Going Native 

Spring marks the return of native plants and animals, wide in variety and abundance

"Out of brown nothingness the first pasqueflower appears."

-- Ann H. Zwinger

No matter how warm the days, how profuse the blooming daffodils, only the native wildflowers know for sure when winter is over in the Pikes Peak region. Many a spring blizzard has crushed the optimistic blossoming fruit trees and the hopes of those who tend them. Each time we've had one of those heavy spring snowfalls, though, the earliest native wildflowers hadn't yet appeared. I know spring is genuine when I see the pasqueflowers on my walks in the Garden of the Gods.

Well, it's official: they've appeared. Small, unassuming anemones with fuzzy stems and petals, pasqueflowers are named for their appearance near Easter. But it's been the warmest winter on record, and Easter falls late this year. After much of a lifetime of springs heralded here by pasqueflowers, I trust their accuracy. Avian harbingers of spring confirm it: white-throated swifts have returned to the sheer cliffs of the Garden of the Gods, soaring high among the rocks.

One of the pleasures of staying put is the companionship of native animal and plant neighbors. It's the recognition of old friends, and the layers of memories and understanding that have formed around them -- just like human relationships that last a lifetime. In the coming weeks, I'll see star-like white sand lilies appear close to the ground, followed by spindly spiderwort, then Indian paintbrush.

The spires of creamy yucca blossoms lighting the foothills in early June remind me of the exclusive relationship of the yucca with its pollinator. The pronuba moth lays its eggs inside the yucca's flowers; its larvae, emerging into the fruit that grew as a result of the moth's pollinating efforts, eat some (but not all) of the seeds. Yucca and moth provide for each other's future generations, thus for their own survival. I take pleasure, too, in knowing yucca's many uses by Native Americans: cords, sandals, paintbrushes, shampoo. I remember the ample suds that resulted from my experiments with yucca roots when I was a small child, washing my doll's hair.

Unfurling mountain mahogany leaves bring to mind a ranger-led hike in Arizona. The ranger was a Navajo who had grown up nearby. The whole canyon had been "a pharmacy" to his grandfather, a medicine man. Navajos, he said, had eaten mountain mahogany leaves for endurance; they are invigorating, though perhaps an acquired taste. A few springs ago, I learned a gourmet tip by watching and imitating the selective browsing of mule deer: newly-emerged mountain mahogany leaves are far less bitter, more tender, than the full-grown ones of summer.

Not everything stays the same. It's been over four decades since neighborhood kids, not infrequently, showed off the rattlesnake rattles they'd taken from the tail of a flattened roadkill snake. I don't hear coyotes singing too often any more, though their tracks and scat are plentiful along the trails. But a different song graces this year's mornings: a canyon wren -- whose lovely liquid cadenza was a treat heard only on desert camping trips in my childhood -- now haunts the nearby rocks. Last spring, the fluid notes of redwinged blackbirds filled the foothills -- unusual here, though common in marsh and prairie lands.

Chipmunks have returned to my bird feeder, now that I no longer have a cat. They vie for seeds with raffish adolescent scrub jays, whose cool bravado is betrayed by fluffy tufts of remnant baby down sticking out from their sleek new feathers. Steller's jays, down from mountain forests, and eastern blue jays show up outside my kitchen window too -- proving the diversity of the Front Range ecotone, or meeting place of life zones. A Minnesota friend writes of gray jays outside his window; I'd find gray jays (whiskeyjacks, camp robbers) near here at timberline. Each thousand-foot elevation gain is roughly equivalent, in terms of habitat, to going 300 miles north; our subalpine forests at 10,000 feet have a lot in common with the deep woods near the Canadian border where whiskeyjacks nestle under the northern lights.

Your nearest native neighbors may be the flicker drumming on your roof, raccoons raiding your garbage, migrating moths fluttering against your windows. Or they may be Canada geese on Prospect Lake, great blue herons nesting in the cottonwood trees along Fountain Creek, pronghorns and prairie dogs on the plains to the east. With such a wide range of life zones around here (almost everything except rainforest or ocean), there's enormous opportunity to get to know a wide variety of nonhuman natives firsthand.

Not every community has such natural-habitat diversity. What if our schools emphasized -- and funded -- more field trips to regional open spaces? It's a shame to limit kids to what they can pick up staring at a screen, whether it's high-tech educational software or the Discovery Channel.

Our community includes the plants and animals that have been living here for millennia. They can tell us a lot: about relationships for mutual sustenance, when spring has truly arrived what it means to be here, not anywhere else. As poet Gary Snyder recommends:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light


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