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

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

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

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Bonners Ferry, Idaho

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

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

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

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

Sun setting over Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, California

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

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Sowing seeds into the whirlwind

Cow clover (Trifolium wormskioldii) Chimney Rock trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Cow clover (Trifolium wormskioldii) Chimney Rock trail, Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Learning, on yet another election night, that progress is not only not remotely linear, but that the way is often bewilderingly and heartbreakingly tortuous, with far too many backward strides, I was reminded of Wendell Berry’s poem, February 2, 1968. He wrote it three days into the disastrous Tet Offensive of the Vietnam war, in a year that was to include two deeply tragic assassinations, worldwide rebellion, and a bitter election. 

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

A seedpod from the Fabaceae, or legume, family, in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California by Betsey Crawford

The nutritious seedpods produced by the legume family, this one from the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California, are one of the reasons the human race has made it this far.

Words in poems are not accidents. In the face of grief, fear, and despair, Berry was sowing a member of the Fabaceae, the legume family. One of the most ancient plant families on earth, with fossils 56,000,000 years old, it is also one of the largest, and perhaps the most important for our species. Our evolution went hand in hand with the legumes, the most abundant source of plant protein.

They can prosper even on Berry’s rocky hillside because of an extraordinary ability: to take nitrogen — the nutrient plants are hungriest for — and transfer it from the air to the soil by converting it to another form of nitrogen, ammonia. Rhizobia, bacterial descendants of billions-of-years-old archaic organisms, perform this feat, living in nodules along the roots of the plants. Because they create their own fertilizer, legumes can adapt to a wide array of conditions. Then, while thriving themselves, they enrich and renew the ground they grow on.

White clover (Trillium repens) Cougar Bay trail, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

White clover (Trillium repens) Cougar Bay trail, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

But Berry wasn’t sowing chickpeas, or peanuts, or peas, or soybeans. He was sowing clover, a plant specifically used to nourish both soil and grazers. For millennia farmers have planted clover to bring tired soil, its nitrogen used up by other crops, back to life. It offers extra rich fodder to farm animals. It keeps pollinating bees in the neighborhood by giving them nectar they particularly value. In the middle of war, in the dark of winter, on frozen ground, he is sowing a plant of deep nourishment and renewal, a thread that ties crucial elements of farming — and thus life — together. 

Groundnut (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Groundnut (Apios americana) Osceola, Missouri

For post-election solace, I turned once again to the millions of people who are sowing clover all over the world in Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest. For all the benefits to be gained by good legislative policies, governments are perhaps the last places to look for lasting revolutions in human affairs. Political institutions are designed, for good and ill, to perpetuate themselves, and thus are conservative by nature. Any movement too far in one direction calls for counterbalance, often too far in the other direction. “Change,” President Obama reminds us, “doesn’t come from Washington. It comes to Washington.” That’s true for any capitol in the world. Progress, as least as I define it, does lurch along, but the lurches can be sickening, even terrifying. 

Canyon pea (Lathers vestitus) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestitus) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, Malibu, California

So, instead, I take comfort in the slow, steady work of ordinary people. In the New York town where I spent most of my adult life, the environmental organizations range from The Nature Conservancy, a world-wide force with a budget in the billions, to a small group of volunteers who faithfully monitor the health of the harbor I lived on. Each village and hamlet in the township has its own group, working to preserve and restore natural areas, advocating for open space, rebuilding dunes and beaches.

Farther afield, the Group for the East End works on issues facing the eastern end of Suffolk County on Long Island. A bay keeper, part of the fast-growing Waterkeeper Alliance, oversees the health of Peconic Bay. The local commercial fishermen, individuals with small boats and businesses, gather together to protect their centuries-old livelihood from the demands of sport fishermen and the tourist industry. 

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) Anza Borrego Desert, California

Multiply this out, town after town, state after state, country after country. Working for the health of rivers, streams and wetlands, for clean air, for better public transportation. Other groups working for indigenous rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, the right of girls worldwide to an education. More groups concentrating on land, farming and hunger issues. Each issue weaving into all the other issues.

