Sunday, November 22, 2015

Memories of Summer Grasslands

The “flowers” in this bedraggled bouquet are from a plant that was blooming in my yard just a few weeks ago ... in early November at 7000 feet elevation in Laramie, Wyoming! That’s how unusually-mild this fall has been. I cut the flowering stems in advance of a hard frost. They make for a disheveled arrangement, but I like their company, and it's been interesting to watch the progression from “bud” to “flower” to “seed.”

Up close, there’s still plenty of beauty:
This plant has many names: gaillardia, blanket flower, fire wheel and others. A single native gaillardia grows in Wyoming—G. aristata. It’s a common summer wildflower in grasslands on the plains, and sometimes in the mountains. The ones in my yard came from a xeric seed mix, so they might be the common hybrid G. aristata X G. pulchellum.

Why quotation marks? (“bud” “flower” “seeds”) Because gaillardia is a composite, a member of the Asteraceae (aster family). In this family, things are not as they seem.

The scientific name for the aster family used to be, appropriately, Compositae. Like all composites, gaillardia is a trickster. The “flower” actually is a cluster of many flowers—therefore a flower head. What we might think are sepals below the “petals” are actually bracts called phyllaries, and what we might think is a petal is actually a ray flower. What looks like a seed is actually a dry single-seeded fruit—like a "sunflower seed” before you split the hull to get the true seed. Devious plants!!
Unopened head, a cluster of flower buds surrounded by bracts (phyllaries).

Gaillardia has both ray and disc flowers (some composites have only rays or only discs); each flower has an ovary that will produce one seed.
Flower head with ten ray flowers and about eight disc flowers; phyllaries visible behind.
A few disc flowers continue to bloom after the rays have fallen off.
The heads I rescued are small, few-flowered and mostly red. Maybe that's the best a plant can do so late in the season. Here's a gaillardia mid-summer (note bumblebees and feet in sandals):

Gaillardia fruit (cypselas, found in all composites) have silky white hairs and papery long-tipped scales. Each cypsela contains a seed.
Cypselas, not quite 1 cm long.

Stems, leaves, and phyllaries are usually hairy; how much depends on the plant. Longer hairs are jointed (click on images to see).

It’s hard to decide which common name to use. I like “fire wheel” because the flower heads have that kind of brilliance in summer grasslands. But “blanket flower” seems to be more common, at least around here. And there's a neat story behind it:
The Blanket Maker was an old man, and he knew he would die soon. His burial blanket would have to be the prettiest one he had ever woven, so he used the golds, yellows and reds that he loved so well. This would be his gift to the Great Spirit, as he explained to his family.
When the old man died, his family followed his wishes. Thus he was wearing his colorful blanket when he met the Great Spirit, who was impressed with its beauty. But He realized that only those who had passed would be able to enjoy it. So He decreed that wildflowers with the colors of the old man’s blanket would bloom every year for all to enjoy. [Paraphrased from ZM Kirkpatrick’s Wildflowers of the Western Plains; no source given.] 
It feels a tiny bit warmer with fire wheels in the room.

Friday, November 13, 2015

“For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon”

There’s one more thing you need for your trip into the Canyon—a book of poetry. Yes—a book of poetry!—even as you try to reduce your belongings to the bare essentials, try to minimize volume and weight. Maybe these extra ounces will bring you something wonderful one evening, or while you’re waiting for the shuttle, or resting at the end of a switchback. Maybe you’ll look more closely at the intimidatingly inspiring views, colored patterned rocks, drifting spiders, flowering cacti, vast air. Maybe you’ll feel something new, a reaction you hadn’t felt before (don’t jump!). You might even learn something—like where twilight and dawn go after they’re done with us.

Editors Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa selected poems they hope will “prove true companions on your own Grand Canyon journey, whether you are on the river, the trail, the rim, or elsewhere, yearning to return.” The book itself is a bit of a trip, organized as legs of a journey: On the Rim; Down and In; From the River; Emergence. They kindly left out the epic, obscure, esoteric and puzzlingly-metaphorical. This is poetry we can read, ponder and enjoy even if we aren’t particularly poetic ourselves. (That could change!)

     like nothing you had imagined, nothing
     in the pocket-sized postcards or the travelers’ guides,

     is the split continent, enormous and jagged,
     a terrible incision, terribly gorgeous,

     the late-afternoon air pouring in … (1)
A terrible incision through sunny sedimentary strata reveals the “dreaded rock”—the "hard black walls" of the Inner Gorge (2). Photo by Jack Share.

     going down, down
     by layer, down by grain,
     down under thunder-named:
     Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino
     Sandstone. Switching back
     to shale, toenail turning
     black, rock red and raw … (3)     
Several hundred million years down the trail, another billion and a half to go. Photo by Jack Share.

