Spring Beauty

Claytonia lanceolata
Spring Beauty, Claytonia lanceolata

It feels like spring advances and retreats. After a sunny day, the return to snow showers seems like backsliding. Perceptions are as dynamic as the weather: sunny, cloudy, windy, pouring rain. If you don’t like what’s happening now, just wait five minutes.

That’s the nature of spring. In fact, the days are sliding inexorably toward midsummer. A pair of bluebirds is spending time around one of my Grampa-built birdhouses. Some of the 99 daffodils I planted last fall in Gramma’s memory are blooming. I’ve been harvesting wintered-over kale and other greens from the garden tunnel, and the yard is awash in violets. My energy for home and garden projects rises on bright days and is dampened on days like today as wet flakes dribble from the pale sky.

It’s the same at work. On sunny days we can’t wait to get out to the trails, and chafe at the office work that keeps us inside. On days when we do get out, we find that the road to the trailhead is still snowed in, or it’s raining buckets. The rivers and creeks are running high as the snow melts. As winter disappears, spring beauties follow the edge of the snow, blooming with their close associates the glacier lilies.

Beauty, especially spring beauty, is consolation for all the uncertainty. Uncertainty at the job–the continuous budget battles and shifting priorities of the political landscape wear a person down. Uncertainty in my small circle of coworkers/friends as a colleague’s wife battles cancer. I rarely listen to the news any more because the media brings me stories of things that feel so messed-up and wrong. All I know is that I keep going to work in order to stand up for the stewardship of public land and wild things, support my friends, live as simply and mindfully as I can, and bring my full attention to flowers and rain and birdsong. When I put my fingers in the soil to plant a seed, pull a weed, feel the sun’s warmth I know I have touched something that is going right in the world. The return of spring beauties is another thing that is right in the world. Seeing their white and pink petals threaded with ruby red is music to my soul.

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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.

Changes Every Day

Poking around in the garden this afternoon, it struck me as it does every year: spring reaches a point where it barrels ahead faster than I can pay attention. I visit my garden daily and make the rounds to see what’s new. It moves at a slow pace in March, but after some rain, a spell of warm weather and more rain, it seems that the growth and change just start erupting.

The little clump of trilliums have opened in the shade garden. Two kinds of anemones are blooming, the currant bushes have leafed out. I can walk out for fresh chives and parsley to add to recipes. A coworker gave me a huge bag of rhubarb, which I have stewed into sauce. I’ll have some with my morning yogurt and think of my grandparents who enjoyed it as a spring tonic. It’s one of the year’s first fresh foods after winter. Fresh nearly-local asparagus is available at the produce stands. My first sowing of lettuce is ready to harvest as baby greens. Henry can be found pouncing on bugs in the grass.

The bees are taking sugar water from their feeder, and are also bringing pollen back to the hive. There’s a spot on the ground where the sugar water drips, and often I see mourning cloak butterflies there along with wasps. The air is filled with bird sound–juncos trilling in tree tops, white-crowned sparrows, evening grosbeaks, tree swallows. A pair of rufous hummingbirds has set up shop nearby, and they keep up a vigorous conversation of chirps. I wonder if they’re nesting? I wonder where the Steller’s jays are nesting?

This is my fieldwork now. April is almost as frustrating as November for trail technicians. Winter recreation season has ended, we’ve taken down all the signs, and are almost ready to hang up the snowshoes. The snow melts and rivers are high with murky water. There are reports to compile, grant applications for funding to write, summer projects to plan and coordinate. It seems too early to be thinking about work parties in August–we don’t know what damage the melting snow will reveal. I’m still filing crosscut saws and overhauling hand tools. And recovering from a nasty cold.

So I am especially fond of my little native plant gardens right now. They remind me of the woods, and of specific places. It’s considered unethical to to dig up wild plants. But I confess I’ve done it. These wild onions and pussytoes were retrieved while doing fall drainage along a trail on Table Mountain. The bulbs and roots were dry, just lying there in the dirt. I brought them home, and they have thrived. I have a deer fern that was dug up during the reconstruction of the Tired Creek trail. It came home in a plastic bag–I keep a few in my pack in the fall, because that’s the best time to transplant. Just in case. Other plants have been dug up from Gramma’s place in western Washington (we share a love of native plants), and purchased at a native plant nursery. So I don’t have wild patches of forest floor or shrub steppe, only semi-feral conglomerations.

