Homer's Spring Gift

Homer’s Spring Gift

Homer announced spring to some of his friends last week by sending along a photo of the first blooming Douglasia of 2015.

 

In my neighborhood a gang of roguish flickers announced it every morning this week by launching into their prolonged rat-a-tat-tat stylings on the flashing of nearby chimneys.

 

And the wood ticks announced it to me by apparently falling out of the sky as if they were the 82nd Airborne over Normandy while I was on one of my frequent constitutional strolls on Mount Sentinel. At least it seemed that way to me afterwards when ticks began appear as they explored their way out of the collar or sleeves of my shirt, or I happened to feel one exiting the very thin forest of hair above my ears.

 

Only one managed to embed itself in my flesh, just below my right knee, as it turned out. Being an old hand at ticks and a former Boy Scout, I knew what I had to do. Using a lighter from my camping gear, I gave the nasty little bugger a quick searing, just to prompt a little bit of interest in finding a new place to hang around. Then, as it backed out of my skin a little bit, its tiny legs churning for traction, I used tweezers to complete the extraction. I must have gotten the whole thing, because it was still squirming. Yes, I know that is probably not the recommended method for tick extraction. It’s just my method, and it’s almost a springtime tradition for me.

 

Another spring ritual for me is the first ascent of Mount Jumbo after it has been open to public again after the long winter months when the elk and their wild friends have the place to themselves.

 

It was just a coincidence that I ran into my old friend Pete when I arrived at the Cherry Street Trailhead. He was going up the mountain, too, and he suggested that I could join him if liked, but he was probably going up a different way than I would and he was on something of a mission.

 

Pete, you see, is a botanist of substantial repute, and he has been keeping track of the phenology of wildflowers on Mount Jumbo since 1995.

 

“I make two or three trips a week up here now, and keep a record of when different things bloom. I take the same route every day,” he said.

 

I have hiked with Pete in many places over the years, from the Tongue River Breaks to the Scapegoat Wilderness, and I know that these days, I can’t keep up with him. He moves in long, easy strides. I trudge. So I thanked him but declined the offer and took a different route. He was far above me on the south slope when he moved out of sight a while later.

 

As I expected, we met up again as I approached the top and he was on his way down. This time, once I caught my breath, we stopped and chatted for a while, doing a little reminiscing, talking about the weed control efforts on the mountain, and just taking in the late afternoon of the spring day.

 

While we were standing there, I remembered that I had once written a column about a hike up Jumbo with Pete.

“It must have been 20 years ago,” I said.

“Funny, I don’t remember that one,” he replied.

“Will, I think I’m going to try to find it. Maybe I can resurrect it. It might be fun to include in my blog.”

 

We talked a while longer and then parted ways. By the time I got home and sat down at my computer, Pete had already forwarded me a copy of an article he had co-authored for the Journal of Arid Environments about the flowers on Mount Jumbo. It’s titled “Precipitation and temperature are associated with advanced flowering phenology in a semi-arid grassland.”

 

That prompted me to immediately begin the search for the old column about our hike up the mountain. It turned out to be much longer ago than I had imagined. The story of our hike appeared in the Missoulian in April of 1987. Here it is:

 

******

 

‘Now we’re starting to get into some decent stuff.”

It was early summer and my friend Pete, the ecologist, was talking. We were rummaging around a rock pile not far above the “L” on Mount Jumbo. The “stuff” he was talking about was the vegetation clinging to the steep hillside. He had warned me away from the poison ivy I was about to plunge my fist into and then gestured toward the shrubbery sprouting on the downhill side of the rocks.

“Mock orange,” he said, and looked up significantly, as though I should make some connection. Taking in my blank response he elaborated.

“It was first reported right here. Well, not right here exactly, but in Hellgate Canyon. Lewis and Clark discovered it right down the slope and around the corner to the east. They sent a specimen back to the Academy of Science in Philadelphia.”

Pete rattled off the scientific name, Philadelphus lewisii, and then mentioned the name of the plant curator at the Academy of Science. Frederick Pursh, was the fellow who did all the identification work on all of the carefully pressed and preserved plants once they arrived at the herbarium in Philadelphia.

It was fascinating.

No, really, I mean it! It was just one of many bits of information Pete passed on to me that morning, but with the historical slant, it was likely to be one I would retain.

Pictures from the turn of the century suggest a scattering of ponderosa pine and not much more on Mount Jumbo. Fires had historically swept over the grassy slopes of the mountain, maintaining what I think is called a ponderosa pine savannah.

No more. The hand of man has changed all that. Fire suppression and, now, weed infestations have changed the look of that mountain drastically in the last hundred years.

But there is still plenty to see and learn up there.

