Tag Archives: Sierra Nevada

Songlines 2019: a year of change and commitment

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

I’ve never thought of rain as life-changing, but this year it was. 2019 started with the wettest winter the San Francisco Bay area has known since recording began.  First, that meant I had plenty of indoor time to explore projects that excite me. I fell under the wonderfully radical and optimistic spell of E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project in The geography of hope: saving half the earth. This year included news of the loss of three billion songbirds in North America alone. The idea of preserving half the earth to ensure biodiversity couldn’t be more compelling. There are still vast tracts of wilderness worldwide, so it’s doable, given the will. 

Few of us will be part of negotiating with eight sovereign states for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest or the Congo Basin. For the rest of us, I wrote What we can do: gardening to save half the earth. In the way we design our communities and in every plant we put in the ground, we have the chance to knit together ecosystems that have been displaced.

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada

Saving half the earth depends on what we do with the other half. Which brought me to Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research. My interest was sparked a few years ago when a kingfisher’s eyelid inspired a design to control erosion. There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are geniuses at creating what they need out of materials at hand, at ambient temperature, without permanent waste. What if we modeled our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests? Or powered our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts? Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities.

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada

Early in the year, I pondered another of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe, and what it can teach us about living into the world we yearn for. Little did I know when I was celebrating The patient genius of transmutation, the universe’s power of flux and evolution, that I was right on target. While transmutation’s ever-adapting diversity was assuring me that we live on a planet dedicated to life’s success, the rain was making her life-altering moves.

Her methods were simple. She caused leaks in the ten-year-old trailer I’d lived in for so many great adventures. I had one fixed, then another. Redid the roof caulking. Then, in early March, I was sitting on the floor, trying to find the origins of a small damp patch on the rug. I suddenly realized I’d come to the end. I loved my compact little space, treasured beyond measure all the wonderful places I’d lived, however temporarily. But it was time.

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

I thought it would take months to find the right apartment. It took three weeks. Then the tornado began. In the midst of it, I wrote An Easter of memory and anticipation. I was glad to be moving and sad to be at an end. I so loved going anywhere I chose to explore the planet I love. Carrying my home with me meant moving to each place and inhabiting it, something I cherished. 

I could tell from the responses I got after that post that the poignancy of ending that adventure-filled chapter was very vivid. So I’m delighted to be able to say that I love my new apartment, nestled into a mountain, with trees everywhere I look. In the summer I sat on my flower-filled balcony with my resident hummingbird and wrote The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty. Allurement is another of Brian’s powers of the universe. Beauty is one of its most mysterious and gorgeous aspects. 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada

July took me on the only trip of the year — to the Sierra Nevada, mountains forming the eastern boundary of California — to see wildflowers. Since it was my first time there, I thought John Muir wouldn’t mind my poaching the title of his wonderful book. So I put together My first summer in the Sierra, pairing my photos with quotes from his book, as well as creating a gallery. All the photos accompanying this are, to quote Muir, from those “vast, calm, measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems equally divine.” 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada

In September I began a program with the Environmental Forum of Marin. It’s their master class, and our group is number 46. The Forum and class were started all those years ago by people who were instrumental in saving Marin County from overdevelopment. Eighty percent of the county is preserved land of one kind or another, much of it active agricultural land. The entire county coastline was saved. So, the EFM was born of powerhouses. Their goal is to create more powerhouse advocates. 

On ten days spread out over four months, we learned about the geography, ecology, and history of the county. We spent a day hearing from local government officials, and a day on other organizations in the county. Two full days were devoted to the craft of creating advocacy speeches, followed by presenting our two-minute versions. It was great: full of fascinating information and people. As always, it’s inspiring to see how much people are doing, what draws them, how much we all have in common.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada

What’s drawing me more and more these days is advocacy for rights of nature. I first wrote about such rights in 2018. I returned to them earlier this month in When Rivers go to court, where I had the glorious fun of imagining a river actually showing up before a judge. For my final project for the master class, I’m going to design a session to teach the issues around the rights of nature to future classes. For my advocacy speech, I decided my fellow classmates were the Board of Supervisors of Marin County. Here are my two minutes:

The Environmental Forum and all of my classmates are perfect examples of the forces I wrote about in my Halloween post, Wild times, spooky beauty. In a time when the news is a heartbreak a headline, people all over the world are rising to meet the moment. They are choosing to love, to create, to change, to commit. We are allowing the earth that formed us to rise in us, to heal our planet and the interconnected web that she supports. In the face of the daily onslaught of challenges, I often repeat Joanna Macy’s wonderful words: I’m so grateful to be alive when the earth needs me.

I wish you all a joyful, blessed, committed new year.

