Native Fritillaria

chocolily

Uh oh. A slip of the fingers on the keyboard means I deleted the photos that were more focused than this one…

Where the chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis) bloom close to home is not a secret, but it feels like one. I started looking for them a few weeks ago when the weather was cool, and found the stems coming up through the pinegrass behind the big warehouse at the ranger station. A week later, the tight green buds were visible. Now the days are warm and the flowers are open. After a day of fierce mental activity in the office, I went out to visit the flowers.

I feel fortunate to work at a Forest Service office where there are still trees behind the buildings. When the place was originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1930s, the ponderosa pines were shoulder-height. Now they tower and sway, cinnamon-barked trunks bare of limbs for many feet above the ground, creating a wonderful openness in the stand. Underneath is a carpet of native vegetation. Intact ponderosa pine communities are rare in Washington–remnants of this forest type exist where they have escaped logging, development, and alteration of the natural disturbance regime (such as fire suppression). So it is remarkable to observe white-headed woodpeckers (they are p. pine specialists) nesting on the edge of town, and a patch of native plants a minute’s walk from the office.

When I need a break from the computer screen, difficult conversations and general chaos and confusion I slip away to the warehouse, climb the bank and poke around in the grass. Late this afternoon the warm sun had released the sweet scent of pine and lupines. The grass is a tangle of skinny green blades, and wildflowers tumble across the slope: clumps of yellow balsamroot with their silvery arrow leaves; orange paintbrush; purple lupines; creamy spikes of death camas, and sulfur yellow western puccoon. The chocolate lilies rise on slender stems with whorls of oval leaves. Not splashy or showy, you have to look for them. Technically they are not brown, but purple. Each petal has a distinct checkered pattern of purple, green and yellow. I crouched low to the ground to look through the camera viewfinder at the inside of the lily bell. Some of the flowers were in shade, others caught the westering sunlight. I found myself holding still, to notice the breeze moving the flowers. At that moment, I had a secret right in plain sight. At that moment, time held still and I forgot who I was.

Georgia O’Keeffe became famous for her flower paintings, and she wrote this in 1939: “A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower–the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower–lean forward to smell it–maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking–or give it to someone to please them. Still–in a way–nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like a flower is small.”

Taking time to see what is small…maybe it is time to paint chocolate lilies before they disappear for another year.

My Other Garden

scarletgilia

My garden at home receives attention every day as I harvest lettuce and radishes for salads, protect tender young seedlings from sneaky chickens, and thoroughly enjoy the succession of colorful and fragrant flowers (oh, honeysuckle!) There’s another garden to wander in, and it grows wild on mountains slopes and along creeks. Every part of it awakens the senses and will not be ignored: the rush of melted snow water over tumbled boulders; the melodies of thrushes and calls of flycatchers with spaces between the songs; the humidity of the air as mist drapes over ridges above; the lushness of rain-greened grasses sweeping across the hillside; the rough weathered texture of venerable Douglas-fir bark; four parallel vertical lines on a pine trunk from long-ago bear claws; the saturated red of scarlet gilia (Gilia agregata) blending with the purple spikes and lupines and pale yellow of sulfur buckwheat. “Skyrocket” is another name for the scarlet gilia, and when I see it blooming I know that the 4th of July is approaching.

After what seems like weeks of gray gloomy weather, the jet stream has shifted north and warm air is flowing into the Pacific Northwest. The mist has burned away and I have a hunch that my hiking boots will stay dry for awhile. How will the gardens respond to the true arrival of summer? Wait and see…

Harbinger

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.

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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The Last Backcountry Trip of the Season

“Is that it there?” asked the helicopter pilot.

My eyes were busy taking in the landscape, hurrying to connect peaks and drainages into the familiar map in my mind. The speed of the aircraft was 105 miles an hour. I walk at two to three MPH, and rarely have the vantage point I had in the front seat next to the pilot. A flight is a wondrous opportunity to see the ground below, but I always feel a mad rush to take it all in.

“Yep,” I replied into the microphone on my flight helmet.

