It’s the very first of the mountain meadow flowers you’ll see. The mountain sage hasn’t even begun to show its dark-green leaves yet, and the meadow is dun — just dun, a sandy yellow that says straw and plants that have died back to the roots.
It’s on the edge of the Bow River, up high enough in the mountains that the water is the wrong colour — clear as glass, and yet strangely bottle-green. It’s glacial melt, and the river hasn’t even begun to swell yet, the snowpack and ice still holding the winter’s precipitation high on the mountains. It will be July before the river is full, and by then it will also be oddly solid, thickened with the fine silt ground from the mountain limestones and other soft rocks.
But back to the very first of the mountain flowers — because soon enough, there will be a riot of them, in yellows and oranges and reds and achingly deep blues, all competing for the attention of bees in a few short weeks. There are already bees out, but they drone around slowly, landing nowhere.
Nowhere, except on the precisely simply wild crocuses that have sprung up on their hairy thick stalks, a soft lilac that blends so well with the dead yellows and browns that you don’t even notice them until you see the first one. And that first one is a floral wonder: fine pale purple petals spread evenly around the centre, each petal curving to a precise point, and at the very middle, the forest of yellow thread-like pistils — or are they stamens? I can never get that right.
The stalks rise from clusters of drab and dusty-looking, inconsequential leaves, like the flowers are thrown up from underground by dint of massive vegetative effort.
All in all, it is like the world’s most hopeful flower, canted up out of the leaf litter and turned gently to the sun — and then you realize that, no matter how beautiful and bright the crocus, it’s actually a master of disguise as well as display. Because when you find one, you suddenly realize that you’re surrounded by dozens of them, all identical and trusting in the warmth of the afternoon sun, even though a turn of the mountain winds just the day before had brought two inches of fat white snowflakes, falling slow and apologetically.
It’s such a different place: the crows don’t caw here, they croak a rattily kind of chuckle that makes you think of old men watching spring-dressed women in the sunlight. The trees are so huge that they barely make sense: big lodgepoles and Douglas firs so massive that you can’t help but imagine they are actually standing there pondering the world.
Even the smell is different, and it’s almost impossible to communicate. Newfoundland spruce and fir have their bright, high scents, but lodgepole has a dirty, feral smell that’s both repelling and enticing, a spice that is both brilliantly different, yet after a few days, as much of a comfort as the smell of an all-day-cooking crockpot stew.
Great big sky
The sky is huge, and clear evenings fade through a range of blues that don’t even have names yet. Up near Vermillion Lake — hardly even big enough to be worthy of being called a pond — the prairie dogs are building tunnelled complexes in hillsides so dry that there’s barely enough vegetation to skein over the top and hold it in place. And at every set of mounds and holes, one rodent stands up on watch and starts a distinctive sharp single peep when he spots you, and everyone runs for cover.
You forget sometimes how a change is as good as a rest. You forget how comparing and contrasting where we live and what surrounds us with other places makes us appreciate our own place all the more.
I can save one mountain crocus in my head as brightly as if it were an endangered species that, if I forgot what it looked like, I might never see again.
Expanse of orchids
Once, near New Ferolle on the Northern Peninsula, I came across a barrens bog alight with yellow lady’s slipper orchids, hundreds of flowers that ran throughout the entire range of their first flowering, ratty aging and tired collapse. If I remember them. I remember whole chunks of the peninsula, like their simple wonder was the key for a place where all kinds of information lives.
A slender, precise mountain crocus: a brand new key. We’re lucky to have this province, and we’re lucky to have this country.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.