Celebrating Plant-Birthdays

By: Kaytlyn Goodwin

I open my door on a crisp April morning with sounds of water calmly trickling, invisible to the eye, underneath what is left of the winter’s snow; and the faint but cheery song of the first birds of the season as they journey to their nesting grounds. Some mornings are filled with the dreary drizzle of a spring shower or the soft flurries of a late snow. Despite the mud, spring is my favorite season, not because I despise the snow, cold weather, or deafening silence of the snow-covered landscape; but because of the phenological phenomena that brings about rebirth, rejuvenation, and regrowth. Birds usher the melodies of spring, and wildflowers beget the vision of life.

There are many things I could write pertaining to the caveats of spring—such as rain storms, fishing, birds, baby animals, sunshine, and spring cleaning—but I am going to focus on my favorite thing… WILDFLOWERS!!! While I am a nature fanatic, I do tend to spend most of my time watching the birds and smelling the flowers. Aldo Leopold wrote, “Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.” What Leopold refers to here is that everyone can see the wildflowers, yet only a few people take notice of the lesser species (like spring draba, a white flower just larger than the head of a ballpoint pen; or pink microsteris, a pink flower just smaller than a pencil eraser), and even fewer people truly admire the life history of even one species. For me, wildflowers have a way of making me smile on even the worst of days, and of taking my mind off the meticulous tasks I so desperately wish did not have to be completed.

I step out of my car after driving about an hour for my first hike of the season, and the air is filled with the earthy smell of mud, made even more distinct because the soil has reached temperatures conducive to bacterial activity, which is an important process in the nutrient cycle of this mountainous region. The ground here is no longer covered in powdery white snow, but with a mosaic of luscious green grass and a multitude of magnificently vibrant wildflowers. This is the setting for all of my hikes from April until August; beginning with lower elevation hikes and working my way to higher elevation hikes where spring comes late. The elevation changes of mountainous regions creates access to a broad range of successional stages. One could hike the same trail two months apart and feel as if they are seeing the landscape for the first time.

It is now July as I begin my hike to Grass Mountain Lakes in west central Idaho. My hike takes me longer than it should because I stop every twenty feet to take pictures of old friends or meticulously flip through my wildflower field guide in hopes of becoming acquainted with a new friend. As I stop for the tenth time, my husband exclaims, “Don’t you already have a hundred pictures of that same flower?” …my response, “yes, but this one is so very pretty, too.” Occasionally I pose the question to my husband, “Do you remember what this one is called (in reference to a flower, tree, or shrub I have already taught him how to identify)?” …his reply, “I don’t remember, I’m ready to get there and start fishing.” We are both naturalists, but our philosophies are quite different; I live for the journey and the places between points A and B, while my husband, on the other hand, prefers the final destination and doesn’t quite care about the smaller things in life. I wonder what Aldo Leopold would say regarding the plant-birthdays of which I take notice versus those of my husband.

I open my door on a chilly mid-September morning, but the air is no longer filled with sounds of trickling water, or birds singing their spring melodies. It has been quite some time since the soil last felt the rejuvenating drops of precipitation, and has since turned to dust – so easily blown about by even the slightest breeze. The overwhelming aroma of wildflowers has been replaced with the thick, sometimes suffocating smell of wildfires burning in the distance. These wildfires play an important role in the nutrient cycle of this mountainous region, just like the spring mud. As I reminisce about my adventures over the last five months and imagining the natural phenomena that will take place over the next seven months, I cannot help but realize how remarkable our world truly is. I know I can rely on the snow to melt and the flowers to bloom come spring; the soil to dry come summer; the wildfires to recycle the old so the new can grow come autumn; the snow to fall and the landscape to be silenced come winter; and the cycle to start anew.

I open my door on a crisp April morning…

“Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers in it.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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