This was one of the fires sparked by lightning on September 8. Deep within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it was a low priority for attention. Days passed while it crept and backed down the slope, occasionally flaring up enough to send smoke over the ridges. As the helicopter circled, I scribbled the fire’s shape on a contour map I held on my lap. Look and draw, hold details in memory long enough to get down on paper–my art training comes in handy.

After the reconnaissance flight I came home to pack. The packing routine starts in June, and by October I am thoroughly tired of loading and unloading my backpack. Not till the next morning did I overcome inertia and get all my gear in place. John and I planned to hike in to observe the fire for a few days. The upper Cle Elum valley was nearly deserted, and we had the golden meadows and deep blue shadows to ourselves.

After quickly setting up our tents near a meadow in Trail Creek, we found a cross country route to a high point where we could observe the fire. The upper part was black and cold, with the only real activity at the bottom of the fire where it had backed down to the heavy timber above Trail Creek. It had not moved significantly since I’d seen it the day before from the helicopter. Our mission was to map the burned area, estimate the acreage, note the intensity of the burn, and make other observations to include in a summary report. By 5:30 PM, we had to leave our perch to hike back to camp before dark. No long lingering sunsets in October. We finished our supper wearing down jackets and wool hats, leaning back to find the first stars emerging.

By morning, frost had crisped the meadow next to camp and we were eager to get moving just to warm up. The sun painted a golden band of light on the ridges above us. John is an excellent wayfinder, and after looking at the map together, I was content to let him pick the way up to the viewpoint we’d agreed on. My eyes were on the forest we hiked up through, searching for details that would tell the story of the wood that the fire burned in. I found evidence of a previous fire in the shreds of charred wood and fire-scarred old trees. The subalpine firs that made up much of the stand were about the same size and age. Huge old logs were rotting into the ground. A fire had burned through Trail Creek 75 to 100 years ago. Most of the trees were killed and stood as snags. Eventually they fell to melt into the soil that the new forest grew in. My guess is that the fire across the creek was burning in this duffy old wood on the ground. As we climbed higher, more sky was visible through the trees until we finally emerged on a rocky knob. There was no higher ground, and we actually descended to find the best viewpoint.

Neither of us had seen Waptus Lake from this angle before, and we stood for awhile just looking. The names of mountains and rivers make the lyric of the song I sang to myself for the whole day: Summit Chief, Chimney Rock, Lemah, Escondido Ridge, Quick Creek, Waptus Pass, Polallie Ridge, Cone Mountain, Goat Creek…we settled in to our fire-watching routine. We discovered another lightning strike just down the ridge, and ran like little kids to look (you can see it in the right-hand foreground of the photo). Sure enough, a little fire had torched a few small trees and burned itself out. This is how the day passed: the fire smoldered, the wind changed and carried the smoke in different directions. Hawks of all sorts flew over us and passed us, soaring upward on thermal currents. A family of ravens came from east to northwest to play in the air way above the creek. The sun’s angle lowered and shadows grew across the fire. When it was time, we packed up and made our way down through the yellow Cascade azalea and red huckleberry brush to the main trail.

Another cold night, colder than the previous one. We were slow to move, but the chilly air forced me off the ground to seek sunlight. The trail was frozen as we searched for yet another viewpoint. Often it seems like wherever you want to go, game animals have been there already. We found a deer trail and followed it to a bluff where we hung out. John is ready to be a solo fire watcher, and we reviewed the language to describe fuels and fire behavior. The fire enticed us to stay with a little flare up, but it was time to go. Lunch in camp, then packing for the hike out.

I fell into a state I can only describe as meadow bliss. The pack on my back felt lumpish and familiar (45-50 pounds?), but I wasn’t really aware of it. All I knew was that the weather forecast was changing, and I was leaving the mountains. This perfect day was only here now, and I wanted to experience it as fully as possible. I scrabbled my notebook out of my pocket and wrote while I walked: Mushrooms–fungi emerging from bone-dry earth, displacing soil & needle litter. sweet cicely arnica trailing raspberry lupine fine grasses fir seedlings. Breeze in boughs husssshhhhh ussshhh mmmmmmmmm sunwarmed blue-green needles stomata open, releasing balsam scent. Seed heads, gopher holes spruce cones scales flung open like a hundred cabinet doors paperwinged seeds flying. Gray jay. Shovel clangs softly on huckleberry brush. Ravens live here and they echo above the mountain hemlocks.