     How to understand river:
     ride eight days on its back
     between walls time carved a mile deep
     rose blood-red gray-green black—
     not yet speaking its language
     give it words
     swift-running silt-laden shimmering(4)
You never want to leave, and you never will, for it will always be with you. Photo and words by Jack Share.

     What more can we give to this world?
     Nothing but walking
     here softly,
     with our hearts
     wide open to beauty,
     with our eyes
     catching rainbows
     and shadows. (5)
Behind Ribbon Falls. Photo by Jack Share.

     I speak now of that Grand Canyon
     which lies within each of us. There
     are pre-Cambrian rocks at the center,
     the core, and talus from yesterday’s fall;
     marble and granite grown hard from the
     pressure and heat of heartbreak and
     passion; crumbling sandstone, layer on
     layer of sediment, sentiment piled on
     over a lifetime’s experience. (6)
"Extreme closeup" of extremely beautiful Precambrian Zoroaster granite. Photo by Jack Share.

These poetic reactions of minds and souls in the presence of something awesome-beyond-words are diverse and wide-ranging—descriptive, emotional, mysterious, mystical, musical, humorous, grim. Often I found myself reading about the poet as much as the canyon. As Carl Sandberg said (and Anderson and Kempa emphasize), “each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon”(7).
Jack Share contemplates his Grand Canyon. Photo by Wayne Ranney.
I’m not a poet, and I read poetry only occasionally. Yet I found a lot pleasure in this book. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that I love the American West and all the natural history I can glean from it. But poets create new things and new ways of looking that are fascinating. And poetry’s sparseness makes me notice details, physical and mental. It focuses my attention, much as my camera does.

• • •

Hoping to learn more, I interviewed (via email) editors Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa, and publisher Danny Rosen of Lithic Press. All are poets, and all have been down Grand one way or another.

Peter and Rick, how did the idea for Going Down Grand come about?

We’re pretty sure there was beer involved. It could have been any one of many late night conversations we periodically have about poetry and the west and books…

Why did you choose poetry—what does poetry do for the Grand Canyon that prose can’t? Do poets see or experience the canyon differently?

Interpretive writing doesn’t necessarily address issues relating to the way a place feels; poetry does—poetry invites more emotion which doesn’t usually turn up in informational prose. Also poets may be more inclined to use their imaginative powers in developing a relationship with a place.

How many poems did you consider, and how did you find them?

We looked at hundreds of poems. We solicited contemporary poems by way of print publications and websites. We also rooted around in special collections in regional university libraries in Utah and Arizona, and did a lot of research to find any and all Grand Canyon poems previously published.

Danny, what was it about Going Down Grand that led you to publish it? Did the subject influence the design of the book?

I have great respect for the sensibilities of Pete and Rick, both artistic and philosophic, and as a lover of the wild planet and with a background in geology, I find the Grand Canyon a sacred place. It is a privilege to add something to the ongoing story of comprehending and appreciating this special place.

The narrow, tall dimensions of the book [5” x 9”] mimic the canyon itself, as does the long, narrow shape of many of the poems. We wanted the book to travel well, to fit in a back pocket. We made sure it would easily fit into ammo boxes—frequently used on river trips. Pete and Rick will probably say more about this …

Peter & Rick: Yes, we hope this book travels! Our target readers are visitors to the Grand Canyon—almost 4.5 million a year, whether they experience the canyon from the river, from the trail, or—as most do—from the rim. Poetry can offer them fresh insights into an experience of place.

As a non-poet, I ask: How does one read a book of poetry?

Peter & Rick: You don’t have to plow through it from beginning to end. The nature of poetry—language distilled and compressed—can make it more intense reading. Sometime it’s fun to sample and taste a little bit at a time.

Danny: I agree! Keep the book accessible. Open it at spontaneous, felicitous moments. Read the first lines and stanzas—if compelled, continue reading! It should not be a forced march. If you are repelled, turn the page and start again with the next poem. John Wesley Powell said: “…you can not see the canyon in one view… to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” So it may be with poems, read them at different times, in different moods.

Plants & Rocks: John Wesley Powell—the great geologist and explorer! When I hear that name I think of his daring descent down the Colorado River in 1869, especially his fear and exhilaration in the dark narrow reaches of the Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge. I bet he’d be shocked to hear that people sign up years in advance and pay good money for that terrifying ride! And I wonder …

... what would Powell think of this book?

Danny: As Rick and Pete say in their Introduction, John Wesley Powell was overwhelmed with the grandeur of the canyon—and he wrote that words can not adequately represent that grandeur. 

Peter & Rick: Powell had a poetic side. He would certainly relate to many of these voices, particularly those who are grappling with geological time.

