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.

Coyote Tears

Crocidium multicaule
Crocidium multicaule

One of the first spring wildflowers to bloom on the Columbia Plateau are these gold stars, annuals that grow only an inch or two high, but in such numbers as to turn whole stretches of the shrub-steppe a cheerful yellow. I have always known them as coyote tears and I never see them without remembering a story I was told long ago.

You must understand that the Yakama people have always lived around here, and many of the lakes and rivers and creeks bear names from their Sahaptin language. The landscape is animated by their history and stories. Many tribes have stories of Coyote. I imagine a sharp-nosed person with big ears, and a scruff of tawny hair. Wearing patched jeans with frayed hems and a raggedy flannel shirt, Coyote is a Northwest native. He drinks cheap beer and throws the cans out of the window of his rusty old pickup. You might think “Oh, just another redneck,” but then you see the tail and the knowing eyes and you wonder. The Yakamas call him Speelyi.

One time, Coyote was walking through the timber and heard a voice saying, “I throw you up and you come back to me.” It was Chickadee, and Coyote was curious. He watched as the small bird plucked out his eyes and tossed them up. The eyes landed on a tree branch to look around, and plopped back into Chickadee’s eye sockets when called.

“That’s a pretty good trick,” thought Coyote. So he had to try it himself. He plucked out his eyes and said “I throw you up and you come back to me.” The eyeballs went up to a branch to look around, then came back to Coyote’s eye sockets. Coyote went around like this, juggling his eyes and chuckling and thinking about ways to make some money from this trick.

At this point, different things happen. In some versions, two ravens hear Coyote talking and steal the eyeballs. Or the eyes get lost. Coyote ends up blind and stumbles around without his eyeballs. He steals eyes from other people and they don’t work right. He tries huckleberries but they are too small. He bumps into a pine tree and feels around, finding two blobs of pitch. He puts those in his eye sockets, and can sort of see. Everything is all blurry and gummy, and he walks around crying. Where his tears fall on the ground, little golden flowers bloom. Coyote must have wandered and cried a lot, because there are many of those flowers coloring the rocky ground yellow in the spring.

They say it might have happened that way. From what I know of Coyote, I guess it could be true. He’s still around.

Red Currant

Ribes sanguineum next to Silver Creek

Red currant (Ribes sanguineum), a classic Pacific Northwest shrub and favorite nectar source for calliope and rufous hummingbirds. Snow holds in the hanging valley of Silver Creek at 3420 feet elevation. The sound of water rushing down the gorge underscores the entire day. Wind out of the west is cool, dry.

Umtanum

Sagebrush violet

When I make my spring pilgrimages to the shrub-steppe country, I always wonder how such delicate bright things can grow so effortlessly from rocky ground. First of all, the basalt does not want to weather into fertile soil. It’s rough. During summer, this land is parched and sun-beaten. During winter, it’s frozen. The wind blows hard and often.

But when the snow starts to melt and the sun warms up just a little, the sagebrush ecosystem slowly flowers.

Salt & pepper desert parsley, coyote tears, nine-leaved desert parsley, Draba verna

These early spring flowers are low to the ground and small. Somehow they know how and when to push leaves up through the soil, and buds soon follow. The coyote tears and Draba verna are both annuals, seeding freely and coloring large patches of open ground yellow and white.

Those who wander the sagebrush hills in April had better be prepared. I climbed up a side canyon of Umtanum Creek, and was sweating by the time I reached the ridge. There were few flowers on the way up. But when I stepped off the trail where the canyon widened, I saw the first violets. I also needed a warm hat and gloves, and my raincoat to cut the wind. I could see snow and rain squalls to the west. The sketchbook was in the pack, but I know from experience there’s no use trying to draw when my hands are frozen, my eyes are streaming, and the wind flaps the paper.

So I wandered, weaving through the sagebrush with its rain-plumped silvery leaves and sharp bracing scent. Found another canyon to head down, and the side hill was so steep I briefly considered tucking and rolling to get down faster. But that might have hurt. Picked my way through the talus instead. A golden eagle soared above, and as I squirmed through the brushy draw, I heard the “Kek-kek-kek” of a prairie falcon. They’re staking out their eyries for this year’s nest, always in the lichen-splashed basalt cliffs. As I turned my face upward, the falcon came over me, all pointed wings and speed.