Hawken lists the varieties of organizations: keepers, watchers, friends, defenders, coalitions, alliances, incubators, networks, “each keeping its unique character and focus while adding to the richness of the movement as a whole.” He likens it to the growing understanding of the human immune system as a network rather than an army, where the cure for disease may depend more on fostering the network’s connectivity than on pushing for a ferocious response.

Eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Eskimo potato (Hedysarum alpinum) Denali National Park, Alaska

Connectivity is one of the most important elements in this worldwide web. Every path that you follow will lead you to related paths, and those paths will lead you to numerous other possibilities. Like the internet on which it depends, this vast movement works toward more opportunity, more connection, more information, more ideas, more ways to gather people together. A one-person campaign to save a stream morphs into a variety of organizations dedicated to changing the upstream practices that cause pollution. The challenges to those practices lead to larger questions about what really serves the human race and the planet we depend on.

This indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) flower in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California clearly shows the characteristics of Fabaceae flowers: the banners at the top, the wings spreading on either side of the keel at the bottom.

This indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California clearly shows the characteristics of Fabaceae flowers: the banners at the top, the wings spreading on either side of the keel at the bottom.

“Most movement activists start like Chico Mendes, believing they are fighting for a specific cause, in his case rubber trees, and realize later they are fighting for a greater purpose: ‘then I thought I was trying to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I was fighting for humanity.’”

I, too, am an ordinary person sowing clover, some of which is on this page, along with other Fabaceae family members. When I wonder if my passion for plants is enough, given the magnitude of the tasks we face, I remember theologian Howard Thurman’s soul-affirming answer to a friend asking a similar question: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

Lupine (Lupinus sericeus) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Lupine (Lupinus sericeus) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

What makes me come most alive is peering into the souls of flowers, and returning with the news I find there. Their stories reach far beyond their luminous petals, eventually connecting, as Berry’s clover does, as Hawken’s immune system does, as all our endeavors do, with all life on earth. This eternal interweaving is why poet Gary Snyder’s advice for the journey, at the end of For the Children, can be so simple. One thing leads to everything.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Feather plume (Dalea formosa) Organ Mountains, New Mexico by Betsey Crawford

Feather plume (Dalea formosa) Organ Mountains, New Mexico

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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Happy Halloween: slightly ominous, very orange

Orange flowers-Globe flower (Trollies species) taken in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey CrawfordWhen I first saw the picture of the trollius above, taken at a lovely garden in Manito Park in Spokane, Washington in 2012, I was struck by how ferocious it looked, though the trollius itself didn’t inspire that thought when I took it. It was the only time I’d ever associated the word ‘ominous’ with a flower. I was reminded of it this fall, as I took pictures of fading flowers and my beloved seedheads. I realized that some, in their withered and darkened states, were slightly spooky. Others were ghost-like. One even had a seed pod like a withered claw.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken at Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Spooky petals and fierce spikes: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

So I decided to do a Halloween post celebrating the slightly ominous in flowers. As I went through my collection, I was amazed at how many I found to fit this theme, whether it was a shape, or the play of the light, or the possession of spines, or the dark lure of fading petals, or simply Halloween’s emblematic color. I have photos to celebrate Halloween for years. For this one, something fairly typical of me happened — I was attracted to all the orange flowers.

Asked to choose my favorite color I would find something on the lavender/purple spectrum.  I keep my environments relatively neutral. I like the soft browns and greens of earth tones. Neither pure red nor pure yellow is at all becoming to me. But I’m drawn to orange, both in flowers and clothes. One of my most vivid childhood color memories is of a bright orange dress, pleated from the shoulders to the hem, that I wore in second grade. Another is of a coat, the color of the cactus below, that my mother bought me for Easter one year.

