Sisyrinchium douglasii
Sisyrinchium douglasii

Harbinger = one who indicates or foreshadows what is to come.

In the rainshadow of the Cascades, this small member of the iris family marks the boundary of the turning season. They favor open country, sending pointed green shoots skyward while the soil is moist. The warmth of the sun on south-facing slopes calls them upward to open silky petals under blustery skies. The sunshine comes and goes, and the wind carries a chill that sends hands toward pockets and makes noses drip.

But there they are, blooming above the Columbia River on basalt mesas and benches, making their way among last year’s dried vegetation. Folks call them “grass widows”. In my continuing exploration of plant taxonomy, I just now learned that grass widows are the pinkish or white version of S. douglasii, var. inflatum. Whatever…They are the first, to be followed by a succession of purple, yellow, white and pink wildflowers until the heat of late May dries the seedheads and sends the perennials into summer dormancy. The wide open slopes above the big river will ripple with flowers and changing color in the spring winds of the Columbia Gorge.

Right now, a few buttercups also bloom. Buds swell on the Oregon white oaks, a tree with a limited range in the lee of the mountains. I have never seen it farther north than a place on the Yakima River a few miles south of where I live. My friends Janet and Paul live in the Columbia Gorge, and from their house it’s possible to look east and know you are looking at dry eastern Washington while to the west you can see the forests of the west side start to thicken on the hills. The change is that abrupt. A few days away refreshes my appreciation of the ecological variety of my home bioregion. I can take a tour of forest, desert and grassland without spending more than $80 on gas for my truck.

Other notables: hermit thrush wintering in the sagebrush along the Deschutes River in northern Oregon…for some reason I thought this bird went all the way to central America. Guess not. In a couple months the thrushes will head north to sing in the mountain forest and raise their young. Alder catkins have loosened and dangle in the breezes along the river. Ducks and geese are pairing up.

Here at home, the snow recedes from my garden, revealing new gravel deposits from the snowplow. I cleaned the birdhouses made by my grampa’s big old knobby hands while remembering last summer’s western bluebirds. Poked garlic back down into the soil where frost heaved them out. I know better than to get too excited. The harbingers are out, but they are much tougher than the tender things that will come later.

Spring is the journey, not the destination.

3 thoughts on “Harbinger

  1. How well I remember eagerly looking for the familiar signs of spring when I lived in western Massachusetts — the plumage of gold finches at the bird feeder changing, red-winged blackbirds returning, little crocuses pushing their way up. I’m sure there are distinctive signs here in northern California too, but I don’t notice them as my longing for spring isn’t as strong.

  2. Hi Deb– Just learned about your blog a month ago. I love what you are doing with it! Rich’s birthday is February 18. We decided to go out to Ancient Lakes near Quincy in search of spring– first flowers, robins, red-winged blackbirds. We scored on all three accounts. The only flower was the salt-and-pepper lomatiums. When we lived in Roslyn we went hunting the Sisyrinchiums as well. I loved how they grew out of thin soils mantling bedrock.

    1. Hi Lisa! I love the variety in this area…lived in Yakima for 10 years and spring is my favorite time in the shrub-steppe. The early spring pilgrimages are a tradition now. Gotta have some time in the basalt. Happy Belated Birthday to Rich!

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