A year. A friend told me in an email that it had been a year since I had posted at Botanizing. It has been a year of talking and cooking rather than writing. Stories seemed never as easily at hand as a frying pan.
A year ago, we had just returned from a collecting trip in Arizona and Utah. The monsoon rains had chased us from Arizona, and we spent our last few days of the trip looking for rock art in canyons of southern Utah. From there we had a long drive home—through mountains, over passes, up intermountain valleys, through rain, and we stopped at Mollie’s in Snowville for breakfast. Then we bolted across the plains, crossing and recrossing the Snake River, and then climbing into the mountains of Idaho, which we exited to meet the hills of the Palouse. At home, young hawks were screaming in the nest behind the house.
Soon after returning from the desert we were in the Clearwater Mountains of Idaho, where a blocked road prevented us from reaching a trailhead we wanted to use for a backpack. We retreated down the mountains to the
Selway River and to its tributary, Meadow Creek, where we camped. We walked up Meadow Creek, where the dew wet leaves of grasses slapped against my shins. The winged stems of Lathyrus hung like the weighted beams of balances over the trail. The slope above us was an old burn, where snags of cedars stood. The burnt cedars had trunks of black charcoal that shone bluish in the sun from the burnishing of wind and weather. Adrian harvested thimbleberries and serviceberries as we walked.
At the beginning of October, we made a backpack up the Selway River. There was a wildfire—by then under control—in the river valley, where a scrim of white smoke covered the hills, and we stopped only a short distance beyond Race Creek. Smoke was our gauge. We camped on a sand shelf above a point bar, and in the evening, when breezes began to move upriver, the scent of smoke cleared.
It was also in October that I was asked to help lead the development of a new arts and sciences college at our university. It had been decided a few weeks earlier that our then colleges of sciences and liberal arts would be merged to form a single college. My next eight months were focused on merger planning and formulating recommendations for the structures and procedures of the new college. This was an incredible opportunity—how often does one get to create a new college?
The first frost of the season came on 25 October to place briefly a light white coat on the roof of the house behind us. I was reading V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which began: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The arrogance was shocking.
We saw Carmen at Seattle Opera. This was thoroughly enjoyable.
In early November, I went to an informal session on ‘Ecopoetics on the Palouse.’ One of the participants said that a “poem is an ecosystem.” I wondered about this. It was unclear to me what the speaker may have meant: was it meant as a simile or as a description of a poem’s complexity and function? Most poems, especially any short of long, narrative verses, are too simple to stand in comparison to ecosystems. What is the simile for a poem in the ecology of place? A bunch grass, perhaps? Maybe a lyrical poem is just a blade of grass?
I delighted in reading Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. The book had a lovely shadowy tone, a slight tinge of melancholy. The story looked back to a journey to ask what had there been before and what was there after that event—“this voyage would be a great education,” one of characters told the young protagonist.
November was a brown season. The hills of the Palouse showed dark soil or lighter crop stubble. In the conifer forest where we walked on the north side of a tall butte, the woods were nearly a cave of brown tree trunks, and the trail was coated by a thick thatch of golden brown needles. A brown Varied Thrush sat quietly on the shadowed branch of a Douglas Fir. I looked to find the greens of the season: dark canopy, stringy networks of lichens, and mosses.
In late December and early January, we traveled to Costa Rica for several days on the Osa Peninsula and then in Monteverde. On the Osa Peninsula, our cabin overlooking the ocean was surrounded by forest. Blackhooded Antshrikes pecked about the shrubby shadows while Riverside Wrens built a nest in the shrubs. Amid their vital activities, I read on the deck. We botanized and birded and spent a few minutes on the beach. At Monteverde, we walked in the clouds while continuing to bird and botanize. At the end of the trip, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in San Jose. The old building occupied by the Museum was wonderful—it was barn-like in its first gallery and had rough, unfinished walls in a gallery of photographs.
Mid January: Atop a red buoy, numbered 44, anchored in the middle of the former Snake River, now the Lower Granite Lake, which backs behind Lower Granite Dam, there stood a Great Blue Heron. It seemed like a poem.
The dammed Snake, once
a river that slithered
among stone scaled hills,
lies in flat water
navigated by grain barges.
Red buoys mark channel.
A hunter watches,
still in evening shadows—
a Great Blue Heron
atop buoy 44—
awaits any movement—
a fish, a river.
