Tag Archives: desert

Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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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Mysteries at my feet

Mysterious linear tracks f desert wildlife at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThe lines showed up one morning, on a section of my walk where the sand, driven over by a tractor, is unusually soft and easily shows imprints of desert wildlife. Lizard tails, I thought. I checked carefully for signs of tiny lizard feet but didn’t see any indentations along the lines. About a mile on, they showed up again, this time in the dry desert sand. So it had to be something with enough weight to mark that crustier sand. Still no footprints. Snakes, I thought, and, when I saw that several lines converged at a hole in the desert floor, I took that as confirmation.

Mystery tracks of desert wildlife at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordMore lines showed up each day. They kept converging on holes. They often led to the base of bushes. They hadn’t shown up until it was pretty hot. All that pointed to snakes, who like the warm weather, though coil themselves in the shade of desert shrubs when it’s too hot. They live in holes in the desert floor, protection from both too much heat and too much cold.

Then I remembered that snakes move in curves. I checked. They can move in straight lines, by straightening their scales and scooping themselves forward. That sounded exhausting; something a snake would only occasionally do. So I was back to lizards. I took my pictures to a ranger at the Anza Borrego State Park office, and she went through the same line of reasoning I did: lizards, then snakes, back to lizards. Except where were the feet? The cluster of lines around the hole made her think it might be a family of snakes.

Desert wildlife--raven tracks at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI showed her other lines. Ravens walking in the same soft sand. Something with small, round footprints that, she said, might be a young coyote.

Desert wildlife--young coyote footprints at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI don’t see a large variety of desert wildlife on those acres. Tiny lizards occasionally zip by. I hear coyotes calling and yipping at night, but seldom see them. Vultures sail overhead on wide, dark wings.

Desert wildlife--an ant carrying a seed head in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordThere are lots of roomy anthills, with armies of industrious ants, like this one, who, with a dozen compatriots, was taking seed heads from one place to another. I saw one rattlesnake but would have missed it if it hadn’t given me a mild rattle to keep me in my place. I’ve only seen one lizard I thought big enough to make lines in the crustier sand — a handsome white one, eighteen inches long, with a sculpted head and back, regally crossing the street one hot afternoon.

Desert wildife--a rattlesnake at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert By Betsey CrawfordWhite-winged doves coo and forage, two ravens perch on a utility pole on a semi-permanent basis, hummingbirds routinely buzz the back of the trailer and then disappear. Speckled beetles move swiftly in varied directions. These are profound energies that I walk among — lizard, coyote, raven, snake, hummingbird — acknowledged by their long and deeply held roots in many cultures’ lore. The ancient sage, the trickster, the magician, the great mother, the call of joy. Though I don’t always see my companions, I see the lines they leave, weaving their lives with mine, our song lines intersecting as we pass through the sun and shadow of the desert.

Desert wildlife--various footprints in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordWe are woven together by more than our interlacing footprints. Evolution holds us all in its patient embrace. I share 85% of my DNA with the coyote whose call heralds the desert night. Though my ancestors and the lizards’ ancestors parted evolutionary ways a few hundred million years ago, we are still tied by many strands of DNA, governing the most basic elements of our mingled lives.

Coyote resting under creosote bush in the southern California desert by Betsey CrawfordOn my last evening in the desert, while looking for photos for this post, I found this one of a desert thoroughfare: Siegfried’s tractor, my footprints, my dog Splash’s paw prints, some other small round footprint on the lower right. Lots of lines.

Desert wildlife--a variety of animal and human tracks in the desert at Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordStudying them, I realized that the lines on the mid and upper right do have feet on either side of them. So I was back to lizards. But there are many that don’t look like that, so snakes are still a possibility. Or both. Or something I haven’t thought of yet. It’s a mystery.

And will remain so. I went out on my last morning to check again for footprints along the lines. But another profound energy had swept in: a 35 mile-an-hour wind. All lines and footprints had been softened into gentle undulations in the sand, all distinctions erased.

Desert mountains in Ocotillo Wells in the Anza Borrego Desert by Betsey CrawfordI’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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Rights of nature

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

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

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

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

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

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

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

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

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

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

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

Valley of the Gods, Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laudate si, repictured

The solace of deep time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

A land of stone tablets, once again

Newspaper Rock petroglyphs near Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Newspaper Rock, Monticello, Utah

[In Moses in Utah, I described driving into southeastern Utah for the first time with my then 10-year-old son, Luke. Nineteen years later we returned together, and spent a week with the mysterious energies that have such a strong pull for both of us. When I was there last year I celebrated the great beauty and deep wisdom of that unique landscape, and I’m reposting that celebration in honor of our recent visit.]

