Saturday 14 April 2012

Awakening: Wyoming in Early Spring

On Tuesday, April 10, I drove up toward the mountains to look at the trees and how they and the plants around them were progressing with spring.  I left town about 6:30 and returned about 8:00.  It was a beautiful and enlightening trip.  I took a few pictures, which I'll share with you all.  Click on the pictures to see them full size.

Just outside of town on Curtis Street, after it becomes a gravel road, I stopped to investigate a group of cottonwoods that separated a field from the road.  This was the same elevation as town, about 7220 feet above sea level.

Cottonwoods were and still are planted as wind breaks between fields and along property lines.  With 30-70 MPH a normal occurrence, trying plant and harvesting hay (the only crop worth growing at this elevation), herding cattle, and doing the other tasks related to ranching can be a bit hard.  Cutting down the wind saves a lot of headaches and diminishes losses and mishaps.  Cottonwoods send roots down very deep, so they can reach the ground water table, often 20-40 feet down, and are sturdy in the wind, so they make great wind blocks.

I got out of the car and headed down the road towards the cottonwoods and a herd of deer came slowly across the road.  Well, some ran, some went slowly.  These are whitetail deer.  There was probably a dozen or so of them in the herd.  There are no antlers this time of year, so I'm unsure if they were all does or if there were somebucks mixed in.  The first four pictures are pictures I took of them.

This set of cottonwoods were allowed to grow naturally, so have an almost bush like or shrub appearance, though about 25 feet tall or more.  Some places around here and in neighboring states, they are trimmed yearly, causing them to grow taller, up to 150 feet tall or so, with no brunches until high up.  This diminishes their immediate wind block ability, but drops the over all wind for the entire field.  Left natural like these ones blocks the ground wind, so helps a lot to stop blowing snow, prolonging the field's use for grazing.  In some ways, cottonwood rows are the equivalent of British hedges, a narrow wild area that in liminal and separates two fields of pieces of property.

From back a bit, the trees still looked dormant with no signs of new growth, but close up showed a fair amount of new growth with bumps for leaf buds starting to show.
The new growth has a red colour, verses the grew colour the bark normally has. The infant leaf buds are even brighter red, the colour coming from the hard shell around them that protects the bud until it's big enough to withstand any frosts and the sun.
Some of the trees have already moved beyond that phase and have new leaf buds already visible.  They are very light green in colour, but will darken some as they unfold.

Here's a close up of the new leaves, a bit unfocused but it shows the colour nicely.

The branches reach high into the sky (or as high as an ungroomed cottonwood can).  I like the look of branches against the bright blue clear sky.  It was a great day for this drive, 67 degrees F (19 degrees C) when I left town and only 59 F (15 C) up in the mountains.  And crystal clear skies.  There's nothing like Wyoming skies.

Here's a good view of the new growth and leaves.  The more reddish bark is new this year.  You'll notice the new growth and new leaves reach always upward, trying to get as much sun as possible.

The branch structure is quite complex, and once the leaves are fully grown and fully expanded, it will be hard to see through the trees, and, of course, hard for the wind to blow through it.

Stepping back a bit, you'll see what I mean by a more bush or shrub look.  The part you can see here is probably 20 feet tall, with the branches reaching probably five or ten feet higher, off camera.

Finished with the cottonwood row, I headed on out of town, toward the setting sun.  There was still another two hours of daylight, though there were clouds over most of the sun.  Sun or moon shining through clouds is always beautiful.
As you can see, the High Plains are very flat and open.  Wind travels across them with little resistance unless wind breaks are put up.  In the summer, this means lots of dust and lots of things blowing away.  In the winter, this means blowing snow that can close a road more thoroughly than the actual storm that dropped it, and can make fields unable for grazing.

But the Plains are beautiful this time of year, as the grass begins to put up new growth.

In the distance, you can see the Snowy Range, my ultimate destination that evening.  They don't look too impressive from here, but Medicine Bow Peak, the largest mountain in the range (which is part of the Rocky Mountains for those familiar with them), is 12,013 feet at its summit, and the pass below it is around 10,000 feet.  I was around 7400 feet when this picture was taken.

On my way up, I stopped where the highway crosses the Little Laramie River to look at the willows there.  Down in the valley, on the High Plains, there are only really two native trees.  Cottonwoods and willows grow along the rivers, and cottonwoods grow where they were transplanted, further out.  If it wasn't for pioneers and ranchers, only along the rivers would there be any trees, or even shrubs.  Out on the Plains, there is only grasses and sage brush.  And much of the sage brush was cleared for ranching.  But next to the river, the willows are a thicket most of the length of the river, with cottonwoods standing guard above them.

Though similar growth patterns to the cottonwoods, willows seldom reach a tree form in Wyoming.  Most of this is because of the short growing season and the dry climate.  Willow thickets are very dense, virtually impossible to pass through unless you use an existing animal trail.

This willows, too, were starting to put on growth, though they had no leaves yet, just the bumps that would form them, or would form pussywillows, not sure which.

