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Are We Seeking Escape To—Or From—The Real World?

Naturalist Susan Marsh, a maven of the high country, helps us find an answer in the 'wildflower forest'

Fireweed in Glacier National Park.  Photo courtesy Bernd Thaller
Fireweed in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy Bernd Thaller
Mid-summer in the northern Rockies: the time of year when the need to stay indoors to work, pay bills, cook and clean; it is torture. 

Days are long and shimmering with high sunlight and the mountains awash in wildflowers. While immersed in daily tasks a glance out the window provides me with some respite as the spruce we planted 30 years ago now fills the view. But a glimpse of greenery doesn’t quite cut it.

Wildfires, mass shootings, democracy on the skids. When my brain is a frenzy of frustration over the news and my inability to do much about it, the antidote is to find a forest trail. I can start off in a sour humor and after a half hour or so, I’m in a good mood. I’m paying attention to the wildflowers and bird song and the clear cold water of a creek running over rocks. Somewhere along the trail I’ve lost myself and the worries that keep me up at night.

Then of course I must return to the real world.

What is the real world anyway? Our powers of perception offer only one small slice, so we’ve created our own real world, of commerce and employment and errands. Most of us spend more time in this world than we want to, but since it’s the world of our making we have the chance to make it a little easier. If we’d quit trying so darned hard. 

Trying to do everything we believe we must in order to meet our personal expectations of excellence is a sure-fire way to miss out on each day’s small wonders. Writers are particularly anal about perfection and we tend to take it to extremes in other aspects of life. I just finished reading an article about how flawed and vulnerable our nuclear arsenal is and now I’m in the kitchen chopping garlic for tonight’s guacamole, spending precious time and effort trying to make it perfect. Who cares?

The thing I’m trying to do lately is to shut down that perfectionist in my head and stop wasting time on things that just don’t matter. There’s too much out there in the real world of nature that I don’t want to miss.

What draws my attention from nature is that sense of urgency about everything else. I have to contact my senators now—the vote is tomorrow. I have to get dinner on the table. The phone’s ringing. Meanwhile, the wild world asks for nothing. It’s always there for when we have time.

At the end of each day, if I’m not too busy to remember, I reflect on how much time I’ve spent paying attention to what matters most to me. The birds have finished nesting and their young are on the wing and it will be another year before I hear their songs again. Depending on where they have to travel for the winter and what becomes of that region of their habitat, they may not return at all. 
Wherever you are, a natural escape is nearby. Canada Geese flying through the sunrise on Yellowstone Lake.  NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Wherever you are, a natural escape is nearby. Canada Geese flying through the sunrise on Yellowstone Lake. NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Nature is always there for us, but it’s changing fast. I feel a sense of urgency more than ever to witness its beauty before it’s gone. If I had my way, the birds would be safe, the wilderness kept wild, and people content to live with less. If I had my way—isn’t the very concept the height of audacity? But it seems that people not only conceive of having our way, we insist on it.

Most of us are too young to remember when having your way wasn’t among life’s top considerations. People didn’t choose to lose their jobs, become displaced from family farms, or stand in bread lines during the Great Depression. They didn’t choose to spend four years of their young adulthood in the Pacific theater, in POW camps, in hospitals for the wounded during the Second World War. During these calamities and after, we pulled together as a nation and established institutions meant to keep them from happening again. 

Now it seems we are in the process of tearing them apart and it’s hard to envision what we mean to replace them with. More self-made calamities, I expect. Sometimes it’s hard to keep my head above the quagmire of despair or the fear that I have grown too old and filled with sorrow to allow anything to fill me with joy the way it once did. The joy is always alloyed with knowledge I can’t un-know—my species is in the process of rendering the biosphere unfit for ourselves and many others.  
Sometimes it’s hard to keep my head above the quagmire of despair or the fear that I have grown too old and filled with sorrow to allow anything to fill me with joy the way it once did. The joy is always alloyed with knowledge I can’t un-know—my species is in the process of rendering the biosphere unfit for ourselves and many others. 
Kind of a downer, right?  Not exactly summer reading. Now’s a good time to flee to the forest, a place where I can forget myself and my anxieties. It reminds me of all I have to be grateful for. 

