Fieldwork: Turning 61 in Yellowstone

Last week, I headed for Yellowstone National Park for my final invasive-weed-digging session of the summer. I left the day the first fall storm blasted the park, and because of snow and accidents on the mountain passes, I took the long way around, driving north to Interstate 90 at Laurel, Montana, then west to Livingston, and then south to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I'm based for my volunteer work.

Taking the long way turned what is usually a three-hour commute into five-plus hours. In howling wind and slashing rain. Still, when I got to Mammoth, I put on my rain gear, dug out my plant knife and bear spray, and headed up the Beaver Ponds Trail to check out a patch of spotted knapweed (Centuarea maculosa) I had discovered on my last trip. (There I am in the photo at the top of the post, wet, a bit cold, but happy.)

I spent a couple of hours surveying my various weeding sites, and then called it a day. 

That night, I went to sleep to rain pattering on the roof of Red's topper, a soothing sound after a long drought has filled much of the West's air with forest-fire smoke. I woke to silence, the eerie strangled whistle of a bull elk bugling his harem, and… Snow. 

Red in the snow at the Mammoth Campground before dawn.

White, wet, and cold. After boiling water on Red's tailgate and making my breakfast (organic instant oatmeal with dried cranberries and raisins), I checked the weather. The temperature was 28 degrees F; the forecast predicted positively balmy mid-forties by afternoon. I decided to let the day warm up a bit before heading out with plant knife and bear spray in hand. 

I took a short hike to survey a spot where knapweed had been reported and watched a flock of at least 200 mountain bluebirds feeding in the shortgrass grasslands (I couldn't get close enough to shoot a photo). The mass of vivid blue bluebirds fluttering as they snatched half-frozen insects out of the air looked like it was snowing chips of blue sky!

That afternoon I spent a satisfying few hours filling a 33-gallon trash bag with knapweed carcasses. The soil was so wet that the plants popped out of the ground, root and all, with leverage from my plant knife and my hands.

Spotted knapweed or Centuarea maculosa in the language of science. Don't let those pretty purple flowers fool you, this plant is a killer. 

If you don't know spotted knapweed, here's the short explanation for why someone who loves plants and biodiversity spends her precious free time volunteering to kill them: Centaurea maculosa is native to Eurasia, where it has a place in the natural communities. On this continent, the plant has no long-term beneficial relationships with pollinators, songbirds, or grazers; it takes up space without contributing substantially. Worse yet, it exudes poisons out of its roots that kill surrounding plants, allowing knapweed to push those plants out, harm the ecosystem and dominate whole areas.

I've seen places where spotted knapweed rings centuries-old, head-high big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and gradually kills these shrubs that form the sheltering overstory for valleys and basins, much like coniferous trees provide the canopy for the mountain forests. 

I'm on a mission to help restore the shrubland and grassland communities of the northern part of Yellowstone, in particular those old-growth big sagebrush stands that are increasingly rare outside the park. The tallest big sagebrush grow where soils are deepest and most fertile, so they have long been plowed for farm fields and hay pastures. The 250 or so species that depend on big sagebrush, from pronghorn antelope and pygmy rabbits to sage-grouse and flashy black-and-white sagebrush sheepmoths suffer when these stands disappear. 

So I dig knapweed, working on my hands and knees with my trusty plant knife, speaking quietly to the sagebrush as I remove the knapweed and their killing roots from the soil. "Hang in there, Grandmothers," I say, applying leverage to the handle of my plant knife to grub out a particularly huge clump of knapweed with a foot-long root. "I'm working on restoring your soil. Don't give up yet!"

A big sagebrush taller than I am and at least several centuries old slowly being poisoned by a colony of spotted knapweed.

So my weeding days go, some sunny and warm, some chill and windy. I dig until my legs and fingers cramp, and then take time to read and think and wander favorite trails. 

Monday morning I woke in before dawn as the darkness eased, hearing a bull elk give his piercing and strangled whistle very nearby. I sat up in my sleeping bag, but there wasn't enough light yet to see where he was. About half an hour later, when I was up and dressed, and had my camp stove on Red's tailgate boiling water for my oatmeal, he began to bugle again.

Soon, there was crashing on the hillside. Half a dozen cow elk appeared, trotting down the steep slope. A few of them stopped to chow down on the chokecherry shrubs at the neighboring campsite, for all the world as if they were in a buffet line. 

Chokecherry morning buffet… 

More cows trotted down the hill. The bull wheezed and whistled, the sound coming closer. More cows ambled by, some with late calves following. 

Just as I sat on the tailgate with my cup of hot oatmeal, Mr. Stud himself appeared, all hormones with rack high, pushing the last of his two-dozen-cow harem right through my campsite. I retreated into Red's topper as he stopped a few yards away and looked around as if to say, "I'm here. Where is the party?"


A good way to begin my 61st birthday!

After the show and breakfast, I packed up my trash bags, plant knife, and bear spray, and went back to work digging knapweed. 

At the end of the day, I relaxed in the lounge at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room over a shot of very good Montana micro-distillery whisky and a serving of warm huckleberry cobbler with local vanilla ice cream. 

The Dining Room and Lounge in summer, with elk lounging on the old parade ground, ogled by visitors. 