Orange flowers-Gander's cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) taken in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California by Betsey Crawford

Sharp spines and scary buds: Gander’s cholla (Cholla cylindropuntia ganderi) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

It’s not a common color for flowers, particularly in the wild. On Mike Haddock’s wonderful Kansas wildflowers site, he includes 10 orange flowers in a section with pink and red flowers. Yellow flowers get their own section to accommodate 192 different flowers. Blues and purples are a close second at 186. Whites dwarf them all at 312. They are even more rare in the desert. There is a wider variety of orange flowers for gardeners and florists, because growers and propagators aren’t depending on native plants alone. They find plants all over the globe, and encourage the colors they want by creating cultivars of likely prospects.

Our color readers are cone shaped neurons embedded in our retina, six million in each eye. Almost two-thirds of them preferentially read the longer wavelengths of the warm colors — red, orange, yellow — and are able to distinguish more color variation in those tones than in blue or purple ones, which are transmitted by only 2% of our cones. The remaining third are dedicated to green wavelengths. From those ranges come all the color variations we are sensitive to.

Orange flowers-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) taken in Sandpoint, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Skeletal petals: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Sandpoint, Idaho. The bright colors in the background are orange leaves on the ground.

The carotenes in orange flowers — the same chemicals that make orange fruits and vegetables so good for us — selectively absorb and reflect light waves of specific lengths. The reflected ones enter our pupils, excite the cones that are receptive to that length, and our brain tells us that we are looking at orange. Like the proverbial tree falling alone in the forest, creating sound waves no one hears, without brains to interpret the messages brought by these wavelengths, there would be no color. The flower would still have carotenes, the light from the sun would still both be absorbed and bounce off it, cones would even get stimulated. But they only telegraph their excitement. The brain — ours, a hummingbird’s, a butterfly’s — translates the result.

Orange flowers-Orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) taken at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Lit from within: orange globe mallow (Sidalcea malviflora) at Newspaper Rock in southeastern Utah. Malviflora sounds a bit ominous, but it only means it has mallow-like flowers.

Human enjoyment of its color isn’t a flower’s first priority. Their gorgeous hues are designed to lure pollinators, and did so for eons before we showed up. Hummingbirds see in the near-ultraviolet spectrum, which makes reds, oranges and bright pinks pop out for them. Our biblical heritage, where the earth was presented to us to use and enjoy, makes it hard to accept that these beautiful colors aren’t designed for our pleasure. Where does our delight fit in? The joy of the little girl twirling in her bright orange pleats, the joy of the woman sitting among cups of orange light? It’s hard to think of ourselves as bystanders of all this splendor, able to enjoy it, but having no reciprocity. Do flowers know they’re loved? Have they, in fact, enslaved us by their beauty, ensuring millions of us will spend hours each day growing more and more flowers? What a great plan!

Orange flowers-Monkey flower (Limulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

A light in the dark: monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) in the Charmless Wilderness in the Santa Monica Mountains, California

The idea that beauty nurtures us in order for us to nurture beauty reminds me of my discussion of Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that our ability to feel awe has been chosen by evolution to more deeply connect us to the earth we inhabit. To make what can be a very difficult life worth living. And the even larger idea, first introduced to me by Thomas Berry, that our consciousness has evolved to allow the cosmos to reflect on its own luminous creations. I love the thought of the creative energies patiently working, on a time frame we can’t begin to fathom, to insure that there will one day be enough hyper-sensitive cone-shaped neurons nestled in the retina, and a powerful enough optic nerve traveling to a large enough brain. All so that the universe can contemplate its own beauty, reflected in vivid orange flowers.

Orange flowers-Columbia lily (Lilium columbarium) taken at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Just for beauty: Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) at a roadside stop in southern British Columbia

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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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.

 

What is so rare as a Tiburon mariposa lily?