Danny: In fact, he might be amazed and gratified that, 150 years after his journey, so many people continue to respond to the canyon with words!

I—non-poet who reads
poetry STRATA! only
occasionally oblivious
to metaphor puzzled
by line
breaks loving
and rocks

I would carry
this book down Grand. (8)

Vishnu schist. Photo by Jack Share.

• • •

Peter Anderson is a former river guide, wilderness ranger and magazine editor. He teaches English at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. Currently he is Artist-in-Residence at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Rick Kempa has been hiking in and writing about the Grand Canyon since 1974. He teaches English and literature at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. He was Artist-in-Residence in Grand Canyon National Park in 2013.

Danny Rosen, founder of Lithic Press, has been involved in the Colorado poetry scene for almost 20 years. He lives five miles north of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley of western Colorado. Now in its eighth year, Lithic Press was recently joined by the Lithic Bookstore & Gallery in downtown Fruita.

Thanks once again to Jack Share of Written in Stone for the use of his photos. Jack blogs about geology with a passion that is poetic.

• • •

Going Down Grand: poems from the Canyon. Copyright © 2015 by Peter Anderson and Rick Kempa. ISBN 978-0-9883846-5-1  Available from: Lithic Press (and Park bookstores starting next season).

(1) Joan Barrow, Grand Canyon
(2) John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons
(3) Danny Rosen, Going Down Grand
(4) Beth Paulson, Canyon Notes
(5) Heidi Elizabeth Blankenship, Fence Fault
(6) Amil Quayle, Grand Canyon
(7) Carl Sandburg, "Many Hats" (Good Morning America)
(8) Hollis, In the Company of Plants and Rocks

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Willow Expedition

“We’re gonna do what?!”
Snow fell though the night. It was obvious, even inside the house. City sounds were muffled, and a dim light shone through the windows—street lamplight diffused by snow. I was well aware what this meant. The seventh of the month was approaching, so we had no choice but to visit a certain tree first thing in the morning, before the winds picked up.

We've had an unusually long mild Indian Summer—I was in shorts and a t-shirt just last week! But I needed a warm vest, mountaineering parka, wool cap, gloves and boots before I could scrape the ice off the windshield and drive to the east edge of town where the Laramie Mountains rise from the plains.
“Whadaya think, Ollie?”
She was exaggerating. There’s only a few inches, and anyway, we're tough dogs.

I’ve been following an American pussy willow (Salix discolor) since I discovered it blooming last February. It grows in a small limestone canyon in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains, elevation 7400 feet (2255 meters). Around here, we don’t hope to see flowers in the wild until April, so what a surprise to find a tree blooming in February!
February, 2015. White spots are male catkins; white background is snow.
The willow grows in a nook in the north canyon wall, tucked away almost out of sight behind several junipers.
Paler green willow in center, between limestone cliff and junipers.
The canopy is best viewed from above, where it sticks up above the canyon rim.
Last month the willow’s leaves were still mostly green, though tattered. But surely now they will be gone.

Mouth of Willow Canyon is center right.
We walked through a wintry landscape. It will be this way for months now—mostly white, brown, some dark green, with skies of blue, white and all shades of gray. But there are always interesting things to see—like snow patterns on limestone pavement.
The snow lines were following shallow crevices that have a bit of dirt and occasionally small plants. Does snow melt faster on bare rock? Do the cracks accumulate enough snow that it takes longer to melt?
We headed up the canyon …
… and followed a small side drainage into the junipers …
… to where we found a nearly-leafless willow decorated with ice and snow.
The pussy willow’s twigs have beautiful dark buds, ready to bloom next February.

Another treat: photogenic plants and rocks in new winter garb.
Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum).
Small limber pine (Pinus flexilis) growing out and up from a crack in the limestone wall.
Even smaller limber pine in a crack under an overhang (this is its canopy!).

And yet another fascinating find: green ferns! These are the tough drought-tolerant limestone lovers that I wrote about in September.
Slender lip fern (Cheilanthes feei) on left and western cliffbrake (Pellaea occidentalis). Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, for scale (profile is about 1 cm across).

We hiked back to the truck, enjoying the sunshine as clouds melted away.
Snowy limestone path leads to a sunny Laramie Valley.
I wonder, will I find anything new in December? My guess is not, just more cold and snow. But I can’t be sure. This tree seems to have plenty of surprises up its … uh … bark? For example flowers in February, a waterfall in July, and a ghostly visitor in August.
Explorers relax by the wood stove after a grueling but successful expedition.

