Spring Fever

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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.

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Building a Cairn

As we were hiking, Tiffany asked how to spell cairn. I told her, then explained that cairn is the Gaelic word for “heap of stones”, and they are made as memorials or markers. When the trail disappears into a meadow, look for a cairn.

I love rockwork. Humans have probably been making cairns for thousands of years, and I feel something clunk in a deep part of my brain as I hunt for rocks and fit them together. It’s an art, sort of. On Teanaway Ridge, the rocks are basalt from a long-ago lava flow. They break off in angular chunks, and these were slightly purplish. Basalt is usually dark gray-brown, but can also be reddish. You want the larger rocks at the base of the cairn, and they are placed in a circular shape. Other rocks are are stacked on top, and you move them around till they are in the most stable position. The final product should be shaped more or less like a bee skep. Cairns require maintenance. Heavy winter snow can displace the rocks on top, so when the trail crew comes along they need to repair the cairns.

It was a blustery day on Teanaway Ridge–rain squalls followed by sunbreaks. The icy wind never stopped, and we were glad to stop and work on the lee side of the ridge. The snow had just melted on top, so there were fritillaries and glacier lilies blooming. I heard my first hermit thrush of the year; the song that means summer is here.

Relief from Gray

This has been one of the grayest winters I can remember. Maybe it’s the El Nino, but there have been very few sunny days, and many foggy ones. See photos in previous posts. Yesterday the weather cleared, and today was glorious. Blue sky!

Spring comes to the shrub steppe of Washington much sooner than it does to the mountains. It has become an annual pilgrimage for my friend Jon and I to visit a canyon northeast of Ellensburg to look for the first spring wildflowers. Today was the day. Mission Ridge rears up at the head of the drainage, snowy and white beneath the woolly clouds.

Living in Yakima for ten years taught me to appreciate the subtlety of this desert. The foundation upon which this ecosystem grows is made of basalt: cliffs and columns, broken talus slopes, powdered down into soil that swells with moisture when the snow melts. It seems strange to find moss in the desert, but it thrives here, plumped up on recent moisture.

There are plenty of lichens too, from black crusty ones on rocks, to the yellow-green ones on silvery sagebrush branches that catch the eyes from yards away.

Our intended quarry was the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus), a bright yellow cheerful flower that is the first to open to the sun on a south slope. We found it low down on the hillside nestled in cottonwood leaf litter, but also found many leaves and buds as we climbed up.

The buttercup’s companion is salt-and-pepper or Lomatium gormanii, the first desert parsley to bloom. This is a small inconspicuous flower, so small that you might step on it and miss it. Spring in the shrub steppe is brief and spectacular–it’s over by the end of May when the hot weather arrives. The plants have gone through their blooming and fruiting cycle and spend the summer in a state of dormancy. I like to walk along and look at signs of last year’s flowering. Here are the dried leaves of Hooker’s balsamroot, the seed pods of the wild onion, a silvery clump of buckwheat. I like the tufts of Sandberg’s bluegrass–it really is blue, and miniature.

We sat perched on knobs of basalt, feeling the warmth of the sun and listening to the exclamations of ravens. I heard a soft dusty birdsong nearby and recognition was at the tip of my memory. Bluebird? Horned lark? We marveled at insects, pointed out deer tracks. And mostly we were grateful for the blue blue sky, and the world with color returning to it.