Ponderosa Pines are easy trees to love. They smell like vanilla cupcakes, maple syrup and sausages, or pineapple to some lucky noses, and when the sun strikes them in the right way, they light up like pillars of pink salt. 40 to 150 foot tall pillars that can reach up to 8 feet wide and 600 years old under the best conditions. And they are everywhere, pouring over the Rocky Mountains, covering the southwest, and standing off against the prairies to the east.
The Scottish botanist David Douglas named them for their “ponderous” size (he hadn’t seen the Redwoods yet) but Ponderosas have a particular aspect and mood that goes beyond bigness, approaching the sublime. Qualities that have everything to do with two factors: drought and fire.
Drought forces their roots deeper and wider than most conifers, spacing them well apart and making Ponderosa forests feel airy, peaceful and light. Dry seasons inevitably lead to combustion, whether by lightning strike or, now, by people who grasp how deeply fire is woven into the character of Western woods.
In fact, Ponderosas are quite literally fire bugs. They need it so bad, they provide their own kindling by continually shedding bark and limbs en mass every year. Bare trunks keep flames from reaching vital crowns and lanky, draping needles shield their cones from heat. Brush fires clear out shade-bearing competitors like White Pine or Incense Cedar without seriously injuring older trees. At the same time fire coaxes sap into the lowest, deepest parts of Ponderosa trunks, bracing the heartwood so it can stand under its own weight for hundreds of years.
Fire is tough, necessary love. It’s the natural history lesson of a century and a funny thing to learn from any tree.
A great treasure of food radio is Evan Kleinman’s program “Good Food” which airs weekly on KCRW out of Los Angeles. On it, she explores food consumption, sharing everything from the latest crop at the Santa Monica farmer’s market to the funkiest hole in the wall from the underground restaurant scene.
Evan often brings a foodie guest onto her show, further wetting our appetite as we hear about unique recipes from different cultures, important issues regarding food policy or the hottest new trend in eating. No topic is off the table. Before listening to “Good Food” I never knew there was such a thing as a beauty pageant for chickens nor did I know that butter carving was an art. I’m still digesting it all!
With summer weather in mind, Evan recently brought London based blogger Kate Perutz onto her show. Perutz pens the blog, “The Saturday Picnic Society,” where she writers about her outdoor adventures and the food she brings along. If you haven’t checked it out, you must. On “Good Food” Perutz pairs adventure choice (beach vs. mountains) with meal ideas (salad lettuce wraps vs. hearty soups). She says ditch the vintage picnic basket (Evan really had her heart set on using it too) and settle for the sporty (small) backpack.
Picnics should be filling, yet light weight especially if bringing them along with you. I was shocked to hear she’s moving away from the sandwich, which I exclusively associate with picnics. She shares tips on foraging while hiking, mainly ideas for what to bring back to the kitchen rather than snacking on your findings (my personal side note: be extra cautious when foraging and never eat something you can’t identity as non-poisonous).
Finally she shares her energy-filled recipe for trail mix which centers around her go-to marmalade granola (recipe here). She adds dark chocolate covered cranberries, crystallized ginger, yogurt covered raisins and assorted nuts. Food wise, I think we just reached the summit. Before you pack your picnic for the trails, tune in to the whole episode here.
Place a sturdy leaf in a jar of water and at the end of several weeks or months, depending on the leaf, you will have the makings of a phantom bouquet. All that remains is to sift out the nets intact, rinse and gently rub away the pulp. The same process occurs every winter on damp and spongy forest floors so that come spring, after the snow has melted, whole acres are covered with the remains of skeletalized leaves. But they do more than attract the eye.
