Neanderthal Woman and the No Electricity, Redux

This is Neanderthal Woman, a.k.a. me.

This is the tree

that came down this June

in the yard of N.W., a.k.a. me.

This is the tree

that came down this week

in the yard of N.W., a.k.a. me.

This is the weather

in our favorite State:

90, then freezing, then 90 again.

This is the sunflower

that grew in my yard,

now killed by the weather

in our favorite State.

This is a small

price that we pay

to live near the mountains

in our favorite State.

Freaky Flower of the Week: Woolly Mullein

As you can see, fields near my house are done with wheat harvest.

This is yet another flower that grows so prolifically on the roadsides, and looks so bizarre, that I was certain it would turn out to be native to the Intermountain West. Will I never learn?

The tall, coarse stalks of woody mullein stand as sentinels along the roadsides. They are biennial plants, growing the first year as a round cluster of large (12 x 4″) radiating basal leaves covered with thick, woolly hair. The second year, they rapidly grow a 1 – 6′ (!) tall stalk, crowded with yellow flowers in a spike arrangement. Then, with all its energy expended, the plant dies.

This introduced (!) weed colonizes disturbed places from the valleys and plains to the montane forests.

Dioscorides, the Greek physician to the Roman armies in the first century, used mullein to treat coughs, scorpion stings, eye problems, tonsillitis, and toothache. Today, herbalists value it as a medicinal herb for asthma, bronchitis, coughs, throat inflammation, earache, and various other respiratory complaints.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers by H. Wayne Phillips, page 157

Papa Eagle and Mama Eagle

This pair lives near our house. Like, in our yard somewhere I think (possibly in the surviving spruce tree?). This photo was taken from my dining room window.

I kid you not … we move to the West, and in the very first year, a pair of eagles moves in? How lucky are we?

They are not shy. Earlier in the summer, about once a day one of them would swoop across our yard, screaming. I even saw one sitting on a telephone pole (as above), screaming, notice me, and calmly go back to screaming. I get no respect.

Watch, Papa Eagle is about to give you eye contact …

What do you mean, smile? He is smiling.

Weed of the Week

(Sounds better than Wildflower of the Week, don’t you think?)

This … is Rubber Rabbitbrush. Or, as I like to call it, “False Yellow Sage.” Or maybe, “Not Actually Yellow Sage, Dummy.” (I am getting the hang of this botany thing. You can just make up any descriptive name, pretty much.)

When I first started noticing this species, I naturally assumed it was some yellow-flowered variety of sagebrush. Reason: it is the same general size, shape, and even color as Silver Sagebrush, and it grows everywhere that Silver Sagebrush does.

Observe:

Here it is growing happily interspersed with Silver Sagebrush, overlooking the spectacular views of Baker, Oregon. But it doesn’t only do this in Baker. It does it in Idaho as well. I see it doing this sneaky little trick everywhere.

Assuming, as I did, that this was some kind of sagebrush, I was completely stymied when I could find it nowhere in my trusty Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guide, by the illustrious H. Wayne Phillips. Not under Sage or Yellow Sage. Not even in the “yellow flowers” section (the guide is arranged by color). There was no way, I thought, that it wasn’t native to the area. Look at how deserty it looks!

Anyway. long story short, it’s Rabbitbrush. And here is a partial excuse for why I couldn’t identify it until after my trip to Baker. The photograph in the guide shows the leaves looking very grey, as in the first picture above. But most of the Rabbitbrushes that grow around my house look much more green. I had to go to the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker and see, growing around it, an awful lot of different individuals of these plants, in all stages of growth, before I could understand what I was looking at.

For example, here it is when very young.

By the time it is dying, it just looks like hairy brown sticks with dry yellow puffballs on top.

The guidebook says,

Ericameria nauseosa, Aster family. Previously known as Chrysothamnus nauseous. Nauseosus implies that the plant produces sickness or nausea. Jackrabbits often hide under the cover of rabbitbrush to conceal themselves from the watchful eyes of golden eagles soaring overhead. The Shoshone people of Nevada use the plant to stop diarrhea and as a remedy for coughs and colds. The Cheyenne used it to relieve itching and treat smallpox.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, p. 107

Yellow Salsify

On my walks along the country lanes of Idaho, this wildflower is one of the most handsome and prominent. As you can see, it looks like a giant dandelion but with a more sculpted-looking stem. During the morning, the striking yellow flowers open and face the sun. Later in the day they close up into those very pointy-looking buds again. Eventually, they turn into large puffballs, like a dandelion but about three times as big.

