I continue pursuing emerging wildflowers as spring progresses in Idaho’s mountains.
I dream of a quiet man who explains nothing and defends nothing, but only knows where the rarest wildflowers are blooming, and who goes, and finds that he is smiling not by his own will.Wendell Berry
A friend, Karen S, recently recommended a book to me: The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd F. Olson. It’s a collection of essays about the natural world in an area northwest of Lake Superior; the Superior National Forest of Minnesota and the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, Canada. Olson spent much time exploring there, and came to know its flora and fauna intimately. His book was first published in 1956, the year of my birth.
When Karen said she’d read it the first time years ago and was currently rereading it for the third time, that Olson’s fascination with the wildlife and plants he observed reminded her of me, I knew I had to read it. It arrived yesterday and I started reading today.
While I had already mapped out this post about perspective and wildflowers in my head, Olson’s opening sentences in the first chapter, in a section titled Spring, resonated.
To anyone who has spent a winter in the north and known the depths to which the snow can reach, known the weeks when the mercury stays below zero, the first hint of spring is a major event.Sigurd F. Olson
Spring in Idaho’s mountains is a major event. It’s vastly different than spring in a more temperate climate, like Seattle, my hometown, where crocuses start appearing in January. Olson is correct; months of snow-covered landscapes heighten one’s anticipation for any and all signs of spring when they finally appear. Seasonal songbirds, buds on tree branches, wildflowers, streams flowing with snow melt…; so many delicate and deliberate signs that spring is arriving, each day providing more and more.
What occurred to me recently was that the earliest wildflowers, at least here in Idaho’s mountains, are often the smallest. They grow low to the ground, spaced in the rocky open areas that receive early spring sun. One has to pay attention and seek some of them out. Often, it’s total accident when I spot one.
Love is like wildflowers; it’s often found in the most unlikely places.Ralph Waldo Emerson
Taking photos of the wildflowers for sharing here, I realized that unless you’re roaming the forest with me, you’d have no clue of their diminutive size.
I crouch down, phone camera close to the ground and flower, shaking as I try to hold my hands still and snap a photo, hoping it’s focused. I often straddle a steep hillside to get close enough. Or hold my phone on the ground, shooting upward toward the downward-facing petals of an avalanche lily, having no idea until I get home whether the flowers will be in focus, my attempt successful.
My dogs, my constant companions on these forest jaunts, are patient as I stop to take these photos. They stay close, following their noses as they roam near me because, well, what dog can resist coming close to someone huddled near the ground, at their level? Often, their exploring – and me, keeping an eye on them – alert me spots where wildflowers are blooming that I would otherwise miss. We’re a team.
It was those photo ops – me crouching low to the ground, the dogs photobombing as they came near – that made me realize that they provide the perfect perspective on the size of the wildflowers I’m photographing.
A dog’s point of view. The same point of view of most of the wildlife moving through this forest.
Here’s how the idea started: On April 29, as I crouched in the dirt watching and photographing the boys playing in a patch of snow, at their level, I noticed tiny white flowers near my knee. Tiny, as in, the size of my thumb. I’d never noticed them before, and I can’t find a source to identify them.
As the boys and I continued that morning’s run, I saw several other early-emerging wildflowers, and the boys – without prompting – provided a size perspective, an alternate point of view.
For example, some avalanche lilies: from a couple feet away, big trees in the background, you can see they grow low to the ground. Add Conall’s hind leg and tail and you see how small they really are. Had I only included the third photo, a closeup – a successful shot taken by putting the phone on the ground and shooting upward, hoping for the best – you wouldn’t get a true sense of how small and delicate they are.
While taking photos of avalanche lilies, Finn quietly parked himself near the first heartleaf arnica flower I’ve seen this spring. I would have missed it otherwise. Finn provides perspective on the size of these beauties with flowers very similar to sunflowers (arrowleaf balsomroot). Their leaves let me differentiate between them.
Soon after capturing the lily and arnica photos, the boys decided we should follow a track not often chosen because it’s steep and rocky. How wise they were, for just off to the side on our climb I spied the first trillium of the season. They’re lovely up close, but from a few feet away, they almost disappear in the landscape, widely spaced in the forest duff accumulated under nearby big trees, their favored habitat.
Just past the trillium was a small area with avalanche lilies and a few bluebells. Conall’s legs helpfully provided perspective.
As we finished that morning’s run/photo op, I noticed that sunflowers growing near each other seemed to have different petal shapes. Based on the shape of their leaves, I think they’re both arrowleaf balsomroot, but what do I know?
This morning (May 1, 2021) being May Day, I asked the boys to accompany me to a place in the forest I’ve nicknamed Sound of Music Hill because it reminds me of the opening scene of the movie and it never fails to disappoint when it comes to wildflowers. This hill is indeed alive – with the music of wildflowers.
I wasn’t sure if I would find many wildflowers this morning, as it’s a little higher in elevation and the snow has just retreated. I was delighted to see several sunflowers emerging, with a few early larkspur growing much closer to the ground – they’re only an inch tall – and so new that only a handful were fully opened, showing off their stunning blue color.
The sunflowers here always bring a smile to my face, their bright cheerfulness undeniable.
It’s rewarding to seek a different point of view, to crouch close to the ground, knees in the dirt, observing closely what’s growing, which wildflowers are first to thrust themselves through the soil, rocks and tree debris as the snow melts away, lured by lengthening daylight and warming temperatures.
Such perseverance and resilience these wildflowers have. True grit.
Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are.Rumi
Like wildflowers you must allow yourself to grow in all the places people thought you never would.Lorde
Observing myself observing my own slice of the natural world, reading Olson’s The Singing Wilderness and similar books by authors detailing the natural world around them, I wonder: is this the gift of reaching a certain age? To settle into a place in one’s life where the rush to go and see and conquer and possess has passed, replaced by the grounding joy of knowing and understanding just a small piece of the natural world, up close, with a true intimacy of that fraction you’re privy to, all the while knowing there’s so much more to discover that every day dawns as a new adventure?
Feature photo: a typical spring scene in the forest – sunflowers brightening the near landscape, distant peaks retaining winter’s snow. April 29, 2021.