In Phantom Flowers, a treatise on the art of producing skeleton leaves – an unfortunately anonymous how-to booklet published in 1864 – the author explains:
From the large proportion of mineral matter contained in the leaves, it is evident that the same substances existing in the earth must be annually circulating from one to the other. The roots extract them from the soil, they ascend the tree with the sap, and are deposited in the leaves. Having given them coherency and strength, and having probably performed other functions which are yet unknown to either botanist or chemist, the fall and decay of the leaves returns these mineral ingredients to the earth. With the succeeding year the mysterious circuit is repeated, the tree enlarging in bulk, and the forest soil increasing in richness…
Phantom Flowers describes how to preserve plants, including their leaves, buds, and seed-vessels, in an ornate, patient and purist Victorian style. J.E. Tilton & Co. might have published the book primarily to sell their leaf whitening agent, but the author puts such an… ahem… flowery Emersonian spin on the whole affair, it’s worth a re-visit even now:
The science which enables us to understand not only the history, the names, the virtues, and the associations connected with all plants, as well as the wonderful relations, the admirable laws which govern their structure, and the important part they bear in the economy of the universe, is worthy of the careful study of every intelligent person. He will find it worth while to become familiar with a science which, wherever his steps may lead him, from the bleak mountaintop, crusted over with mosses and lichens only, to warm and luxuriant tropical valleys, where the magnificence of vegetable wonders almost bewilders the senses, with still furnish him with new subjects for admiration. It will make his morning walk in the garden or over the meadow a new delight. A tramp along the commonest field path, or a ramble by the wayside, which, to the eye of the dull and unlearned, may be mean and barren, he will find rich in interest and exuberant in beauty…
The fields, the forests, the entire landscape have a positively different and altogether new meaning to one who sees, not only the general beauty of the whole display, but who also studies with delight every detail of fern, or shrub, or forest tree in the foreground.
On a more practical note, the book contains “minute particulars” on over twenty different species. The author specifies when to collect, how long to soak, and what kind of results you can expect from any given leaf. Whether or not you choose to bleach them in the olden style is entirely up to you.
It’s National Park Week. Across the country parks have been opening their gates, waiving entry fees and holding special events in honor of our wilderness heritage. To give a little of what you get, consider volunteering this summer at a park in your area. As the NPS prepares for the seasonal rush, they’re putting out the call for special projects that could keep you trail-bound for days or have you home by supper.
Olympic National Park – Survey the park for the endemic marmot population or contact Jill Zarzeczny (360.565.3047) to help transplant seedlings from the native plant nursery to the newly protected Elwha River area.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Assist rangers with monitoring elk and people in the remote Cataloochee valley. Contact Ranger Pete Walker at 828.506.1739.
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway – Help identify invasive species before they get out of hand or become a citizen scientist and monitor for algal blooms by collecting water samples. Contact Jonathan Moore (715.491.6839) to lend a hand.
Sequoia and Kings National Parks – Videographers wanted to create podcasts and public service announcements, produce short video stories and document the scenic heart of the land of giants. Contact Tim Barrett (565.4232) to volunteer your skills.
Search for opportunities in the park closest to your heart here.
Image from The Encyclopedia of Vanished Species by David Day (McLaren Publishing, 1989)
Certain bird calls are as familiar as the taste of mint or the weight of a no. 2 pencil. Crows, gulls and some owls come to mind. Roosters, geese and ducks. Birds whose voices we have words for, or whose songs we can easily mimic. Then there are the birds whose voices we hear year after year in our yards and woods and parks without ever thinking to name or hoping to describe.
That is until, thanks to a good field guide or a knowing friend, we do.
The melodic sigh of the hermit thrush fell into place for me that way. And the quippy chatter of jays.
For so many reasons, recognizing birds by their call or song is a good skill to have. Excepting jays, who flit foxily into view, most successful bird watching involves a great deal of bird listening. And sometimes that’s all you get. Or all you want as in the case of the thrush – a dull brown lump with a surprisingly wistful, lilting song.
Recently, this time thanks to the Internet, I learned to recognized the territorial call of the northern flicker. The following morning, one showed up next door. It took losing a hat, missing a bus and arriving late for work, but now the bird’s rough whoop is as telltale as a single set of footprints trailing behind me in the snow.
