Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pioneering Lupine

With my chore for the afternoon finished - staining the deck - and a gentle June breeze coming in from the west, I felt the need to run on the hillside of what we call the TV Tower, named after its signal equipment stationed on top. Putting on my running shoes, Griz and Emma barked and herded me out the door. They always know what it means what I tie my sneakers and fill my Camelbak.

Heading up the first small rise I realize the mule ears and lupine lining my path are in full bloom. The happy yellow blossoms of the mule ears invite optimism and the wild lupine, so much smaller than their domesticated relatives in my garden, ask for closer attention: they grow closer to the ground and their whorls stand only six to eight inches tall.

My steps continue in and out of the lavender lupine and Griz and Emma trot in and out of fresh young sage sniffing under the oaks and along game trails. Sometimes I lose sight of them and call, “Emma Lou, Grizzly Bear!” They emerge back on the road, sometimes ahead of me and sometimes from behind me as if to say, “Just checking things out. No need to worry.” I usually don’t worry too much about them, but I’m also a little more aware on the hillside after spotting mountain lion tracks this winter and after recently hearing about a friend’s dog that was clawed by a mountain lion before it was scared off. I think, “If I make noise with my hollering, maybe it will deter either a lion or a bear.”

Once on top, a vertical climb of over 800 feet, our traveling pack seeks some shade and a minute to catch our breath. Congratulating Griz on his climb with a rub of his ears, I spot a Chiming bluebell in full bloom. I think Griz looks as happy as the bluebells beside him. And then I catch sight of the deep purple larkspur and sticky geranium, its delicate pink a striking contrast to the rocky outcropping beneath our feet. While I know most of the wildflowers on the hill, I fail to know all of them.

Upon my return home, I found in the welcome of the wildflower bloom an invitation to find out more about what I’d seen. I first looked up mule ears and find the common mountain sunflower was first collected in 1893 by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, a Massachusetts merchant who in 1832 traveled by land to Oregon; and his botanist friend, Nathaniel Nuttall. In 1934, Nuttall named the sunflower after Wyeth, christening it, Wyethia x magna.

Next, I googled the lovely and diminutive lupine. It turns out the lupine is actually a pioneering plant of sorts. Its ability to tolerate barren and infertile soils, combined with its ability to fertilize the soil for other plants, establishes a foothold not only for the lupine, but for other plants. In essence, it claims a “plant homestead” by making the infertile fertile and hospitable.

So, from Wyeth and Nuttall to the sweet lavender lupine, little did I know that I had run on the hillside in the company of seekers and pioneers. I was, perhaps, most taken by the pioneering role of the lupine. To settle in a formidable landscape is an admirable achievement. I thought of the parallels to the many pioneers who attempted to do the same in the West: establishing a foothold, often in formidable landscapes: creating shelter, securing a source of water, and then growing enough food for their families and the next generation. They too, like the lupine, first found that foothold and when successful, provided sustenance and support for others.

The wildflower bloom is hard won for our winter season is long and deep. When the mule ears, lupine, chiming bluebells, larkspur, and sticky geranium sing-out on the top of the hill, they too have triumphed over the odds of an arid western climate and rocky soils. As I write, I conclude that the spirit of their bloom and the spirit in the dreams of all those hardy seekers and pioneers must be one in the same.

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