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

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

While looking for an answer to my own question, I discovered, to my surprise, that rarity in the animal and plant world is quite common. Conservation scientist Eric Dinerstein estimates that 75% of the species on earth are rare.  The US Forest Service guesses that a third of the native plants in the U.S. can be considered rare. And we have no idea how many species science hasn’t yet named; those remaining are most likely rare, since large populations would have been identified by now.  Some of these yet-to-be classified plants may be right at our feet: the tiny population of the Tiburon mariposa lily, in bustling suburban San Francisco, and a plant I consider to be pretty showy, was only ‘found’ and named in 1971.

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

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

There are reasons. The main one is that it only grows on one serpentine outcrop on Ring Mountain, in Tiburon, California, and nowhere else on earth. I’ve written about serpentine and celebrated Ring Mountain; its mariposa lily is another thing that makes it special. One of the first Spanish land grants in this area, Ring Mountain and its environs were grazing land from 1834 until the 1960’s, when the remaining ranch land began to be sold to developers. I’m sure that the Coast Miwok tribe members, who were displaced by these land grants, knew and had a name for the Tiburon mariposa lily, which was both food and medicine for them. And I can imagine that the few cowboys who came to the top of the ridge to find stray cows would notice the flower but feel no need to find a name for it.

Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Oakland star tulip (Calochortus umbellatus)

As showy as the flower is up close, its modest height, single leaves close to the stem, and mottled flowers do blend in with its grassy, rocky surroundings. It can take some focusing to find them, even when they’re right in front of you. So it wasn’t until the land was being explored for preservation that the flower was ‘found,’ classified as a calochortus, and given its official scientific name: Calochortus tiburonensis. The species name comes from the Greek words ‘kalos’ and ‘chortus’: beautiful grass. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. There are lots of mariposa lilies in the west, over 70 species, 28 of them endemic to California. Two others grow on and around Ring Mountain: the also rare Oakland star tulip and the yellow mariposa lily.

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

And there’s still more rarity: tiny, delicate Marin dwarf flax grows among the mariposa lilies on the serpentine, and Tiburon paintbrush grows on the next hill to the west. One subspecies of the otherwise not-rare jewel flower, the black Tiburon jewel flower, grows in a neighboring preserve, along with the rare Tiburon buckwheat. As long as a plant population can keep itself healthy and reproducing, rarity itself is not a threat. But, with the exception of the yellow mariposa lily, all the plants named here are considered endangered, defined as ‘a species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.’  If your range is a few hundred square yards of rock, it’s easy to be threatened with extinction.

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum)

Why all this endangered rarity in one small area? In this case, serpentine is the first limiting factor. Any plant growing on it has to be adapted to its toxic qualities, but those skills enable survival, not abundance. So you start with a small population. Then, in the case of wealthy Tiburon, you build roads, houses, driveways, stores, tennis courts. Gardens and lawns are planted in dirt carted in to circumvent the toxicity in the soil. Even in the preserved areas, fire roads have to be built and maintained to protect the nearby houses, which disturbs the soil and opens it to a flood of opportunistic invaders, usually annual seeds that sprout quickly on small root systems, taking water, nutrients, and light from the slower natives. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 20% of the plants on the endangered list got there because of invasive non-natives, and half of at-risk plants have been affected by them.

Rare plants: black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Black jewel flower (Streptanthus glandulosus, subspecies niger)

The more an environment changes from its original ecology, the fewer plants native to that place will be able to grow. And it’s not just the actual ground the plant is growing on. Pollinators like bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies need space for their own environment, which isn’t necessarily the same as the plants they pollinate. They may have come from a neighboring field, or upland woods, now houses or a shopping center. Animals and birds leave areas that are too cut up, which don’t allow them the contiguous space they need to feel safe when building nests and foraging for food. So the ancient, intricate relationships of animal—plant—place are severed.

While human activity does the bulk of this severing, natural forces have a role. Floods, fires, droughts, landslides, and insects can all come in forms devastating to small plant populations, rendering them unable to reestablish. And intrinsic qualities make a difference. The Tiburon mariposa lily’s seeds are too heavy to be wind borne, so they fall at the feet of the existing plants, replenishing the colony, but not increasing its area.