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada

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My first summer in the Sierra

fritillary (Speyeria species) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey CrawfordBeauty beyond thought everywhere, beneath, above, made and being made forever.
~ John Muir ~

Fans of John Muir will know that my title is the same as one of his most wonderful books. Like thousands before me, reading it made me want to go and spend the rest of my life in search of Sierra Nevada wildflowers. ‘The charms of these mountains,’ he says, ‘are beyond all common reason, unexplainable and mysterious as life itself….For my part, I should like to stay here all winter or all my life or even all eternity.’ Last month I got a taste of what that would be like, learning, once again, that ‘wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.’

Our first summers in the Sierras, which extend north and south in eastern California for 400 miles, were very different. His was a whole season. He went in 1869, when he was 31, and spent three months. He was helping herd 2500 sheep to higher and higher pastures as the summer heat rose in California’s Central Valley. I spent two stunningly beautiful days, in the company of ten botanists and native plant lovers. He was in Yosemite, I was 200 miles north, in the heart of gold rush country. The highway there is aptly named Route 49. Although I was filled with wonderful energy the whole of my short visit, his inexhaustibility had him casually remark in his September 8th entry that he climbed three mountains that day.

The book is a journal of his summer. It wasn’t published until 40 years later, and the rich beauty of the language likely owes something to the mature Muir’s editing and rewriting. But the unbounded, joyful exuberance the younger Muir brought to every encounter still bounces off the page. He enjoys his own ‘wild excitement and excess of strength.’ Day after day, finding ‘everything glowing with Heaven’s unquenchable enthusiasm,’ he matches it with his own.

For the sheer joy of it, I’ve combined selections of his gorgeous and inspiring words with some of the beauties he so celebrated. There are more photos in the Sierra Nevada wildflowers gallery.

 

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Found a lovely lily (Calochortus albus).…It is white with a faint purplish tinge inside at the base of the petals, a most impressive plant, pure as a snow crystal, one of the plant saints that all must love and be made so much the purer by it every time it is seen. It puts the roughest mountaineer on his good behavior. With this plant the whole world would seem rich though none other existed. It is not easy to keep on with the camp cloud while such plant people are standing preaching by the wayside.

 

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work—every crystal, every flower a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.

 

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana) Sierra Nevada Mountains

After a long ramble through the dense encumbered woods I emerged upon a smooth meadow full of sunshine like a lake of light….brightened by several species of gentian, potentilla, ivesia, orthocarpus, and their corresponding bees and butterflies. 

 

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

How fiercely, devoutly wild is Nature in the midst of her beauty-loving tenderness!—painting lilies, watering them, caressing them with gentle hand, going from flower to flower like a gardener while building rock mountains and cloud mountains full of lightning and rain. 

 

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

What grand bells these lilies have!….Noble plants, in perfect health, Nature’s darlings….The perfection of beauty in these lilies of the wilderness is a never-ending source of admiration and wonder.

 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Like most other things not apparently useful to man….the blind question, “Why was it made?” goes on and on with never a guess that first of all it might have been made for itself.

 

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains

So extravagant is Nature with her choicest treasures, spending plant beauty as she spends sunshine, pouring it forth into land and sea, garden and desert. And so the beauty of lilies falls on angels and men, bears and squirrels, wolves and sheep, birds and bees, but as far as I have seen, man alone, and the animals he tames, destroy these gardens.

 

Oregon checker bloom (Sidalcea oregana) Sierre Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Oregon checkerbloom (Sidalcea oregana) Sierre Nevada Mountains

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. 

 

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains

What pains are taken to keep this wilderness in health—showers of snow, showers of rain, showers of dew, floods of light, floods of invisible vapor, clouds, winds, all sorts of weather, interaction of plant on plant, animal on animal, etc., beyond thought! How fine Nature’s methods! How deeply with beauty is beauty overlaid! The ground covered with crystals, the crystals with mosses and lichens and low-spreading grasses and flowers, these with larger plants leaf over leaf with ever-changing color and form, the broad palms of the firs outspread over these, the azure dome over all like a bell-flower, and star above star.

 

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Crab spider (Mesumena vatia) on dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) Sierra Nevada Mountains

How many mouths Nature has to fill, how many neighbors we have, how little we know about them.

 

Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) Sierra Nevada Mountains

A lovely flower, worth going hungry and footsore endless miles to see. The whole world seems richer now that I have found this plant in so noble a landscape.

 

Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada MountainsPussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Nature’s open, harmonious, songful, sunny, everyday beauty.

 

Mountain achillea (Achillea millefolium lanulosa) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain achillea (Achillea millefolium lanulosa) Sierra Nevada Mountains

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. 

 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature—inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

 

Round Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Round Lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever. 


There are more flower photos in the Sierra Nevada wildflowers gallery, which is here.

I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new posts.

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