We stopped at Squitch Lake for no reason except it was beautiful. A special place, John calls it. I didn’t want to leave. And if I had to leave, I wanted to come back. We lingered, knowing that there was more trail ahead. Put packs back on, stepped into the shade.

Even in the shade colors glow. I framed a few more photos, marveling at the tapestry woven seemingly at random. Every direction I turned was a new composition.

The trail descends along a timbered north-facing slope, which seems especially dark this time of year. No sun penetrates to the ground. We walked down stony switchbacks, and I imagined the glacier that shaped the valley. The slope is on the lateral moraine, that ridge of rocky detritus left by the retreating glacier. There is no way to make the trail smooth, even if a crew shoveled rocks out of the tread every week till the end of time. Irregular cobbles just keep appearing, and bigger rocks are buried in the trail. John calls them icebergs, because only the tops show. The intrepid trail worker who decides to dig one out had better have some patience and time.

On the final traverse, my eye fell on a mushroom that had been plucked from the ground. When I picked it up, it was light and air-dried. I liked the creamy color, the waves of the gills, the intricate design. The whole trip had been filled with wonder and curiosity. We got to the truck and prepared for the hour and a half drive back to the ranger station. Even worse than packing is the transition back to civilization. It starts with the trailhead, then the truck. One has to move at a different speed, and more assaults on the senses lie ahead. After time in the wilderness, life becomes not simple. So we are pretty quiet, not talking much. We still look at the colors–vine maples in avalanche chutes–and I’ve run out of words. I’ve already used flare, flame, glow, ablaze, scarlet. All I have left is the looking.

The truck came to rest at the ranger station. Now I felt tired, the kind of tired where I don’t know what I wanted more–a hot meal, a hot bath, or just to fall into bed. Eventually I had all three.

It’s the second day after coming back. This afternoon I finally finished dumping out my pack and putting gear away. It’s raining.

In the backcountry, it’s raining. The Trail Creek fire will not be able to stay alive. The leaves will not be able cling to twigs a moment longer. The fire will let go. The leaves will let go. And I will let go of another season as winter comes a step closer.

Appreciating Native Plants

(I don’t know why WordPress has turned on the bold type here…sorry for the visual annoyance.) May 1-7 is Native Plant Appreciation Week. That doesn’t seem nearly long enough. Why not appreciate them all year long? Around here, native plants provide the living structure of the landscape, whether it’s forest or grassland. Against this backdrop, leaves and flowers change almost daily. Yellow glacier lilies are the signature flower of spring. They first appear under the lowland ponderosa pines in April and May, but I will see them well into July as spring follows the melting snow up the mountainsides.

Why not consider native plants for the garden as well? My own collection continues to expand as I find the right plant for that sun-blasted spot in rocky soil, or the one that thrives in the damp shade along the north side of the house. Seeing trailing raspberry and maidenhair ferns at home reminds me of all the wild places they grow. By cultivating natives, I’m providing habitat and food for native insects and birds. Some nurseries specialize in local native plants, and there are ethical ways of propagating your own starts.

Native means to be born or grown in a particular place or region. Find what’s indigenous to your place, and celebrate it!

Unfolding

Mountain ash leaves unfolding from neat pleats…

Bracken uncurling from underground…

Trillium unwinding from three overlapped leaves…

My walk today was at 3000 feet in elevation, two miles east of the Cascade crest. I postholed through the rotten snow, then stayed on top of the hard pack. Mist hung down into the tops of the old trees, then parted to reveal waterfalls further up the gorge. I could hear them before I saw them. The forest canopy was alive with birds–varied thrushes, warblers, grosbeaks. Snow is melting, and spring is unfolding like a heart held too tightly in the chest.