Not a good day for landscape photography

Down at the main creek, I found a place to rest by the water. Something brown was moving around on the other bank–a muskrat. It was waddling around, putting its head underwater, then coming up with something in its front paws. Food! I finally figured out it was chewing on willow roots that were exposed by the action of the water. It scrabbled and dug, chewed, shook its head, poked under rocks. I watched for maybe 15 minutes, then moved. It saw me at last, met my eyes with an alarmed expression and swam upstream.

As I reached the truck, a rain squall hit and splattered hail all over the highway. Yep, it’s April.

Polallie Ridge

Larkspur (Delphinium burkei?)

Half day of trail work today. There have been lots of new challenges lately, so it felt comfortable and calming to go out and do something familiar. Something physical outdoors. I always thought Polallie Ridge was a gutbuster of a trail, relentlessly steep and upward. And I wouldn’t say that I am in very good condition right now. But there’s a difference, with my new chemically-adjusted heart. More ease in my chest, and the ability to set a pace and keep going. It helps to not be packing a chainsaw up the hill. As Senior Trail Analysts, Jon and I have chosen to eschew the weight and take the chance that we aren’t going to find a monster log on the trail. I carried the crew’s favorite five foot crosscut saw. We used it twice on smallish logs, bickering about underbucking like people who have sawed together for eons. Which we have.

It wasn’t raining today. The weather pattern for the past week or more has been wet. At times, deluges of biblical proportion. We enjoyed looking at all the flowers blooming (rain is good for wildflower displays). Polallie Ridge is alternately forested and open, which makes for pleasantly changing scenery as you go up and up and up.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

I love blue flowers, so it was wonderful to find the ultramarine blue larkspurs (I can get the genus, but my ability to distinguish species is often fuzzy) and the more purplish camas. Bees were pollinating the blooming huckleberry bushes, and I got a glimpse of a pair of tanagers.

Jon, with repaired tread

Yep. Good to get out. Good to feel my metabolism shifting to a more energetic state. Good to go to the woods with friends and follow the Ten Trail Commandments: Hike, Dig, Saw, Chop, etc.

Another Hike

There are two ways to get to Yakima from the north. You can take Interstate 82, which engineers designed to go over three big ridges. Or you can take the Yakima Canyon route, on a two lane highway that follows the curves of the river. Don’t take this road if you’re in a hurry.

As I meandered my way back to Cle Elum this afternoon, it occurred to me that there’s no way to capture the place in a single photo. There’s too much to take in–the scale of the hills with the layers of basalt, the green of May and wildflowers at their peak, a raft of white pelicans on the river, the fresh leaves on the cottonwoods reflecting the sun, the call of a redwinged blackbird coming through the open window. I feel spoiled by the variety available in my home landscape. Mountains, forest, desert, rivers are all compressed into a narrow band between the top of the Cascades and the edge of the Columbia Basin.

I stopped for a walk at Umptanum Canyon, which flows into the Yakima. It was a warm day, and clouds of insects were rising above the water. Fly fishermen in their waders stood as still as herons, intently focused on the riffles. I crossed the suspension bridge and railroad tracks, and headed up a side trail looking for flowers.

Antelope bitterbrush

Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) and sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) are the dominant shrubs, both lush with moisture from the spring rains. The fuzzy silvery leaves help the plants conserve water during the dry heat of summer.

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorrhiza sagitatta) is one of the many yellow daisy-like flowers found in the shrub steppe. Sometimes the slopes turn golden with them all blooming at once.

Lupine

According to my wildflower book, there are at least twelve lupines that can occur in eastern Washington. I don’t know which one this is, but it goes well with the sagebrush, balsamroots and showy phlox.

Looking up the Umptanum, which I’ve hiked alone and with companions numerous times over the last 20 years. Today I was stepping carefully, because it was warm enough for rattlesnakes to be active. And ticks–I’ve been feeling crawly for a couple days. But all I saw were butterflies and birds. From the shade of a basalt cliff came the buzzy chirping of a canyon wren, warming up for the clear descending notes that would come in the evening. And of course ravens, somewhere across the canyon.

As I headed back across the river toward the truck, it seemed to me that a person who listens carefully can hear the difference between the wind blowing through the Great Basin wild rye and sagebrush, and the wind blowing through Douglas-firs.