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:

Idaho Wildflowers

It became necessary to buy this book last week.

The fam and I went on a hike. A steep hike. The mountainside looked barren from the valley below, but when we were in among it, we were passing through thickets of trees and meadows (near vertical meadows, mind you) of tall grasses. And wildflowers. So many wildflowers.

This is the only wildflower picture that actually came from that hike. Obviously some kind of thistle, though it does not appear in the guidebook.

Every one of them was very distinctive looking, as if a person who knew what they were about would be able to identify them at a glance. I realized it was a disgrace that I didn’t know any of their names. (OK, Indian Paintbrush, but that was it!)

Black Sheep (who has apparently dropped off the Internet!) was aiming to have a Big Year with bird watching. I am not up to that, but perhaps I can start watching wildflowers. At least they hold still!

Having bought and looked through the book, I now know at the very least that I saw Lupine. The others have fled my memory. But here are a few found around our house, with my best shots at identifying them.

Wavy-Leaved Thistle. Much easier to find, but less spectacular, than the (thistle?) above.

Volunteer Yellow Columbine growing right in my flowerbed.

Showy Milkweed.

The things with yellow flowers are Leafy Spurge.

“This introduced noxious weed grows in disturbed soils along roadsides and fields. It is vigorously colonial, spreading laterally and forming dense communities, often excluding other plants. Twelve native species of spurges occur in the Pacific Northwest. Leafy spurges and other Euphorbias are known to be poisonous. Cattle and horses seem to be affected by the toxic properties of spurge more than sheep, which readily eat leafy spurge.” (page 133)

The hanging-down ones are Wild Lily of the Valley.

“This common native wildflower was named for its resemblance to the introduced garden lily of the valley flower … The garden plants have dangerously poisonous compounds that are purgative and have a digitalis-like effect on the heart … The native wild lily-of-the-valley has edible berries, although they are not very tasty, and eating too many will unleash their laxative properties. It is sometimes called starry Solomon’s seal.” (page 219)

And, climbing on a juniper tree, Climbing Nightshade.

“Climbing nightshade is an introduced vine [in the Rockies] … The plants scramble over shrubs and other vegetation for support, sometimes robbing them of the light needed to survive. Solanum is one of the larger genera worldwide, but it is concentrated in tropical and subtropical America. It includes the common potato (!). Many species of Solanum contain poisonous alkaloids, and grazing of climbing nightshade foliage has caused livestock deaths. … The bright red berries of climbing nightshade are very attractive and tempting, but they are poisonous and should not be eaten.” (page 62)

This instance of climbing nightshade is on our neighbor’s juniper, but we also have it in our raspberry patch!

And, finally, an old friend …

Lamb’s Quarter. This isn’t in the guidebook, as far as I can tell, but I include it because is is one of my favorite weeds. Yes, it used to be my job to classify weeds for agriculture scientists and I always kind of liked Lamb’s Quarter because the silvery power hidden in the top of it was something I found romantic. I would imagine a group of adventurers (very tiny ones, of course) climbing to the top of one of these things and being surprised by what they found there.

Happy Summer, everybody!

What’s your favorite weed?