Like the cottonwood, the new growth is red in colour, but it will change to a golden yellow as summer comes.  There are two types of willows that I have observed here, but I haven't looked up the names.  These ones are normally yellow in colour and feel very solar to me.  The other, which I'll show later, stay red in colour and have a much more lunar feel.

Here is a good view of the yellow colour and just how dense the willow thicket is.

And another good view.
Here you can see the hard shells over the future leaf buds or pussywillows.
Above the willows rose more cottonwoods.
The tall cottonwood in this picture were once groomed, giving them a tall straight trunk without branches or forks.  But it's been a long time since it was grooms, and you can see all the small branches coming out the side, and the cottonwood thicket that formed below, growing to the edge of the willow thicket which doesn't show in this picture.
There was still snow gathered under the shadow of the road bank, in 60 degrees F whether or warmer.  Very dirty snow, since all the dust and dirty settles down as it melts.  On the right is the road bank, on the left is the willow thicket.  Straight ahead is the tower used for monitoring the river.  There's another tower on the other bank, with a steel line between them and a small trolley that can be pulled out over the water to lower down bottles for samples.
Across the road, the cottonwoods were much taller, but younger.  The bark is almost as white as aspen bark.  It will darken with age.
Getting a bit closer, we can see the river.  Notice the new growth in the foreground.  I believe cottonwood, but I don't remember for certain.
Notice how much dirt and dust is left behind as the snow melts.  This grass is last year's growth.  It's still pretty cold in the shadows and beside the snow.  The new grass will sprout later.
Getting closer, we see the sun reflecting on the cottonwoods across the road.
Observe agan how the branches reach for the sun.
Notice the younger trees in the foreground with their whiter, smoother bark, almost aspen like, and the older, rougher, darker trees in the background.  Also notice the thickety feel near the ground, compared to the reaching feel up above. Above where there's more room, each branch, eat leaf, reaches up to find its own place in the sun.  Below, there is very little sun to reach for once leaves come, so they spread out, looking for places the sun breaks through.
You'll see that once again the cottonwood are on the edge of a field, this one with horses grazing.
Across the field are pretty tall willow thickets (the red coloured plants) and more cottonwoods behind them, following the river.
Returning to the car, the cottonwoods against the sky looking west were gorgeous.

This field is pretty typical of the ranch fields on the High Plans.  The hill it borders is more ray, and still has sage brush.
Looking back at the willow thicket, the cottonwoods, and the bridge across the river.  The eastern sky is so beautiful, the colours a great contrast above the browns and reds and greens of the vegetation.

One last look toward the south across the highway.  The natural layers are gorgeous.
Zoomed in a bit, you can see the snow still resting in a narrow furl.  The gnarled old cottonwood on the left guards the willows below it.

And then I headed west once more toward the setting sun.

Another five minutes or so, and Centennial comes into view.  Centennial started as a mining town.  It is nesselled at the base of the Snowy's right before the rise up into them.  You'll notice the steep hills that are a back drop, still showing snow in the drainages.  These drainages are all bright green with aspens in the summer and yellow and orange in the fall.  Between the drainages, the hills there are covered with lodgepole pine.
Leaving Centennial behind, I drove up into the lower reaches of the Snowy's.  The aspen grove I stopped at, where the old highway branches off, is at about 8160 feet above sea level.

Near the intersection, there's a dense willow thicket of the yellow variety, getting water from the same stream as the aspens.  I stopped to take pictures of it first before crossing the cattle guard to get to the aspens.  Cottonwoods are rare once you get up off the Plains.  Up here, you have primarily three types of trees, willows (though they're usually more shrubs), aspens, and lodgepole pines.  You can find a few others if you search.  Pretty rare, but mountain ash can be found (UK residents, think rowan), and in some areas you can find a lot of dwarf oak, but I didn't see either this trip.
On this willow thicket, the pussywillows are starting to show.  I love the softness of them, both in looks and in feel.
Here's a more close up view.  They truly are beautiful.

Looking back toward the road, you can see both how dense the thicket is and how many pussywillows there are.
The contrast between the smooth bark and soft pussywillows of the new growth, and the gnarled, rough bark of the older growth is very neat.  Notice also just how think this thicket is.

