The first time Elizabeth and I went hiking with our dear pals Charles and Lindsey Shere in Sonoma County--she the first and longtime pastry chef at Chez Panisse, he the restaurant's eminence grise and one of the world's true polymaths--Elizabeth and I stopped to look at a wildflower, both whose English and scientific (that is, Latin) names Elizabeth happened to know. And Charles said, "Uh oh, Lindsey--pedants."
Yeah, well. Yesterday, a splendid bright blue morning, we strode across the Sweet Grass prairie and on up the lower shelves of Porcupine Butte, ultimately to a little plateau covered with the skeletons of dead limber pines. Two scourges have been at work on the white pine species of the West, a nasty foreign disease called white pine blister rust and a home-grown bug made unnaturally mighty by the rising temperatures of our winters, the mountain pine beetle. At high elevations a close cousin of these limber pines, the whitebark pine, has long been the most important single source of food for Yellowstone grizzly bears, and those forests are nearly all nearly dead. The grizzlies' backup protein has been cutthroat trout when they spawn in shallow tributaries of Yellowstone Lake--and now those fish have been reduced something like ninety percent by an invasion of monstrous lake trout, which some asshole actually dumped into the lake on purpose. The next menu item for the bears is elk calves, and now the elk population is down. And guess what the grizzlies' stewards in the federal government now propose to do? Remove federal protection for the species. But I digress.
On this shelf of Porcupine Butte there were still several healthy limber pines, and I wondered if perhaps there will survive a strain that is immune to both the plagues of the limber and the whitebark pines. I know that the precedents aren't good: The American chestnut and elm come to mind, both of which still have a few healthy individuals, so they haven't gone extinct as species but they sure as hell haven't recovered either. Jesus, I'm still digressing.
Where I'm trying to get to is the amazing beauty we passed through on our way across the prairie and up the steepening slopes of the butte. There were some flowers in stupendous abundance that I've never seen in such splendor, and I'm thinking that their richness may be a function of last year's poverty--that they are the children of drought and perhaps also of the overgrazing it brought on. There is a gorgeous pink Phacelia--linearis, called threadleaf phacelia--that there were great blankets of amid the whitened, twisted trunks of the dead pine trees, a phenomenon I'd never seen.
This was a place we'd never been before, either, and we thought we would move east from it across the steep but walkable face of the butte, but instead we found ourselves at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a gorge which also we had never seen. Across it suddenly there were two, then three, then four critters in motion, climbing the opposite cliff face--the first two all grace and speed, the third and fourth smaller, galumphing, tripping, and stopping at uncertain perches to look back at us in mystification. These were two coyote pups, as soft-looking as baby's toys, big ears, big eyes, as cute a pair of little big-footed puppies as I've ever been blessed with the sight of. I think they probably had never seen people before. Their nervous parents, unheard, unseen after those first moments, somehow drew them promptly away into cover.
And so, okay, pedants to the core, we saw and named all these, in flower and in glory (Elizabeth, actually, is the one who has done nearly all the digging in books and online for the precise species--she's the ultra-pedant):
Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Lupinus [argenteus?], [silver?] lupine
Gaillardia aristata, blanketflower
Potentilla diversifolia, cinquefoil
Lithospermum ruderale, western gromwell
Oxytropis splendens, showy crazyweed
Oxytropis lagopus, rabbitfoot crazyweed
Eriogonum flavum, yellow buckwheat
Allium textile, textile onion
Phacelia linearis, threadleaf phacelia
Sphaeralcea coccinea, scarlet globemallow
Astragalus drummondii, crazyweed or Drummond's milkvetch
Linum perenne, wild flax
Gaura coccinea, scarlet gaura
Grindelia squarrosa, curlycup gumweed
Helianthella uniflora, little sunflower
Toxicoscordion venenosus, death-camas
Rosa sp., wild prairie rose
Antennaria parvifolia, Nuttall's pussytoes
Antennaria neglecta, field pussytoes
Potentilla hippiana, silver cinquefoil
Agoseris glauca, false dandelion
Penstemon eriantherus, fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus, woolly groundsel
Galium boreale, northern bedstraw
Orobanche fasciculata, clustered broomrape (sounds like a very bad crime, doesn't it?)
Geranium viscosissimum, sticky geranium
Lithospermum incisum, narrow-leaved gromwell
Arenaria hookeri, Hooker's sandwort (sounds like a bad STD, doesn't it?)
Crypthantha virguta, miner's candle
Townsendia parryi, Parry's townsendia
Erigeron compositus, cutleaf daisy
Gilia congesta, ballhead gilia
Hymenoxys acaulis, stemless sunflower
Eriogonum umbellatum, sulphur buckwheat
Lomatium cous, Cous biscuitroot
Comandra, umbellata, bastard toadflax
Stenoloba sp.?, draba?
Draba aurea? golden draba?
Collomia linearis, long-leaved collomia
Phacelia hastata, silverleaf phacelia
Campanula rotundifolia, harebell
Sedum lanceolatum, lanceleaf stonecrop
Ribes inerme, white-stemmed gooseberry
Delphinium bicolor, little larkspur
Phlox multiflora, Rocky Mountain phlox
Vicia americana, purple vetch