After a Long Winter

Spring has been slow to arrive this year, which makes winter feel all the longer. To alleviate impatience and cabin fever, a person has to go looking for spring.

I followed a convoluted route along backroads of the Kittitas Valley to the foothills. These roads make their way past farms and ranches and pastures and fields and housing developments, crossing swollen creeks and irrigation ditches. Horses and mules are still shaggy with rough winter coats, standing with their backsides toward the wind. A few deer look up from nibbling on fresh green grass. When I park and open the truck door, the sound of rushing water fills the air as Naneum Creek bustles past with its load of snowmelt. My nose catches a faint whiff of honey from the cottonwood leaves unfurling along the stream. I cross on a culvert and start climbing. The flowers appear right away, sagebrush buttercups and Lithophragma sp., the prairie star. The soil is moist and lichens on the basalt outcrops are fluffed up from recent rain. I hear the distant call of a meadowlark, and the quiet soft whistle of a bluebird. Insects blur the air in front of my face, startling me. It’s been months since I waved a bug away. I’m completely hooked now,and compelled to keep climbing the hill to see what else is blooming. I want to greet all my flower friends.

The desire to go walking to look at wildflowers goes back to childhood. By this point in my life, it has taken on the feel of a ritual. Something I must do or feel incomplete. Perhaps it all started with my grandmothers. Both of them lived near patches of forest in western Washington. I have distinct memories of walking with both of them, being shown flowers and introduced to them by name. Soon I knew to look for skunk cabbage and trilliums around Easter time. After being cooped up all winter, trapped in the house, the classroom and school bus by days of cold pelting rain, now there were times when it was possible to go out in coat and rubber boots. It was still cold and damp but the woods were different. Green shoots appeared on the forest floor amid the tangles of salal and blackberry briars. Everything uncurled, unfurled, untwisted, emerged from the wet earth. Birds sang. As I grew older, I made the pilgrimage by myself. Silently I would say hello to johnny jump-up’s cheerful yellow face and the gracious form of pink spring beauty. When I went to work in the woods as a young woman, I kept doing this. When I moved to a dry place in the rainshadow of the Cascades, I transferred my spring ritual to the shrub steppe.

Now I have the best of both worlds. I can start my flower visits in the low dry country almost as soon as the snow melts. As spring progresses, I follow the blossoms through the yellow pine woods until it is June and the snow is melting in the conifer forests on the mountain slopes. There I will find my old friend trillium, and the calypso orchid that my Gramma Mueller called lady slipper. To her it was a rare and precious creature, to be carefully revered. Now I know of places where they turn the ground under the cedars pink with their exotic flowers. No matter how many times I see them, I still feel that little twinge of magic in my chest. A goodly chunk of my heart is rooted in childhood wonder, carried for years like a flame that refuses to be stomped out.

I am not finished with my walk. I keep climbing up the hill above Naneum Creek. Here are clumps of ferny foliage that will produce the bright yellow disks of Hooker’s balsamroot, the spreading stems of big-headed clover, strange reddish fuzz with the beginnings of prairie smoke buds. Mats of creeping phlox, already beginning to show a few flowers. Larkspur leaves. At last I find what I truly long for–a patch of lithosol lavishly scattered with coyote tears. There are so many that they turn the hills golden. Under the stiff sage, the sagebrush violet blooms. I hunker down for a close look at the blue-green lobed leaves, the two-tone purple flowers with the whiskery stripes leading to the center. I smile. Hello, violets. Hello.

Inside of me, things fall into place. The yearly ritual has been observed. It is not what is blooming, but who. As I grow older, I find my point of view shifting away from an objective world toward a more animistic and perhaps native perspective. My world is populated with a lot of whats, but also a lot of whos. The life forms around me are characters and I have grown familiar with many of them. It helps to have learned their names, but it’s not necessary. The feeling of connection and belonging are necessary.

Spring really is underway. There are more hellos to say–I am looking forward to the return of the thrushes.

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