At Seattle Opera, we see Verdi’s Attila, which I do not enjoy. There was lovely choral singing, and there were a few beautiful arias, but the story and its violent themes were unappealing. In contrast to the opera, we saw a fabulous performance only a few days earlier by the Ying Quartet at the University of Idaho. They played two contemporary pieces and then Beethoven’s final string quartet. The concert was absolutely energizing, and I spent days afterward looking around the web to hear other pieces related to the music that was performed.
“Ha . . . Ha . . .” A Great Horned Owl called sharply as I approached home in the dark of a cold evening. From another tall conifer its companion answered, “Hoo Hoo Hoo.” The conversation warmed me.
We saw Glück’s Orpheus and Eurydice at Seattle Opera in late February. It was lovely—the music, the singing, the ballet, and Amour portrayed as a woman on a bicycle. We also went to the exhibit Gauguin and Polynesia at Seattle Art Museum. This was a great chance to see not only many paintings by Gauguin from his time in Polynesia but also to see his carvings and material collections.
In March, we traveled to Indianapolis, where I had much of a day in the art museum. One of the first paintings I saw was Gauguin’s “Landscape near Arles,” which was one of the first paintings he made after joining Van Gogh in the ‘studio in the south.’ The painting is a tight composition of a haystack framed by a building on the left, a house in the back, and by trees. The haystack is colorful—in yellow and oranges done in narrow, short brush strokes—Van Gogh’s colors and Van Gogh’s brush strokes. Whistler’s “Harmony in Pink and Gray: Lady Meux” was exceptional. I especially enjoyed the collection of work by Indiana painters and American impressionists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many of these were artists that had gone to Paris for training and came home with lighter colors and bolder brush strokes. There were wonderful pieces by the American modernists Sloan, Hartley, and O’Keeffe, and among these I discovered an artist unknown to be before: Victor Higgins. Higgins was originally from Indiana, but he had gone to Europe for training, and later moved to Taos, where he painted mostly landscapes. His painting of barren hills in New Mexico made me want to take brushes and tubes of paint to the Southwest.
In April, the tributaries of the Selway River were in flood so we stopped our hike at Packer Creek and clambered to the top of a large boulder a few feet out in the river’s channel. We watched dippers. One jumped repeatedly in and out of the breaking white water from a steep stone in the river’s splash zone. Fast and regular like the ratchet action of a machine, the bird was in and out, in and out, and in and out of the river. After feeding, the dipper flew up the cliff face to land on a steep slab of stone just below a clump of dried moss. It stood there—but did not stand still for a dipper is seldom still—it did kneebends and pecked at soil in the cracks of the cliff until it slipped into a hole at the base of the moss clump. Soon anther dipper flew across the river to the same moss clump. It, too, stood for a few moments and then slipped beneath the moss.
I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in early May. Before this trip I had read Patricia Vigderman’s The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, which was marvelously quirky, much like the museum itself. The book’s short chapters each had a title taken from a work of art in the museum, but they were less about art in the galleries than the art of making a life. Vigderman does not tell a straight-forward biographical story about Gardner; instead, she writes around the life of Gardner, who had burned all of her personal letters, attempted to maintain the privacy of her life, even to remain elusive, and the book becomes a circumscription—bounding Gardner by stories about her home, her collections, and the painters, writers and friends that were close to her. I enjoyed the museum as well, especially as the collection of one individual, which we rarely have the chance to see.
We see Madame Butterfly at Seattle Opera. It’s too shallow despite some good music.
In late May, I left the northwest for several weeks of fieldwork on the Colorado Plateau. We are exploring how the complex topography of the Colorado Plateau has shaped plant migration patterns, provided glacial refugia, and influenced the evolution of new species using Cronquist’s blazing star (Mentzelia cronquistii) and a few of its closest relatives. I looked for populations to sample and spent days driving rough roads, walking hills, and clambering up cliffs—my favorite kind of travel. Mostly I found dead individuals in populations that should have been thriving—possibly an adverse effect of the persistent drought in this region and certainly a detriment to our research. After a week in Utah, I moved on to the Grand Canyon, which is the southernmost and lowest elevation reach of Cronquist’s blazing star, making this area a likely candidate as a glacial refuge that could have played a role in the repopulation of the Colorado Plateau following the Pleistocene glaciation. With friends and others involved in the project, I backpacked through the canyon for a week. Once we emerged from the Grand Canyon, I returned to Utah for another week of collecting.