This time of year the forest includes the zone at or above tree line where wildflowers put on a spectacular display. Most people who spend time in the backcountry have a few special places where they know when and where to go for the flowers they love, and I’m no exception. I’ve visited a few of them in the past weeks and they left me without words over the number of blossoms per square meter, the intensity of their colors, the variety of insects swarming to sip nectar and pollinate them. Fields of wildflowers leave me with the same sense of hope that planting a garden does. They are an expression of trust in the future, and while my garden often disappoints, the gardens of nature never do.
Photo courtesy Custer Gallatin National Forest
Photo courtesy Custer Gallatin National Forest
I wallow in their presence for a few hours and leave them to bloom in their magnificence unseen. The flowering progresses quickly on these hot dry days of summer, and soon it fades. Then the plants get on with the purpose for all this beauty—making seeds. 

Scientists often make the case that one’s appreciation for the natural world increases with understanding about the way it works. I have found this to be true. Instead of enjoying an anonymous mix of bright colors on a mountainside before moving on to the summit, I prefer to linger, to see and wonder about what’s happening beneath the surface. I have learned from reading or tagging along with experts, but there is still plenty of mystery. Sometimes learning some detail about how the plant has adapted only deepens the mystery.

Most alpine plants are long-lived perennials, taking decades to grow into a cushion the size of my palm. A few take greater risks as annuals, depending entirely on their seeds. One plant that people can’t help noticing because of its size is the tall green gentian, or monument plant. It looks like a glowing candle from a distance but closer inspection reveals a tower of flowers, each of them a four-point star, white with green streaks, purple dots, yellow anthers and feathery filaments curling over violet-green beelines.

But there’s more to them than a tall, showy stalk full of flowers. The gentian grows for years as a leafy rosette before sending up its giant stalk. Research in Colorado has shown that the plants may live as long as 80 years before they bloom for the first and only time (Dr. David Inouye’s research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is the source of much information about this species). After the bloom turns to seeds, the plant dies. 
Susan Marsh often is joined on her botanical forays by husband Don Plumley.  "He likes tall plants," she says. This year, following a wet spring, they are growing in abundance.
Susan Marsh often is joined on her botanical forays by husband Don Plumley. "He likes tall plants," she says. This year, following a wet spring, they are growing in abundance.
I have led a number of outings for the local chapter of the Wyoming Native Plant Society, and when people hear about how long monument plants live, I see a change in the way they look at them. Their gazes soften as they lean in to notice details of the intricate flowers. They touch them as if to honor the presence of an ancient being. 

I know that feeling. Plants that are older than I am always elicit reverence—the eighty-year old gentian, the two hundred-year old moss campion the size of a dinner plate, the arrowleaf balsamroot I started from seed in my yard that took ten years to grow a few leaves and bloom. How old are the huge leafy plants with dozens of flowers?

Add these to the trees of astounding age—best known are conifers such as Great Basin bristlecone pine, exceeding 5,000 years. Clonal species that send up new stems from ancient rootstock may be even older: the Mojave Desert’s creosote bush, the Rocky Mountains’ aspen stands—also among the world’s largest organisms (along with the underground “shoestrings” of an Armillariafungus), measured in acres. The “Pando” stand of aspen in Utah is thought to be as old as 80,000 years. And it’s also in trouble, from a number of factors including drought, fire suppression and damage by deer, cattle, and elk. Climate change hasn’t been mentioned, but likely contributes to the drought.