Sixty-one is a difficult milestone for me. Not because I fear being old. For one who wasn't expected to live past my twenties, each year is a blessing. I've earned these wrinkles and the silver hairs shining through the red. 

It's difficult because sixty-one is the age when Richard, the love of my life and my husband for the better part of three decades, died of brain cancer. I will be older than him soon, and forever after. As I live on, the years we spent together recede. That is hard. 

It is easier to bear the grief when I have useful work. Which is why I volunteer to dig invasive weeds in the landscape I love. And why I write. Because in this time of drawing lines between "us" and "them," of hating those who are different; in this time of global climate change, of hurricanes so powedeful we have never seen their like or the scale of their destruction before, of tragic earthquakes, doing something to heal this earth and we who share it is more important than ever. 

I believe love wins in the end. And I do love this earth and the lives who work together to make it home to us all. 

Me at 61, with one of my favorite grandmother plants. 

Road Trip: Postcards From Along the Way

Tonight I’m in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, about 800 miles from home. At this time of year, the elk wander right into town–no matter traffic and people–to graze on Gardiner’s well-watered lawns. I spotted these two cows and a calf-of-the-year a few minutes ago as I walked to the grocery store.

After two long days on the road and teaching an intense work, I’m tired. But I wanted to share some snapshots and thought from along the way, a digital version of postcards from my trip.

I left Salida last Thursday afternoon, aimed for Lafayette on the congested Front Range, a three-hour drive, to stay with friends there. They took me out to dinner at 95a Bistro to celebrate my birthday a week early–thanks Nan and Dave, and Cathy for joining us!

Friday morning, I hit the road promptly at eight-thirty, headed north to Fort Collins to pick up Lauren Springer Ogden, plantswoman and garden designer extraordinare. We were bound for Cody, Wyoming, to teach “Wildscaping 101” at Thomas the Apostle Retreat Center on Saturday. 

For the whole eight-hour drive between Fort Collins and Cody, Lauren and I were so engaged in talking about habitat gardening, horticulture, geology, kids, families, the trials of freelancing, and life in general that I completely forgot to take any photos until we drove into the Bighorn Basin, about an hour and a half south of Cody. That’s the Chugwater formation, a gorgeous ridge of rust-red sandstone rising out of the high-desert shrublands in the photo above. 

When we reached the retreat center that evening, we were welcomed warmly by Connie and Jay, the center directors, and ate a lovely dinner outside in the shade with the two of them, plus Habitat Hero gardener Stephanie, and her son Gabriel. Dragonflies zipped around the six of us in the dusk, and owls hooted in the distance. 

I woke before dawn the next morning–yesterday, though it seems longer ago–and watched sunrise color Heart Mountain, my favorite of the peaks around Cody. (It’s the twin-humped peak in the distance through the window screen in the photo above.) 

And then came breakfast, and teaching, followed by lunch with the excited and inspired workshop participants, who continued to pepper us with questions. Late in the afternoon, I drove into town and visited with friends.

That evening, a very generous friend–thanks, Anne!–treated us to dinner at The Local, an outstanding new Cody restaurant. We ate fabulous freshly prepared seafood and lingered over wine and dessert.  

The sun was setting when Lauren and I drove back to the retreat center. (The photo above is the view from the guest house.) 

This morning, we hit the road again, aimed for Chico Hot Springs to meet Dan and Andra, friends and also publishers of Rocky Mountain Gardening magazine, for lunch. We headed west through Wapiti Valley with its brooding volcanic cliffs and hoodoo-like spires, into Yellowstone National Park through the East Entrance, over Sylvan Pass and then around Yellowstone Lake, past Fishing Bridge, through Hayden Valley, past Canyon, over the divide by Bunsen Peak, down through Tower Falls, Blacktail Ponds, and into Mammoth Hot Springs before exiting the park at Gardiner, where I am tonight, and driving north along the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley to Pray and Chico Hot Springs. 

I was so busy driving that familiar route, reminiscing about the days when I worked at mapping pants and habitat in these wild and gorgeous landscapes, and pointing out familiar sights that I completely forgot to shoot any photos until we stopped for the first bison jam in Hayden Valley, where the herd in the photo above (about 50 adult bison, plus calves) was assiduously ignoring the roadside lined with gawkers. 

We reached Chico Hot Springs in time to stroll the grounds of the historic lodge/hot springs/spa complex, including a really lovely (and well-fenced to keep out the elk) kitchen garden, with luscious heritage tomatoes ripening in the greenhouses. Then Lauren treated us all to lunch by the hot springs, where we ate and talked until it was time for her to head north to Bozeman with Dan and Andra, and me to drive south to Gardiner for the night. 

Paradise Valley near Chico Hot Springs this afternoon…

After a summer of intense activity, I have absolutely nothing on my schedule for the next few days. I need to be home by Friday–my 59th birthday–but between now and then I have the rare luxury of time to wander these beloved landscapes, let my mind empty of deadlines and schedules and destinations, and think about the next book. 

I’ll also be thinking about Bless the Birds, which my agent submitted to what she calls “the first round of lucky editors” last week. Please wish me and that story of my heart whole boatloads of good luck in finding a great publisher! 

Blessings to you all, and thanks for walking this journey with me.