Rare plants: Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon buckwheat (Eriogonum caninum)

Despite all the threats, rare plants continue to bloom in Marin, which is in one of the few ‘rarity hotspots’ in the U.S. Because each individual plant’s numbers are low, there’s room for a variety of species, and the tasks of that ecological niche can be shared among them, along with their interdependent creatures, like bees, butterflies and beetles. One of the great glories of our planet is the wild abandon with which it has come up with species of animals, insects and plants. And we only know of 1.7 million of them! Of those, only a tiny percentage has been studied; we have no way of knowing how many more there are.

Given that abundance, the fact that 20,000 species are on the verge of extinction may not seem disastrous. But, if that rate continues, we could lose 75% of the earth’s species in the next few hundred years, a mass extinction on par with the disappearance of the dinosaurs.  Many ecologists refer to our current rate of species loss as the sixth great extinction and fear it will only accelerate as the climate continues to change.

Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta) growing on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon paintbrush (Castilleja affinis, subspecies negecta)

Conservation scientists and organizations the world over are working on this challenge. There’s no one answer. All of the possible mitigators have a place: habitat preservation and restoration, nature-centered design, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, cradle-to-grave manufacturing practices, scientific literacy, etc. We need both a lot of grand schemes, and millions of small gestures that we can make in our own kitchens and gardens, in our neighborhood, in our local parks.

On my last visit to Ring Mountain I went early in the morning, to beat both the heat and the wind. As I was leaving, I met two of the county naturalists, setting up a table of snacks and literature. It was a volunteer day, and people were arriving to pull out one particular invasive thistle, which was new to the preserve, and very aggressive. When we look at the scale of the challenges we face, it’s hard to have faith that small actions will help. But, as I found out later, 7 people showed up and pulled 1500 invaders, a huge difference in a small preserve. Grand schemes are enacted exactly this way, stem by stem, person by person, each one of us carrying one of the delicate threads in the whole.

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

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis)

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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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

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Ring Mountain and saving the world

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Mount Tamalpais from the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Celebrating my wild backyard in the last post got me thinking about the multiplicity of backyards I’ve had since heading out on our journey in 2011. Some of them have been spectacular: the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, the Pacific in Malibu, the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California, the red rock bluffs of Utah. But the reality of RV parks is that they are, at bottom, parking lots. Some are greener and prettier than others, some have rivers running by them, some have magnificent views when you lift your eyes above your neighbor’s motor home. In urban areas, the cost of land doesn’t allow extra space for greenery, so you’re even more dependent on borrowed landscapes.

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

The Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Greenbrae, California, twenty minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is one of my home bases. RV parks like to be handy to highways for easy access, and this one is next to the only north/south freeway in this neck of the woods, Route 101, and a couple of blocks north of a small shopping center with the indispensible Trader Joe’s. I do have a fence covered with ivy and morning glories, with a big palm tree on the other side, outside my back window. Over my neighbor’s roof I see Mount Tamalpais, which reigns like a queen over the whole area. There’s a fascinating conglomeration of rackety houses on stilts just north of us, along a boardwalk taking you well into our neighboring wetlands.

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, Corte Madera, California

Egret fishing in the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve

Our literal backyard is the Corte Madera Ecological Preserve, a vast marshland that attracts shore birds all year: egrets, ducks, pelicans, herons, godwits, and the endangered Ridgeway rail. The preserve, sadly, suffers from a full-blown invasion of non-native plants — acacias, pampas grass, and fennel so large it towers over me — so it’s not a place for me to find native wildflowers. For that I go farther afield, starting with what I consider my backyard hike, Ring Mountain, since one of the access points is only two miles down the road. That entrance takes me to the Phyllis Ellman trail, a rambling, curving path up the steep, 602’ mountain that traverses some of the best wildflower displays in the area. The hike is named for the woman who started the movement to save Ring Mountain from development in the 1970’s.

