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In Praise of Mud Season

MoJo columnist Susan Marsh shrugs off the damp and cool of spring in the Northern Rockies to get outside and rediscover enchantment in the season

Springtime in the Rockies is unpredictable at best; often downright cold and drenching. Yet, as snow rain showers intermittently fall to earth, wildflowers and other flora being to appear. And this time of year is when Susan Marsh gets outside to witness the beauty of spring.
Springtime in the Rockies is unpredictable at best; often downright cold and drenching. Yet, as snow rain showers intermittently fall to earth, wildflowers and other flora being to appear. And this time of year is when Susan Marsh gets outside to witness the beauty of spring.
Story and photos by Susan Marsh

It takes practice learning to love mud season, when the skis and snow shovels still clutter the front deck and hiking gear waits impatiently behind the door. Many people pack up and head for warmer climates, while others keep busy with indoor spring cleaning.

But venturing out during mud season is worth it. Among my favorite things about this time of year is the quiet. You can cross a street in the middle of town without seeing traffic coming in either direction; airport noise is at a minimum; trailhead parking is never a problem.

Once afield, I find that mud season invites me to pay attention to the subtle changes taking place. The grandeur of distant views remains, but to be frank, those views look about the same as they have all winter. While one never tires of looking at beloved river valleys and mountain ranges, what I notice in spring are the most subtle
of colors entering the world. A hint of green in aspen bark and the pinkish-tan of catkins on the branches above. The brightening sky and deep blue-gray on the undersides of cumulus clouds.

I feel the boundary layer between air and earth awakening. For a recent hike, I put on a wool hat and gloves, a turtleneck, a sweater, and two windbreakers. It was 25 degrees with a stiff north wind. The crust on snowbanks was so hard that my boots barely made an impression. By noon, the wind abated and the sun shone, and I walked back down the slope with no hat or gloves, wearing only one of the windbreakers. It wasn’t exactly tropical, but the change in a few hours was remarkable, reminding me of how a bit of radiant heat from full sun makes such a difference.

I wasn’t the only one to change my costume during those hours. On the way up the south-facing slope, I was delighted to see a few buds of cutleaf fleabane and Bessey’s crazyweed. On the way back down, I found that some of those buds had opened into actual flowers. Time to celebrate.
While one never tires of looking at beloved river valleys and mountain ranges, what I notice in spring are the most subtle of colors entering the world.
Mud season has a unique feel to it. Where snow persists, a chill hovers at ground level, the inverse of a day in late August when the sun is at the same angle. In August, warmth collects among the curing grasses and seed heads, and the earth itself feels warm when you lie down, even on a cool and breezy pre-autumn day. In April, you scan for a boulder or fallen tree for a seat—something dry and elevated, if only a couple of feet off the ground.

Each unfolding of the seasons is a gift, though some are easier to appreciate than others. Mud season requires effort. It’s easy to talk myself out of lacing up the clay-encrusted boots and going for it. Yet when I prod myself out the door, I am never disappointed.

Some social critiques say that, compared to the world in which our distant ancestors lived—one filled with magic, gods and wonder—ours has become disenchanted.
Orogenia (aka Turkey peas) and bumblebee
Orogenia (aka Turkey peas) and bumblebee
My experience tells me that the world itself is as enchanted as ever, but our consumer-techno-pop culture has insulated us from what our deepest selves know. If I feel disenchantment, I know it’s time to get outside.

Some authors trace our sense of disenchantment to what we have come to call “progress.” Rational thought upended wonder and myths, and we have in many ways replaced our idea of “God” with ourselves. But what self-flattery to imagine ourselves rational! We can observe with our senses an obvious cause-and-effect phenomenon while continuing to deny it (think climate change).

I take issue with those who say we’ve lost our way because we have abandoned religion, as if fear of divine punishment were the only thing keeping us in line. As social creatures, we surely understand that our agreed-to standards of behavior help society continue to function. Most of us understand, to use a simple example, why it isn’t OK to blithely run a stop sign. And I don’t think I have to make a choice between being a rational person and finding wonder and design in the world. If anything, my background in the sciences helps me appreciate the life cycle of a wildflower or aspen grove and the symmetry of forms in nature more than I would otherwise.