Spring comes with its fair share of rain, old winter tree slush, and even hail—all hazards on the trail and all good reasons to stow your necessities in a reliably water-resistant day pack. A few bag makers still craft their goods in the United States, making them superior in quality and karma. Their simple, structured designs and rugged fabrics make them over-the-top obsess-worthy. Be sure to click through for the mother of all beautiful / functional packs.
Waxed or not, canvas is classic.
Frost River started out making canoe bags for trappers and miners, so when they say waterproof they mean it.
Plenty of options yet unrivaled for simplicity. The Archival Clothing rucksack comes in multiple colors (all good), roll-top or flap, waxed canvas or duck.
The Scoutmaster Pack, an easy choice from the all-American bag brand Duluth.
Basic or bold, nylon goes and goes.
Topo Designs calls this the Goldilocks of rucksacks because it’s just right. Well, I’m convinced.
More after the jump…
The good news is, wildflowers do not startle. No matter how long it takes to make a positive ID or take an up-close photo, they are happy to pose. The no-so-good news is, depending on the plant, their display may last only weeks or days in any given place.
To make the most of your trip, you’ll want to grab a guidebook, make a plan, and bring your lucky rabbits foot. Like anything else, wildflower hunting is all about being in the right place at the right time. But with a little preparation, nature will reward you with an abundance of memorable colors, shapes, textures, and experiences:
1. Study the likely suspects. Depending on where you go, only two or three early bloomers will be hardy or conspicuous enough to show. Look them up ahead of time in a book or encyclopedia that includes info on season and ecology. Then remember to pack a field guide (I love my Pojar) to cover the mysterious strangers and colorful party crashers you meet along the way.
2. Follow the rain. Sunny days are fine for hiking, but sunny days after a downpour are even better. Especially true in the southwest, where some opportunistic buds respond within hours, not days, and evaporate as briskly.
3. Go for southern exposure. Just like in your garden, southern facing slopes dry out and green up earlier than others. Select a trail that will, on a macro-level, spend most of its time on the bright side of your hill/valley/river/canyon/gorge.
4. Stay on the trail. Good sense on any hike and especially meaningful in wildflower country. Nonwoody plants crush easily underfoot; compacted soil will snuff them out. Unbeknownst to you, the seeds of non-native plants may have hitched a ride on the soles of your boot. And it almost goes without saying: don’t pick. A severed stem does nothing for their winsome looks.
5. And speaking of looks… keep yours low. Both in terms of altitude (the lowlands and valleys spring up before mountainsides) and undergrowth. Many early bloomers are short, lithe, unassuming creatures who nab their place in the sun before taller, fuller varieties fill in the wildflower canopy. But small doesn’t mean less interesting. Take shooting star, or Dodecatheon – a dainty display with captivating geometry.
6. Don’t overlook the wayside. I know when I hear wildflowers, my mind immediately goes to alpine meadows in full effect. However the blossoms are many along country roads and in empty suburban lots, often dwarfing by sheer number their cousins in the high country.
Last but not least, do you have any tips for me? As a new writer here at Wilder, I’d love to hear your thoughts on native plants, hiking, camping, and everything outdoors. Leave a comment or send a lovely note to summer [at] wilderquarterly [dot] com. Happy hunting!
“Unless Congress can reach a budget agreement by March 1, the country’s national parks will be hit by a $110 million budget cut, resulting in shuttered campgrounds, shorter seasons, road closings and reduced emergency services, a parks advocacy group reports.” The New York Times
Well, I say screw ‘em. Donate to the National Parks here.
If you’ve never been to a National Park, I do recommend going. Life changer. Go West or North to really see the glory of what Wallace Stegner called, “the best idea we ever had.” There are 59 and most offer campgrounds, fishing, rafting, horse backing riding, stargazing and a slew of other wonderful things. The classics are great (Yosemite, Glacier, etc), but here are some of my and the Wilder team’s favorites:
Badlands, South Dakota
Grand Teyton, Wyoming
Great Sand Dunes, Colorado
Death Valley, California / Nevada
Assateague Island, Maryland
Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
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