This is my monthly contribution to the latest tree-followers virtual gathering, now hosted by Squirrel Basket who has kindly taken over from Lucy. We welcome new enthusiasts; see more about tree-following here.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stop! There’s a tree in the rock in the road

But is it wild or urban?
The plant featured in this Street Plants post was a tough call. Is it urban or is it wild? It must be wild as it grows on the crest of the Laramie Range at 8500 feet elevation, enduring winds to 75+ mph and temperatures to -30º F (not counting wind chill). It got its start long before Euro-Americans arrived in southeast Wyoming. Yet it’s very much an urban plant, for it grows in the middle of Interstate Highway 80, one of the main arteries of America.
I-80 between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Thin white bars on highway are trucks. Google Earth view.

Back in the spring of 1868, a Union Pacific rail gang laid track past a small limber pine growing out of some granite rocks. They were in a hurry but took time to divert the tracks slightly to avoid the tree. Then they rushed on, laying one mile of track per day! They were bound for Promontory Point, Utah, where the Golden Spike was driven on May 10, 1869, completing the United States’ first transcontinental railroad.

The small “struggling” pine by the tracks took on several names: Tree-in-the-Rock, Tree Rock, and Lone Tree. For 35 years, engineers would stop their trains to “give the tree a drink” in the form of buckets of water. But this tender loving care was not to last.

About ten miles to the west was a terrifyingly steep descent off the Laramie Mountains (and a tough climb going the other direction). In 1901-02, the railroad was moved to easier terrain a short distance south. The abandoned grade became a wagon road, and in 1913 it was designated part of the Lincoln Highway—our first transcontinental highway for automobiles:
“The Lincoln Highway was created to free automobile travelers from the confines of their urban environments, providing them a way, and a reason, to venture out toward distant horizons.” (source).
Distant horizons are common in Wyoming, so leave the confines of your urban environment and venture here!
The Lincoln Highway in 1916.  Added arrow points to the Tree-in-the-Rock's approximate location.
The Lincoln Highway honored the great Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, most famous for the emancipation of slaves. About nine miles west of the Tree-in-the-Rock, he looks down on Interstate 80 at the Summit Rest Area.
Post card of “Tree-in-the-Rock, The Famed Landmark of Wyoming” (ca 1927 based on similar dated photo). From Wyoming Tales, no source given.
In the late 1920s, the Lincoln Highway became US 30. It was upgraded to Interstate Highway 80 in the 1960s. But the Tree-in-the-Rock survived. It had become so beloved that highway construction crews were forced to accommodate it. East- and west-bound lanes pass on either side, and there’s a small park for those with time to stop.

As I mentioned, Interstate 80 (New Jersey to California) is a major artery. In southeast Wyoming, it's dominated by trucks carrying goods to those in need. These are the red blood cells of America.
Sometimes the artery gets clogged; from WYDOT webcam near Laramie.
When I visited the tree last week, I struck up a conversation with a truck-driver, starting with what I was sure would be a good ice-breaker: “Would you like to see the tree in 1927?” I asked, showing him the old post card. It worked.

We chatted about the tree, railroads, trucking, how scary I-80 is in winter, and whether those were mountains (his opinion) or rocks (mine) on the horizon. He lives on Chicago’s South Side, and was east-bound from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Des Moines, Iowa, and then back to Chicago. He covers 2400 to 2900 miles per week! Do we ever think about the folks that drive the trucks that bring us what we need, or more often want? I do—on cold snowy days when the roads are closed, or even worse, still open but with traffic at a crawl. What an awful but important job!
A different view of I-80 near Lone Tree (WYDOT webcam).
This driver stops to learn something of the country he passes through. “If you don’t stop, you never will,” he advises—words as pithy as any Yogi-ism.
Truck driver in center of photo; his rig is the red one.
The photo above was the best I could do at replicating the old photo (note matching rock ridges on the skyline). Any further away and I would have been on the highway. The limber pine has a healthier canopy now. Maybe travelers still stop to "give it a drink."
Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) in late Proterozoic (1.4 billion years old) Sherman granite.
It’s producing cones, a good sign.
Limber pine cone on grüs—disintegrated Sherman granite.
The coarse-grained Sherman granite, with Abe Lincoln for scale.
Lincoln Highway marker on left. Are those rocks or mountains on the horizon?
The tree-in-the-rock-in-the-road is on the “crest” of the Laramie Mountains. It’s an odd crest—a flat tilted plain with scattered towers, ridges, walls and rock piles, all made of giant granite blocks. It looks like a playroom for a giant's children, where no one has cleaned up and put the blocks away. These are the Sherman "Mountains"—geologists call them “tors.” I’ve written multiple posts about them as they’re fascinating and irresistibly photogenic.

This will be my contribution to the Street Plants gathering on October 21. Have you had a recent encounter with urban wild plants? Consider joining us (stay tuned).