I am ashamed to admit that I have never done my homework when it comes to learning the names of plants. Over the years I have enjoyed the luxury of hunting, fishing or hiking companions who knew all that stuff, so all I had to do was ask. With such ready information, there was no need to clutter my own mind by memorizing things. It was a free ride.

Of course when a stranger occasions to ask me about some vegetative oddity, it always makes for an awkward situation.

“I don’t know, but my friend Pete does. I’ll ask him about it next time I see him and drop you a card with the results.”

And that’s how I happened to be up on Jumbo with Pete that day so long ago now. Of course most of the mountain was private property back then, even the place where the “L” was located, so I guess we were technically trespassing. But we weren’t really thinking much about that.

I’ve been out with Pete many times before and since, in lots of other places around the state, so I should have known what to expect. But I had forgotten how an ecologist looks at things. And I had forgotten how much there was to know.

When Pete referred to “decent stuff,” he was talking about native plants, and places where they occur without much disturbance from things like grazing and nasty weeds. Such places are all too few for Pete’s taste.

From my perspective, the entire walk was filled with “decent stuff,” simply because of the wealth of information Pete provided as we trudged up the hill. Near the bottom he pointed out a biscuit root, one of several kinds we would encounter.

“We’ll probably see the one called ‘cous’ a little higher up. It’s an important part of the grizzly diet,” he had announced.

Sure enough, a while later we did see it, but not before Pete got down on all fours, pointed to a little plant that looked a lot like marijuana and launched into a sermon.

“Here we have the weed of the future. It’s called sulfur cinquefoil and very little is known about it.”

On close examination, it was apparent that the little weed was very well established on the lower slopes of Jumbo, and appeared to be competing quite well with such better known villains as knapweed and leafy spurge.

According to Pete, people weren’t paying much attention to this new weed. Research should be done to learn its ecology and susceptibility to grazing so something can be done to stop its spread, he said. The weed clearly had him concerned.

Although the importance of what he was saying registered with me, I found it more interesting than threatening. It was just one of many little things I learned that morning.

For instance, I never figured good old Indian paintbrush to be a parasite. That’s right, its roots attach to other plants and steal nutrients. I don’t think Pete would lie about that. It will never be the same innocuous little wild flower to me again.

Then there was the knee-high, stalky stuff called “puccoon” that Pete pointed out was mentioned in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose.” I read right past it when I read the book but the reference now securely establishes it in my memory bank. Since the book happens to be one I read every few years, I will now be able to visualize the stuff when I come upon it, and I will remember the day Pete showed it to me.

In those few hours, I put together quite a list. Here are just some of the plants to be found on bare looking, bland old Mount Jumbo: larkspur, stoneseed, four kinds of biscuit root, yarrow, currant, choke cherry, service berry, hawthorne, alum root, bluebunch wheatgrass, fuzzy tongue, bastard toadflax, blue bells, blue-eyed mary, forget-me-not, oyster root, prairie star, rough fescue, dense clubmoss, cutleaf fleabane, Idaho fescue, pussy toes, and last, but not least, a little flower called prairie smoke. I cannot describe it adequately, except to say that the name is apt, and a close look at the flower conjured up for me images of blazing sunsets, coyote howls and elk whistles. It is my new favorite flower.

******

The mountain has changed quite a bit since then. For one thing, the city of Missoula owns it now. And despite the predictable disagreement about some of the management decisions that have resulted from public ownership, it is being managed, with lots of attention on those weeds. I don’t know if Pete’s dire prediction about sulfur cinquefoil has come to pass. And to my way of thinking it is good that we are at last moving ahead with some coordinated weed-control efforts

I will always remember some of what I saw that day with Pete, and maybe I’ll be able to answer an occasional question I couldn’t have before, but mostly I was reminded then, and again today of how much there is to learn about where we live.

And, of course, I am reminded of how good it is to have friends like Pete and Homer to brighten up a spring day with some time together on a mountain or a picture of a wildflower.

 

4 Comments

  1. I feel like I get to dream myself back to Montana weekly when your blog arrives in my inbox. Thanks, Greg, and happy spring!

  2. Prairie smoke. What a great name for a flower. And I liked learning a new word, “phenology.” Like Cassie, I get to dream myself back there. Thanks.

  3. Hi Greg,

    This is the first time I have read your column. I love your vision of the mountain and wild flowers. I enjoyed the 1987 story of your hike.. We would have loved to have you and Val at the family reunion. I have stories to tell! You can go to Facebook, “the Tollefson Family Reunion” and get a flavor of what happened and lot’s of pictures of your cousins, first, second, third, fourth etc. Looks like you are going to have a wedding in the family soon. Enjoy! Your cousin, Charlotte

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