Driven to extreme antsy-ness by the brightness of the sun, I despaired of the garden, which is still partly snow-covered and frozen. I needed dirt and a sprig of a green growing thing. After throwing a few things in a pack, I drove south and east to a place by Naneum Creek where I could climb up a hill. A few patches of snow linger in the shadiest places, but I clambered up the hill on wet soil and stringers of basalt talus. My eyes dropped to a search pattern and found a few succulent bright green buttercup leaves emerging from the nooks and crannies where they grow. I located one reddish bud, as roly-poly as a pea and only needing a few more days of sun to open its glossy yellow petals. Otherwise it is still too early for flowers. A few leaves of the salt and pepper desert parsley, a few bundles of bitterroot leaves poking from the mud, plenty of brown serrated leaves from last year’s Hooker’s balsamroots.
I crossed lithosol–literally stone soil. From 14.5 to 17 million years ago, the earth’s crust cracked open in southern Oregon pouring forth molten lava which filled the Columbia River Basin in successive flows. (More about this here.) The result is basalt that has been glaciated, eroded by water, uplifted and otherwise shifted around by the movement of continental pieces. The bones of the landscape are made of dark fine-grained igneous rock. It doesn’t decompose easily, especially in a dry climate. The soil is thin and rocky–lithosol. The plants that grow on the basalt lithosol are unique, having figured out how to eke out a living. They grow like crazy for a couple of months, set seeds then go dormant during the heat of summer. They are either annuals (living for one year), or extremely tough perennials. I found Sandberg’s bluegrass (Poa sandbergii) sending out soft spines of new growth from gnarled rootcrowns. Last year’s grass stems with dried empty seedheads are tan and flattened on the ground. Thyme-leaved buckwheat (Eriogonum thymoides) appears dead, low and compact with reddish tiny leaves all wizened and curled on knotted twigs. A nubbin of life hidden in this plant knows that the soil is moist and the sun is warming. In May, the shrub will swarm with pinkish-yellowish flowers. The rhizomes of pussytoes (Antennaria dimorpha) show uncurling silver woolly leaves that will spread into a low mat. Here and there I spot the hoof print of a deer, and many scatterings of fresh pellets. It’s the time for them to “yard up”, hang out together on warm south-facing slopes and nibble on emerging grasses. I find evidence of elk also, in larger pellets and chewed-down bunchgrass clumps. They will be following the edge of the snow is my guess.
I pick my way over basalt talus until I reach the rimrock, a stony spine on the ridge where the basalt formations are exposed. Angular shapes provide surfaces for a variety of crusty lichens. The green and orange ones glow in the sunlight, while the black and white ones fade into the rock. These patches of color are alive, fungi and algae living together symbiotically. They take what they need from the air, and grow slower than a human can imagine. As they do, they contribute to the transformation of rock into soil.
My mania has been cured by going outside, walking on rock and dirt, engaging my senses. All is right with the world. I sit up on the rocks, basking in the warm sun (no sweater, hat or gloves!), eating one of the last Pink Lady apples (from a box bought in November, still crisp!). A family of ravens flies overhead, crarking and playing. Ravens mate for life, and it looked as if the bonded pair was renewing their bond. The raven relatives flew with them, as if to bear witness to the creation of the next generation. Five of them, completely at ease in the blue blue sky.
It’s early spring. I expect another blast of winter, and even the arrival of the equinox in five weeks is no promise of pleasantness. Each day comes with its own character, and I’m willing to pay attention to the little gifts and lessons.