Saturday, May 27, 2017

“stick your foot somewhere & see what you can see”


“In some ways this is a meditative exercise. In others, an unconventional form of yoga. Either way, it's surprising what you can see if, for a moment, you stand still and refuse to move.” –Lucy Corrander

Earlier this week, on a bright fresh morning, I performed the mind-expanding exercise of foot-sticking, following Lucy’s directions from years back: “… plant your foot firmly in a roughly random place and see what you can see without moving. Best is when you plant both feet. If you are on a slope or some other kind of difficult ground you may need to move the other foot for the sake of balance - but you mustn't move the 'stuck' foot. You can bend your body this way and that. You can lean forward and twist at the waist - but you mustn't swivel that stuck-foot.” So I didn’t.

However my place was only barely “roughly random.” It was in a flat area near my campsite where wildflowers grew, as I knew from a stroll the night before. I walked to the first big opening and stuck my foot on an old anthill. It was nearly level with the ground but still obviously an anthill. The particles were well-sorted, forming a patch of fine gravel surrounded by rock fragments in dirt.
In gravel I saw old dried rabbit poop (did you notice?). The nearby dull flat rock fragments are more interesting than you might think. Just that morning I had read that 500 million years ago these rocks were sediments on the bottom of the sea off the west coast of young North America. Now they lie 8000 feet above sea level.

It was still early in the season, so only a few plants were blooming. I twisted around far enough (only one foot was stuck) to photograph some tiny white flowers. Is this a cryptantha (borage family)? That’s what the coarse hairs suggested.
A penstemon in bud was hiding in the shrubbery, visible below as blueish gray leaves. I saw a lot of herbaceous plants growing "in the protection" of shrubs that probably provided shade for the seedlings in this harsh environment. Sorry for the lousy shot but then I didn’t pick the spot for outstanding photo possibilities …  well, not totally.
A few feet away, I spotted a prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) with long spines, unlike the ones I know from Wyoming. Then I noticed that the anthill wasn’t abandoned after all!
Almost done, guys, I’ll be outta here soon.
The most common blooming plant by far was a wild buckwheat (Eriogonum) growing low to the ground—a true cushion plant. From the anthill, it appeared as gray and yellow mats. The yellow flowers, sometimes tinged with red, were in flattish clusters typical of many eriogonums.
I had to unstick my foot for some close-ups, for this was quite an elegant little eriogonum! A vague memory surfaced—“eriogonum caespitosum”—after all, it’s definitely caespitose (botanese for growing in dense tufts).
With Google images now available, I searched and was astonished by what I found. Jim Morefield had shared a photo of Eriogonum caespitosum and it looked really similar to the plants I saw, including growth form and even the rock fragments nearby. Then I noticed … it was taken in the same mountain range! Did fate smile today?
Mat buckwheat in the White Mountains; courtesy Jim Morefield.

Now back to the anthill. Looking up, I was surrounded mostly by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) with occasional snakeweeds (Grindelia squarrosa). Singleleaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) and Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) grew on the slopes above the sagebrush.
Sagebrush is blue-gray-green. Snakebrush is bright green in comparison.
The more yellow-green trees are junipers; the rest are pinyons.
I was able to twist around far enough to catch a sign by the side of the road. It recommended 4-wheel-drive, in faded hard-to-read print (even up close).
Finally, I looked west toward the great Sierra Nevada, still snow-covered thanks to California's stormy winter and a spring blizzard just ten days earlier.

After unsticking my foot, I walked the 4-wheel-drive road to an overlook with the views for which Grand View Campground is named. The Owens Valley below is 4000 feet elevation. The crest of the Sierra Nevada is 13,000+!
View from the White Mountains west to the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada beyond.
"Sierra Nevada" means snowy range (Spanish).


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Plants with no names, and other mysteries


It was like being young again. On the road, driving fast, light fading, finally a sign—the wrong sign. Missed the turnoff 40 miles back. Turn north anyway, drive fast, light fading, hit the brakes, back up, take a narrow deep-rutted two-track winding through creosote scrub with no place to turn around. Keep driving, wondering, light fading, rocky hill visible ahead, suddenly arrive and stop. Flat open area, fire ring, fragrance of creosote bush, tiny car lights snaking through the valley below. Far to the east a golden glow edges the jagged mountain crest and the full moon rises—unexpected, unplanned, perfect.

And look what the morning brought:
Morning at the base of Van Winkle Peak.
The desert was in bloom—not the highly-touted “super bloom” of early spring annuals, but rather shrubs covered in flowers. All the moisture had benefitted them too. Most looked familiar, probably because 40 years ago we novice botanists stood before them chanting in Latin. For a moment I hesitated, caught by the reflex. But how absurd! There’s no requirement to name plants to enjoy them.

Of course I recognized creosote bush—I would have recognized it just by its wonderful fragrance (early travelers struggling to cross the Mojave before dying of thirst probably would have disagreed with “wonderful”).
Vigorous creosote bush almost ten feet tall.
Note resinous aromatic leaves.

A yellow-flowered green-stemmed shrub was the main source of color—desert senna, Senna armata, as I later learned from a plant display at the park Visitor Center. It’s a member of the pea family.
Why doesn’t it have pea-like flowers? Because it’s in the subgroup Caesalpinioideae, with flowers only slightly irregular. But it does have compound leaves like many peas, though it took me a moment to see this, with the widely-spaced tiny leaflets on a twisting axis.
Look close – compound leaves!

Next I found a wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) thick with flowers. This genus is easy to recognize, with clusters of small six-parted flowers, but species are often tough. Wild buckwheats are common and diverse in California deserts. During C. Hart Merriam’s Death Valley Expedition of 1891, botanists Frederick V. Coville and Frederick Funston collected 25 species!
Lucky shot—a preoccupied pollinator stumbled into my field of view.

Next to the wild buckwheat was a dead shrub … or so I thought until violet spots caught my eye. This plant’s a total mystery. I don’t know the genus nor the family. It has sharp-tipped twigs, and the stems, leaves and buds are covered in fine gray hairs. Any ideas?

The low shrub below was another a puzzle. It was covered in yellowish fruit, each with two plump locules (chambers) and a persistent style rising between. It had green stems and tiny leaves. Green stems are not uncommon in the desert; they allow photosynthesis to continue after leaves are dropped in response to drought.

Oh boy, chollas ahead! (Opuntia spp.; mid photo below). I spent a fair amount of time among them—I love photographing cactus spines.
Inside the flowers, the stamens were moving, their yellow anthers swaying erratically. Something was rummaging around down at the base of the red filaments. Is there nectar down there, full of drunken pollinators? Finally I caught a shot of one of the culprits.
What is it?

A few annuals were hanging on, the last of the super bloomers. This little beauty was the most common. It’s a member of the aster (sunflower) family.

I spent two nights and two days in the Mojave National Preserve—not nearly enough, not even close. But then I hadn’t planned to go there at all. Seems I always drive across the Mojave in May, when it’s much too hot to stop, but this year things were different, “unusual.” Thunderstorms, heavy rain, flood warnings and finally snow drove me out of New Mexico. I sped across Arizona hoping for dry tolerably-warm Mojave days. Indeed they were.

Continuing on to the coast, I had lots of time to ponder this change. Why are wonderful surprises rare now? Has my venturing into the unknown declined due to age or due to the hyper-availability of information? I thought about all those hours spent on the web the week before I left. Maybe every long trip should include at least one area with little information and no plan. We’ll see if this plan can be implemented ;-)