I love this historic Nevada picture! A Newe (Shoshone) gal and her tame Sandhill crane head out for a day of gathering … or gardening? She has her hoe and her basket and a bemused smile on her face as if to say, “What? You don’t have a pet this cool?”
If you want to know what it’s like to be adopted by a crane, read Dayton O. Hyde’s book, Sandy: The Sandhill Crane Who Joined Our Family. After rescuing an egg from floodwaters, Dayton gets it to hatch and has a feathered friend for life.
All that happened decades ago, before cranes became a protected species. Hatching out wild bird eggs is generally frowned upon these days. But there are marshes, irrigated fields, and riparian areas in the high desert where cranes will mosey up close, if you sit quietly and thank them for their long standing friendship.
Historic photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno.
Irrigation season always seems to start before I expect it. I associate the pssst, pssst, pssst of the impact sprinklers with warmth and sun. But the hay fields start growing as soon as the snow melts, so away we go.
Some mornings the ice sculptures are dazzling. I should have left a half hour sooner so I could explore the fancy filigree and not be late. Sometimes, you just have to be late.
I didn’t grow up around larch trees. The first time I saw an amber slope of larches in the fall, I made the common mistake and assumed they were dying. I later learned that larches are one of the few conifers that are deciduous, meaning they drop their needles for the winter and grow a new set in the spring. This attribute makes them seem like a primitive hold-over from an ancient world — as if they were the only conifers that didn’t get the evolutionary memo that “evergreen” is the new normal.
Larches defy most conifer convention. They grow needles but the needles are soft, not stiff and pokey like most other conifers. They grow cones, but instead of resembling a pine or fir cone, they start out looking like purple-pink blossoms. And half the time the trees look dead, but they aren’t.
To me, they seem other-worldly, full of surprises, a little magical. For instance, this autumn, golden larch needles showered into Tumalo Creek. Instead of washing downstream, they gathered by the thousands in eddies and pools where they formed intricate floating patterns. Sometimes the needles aligned end-to-end in sweeping lines across a pool, as if following their own magnetic poles. Other times, the needles drifted against half-sunken logs looking like crazy golden fur on a sleeping bear. But most mystifying were the clusters of floating baskets woven of larch needles, each adorned with fallen leaves. They revolved slowly, sharing a needle here and there with a neighbor, but remaining a distinct creation. I watched them for an hour, enchanted.
Oh you mystical larches, how many days would I need to sit by the creek to see how your baskets are made?
Ikebana is a form of sculpture that exists only within a limited time span, transforms from moment to moment, then perishes.
~ Akane Teshigahara
When I was a teenager, my grandaddy took me to an exhibit of Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We walked into a long room glowing with diffuse sunlight and spectacular flowers. At least a hundred vases graced the tables lining the walls. We slowly walked past each one, admiring not only the blossoms themselves but the sculptural quality of every element within the arrangement. My grandaddy, a painter and gardener himself, used his hands to explain to me what he liked about certain arrangements. He talked about movement, balance, suggestion, grace — intangible qualities the flower arrangers conveyed with understated perfection. He’d taken a risk that I was ripe to appreciate the artistic spirit of Ikebana — and he’d guessed right. I ate it up.
After that day, I saw the world differently. I began to notice the underlying beauty surrounding my everyday life. The simplicity, spontaneity, and seasonal reverence behind Ikebana became my aesthetic practice. Or maybe I should say it became my aesthetic play, because that’s really what its’ about — fooling around. Seeing how things go together. Or don’t. Experimenting with what’s lying about. Arranging a small corner of the world.
For instance, there’s a retired farm nearby where hundred-year-old orchard trees drop fruit for squirrels and deer to glean. The other day, I picked up an apple as I wandered through the old barnyard. I sensed that apple had artistic aspirations before it became wildlife fodder, so we tried out a few ideas before I tossed it back in the deep grass. Is this Ikebana? I’m not sure, but it felt like it for a playful autumn hour.
Last week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.
Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.
This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion. But when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.
As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?
Male Eight-spotted Skimmer who was very patient with my picture-taking at McKenzie Reservoir, Deschutes Co., Oregon.
Illipah Reservoir in central Nevada has vanished. In a normal water year, these wild horses would need snorkels. Instead of trout habitat, Illipah has returned to its former self — a windy, parched flat. The horses — four adults and one foal — spend the heat of the day dozing, the only movement the swishing of tails. A trickle of water runs in the tiny gully, all that’s left of the creek. Short-cropped grass tenaciously colonizes the lakebed.
This scene speaks of extreme drought, but also hope. How else to read the faint green grass, the offering of water, the cooling wind, and the sleeping foal?