Last Friday we set out for Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado, bound for Colorado Art Ranch's third "Artposium," a weekend devoted to exploring what art has to say about some subject important to life in rural Colorado. In this case, the issue was land conservation, and the weekend's doings took place at The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch twenty miles down the Yampa River west of Steamboat, in the shadow of the towering stacks of the coal-fired Hayden Power Plant.
I wrote right up to the time we left, putting my computer to sleep with just enough time to whip up a picnic lunch, including steamed asparagus spears, sweet and fresh from the garden, and then hop into the car. It took me the half of the drive to decompress. As we headed out of Kremmling, passing through stunted sagebrush shrublands on the gradual climb up Muddy Creek toward Rabbit Ears Pass, I looked around for spring wildflowers.
I was scanning the high desert when I noticed what looked like clumps of wet snow on the bare, crumbly soil between the twisted sagebrush. Only it was a warm afternoon, in the mid-seventies; what I was seeing couldn't be snow. Then I realized: phlox! It was Hood's phlox, a mat-plant that covers itself with starry white blossoms in spring if winter snows wet the soil.
I pointed the "snowflake" phlox flowers out to Richard as we whizzed along; he pulled over and we got out to look. Wandering among the sagebrush, we spotted other wildflowers not visible at 60 miles per hour: clusters of ball-cactus with pink flowers, a ground-hugging locoweed with ivory blossoms tinged with purple, and a desert-parsley with lacy green leaves and tiny sulfur yellow flowers. All were flagrantly advertising their availability to passing pollinators, whether flying or crawling, all gambling their energy on reproduction. I stopped to photograph a particularly nice pairing of phlox and ball-cactus and as I was composing the shot above, a steady chorus insinuated itself into my awareness from the wet meadows across the highway.
It was peepers, western chorus frogs, calling for mates from the shallow ponds created where the winding creek, full with snow melt, had overflowed its banks. I stood up to listen, and grinned.
"It's spring," I said to Richard. "The peepers are calling for mates, and the wildflowers are hollering for pollinators. Everybody's focused on reproduction."
As we drove up and over Rabbit Ears Pass, where the high country was still deep in snow, Richard reminded me that a quarter-century ago, I had first shown him his first glacier lilies somewhere along this very highway. We dropped down the west side of the pass, and I spotted bright yellow flowers on a hillside.
"Glacier lilies!" I said.
Richard braked, whipped a u-turn in the highway, and drove back. We parked and dashed across the road, hand in hand. Sure enough, there on the road-bank were unmistakable glacier lilies, sunshine yellow atop grass-green stalks above wide lily leaves. I stopped to photograph one clump. Crawling all over the flowers with their reflexed petals and yellow anthers dripping rich pollen grains were small beetles. The insects were alternately gathering pollen--thus fertilizing the flowers--and copulating. The whole landscape, it seemed, was in the mood for love.
What does art have to bring to land conservation? Just this: like the snowflake blossoms of the Hood's phlox, the western chorus frogs, and the pollen-gathering beetles on the glacier lilies, it reminds us to stop and pay attention. It shows us the same old world in a new light. And sometimes it shows us that love, whether for one wildflower or a whole landscape, does indeed make the world go round--or at least parts of it.