After a mind-bending meditation on the superlatives of the greater plant world, I return to the monument plant. Every few years it flowers in unison. 2018 is one such year, especially at high elevations in Yellowstone and the Gros Ventre Range in Wyoming. Hundreds of flower stalks rise above the phacelia, blue flax and bistort—they look like an open forest in the alpine tundra. 
Every few years it flowers in unison. 2018 is one such year, especially at high elevations in Yellowstone and the Gros Ventre Range in Wyoming. Hundreds of flower stalks rise above the phacelia, blue flax and bistort—they look like an open forest in the alpine tundra. 
Dr. Inouye has found that the flower stalk begins forming 3 to 4 years before it starts to grow upward into something we can see. That makes sense, as does the long period of rosette-hood that precedes it. To make a stalk that can grow to over an inch in diameter and six feet tall, while producing hundreds of blooms the size of quarters, takes a lot of energy. The roots store that energy until they have what it takes to take off. 

Environmental factors like moisture seem to determine the years of unison flowering—if you’ve saved up carbohydrates for many years you don’t want to miss a good chance to send as many seeds as possible out into the world. Dr. Inouye’s research in Colorado has found that wet weather in July and August weather four years earlier is the cue to for the monument plant to start forming the microscopic tissue that will become a flower stalk. 

So the plants keep growing, making larger rosettes and storing energy while they wait for the rain. Four years after the rainy summer they start making embryonic flower stalks, then after another few years they finally bloom. That sounds like a lot of planning. But it’s worth it – a unison bloom in a favorable year attracts many pollinators which in turn help make sure that all those flowers get fertilized. The millions of tiny seeds, many of which are eaten or otherwise destroyed, assure that a good number will germinate and grow into the next generation of monument plants.
Monument plant is one of my favorite examples of how a common wildflower can make you say wow. To know more about them is, I think, the path to a greater appreciation not only for the gentian but for the world around us. What we might consider ordinary is miraculous. As I step into the world of Gentian, I find I’ve left my own little world of ego, perfection and worry behind.

Not everyone is open to such ruminations. When I worked for the Forest Service I once stopped by a campground to find the volunteer host whacking off the flower head of every tall green gentian in sight. I asked why she was doing it.

“I don’t like ‘em,” she snapped.

I pointed out that they were native plants, not weeds. That didn’t seem to matter; she thought they were ugly. I mentioned their age but she was impervious to that information as well. 

When I got back into the truck with the district recreation manager I asked why the hosts were killing wildflowers rather than cleaning outhouses and painting picnic tables. After some half-hearted excuses about the crotchety older folks they had as volunteers, she promised to give this woman something better to do. 

At least by the time the flower heads were amputated with a machete they had started to form seeds. The stem wasn’t dry so it probably had enough carbohydrate and moisture left to complete the ripening process and the plants whose age matched that of the crotchety host were successful after all. At least I hoped so.

But that incident stays with me, not only because I couldn’t believe the campground host was committing this act of botanical vandalism, and not only because I was disappointed that I’d made no headway with her. She was convinced of her righteousness and it was her campground to take care of, not mine. I could bugger off as far as she was concerned. 

Her attitude struck me as typical of our way of handling the parallel worlds we live in—how nature works and how we want to have our way with it (no offense intended to those few indigenous cultures left whose attitude is so different from this). We make up our minds and insist on our way. This organism is ugly, or I don’t like it, or don’t confuse me with unwelcome facts. Western culture has long projected our worst impulses and attributes onto undeserving wildlife (the wolf, for example) and made it our sworn enemy. No amount of scientific research about the value of predators, without which the deer in the Pando aspen stand have helped suppress stem reproduction, seems to change our minds. The wonder of plant adaptations that are nothing less than miraculous can leave us cold if we’ve decided those plants don’t fit our definitions of beautiful.

In spite of all this, I return from a foray in the wildflowers with a measure of renewed hope. I hope, and work, toward a day when the mingling of our wild and human worlds will be less of a collision and more of a confluence. Our survival as a species depends on it.

EDITOR'S NOTE
: Summer is the season of soothing reads that put us in the mood of great escapes and prevent the spell of vacations from wearing off. Mountain Journal enthusiastically recommends that readers pick up a copy of Marsh's book A Hunger for High Country. Even if you're a flatlander, you'll enjoy her mountain journeys afield in Greater Yellowstone. You can learn more by visiting her website.

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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