Here is some growing in front of Silver Sage, which was our last featured wildflower.

Naturally I assumed these things must be native to the Intermountain West. They seem so at home here. But I could find them nowhere in my Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guidebook. So, after Googling things like “yellow chicory images” and “looks like a giant dandelion images,” I at last discovered … it’s Yellow Salsify. Native to Eastern Europe, according to one web site. Yet another distinctive “Idaho” wildflower that is actually introduced! But look at how well it is getting on with that silver sage!

By the way, when I Googled “salsify” just now, I discovered that there is a purple variety and that the taproot is edible. This somewhat ameliorates my disappointment at finding out that it’s not a yellow variety of chicory as I had first hoped, and that there are, in fact, no yellow varieties of chicory. So, if you are into foraging, send me your salsify recipes!

The Horrifyingly Compelling Sulfur Pools of Yellowstone, and Another Cover Draft

Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the borders of Idaho and Montana but is mostly in Wyoming, is famously on top of an underground “supervolcano.” The volcanism in the area leads to the phenomenon that Yellowstone might be most famous for, namely Old Faithful geyser and many smaller and less faithful geysers.

Yellowstone also boasts these surreal-looking mineral pools. The edges are white, crusty mineral deposits similar to Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor. The colors within the water come from heat-loving bacteria. Different microbes thrive at different temperatures, and they are responsible for the range of reds, oranges, and yellows before the water becomes clear and hence blue.

These pools are dangerous. They look appealing, but the heat will quickly kill any human or dog foolish enough to jump into one. There have been tragic cases at the park. Some people have survived their burns and others haven’t. To make matters worse, the ground around the pools can be fragile although it appears solid. The park has put up boardwalks studded with signs imploring people to stay on the paths and keep control of their children. Even the bison sometimes break through.

The landscape around these pools is not particularly beautiful, but it is interesting, even alien. I happen to have at least one pleasant association with the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone. It was there that my now-husband first blurted out that he loved me.

However, in my book The Strange Land, my characters’ encounter with these pools did not go so well.

The strange land of the title is not Yellowstone National Park. It is another volcanic region, the area now known as Kamchatka. Kamchatka also has sulfurous pools. Behold:

For my second draft for a cover of The Strange Land, I thought about featuring one of these pools, with the volcano in the background:

I’m not sure how I feel about this cover painting. For one thing, there’s a lot going on in it. I’m not sure it has enough focus. For another, it’s kind of hard to believe. The colorful pool, the colorful vegetation, the white mineral deposits: all of them are well attested, but they look kind of … made up? I’m not even sure it would be clear what the pool is, to a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with Yellowstone.

I’m thinking perhaps I need to re-do this picture with a darker sky and with slightly more muted colors in the pool. You know, tone it down from real life to make it more believable.

For reference, the previous cover draft for the same book was this:

Silver Sagebrush

Our Idaho Wildflower of the Week.

Here is a piece of silver sagebrush growing out of the midst of a juniper bush. You can see more of them in the background.

Here is what they look like in the aggregate. As you can see, we have the classic dusty road, barb-wire fence, and a behind it a meadow of sage stretching off into a vivid blue sky. This little stretch of sage and lava rock is a short walk from my house. Around it are cultivated fields.

We have a number of silvery plants here in Idaho. Besides silver sage, which grows everywhere, and our old friend Lamb’s Quarter, wherever there is water we have Russian olive trees. They are almost exactly the same silvery-sagey-grey color. Both plants give off a pleasant smell. The sage brush smells spicy and resiny, and the Russian olives have an extraordinarily fresh smell that is almost like a drink of water as it wafts towards you on a hot day. Between the two of them, this place smells terrific any time there is enough moisture in the air to carry the scents to us on the wind.

Silver Sage is not the only kind of sagebrush, far from it. According to the guidebook Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers,

Silver sagebrush is well adapted to the wildfires that have swept its habitat for thousands of years. When burned to the ground it simply resprouts from surviving buds on horizontal stems below the soil surface. In contrast, big sagebrush is more often killed by fire, relying on seed to recolonize the burned area. Silver sagebrush was first described to botanical science by Frederick Pursh in 1814, from an October 1804 collection made by Meriwether Lewis near the mouth of the Cheyenne River, in present-day South Dakota.

page 192