Change of Scenery

One thing about living in the rainshadow of the mountains is that you don’t have to go far to experience a change of scenery. And the change is much appreciated this time of year when the scrappy dirty piles of snow are melting and the wind makes you pull your hat down around your ears.

Drive east for just over and hour, and get out into the sagebrush and basalt desert. My nephew Ross guided me and his sister Tessa in this dry place. The sun was bright and the air warm. We all peeled out of flannel shirts and hiked in T-shirts. Sunglasses too. The trail was dry. The clear notes of a canyon wren descended against the cliffs.

These coulees and basins were formed when the ice dam on glacial Lake Missoula broke and water gushed across the Columbia Plateau. This happened not once, but was repeated many times as the dam grew again and drained. Ice Age floods carved this place and left a string of lakes.

Swallows were arcing and twirling overhead. Insects fluttered. Sagebrush leaves are plump with spring moisture. Clumps of grass are succulent and green. And the sagebrush buttercups are blooming. Joy. April is the time to go to the desert. Go.

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.