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking toward San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

It’s easy to see what it would be like without Ellman, and the people she gathered to help, by looking at the surrounding neighborhood of large homes, high fences, driveways, lawns, and exotic gardens; the way the rest of wealthy Tiburon looks. Instead, the preserve’s 400 acres remain free of all that, with grasses blowing in the wind, enormous rocks peacefully holding space, wind-sculpted trees leaning into each other. Small, delicate wildflowers, some extremely rare, abound in spring. There’s the broad access of the fire road that runs steeply up and down along the top of the ridge, and plenty of smaller trails leading off that, some so narrow that the grasses brush your shins as you walk them. From the top there are spectacular views in all directions: toward neighboring Mt. Tam, the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco lies to the south, often with blankets of fog rolling in or out; the Marin hills are to the north.

Looking north from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking north from Ring Mountain

The preserve’s rare flowers and fascinating geology deserve their own post. For this one, I want to celebrate the fact that the Ring Mountain preserve exists at all. Phyllis Ellman, and millions like her, are part of the vast movement that environmentalist Paul Hawken calls ‘Blessed Unrest’ in his book of that title. The subtitle is heartening: “How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.”

This movement consists of people working all over the world to clean rivers and wetlands, bring fish and animals back to their natural habitat, reinstate indigenous rights to land and water, fight the dumping of toxic waste in low-income neighborhoods, renovate housing, clear the air, preserve ancient forests, save wild and beautiful land for everyone. There are billionaires involved, and there are subsistence farmers and hunters who don’t have a money economy. One person operates here, 7 people there, 100 gather in a city, one entire tribe works to preserve the rain forest, several work together to bring salmon back to the dammed rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Some organizations have millions of members, some have three. All of the groups, Hawken says, “are dedicated to creating the conditions for life, conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment and freedom from external tyranny.”

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Sunset behind Mount Tamalpais from Ring Mountain

Hawken discovered the size of the movement when he set out to create a database of such groups. Speaking at the Bioneers conference in October 2004, he marveled that there were more than 130,000 such associations. A list started scrolling behind him on a giant screen, with the names of all he had found. If the audience were to sit for the entire list they would, he said, be there for 4 days. Only two years later, when he spoke again at the conference, he said that reading the scrolling list, now including additional groups that had been identified and hundreds of thousands that had started up in the interval, would keep the audience there for a month. There may well be over two million such organizations worldwide, working on the intertwined aims of environmental sustainability and social justice.

Grassland on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Grassland on Ring Mountain. This was after the dry winter of 2013/14.

I first heard a recording of Hawken’s second speech of at one of those organizations — my beloved Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey. I was there in the summer of 2007, taking one of the last of the Earth Literacy courses the farm offered. I loved his idea that the earth itself was gathering all of us, inspiring and working through us, for her own regeneration. We are her immune system, tending wounds — so many truly grievous —that we have inflicted through strife, misuse, misunderstanding, greed, tribalism, and all the other isms that limit our vision of ourselves, our fellow beings, our world, and our profound interconnections.

I’m not easily discouraged, but I feel a lot of pain for the damage our planet and its beings, including us, have suffered. Whenever I remember the fact that it would take a month to watch those names scroll by, I’m cheered. And that was 10 years ago; many more people have gathered together by now. I’m writing this the week 175 countries are signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It has been long in coming, and there are a lot more steps that need to be taken, by all of us. But getting that many separate, sensitive, self-protective nations to agree on any program is an astonishing accomplishment, and a sign that those two million groups, all those dedicated immune cells, are at work healing the world.

Looking east over the San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Looking east over San Francisco Bay from Ring Mountain

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Eostre and the universe story

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California

Humans are story making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian belief in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

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

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the profoundest way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s Universe Story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, but by the time I was hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, there was barely a shadow of that connection left. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

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