Monday, July 13, 2009

Backpacking in the High Sierra

We just got back from a 5-night backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. We hiked from Rock Creek up over Mono Pass and into Pioneer Basin, then back again. We were above 10,000 ft. nearly the entire time, so the sun and wind were intense. Some of the landscapes we passed through were barren, like the moon, such as Mono Pass above. We had to skirt the snowfields on the way in, but five days later on the way out it was much less snowy. We also hiked through beautiful mountain meadows, like this one below Ruby Lake.
Above 10,000 ft there were not so many flowers blooming since it was still early in the season. Or rather, there were many flowers blooming, but not so many of the showy ones like Indian Paintbrush and Shooting Stars that are so familiar to me. I have a divine new field guide, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws, which I believe includes every living thing--plant and animal--living in the Sierra Nevada in gorgeously detailed watercolors. So I spent a lot of time stooped over looking at tiny alpine plants growing in the crevices of the granite and discovered a tiny world. I think I have seen many of these plants before, just never really looked at them that carefully or wondered what they were called. Like Rosewort, an early spring flower that is almost like a succulent.
Or this Oval-Leaved Buckwheat, which is magenta before it blooms and then turns white when the buds open.
Or these two rock garden flowers that I thought were the same, except now I know the first is Granite Gilia, and the second is Alpine Campion.
And this lovely White Heather (also known as Cassiope) that inspired this from John Muir:
Here too... I met Cassiope growing in fringes among the battered rocks. No evangel among all the mountain plants speaks Nature's love more plainly than Cassiope.
I did see it but didn't stop to photograph it, so here's the photo credit for this image: © Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College.

Yes, I love the bright purple and pink Penstemon and sunny Mule's Ears, but on this trip I began to see what John Muir meant when he compared Cassiope to an evangel--a messenger of good news, even gospel. They and the other plants growing on the rocks are the embodiment of a will to live. They are small, so it is easy to think of them as delicate or fragile but in fact they are much tougher than me. They survive in the harshest of climates: sun and wind and cold are brutal and their growing season is short. When I lie down on the granite and look closely at them--their leaves, their stems, their blooms, their seeds--I see perfection.

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