So outward I go during mud season. It feels like some kind of achievement to know where to find the first blooms of a favorite wildflower, though the relationship I have with it is most certainly one-way. The plant, whose roots have been stirring in the thawed soil and whose basal rosette has gathered energy from the springtime sun, is only doing what it does every year, and if it’s a long-lived perennial species, in the same place. I just happened to come along during the process. And for me that’s cause for celebration.

Mud season holds small packages of surprise. Photos I have taken yield what I did not see until I looked at the picture later. The antennae of a tiny beetle on the underside of a leaf. Weathered elk pellets fertilizing a spring beauty. An inconspicuous blossom beside the one I thought I was photographing. Last year’s cicada nymph casing, a pocket of springtails, the pattern of snow-flattened leaves and stems around the spring rosette of a native thistle.
Each unfolding of the seasons is a gift, though some are easier to appreciate than others. Mud season requires effort ... Yet when I prod myself out the door, I am never disappointed.
Color can be hard to come by this time of year, so before the flowers appear I turn my attention to patterns in cobbles, lichen and thawing soil. On my recent hike I spotted a stone partially coated with caliche (a thin calcium carbonate deposit). It suggested something other than random blotching—a yin-yang symbol. It made me stop, admire it, and take a photo.

Old friends appear along with surprises. The first shy leaf blade poking out of the mud, a wildflower that will not bloom for weeks, though I recognize and greet it,
The yin-yang stone
The yin-yang stone
blooming or not; the sound of the first-of-year kinglet, or flicker, or grouse drumming in the woods.

Mud season is a good time to get out a hand lens. One year I heard a tiny buzzing noise behind me as I sat on a dry patch of grass surrounded by muck. I turned and saw it was a bumblebee, and only after the bee moved did I see my first-of-year Orogenia, that miniscule member of the carrot family whose white blossoms cluster into what looks at first glance like a lost shred of snow. After the bee left, the Orogenia was visited by a Sheridan’s hairstreak with its metallic green wings. Then an ant showed up to climb over it, thus collecting some pollen to place on another plant. It was the story of spring told in a brief sequence of visitations.

I suspect we all have our favorite wildflowers to look for this time of year. I tell people that my favorite is the last one I saw, but I have a few special ones, made special not only for their beauty but years of memories, love for the places where I saw them and the people I was with.

Where soils of shattered rock bare off as early as March, one might wander up a slope to be stopped by the sight of dozens of saucer-to-platter-sized clumps of brilliant hot pink. Approaching one, you see it is a cushion plant with so many blooms that the foliage disappears below them. Among its names is dwarf primrose (Douglasia/Androsace montana unless the experts have renamed it again). It’s what I used to look for hiking up Red Mountain beside the Madison River.

On gravel benches and the lee slope of ridges, I search the ground for steer’s head. I know many people who have lived here for decades and say they have never seen one. It’s not very big, but it is distinct. It helps to have a vision of the flower and leaves in one’s mind, and to know what kind of soil and terrain it prefers. Related to garden bleeding heart, the steer’s head flower resembles a bovine face. Its leaves are as lovely as the flower is strange, dissected into graceful lobes with a blue-green cast. During years when flowers are scarce, the leaves alone are a joy to find.
My experience tells me that the world itself is as enchanted as ever, but our consumer-techno-pop culture has insulated us from what our deepest selves know. If I feel disenchantment, I know it’s time to get outside.
For the next few weeks, I plan to spend my time communing with the mud and finding enchantment among the ever-increasing variety of wildflowers. Greeting the first lime-green aspen leaves now that the staminate catkins are falling off. And rejoicing when I encounter a snowbank holding the plate-sized tracks of wild, healthy wolves. Each time I see them, I say a little prayer—not to any particular deity, but to the spirit of the “Sublette wolf” who did not deserve the kind of treatment humans have dished out to his kind of centuries. The wildflowers, and even slipping and falling in some mud, mercifully take my mind off such horrors, if only for a little while.

A world of enchantment? Or one of willful ignorance and cruelty? I guess that is up to us.

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Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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