From a purely practical point of view, there are few reasons to grow plants that don’t produce food for human or animal bodies. Having committed fully to my artistic nature, I gave up on being purely practical long ago. For me, gardening can have an element of the irrational–I keep coming back to the memory of an old Elvis Costello song about useless beauty. Is it useless? A fascination with living things, the cycle of the seasons, the predictable and the surprising, the reminder that the lilies of the field neither toil nor spin, the hands in the dirt and feet on the ground, the green that arises from death and decay, the feeding of the soul that comes from participating in life. The past and the future dwell in my garden, as a thread of continuity. But the joy is in this moment, as I step out onto the front porch to listen for frogs singing in the rainy evening and hope for a whiff of spring to penetrate my stuffy nose.

Changing Season

I finish paintings at a glacially slow pace these days. This one has been floating around for awhile, and just needs a little touch-up before I declare it good enough and go on to the next one. My eye keeps going to it because of the green. It’s a queencup beadlily (Clintonia uniflora), a deep woods bloomer that comes along after trilliums. Thinking of trilliums reminds me that they will be emerging soon over on the west side of the Cascades but not till May or June here.

And that gets me thinking about the swelling of life that’s on the way. Indeed, there were snow showers this very day, but consider this: the gray whales are swimming north right now. They winter in Baja, but before the end of March they can be seen off the Oregon coast. They travel close to the shore on their way to northern waters. Western bluebirds will show up out at Swauk prairie in two or three weeks. They are among the first neotropical migrant birds, the edge of the wave that surges this direction. They are traveling right now. Swallows, hermit thrushes, warblers, tanagers and many more. They’re coming!

Even here, the cottonwood buds elongate, the deer are on the move, and I heard the first rusty trill of a varied thrush when I stepped out the door the other morning. Think of it–we are on the verge of another unfolding spring.

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.

A Grand Day Out

Today was the day to check the south end of Kachess Ridge Trail #1315. It’s usually one that opens early, at least up to the hanging valley where the snow stays till later in the summer. Jon and I headed out with a variety of tools. We took a gamble and left the chainsaw behind. It’s steep trail and neither of us wanted to pack it up the hill. I had a 5′ crosscut saw just in case. We got lucky and only had a couple small logs to cut before Jon found a 20″er up by the snowline.

Oh, what a day. Blue sky and sunshine and a consistent upslope wind. When it ruffles one’s clothing, it’s blowing at least 10 mph (according to the informal Davis scale). It was a little brisker in the tree tops, filling the air with the sound of air moving through Doug-fir branches.

I stopped to cut a limb out of the way and spotted this bug on a spiraea leaf. A lifetime spent in the woods, and there are still new things to discover! I’ve never seen anything like this before. After my long illness, I am still enthralled by the woods, and am delighted by all the little things. Time enough to be jaded and tired in August. For now it’s wondrous to hear the sound of snowmelt rushing down the canyon and the bright song of an unseen warbler, to scan the rocky slopes for mountain goats, to watch a wasp bury itself headfirst in a huckleberry blossom, sit on the ground to eat lunch, kick rocks and flick sticks off the trail, feel the heart and lungs working easily to carry me up the trail. (We can talk about the illegal ATV rider cutting out an illegal trail another time…)

Calypso orchids are always greeted with quiet joy–a highlight of spring for me. They never last long enough. That such a remarkable plant can pop out of the ground after a summer of drought and a winter of snow still amazes me. I didn’t stop to smell these, but a few years ago I learned that they have a delicate fragrance.

Yep, it’s the little things that make life feel so sweet. What little things are you finding?

Cherries

From Issa (1763-1827), on a quiet life:

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossoms opening slowly: starting when the sun shines, stopping when the cold rain falls. Much wind and changing dramatic sky these days. Lush pinegrass in the scruffy patch of woods, lupine buds still held tight to their flower stalks.

Cooper’s hawk divebombed the yard this morning, scattering the little birds every which way. It landed on the fence, giving me a close look at the long accipiter tail and fierce amber eye. WIngs opened and it tilted off.

Peas are up, barely. Basil seedlings transferred to larger pots. Time to pick baby lettuce, spinach, radishes. Not time to put away sweaters and hats yet.