Bright but windy, a hint of snow in the air. I have my springtime rituals, little pilgrimages to visit returning friends. In my head there’s a map of special places to go at certain times of the year, just to say hello after another year of existence. Spring is the time to wander in the shrub-steppe, that zone of the rain shadow that could be described as a northern desert. The primary shrub is big sage, the geologic substrate is flood basalt. Hot and dry in the summer, cold and relatively dry in the winter, the shrub steppe supports a surprising amount of plant and animal life well-adapted to the seasonal nature of life there. Moisture and warmth in the spring brings a flush of flowers and insects that flourish briefly then deploy their strategies to survive whatever summer brings.
Driving through the shrub steppe reveals no spectacular vistas or eye-catching displays. You have to get out and look.
I got out and the wind stuck its icy fingers in my hair and whisked the curls into a froth around my head. Fingers in gloves, coat zipped to my chin. Walked along a ridge of chunky basalt, eyes cast down for plants and interesting rocks, then up to pick a route, then back down. I found various lomatiums—desert parsleys. The umbelliferous flowers emerge first, followed by ferny leaves. The early ones stay prostrate, hunkering close to the ground while it’s cold and windy. By May, warmer weather encourages the tall ones. Then I found the yellow bells, Fritillaria pudica, nodding downturned clear yellow cups with graceful green leaves, only three inches tall. As I walked on, I found a few yolk-yellow coyote tears, tiny annual daisies that can turn a hillside yellow when they really get going. A few sagebrush violets with two pale purple petals on top and three dark purple petals below. The wind vibrated everything, shaking flowers and foliage in a steady blur. When I looked up, silvery gray clouds crested the mountains, filling valleys with white snow squalls.
I moved on, driving to the top of a bare ridge where wind turbines harvest the restless motion of the air. These things are enormous, industrial white and sleek, taller than the tallest trees in the forests to the west and visible from the Cascade crest. Each tower has three narrow wing-like blades that power the turbine. They never appear to be moving that fast, not like a spinning propeller on a plane. But that’s deceptive. If the wind speed is 15 miles per hour, the tip of the blade can be moving at 120 miles per hour. This wind is faster than that, and there is a deep tearing roar as the blades slice the air. It’s easy to be hypnotized by the round and round, the drop and rise of those three wings. Once I became motion sick from watching while riding in the backseat of a car. So I turn away. I haven’t come to admire the wind farm.
In a sloping depression following the fall line of the hill, a swath of red-violet and green shimmers in the spare winter-bleached landscape. Grass widows! These members of the iris family are fleeting harbingers of a new season, and prefer damp places that get plenty of sunshine. I have only ever seen them in basalt lithosol—stony ground with thin clay soil that swells with water during times of snowmelt or rain. This spot is a textbook illustration of a microclimate, a place with perfect growing conditions for certain species. The line between perfect and not perfect is clearly visible. I drop to my haunches for a closer look, amazed at the intense color and satiny surface of the petals. Some of the flowers are like the skirts of ball gowns, circling yellow centers. Others are finished, crumpled into dark knots. The leaves are like other irises, arising spearlike from clumps. As I watch, bees zoom in deliberately flying low to beat against the wind that shakes the flowers. Other moisture-lovers are there too, hot pink shooting stars and strawberry-like hesperochirons. New grass is emerging from perennial roots.
When I’ve had enough of the wind scrambling my hair, chilling my core and trying to knock me over, I retreat to the sun warmed interior of the truck and drive back toward the highway. A few birds streak by, and I think they must be recently returned western bluebirds. They are away before I have a chance to get a good look. The highway is practically deserted in these pandemic times. People have been told to stay home, the economy has slowed. Ordinarily there would be many trucks hauling freight and many cars and trucks with people going here and there. Things are different now.
There comes a point in any essay where the writer has to persuade the reader to follow them in whichever direction the essay wants to go. Some circle around, some travel in a zigzag, some thrash though the brush and come out on the other side. But in the end, the writer has to lead the reader to some point back near the beginning. I imagine you have followed me out to the shrub steppe to look for spring flowers, get tossed around by the cold wind, and listen to the unsettling roar of a wind turbine. Where, you might be wondering, will she take me now?
Ready for a tangent? Here we go.
From time to time, I listen to a podcast called The Wild. It’s produced by KUOW in Seattle. The host, Chris Morgan, is an ecologist who studies bears and his passion for nature comes through in his stories. He has a pleasant British voice that’s very easy to listen to, and the productions include all sorts of evocative sounds from the crew’s travels. I want to like the podcast because it’s actually well done and has important messages. But there are things that bother me, and it’s possible I don’t belong to the target audience. For one thing, there’s a quite a bit about charismatic megafauna, those sexy apex predators like lions and tigers and bears. There are scientist voices. The first season was all male voices; now during this second season he’s talking to a few more women. There’s somewhat of a balance between Chris going in expeditions to foreign lands and exploring his own backyard in the Pacific Northwest (albeit the west side of the mountains). OK, maybe they’re still figuring it all out. But when will they talk about what it means to be wild? Where does the wild begin and end? Will they talk to some artists and writers who approach wildness from a different perspective than scientists? Folks from other cultures?
Because, here are the things that interest me—having spent a lot of time working in wild places, I don’t find firm boundaries any more. Watching bugs in the backcountry has made me notice them at home, and I’m amazed to keep learning more about the pollinators in my garden, to the point of near obsession. And while I love an animal encounter as much as anyone else, it doesn’t have to be an apex predator. I am just as thrilled by frogs the size of my fingernail that hop out onto the trail or the newly-fledged sparrow that alights on the handle of the crosscut saw I’m carrying. Or the bumblebees that land on my hands to sip perspiration from my pores when I’m on a mountaintop watching a fire.
And what about fire? Uncontained fire in a landscape is one of the wildest most unpredictable things I’ve ever observed. Same with the energy of avalanches, big storms, floods. The world we live in is powerful and wild, in spite of the human-built crust that covers a lot of it.
We are wild too. When I had heart failure, it became clear to me that the electrical currents that make my heart beat are wild. I can’t control them with my mind. The heart—and indeed the mind—are not domesticated organs. They are wild entities that I coexist with, whatever “I” am. I am legion, me and my wild organs, micro flora and fauna, a whole ecosystem and civilization in one human organism.
So now it’s time to circle back around to spring in the pandemic year, the wildness of viruses, to a realization I have recently come to. It’s good to connect with nature, to feel what E.O. Wilson called biophilia. We come from the natural world, we love it, and perhaps in our self-centered ness want to feel that love reflected back upon us. We give our love and wish for it to be returned. But what I have learned from keeping bees and sitting outside the hive watching them go in and out, is that they are indifferent. They fly around me and get on with their business. I am insignificant in their scheme of things, unless I open the hive or knock it around. And so it is with the wind and the blooming flowers—with their presence and power they put my self-importance into perspective. I am small, the world is big and old. Life is persistent and beautiful. That comforts me more than I can say.