In early July, I attended the annual professional conference for botanists, which was held this year in Columbus, Ohio, where recent high temperatures and violent storms had impacted the city’s environment. During the three days I was at the conference, I went outside only once to have dinner a few blocks from my hotel; otherwise, I ate and spend my days in talks and meetings in the hotel and convention center complex. My schedule and environment were entirely contained for days. On my flight to Ohio, I read Frank Waters’s Pumpkin Seed Point and on my return flight read Gary Nabhan’s The Desert Smells Like Rain—two books centered on Native American life in Arizona. While my body was contained in aircraft and hotels, my mind wandered the western landscape.
In the middle of July we were still having rain. It had been a cool, wet spring and summer. Snow and cold persisted through much of the spring and then rain and cool days through June. Usually, by the beginning of July our days in the inland Northwest have turned dry—arid provides a better sense of those days—in which there can be a sharp heat and intense dryness. This year, in contrast, we have been having regular thunderstorms, which in the past were exceptionally rare in this region.
We backpacked among the headwaters of Gedney Creek, which drains to the Selway River, in the Bitterroot Mountains. The huckleberries were ripe, and Adrian ate as she walked. We crossed Canteen Creek on stones. Its shallow water, rippled by flow over the stones, projected shadows on the bedding stones that made the creek appear to be coated in yellow scales like the back of a showy, dryland lizard. On the backpack, I read Maureen McLane's new book My Poets and was fascinated by its collage style that melded criticism, poetry and personal narrative. It was quite beautiful. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Elizabeth Bishop (Gertrude Stein) that was written in the style of Stein.
In the basement of the campus library, where seldom read books are kept (mostly untended and often in disarray) in compactors—one of my favorite places to gather reading material—I picked-up Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos. It’s an odd book about Dodge Luhan’s interactions with D. H. Lawrence during the time he was in Taos. Dodge Luhan addresses the book to the poet Robinson Jeffers, which she begins by saying: “You know Jeffers, after I met you, I felt that you and Lawrence ought to know each other, that you would have liked and understood each other . . .” I wondered if I should be in on this conversation, which seemed a personal triangulation that didn’t really involve me—after all, I have never really liked or understood Lawrence. One wanted to ask Dodge Luhan why the distraction of Robinson Jeffers was introduced—while reading about Lawrence and Taos, I kept thinking about Jeffers in his Tor on the coast of California. Yet, the trope of a private conversation—making the reader an eavesdropper—has its uniqueness and interest. There was in the book (on page 4) this lovely description of the way Taos infiltrated one’s life: “The mountain and the fields were not separate from one’s life. One did not go out to things, one was part of them. The mountain, if anything, came to one, came into the house; one ate it with the cake.”
I have been buying a piece of cake with the groceries each week. We have our cake, our music, our art, and our mountains.
1. Selway River; 2. Bisbee Antiques in Bisbee, Arizona; 3. Mollie’s Café in Snowville, Utah; 4. Cayuse Lake, Clearwater Mountains; 5. Meadow Creek, a tributary of the Selway; 6. Selway River; 7. Cloud above ridge along the Selway River; 8. Selway River; 9. Astra and Adrian; 10. Lower Ribbon Falls, Grand Canyon; 11. Petroglyphs in Buckhorn Wash, Utah; 12. View from our cabin on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica; 13. “Elvis 3D” by Juliana Barquero in the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in San Jose, Costa Rica; 14. Capuchin monkey, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica; 15. Indianapolis Museum of Art; 16. Rock clematis (Clematis columbiana); 17. Selway River; 18. Selway River; 19. The Green River in Utah on a moonlit night with lightning; 20. Grand Canyon; 21. Backpacking in Grand Canyon; 22. In the vicinity of Last Chance Wash, San Rafael Swell, Utah; 23. Hotel room, Columbus, Ohio; 24. Stones in Canteen Creek, Bitterroot Mountains; 25. Leaning teacup in our campsite at Gedney Creek in Nez Perce National Forest; 26. Adrian and Astra backpacking near the headwaters of Gedney Creek in the Bitterroot Mountains; 27. Colorado River in Grand Canyon.