My husband and I have spent over ten years restoring a prairie and cultivating wildflowers. Battling invasive plants so native plants will thrive takes a certain vigilance; we know if left untended for several years the bad guys would take over once again. So imagine seeing vast rolling hills at very high elevations just covered with wildflowers, depending only on one caregiver.
“We’re going to the Basin!” we say excitedly when heading out in a Jeep on the dirt roads above the little town of Marble. A sign marks the place where it is four-wheel drive vehicle or foot-power only. This year’s trip to the Basin began on a cool morning after a day of rain, with rain-gear packed just in case. On the first steep climb up Daniel’s Hill we delighted in no-dust and balmy breezes. And the Colorado sun that can be so brutal at high altitudes shone but did not scorch. The road is rocky and unimproved with a stream or two to ford, but the scenery, which changes at every curve, beyond description. Climbing upward one can see wildflowers on either side and as the altitude heightens they change. Varieties rarely seen appear the higher you go. And then Lead King Basin! Wildflowers grow unimpeded in such amazing variety and color it can take your breath away. Water-loving plants cluster around little mountain creeks but most cover the landscape as far as the eye can see. Even though you are at high elevations, the Rocky Mountain peaks rise up on all sides even higher. The sky is blue, blue with white, white clouds. It might be heaven if not for the flies that also prosper in such country.
Over the half-century we have been coming to the Basin, it remains in its natural state. We seldom see the flowers at their peak because no one knows when that will be. Certainly its spring is our summer but the moisture and temperature vary so much, predictions are hard. The same is true for the timing of the autumn turning of the quaking aspen. This year we witnessed the flowers at their glorious best. In the clear mountain air, identification books come out again to verify the dizzying array of fireweed, aspen sunflower, mariposa lily and so many more. Colors range from purple larkspur to maroon kings’ crown to pure white columbine. Native varieties here are not the same as native in Michigan—I have to go back to the books.
Is it any wonder that my mother at age 90 still wanted to drive to Lead King Basin once more before she died? And we too, although believing that we are not close to the end of life, will hold the memories until next year when--even if we don’t hit the best time—we will come. And we’ll see that the gardener has maintained his weed-free wildflower meadow another year for our delight, with no help from us.
Leaving was hard; the prairie was aglow with yellow coneflowers, purple vervain and remnants of the butterfly weed, still a brilliant shade of orange. The tall grasses were beginning to rise throughout the fields and the birds sang louder than ever. Passing the milkweed with its fragrant scent with a group of visitors the night before, I questioned our plan to leave all this for two weeks in Colorado. My excitement for this place grew with every “ooh and awe” or question about an unusual wildflower.
But leave we did traveling the familiar route to the high country of Colorado. We settled in a little mountain town, (where my parents bought a rustic cabin in the early 50’s) along with a collection of kids and grandkids. The cabin is in a deep valley carved by the Crystal River with mountains rising up on each side. I’m in awe of the majestic scene as well as the wildflowers native to this part of the world. But I can’t help pulling out my laptop for a peak at the flowers I have left behind. I know that by the time we return to Michigan, the landscape will have a different contour and hew. Because of the accelerated blooming of everything this year, I may see the stiff goldenrod and New England asters in full bloom.
My biggest decision for vacation is always the choice of books. This year I want to reread Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountainand Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, one of the seasonal anthologies edited by Susan Felch and Gary Schmidt. Although quiet time for reading or writing comes at a premium among this lively crowd, I have already found some gems among the pages that remind me of home and pilgrimage. In Richard Jeffries’ essay, “Meadow Thoughts”, he confesses that “summer” is impossible to write: “The delicacy and beauty of thought or feeling is so extreme that it cannot be inked in; it is like the green and blue of field and sky, of veronica flower and grass blade, which in their own existence throw light and beauty on each other…never have I been able to write what I felt about the sunlight only…It has been ten years since I last reclined on that grass plot, and yet I have been writing of it as if it was yesterday…” And from Merton about his decision to enter the monastery: “If what most people take for granted were really true—if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now.”
So I am content, renewing my love for the sights and scents of summer in this mountain place, not in solitary reflection but among those I love. I’ll savor the memories of kids and flowers and mountain peaks in summer until cold days return and I am once again at my desk, alone.
The prairie-visit season has begun in earnest. Before the 1st group came, I walked the driveway rehearsing the wildflower names while getting a visual impression of the view. I urged the flowers and grasses to look their best, much like a parent encourages her son to dress and play well for his piano recital. And if the child makes the inevitable mistake, mom remembers a time when she saw or heard him play the piece without a flaw.
Nature cannot be spruced up. This garden started with scattered seed, which brought forth flowers in their own time—years after we had all but given up hope. Now they have spread, not in neat rows of coordinated colors, or by type, like tulips in the Keukenhof in Holland—just as they will, far and wide. The birds, the breeze, and passing animals have all had an unplanned part. The rains come or they pass us by. Temperatures rise and fall. Light on the flowers may be full sun or diffuse gray, day after day. I wish everyone could come during early morning and evening when light is most gentle, bringing out rich color rather than during harsh afternoon sun in mid-summer under which most visitors witness the prairie.
Before we began this project, I saw a few pictures of wildflower yards. The flowers grew haphazardly—lacking all order or symmetry. I was not impressed and now I fear that the garden loving folks who come will be similarly unimpressed. I’d like people to see the land like I’ve seen it, at various times of day, in the rain, at first light or right after the prairie burn. Like that child at the piano, the duration of the recital piece is too short—it reveals too little of his overall beauty.
The best I can offer is a snapshot—one point in time--and share pictures in a book so folks can walk with me through the seasons. For me that first snapshot was not love-at-first-sight. But it pried open my eyes and ears and heart to let beauty slowly seep in.