I’m still wandering the desert with Moses. He’d be very used to this, but, though I love it, I’m positive I’d find forty years a few decades too many. Well, of course, he would say, with the air of a man who has come to grips with doing what his god says, no matter how capricious, no matter what the cost. I thought I was going out there for a few months.

Presumably, when you’re leading your people out of slavery, decades of wandering in the desert isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. It’s not as if Moses were thinking, I could be a CEO earning $13,000 an hour if I didn’t have this stiff-necked tribe to deal with, and this ornery God handing me stone tablets. Options were few, and they were, after all, going to another dry and rocky place. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years before finding the sign to their promised land, which turned out to be a swamp. So there are a number of demanding gods out there.

Geological formations along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordWe’re walking on a day when the sky is a blue so deep and incandescent that it could easily burst into flames at any moment, and start raining stone tablets. As it apparently has been doing for eons. The tablets are everywhere. They have our history written on them. It’s even color coded, if a bit disorganized in every other way, after being pushed and shoved by millions of years of geologic upheaval.

The great tales of long tribal wanderings speak of our own slow evolution as a human race, and also as individuals. So many of us yearn for instructions to manage our lives in this often wild and inexplicable existence. We have the most basic questions: Why? What?  How? We long for clarity. We want stone tablets with the rules for living on them.

And here they are. They’re everywhere, not just in Utah, though they’re more spectacular here than many places. They have the simplest of commandments. Tread lightly, they say.

Biological crust in Butler Wash, outside of Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordThe sandy soil to the side of the path is covered with a dark brown layer — made up of broken down moss, lichen, cyanobacteria, microfungi, and other microorganisms — called a biological crust. It prevents erosion, provides nutrients to sandy soil, holds water, enables rootlets to find secure footing. If I step on it in this dry environment, it won’t recover for 250 years.

Lichen covered stone path in Butler Wash, near Blanding, Utah by Betsey CrawfordDon’t waste. Here is a rock path where you can see no rock at all. It’s a beautiful lichen painting. The lichen are slowly detaching the bonds that hold the rock together, one facet of the complex, millions-of-years-long process that creates the living soil our planet depends on.  Dirt is not cheap.

Dry wash in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey CrawfordExcept for a few hours a year, washes and streams are dry expanses of tumbled rock. Respect limits, the tablets say. If you put golf courses, shopping centers, houses in the desert, one day you will run out of water.

Dinosaur footprints in Buterl Wash, near Blanding, Utah, by Betsey CrawfordBe humble. A three-toed dinosaur walked through this mud-turned-stone 150,000,000 years ago. They were the big shots of their day.

Petroglyphs at Sand Island State Park, Bluff, Utah by Betsey CrawfordMake art. Celebrate life.

Don’t use too much, take care of all breathing things, sustain all the non-breathing things we depend on. We think it’s complicated, but it’s not. We make it complicated by what, to me, are two of the most damaging legacies of the Old Testament: that certain people are chosen, and that humans have been given dominion over the earth. These ideas weren’t new with the Israelites, but the bible helped codify them.

The stones around me hold the history of the cosmos, as do I, as does my dog, Splash, patiently sitting in the shade while I take pictures of wildflowers. In the first moments of the big bang every particle that will ever exist in our universe was already created. They proceeded to meld and blend and be forged in the three-billion-degree heat of the earliest stars, eventually forming the elements that make up this rock, that course through my veins, that hold up the stem of the flower.

Orange globe mallow (Spheralcea munroana) in Mount Zion National Park, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Whatever we call the force that exploded every bit of us into being, we are ongoing manifestations of it. The same energy, expressed differently, now a rock face  200,000,000 years old, now a woman of sixty-four, a dog of fourteen, a days-old flower glowing orange against the rocks.

This means we are made of exactly the same particles as everything else. When I really think about this miraculous, inherent relatedness, it makes it harder to feel superior because we have iPhones, Starbucks, jets, guns. Our path of evolution has given us the opportunity to reflect on our connection to everything in the cosmos. Instead we use it to fight over literal surface differences. We have made our form of consciousness a god, and have created a covenant with that god, to choose us over all other forms on the earth.

It’s not sustainable, and we all know it. Perhaps not in our vaunted consciousness. But our earthy bodies know we are part of the dirt, the plants, the stars. each other. Bodies that long for reconnection, that know separation is death. We, too, are tablets with the instructions we long for.

Red rock formation in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

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

 

Native plants: the genius of their place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

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