When I make my spring pilgrimages to the shrub-steppe country, I always wonder how such delicate bright things can grow so effortlessly from rocky ground. First of all, the basalt does not want to weather into fertile soil. It’s rough. During summer, this land is parched and sun-beaten. During winter, it’s frozen. The wind blows hard and often.
But when the snow starts to melt and the sun warms up just a little, the sagebrush ecosystem slowly flowers.
These early spring flowers are low to the ground and small. Somehow they know how and when to push leaves up through the soil, and buds soon follow. The coyote tears and Draba verna are both annuals, seeding freely and coloring large patches of open ground yellow and white.
Those who wander the sagebrush hills in April had better be prepared. I climbed up a side canyon of Umtanum Creek, and was sweating by the time I reached the ridge. There were few flowers on the way up. But when I stepped off the trail where the canyon widened, I saw the first violets. I also needed a warm hat and gloves, and my raincoat to cut the wind. I could see snow and rain squalls to the west. The sketchbook was in the pack, but I know from experience there’s no use trying to draw when my hands are frozen, my eyes are streaming, and the wind flaps the paper.
So I wandered, weaving through the sagebrush with its rain-plumped silvery leaves and sharp bracing scent. Found another canyon to head down, and the side hill was so steep I briefly considered tucking and rolling to get down faster. But that might have hurt. Picked my way through the talus instead. A golden eagle soared above, and as I squirmed through the brushy draw, I heard the “Kek-kek-kek” of a prairie falcon. They’re staking out their eyries for this year’s nest, always in the lichen-splashed basalt cliffs. As I turned my face upward, the falcon came over me, all pointed wings and speed.
Down at the main creek, I found a place to rest by the water. Something brown was moving around on the other bank–a muskrat. It was waddling around, putting its head underwater, then coming up with something in its front paws. Food! I finally figured out it was chewing on willow roots that were exposed by the action of the water. It scrabbled and dug, chewed, shook its head, poked under rocks. I watched for maybe 15 minutes, then moved. It saw me at last, met my eyes with an alarmed expression and swam upstream.
As I reached the truck, a rain squall hit and splattered hail all over the highway. Yep, it’s April.