Mixed in with the willows are some wild roses, still with rose hips on them from last fall.
Close up, you can see the thorns nicely.
Moving on, we finally come to the aspen grove.
When trees fall, they provide habitat for animals and for some types of plants.  In this picture, you can see the clear area on the other side, and the pine covered hills beyond.  This grove is about 300 feet wide and probably five miles long.  It amuses me when people in Europe say aspens grow in small groves only right along a river.  This is a fairly small grove in Wyoming, some are much larger.
Looking out into the grove, you see the main stream channel.  The grove has broke the stream into three channels, though the other two are much smaller.  And, really, the whole grove is the stream, because the grove spreads the water and the whole area is damp, and almost marshy.  This is normal for an aspen grove.
You'll notice how most of the aspens grow very straight.  They form pillars throughout the grove, with the canopy above forming a roof when the leaves are on.  Makes the grove feel like an organic temple.  Which really it is.
A better view of the inside of the grove, looking from the road.  You see the stream through the middle of the picture, with the trees up slope leaning over because the hill isn't very stable with all the water below it.  You'll notice how dense and random the underbrush seems.  Great ecosystem in there, with the aspens protecting the other plants and the animals both from the wind and from the harshness of the sun that shines through the thin atmosphere this high up.  The fallen leaves from the Fall combined with the melt off in the Spring combine to make great growing conditions for those plants that grow in the shadows.
The tops of the trees against the setting sun is beautiful to behold.
This will give you an idea both of the density of the grove and what the mountains of the area look like.  The dark colour is the lodgepole pine darkened in shadow.  They are pretty dark normally, though.
This shows well how dense the canopy is.  This is the bare branches.  Imagine them covered with leaves.
Stepping back a bit, you can see the willows growing on the hillside above the stream and grove.  Willows can't survive below the canopy of an aspen grove, but will sometimes flank it, intermixed with encroaching new aspen clones.  Both side of the road here are mostly willow, but with very small aspens intermixed.  If the aspens grow up, the willows will die back underneath them, but spread further from the grove.
This small grove of aspens stands on the hill high up above the main grove.  The main grove is female, but this small grove is male.  There is a chance the pollen of this male grove will fertilize some of the catkins of the main grove and produce seeds.
No album of flora in Wyoming can be complete without sage brush.  This one is fairly young and small, but you can find old growth sage brush in Wyoming that is  six or seven feet tall and two hundred years old.  Sage brush is very hearty and can survive a lot, but it doesn't transplant well, and seldom does good replanting, so once it's gone, it's gone until it spreads from a neighbouring area.
The first flowers you find in the mountains are the buttercups.  In the still mostly brown and dry hillsides, the bright yellow is shockingly beautiful.
Here is a closer look at one of the male trees.  You can't tell male from female by looking at them, only by the catkins that form this time of year.
Here's a close up of some male catkins.  Notice how they dangle?  Female catkins are erect, moving with the branches, while male catkins sway in the wind, allowing pollen to more easily blow off of them.  Only male catkins produce pollen.  The female ones produce seeds.
About twenty feet from that male grove is one lone female aspen.  Here is a close up of a female catkin on the branch.
Here are two female catkins I harvested.  They had already gone to seed, which means the male catkins already bloomed and passed most of their pollen.  This is odd, since in town, a thousand feet lower, the male catkins are just now blooming, almost a week later.  I would think the lower elevation trees would bloom first, as it warms up earlier, but it appears to be the opposite.  Very odd.
At the base of the single aspen female was a small thicket of willow with prominent pussywillows.  You'll notice these are of the red variety.
Here's a wonderful example of a buttercup, near the female tree.  Notice the five petals, making it in the Magnoliopsida class, like roses.  Roses are the Rosidae subclass, while buttercups are in the Magnoliidae subclass.
Here is the entire male grove.
And the single female tree near it.
Leafless trees against the sky are always beautiful.
Going back to the large grove, I climbed the bank down into it.  The crystal clear water is so beautiful, and the sound is divine.
Looking up stream, you can see how the grove shapes the stream and the stream shapes the grove.  Also note the deadfall.
There's something otherworldly about walking in an aspen grove, even without the leaves to cast it in shadows.
Wild strawberries are starting to rise up out of the ground.
Here's a close up.
Scrolling deeper into the grove, you see the tall straight trunks and the smooth white bark.
The grove seems to go on forever.  It's a world apart, larger on the inside than the outside.
Besides the strawberries, these are the other plants that have shown leaves so far.  I'm not sure what they are yet.
A closeup.
Notice all the dry grass and other vegetation from last year.  Also notice the scares on the one old tree.  More than likely, they are from a wildfire.  Aspen are very resistant to fire, and it stimulates new runners that will become new cloned trees.
Notice just how many trees there are in a grove, and how close they are together in places.  Also notice the green colour of the tree in the foreground.  It is much younger than the white ones behind.  As it ages, it will lose the green colour.
Looking up toward the canopy, you see the branches silhouetted against the sky.
Here is one of the secondary channels of the stream.
Here's looking up it.  It is much smaller than the main channel.
Here's a close up of the trunk of a tree.  The colour and texture of the bark is very distinctive.  Young cottonwoods and aspens (both poplars) look very similar, but by this age, a cottonwood would be almost black with rough bark.
Some parts of the the grove are very thick with underbrush and have trunks very close together, but some parts, like this area, are much more open.
Here's the third channel of the stream, the smallest of them, but the area around it is the most marshy part of the grove.
Here's another view of the third channel.
Here, you can see how the open area gives way to a very dense thicket.  Also, note that some snow hasn't melted yet.
Aspens can get quite tall.
Another view of the open glade.
I love the feel of an aspen grove at any time of year.
Another view of the trees against the sky.
There aren't much yet, but here's more of the green leaves sprouting up.
Another good view of the bark.
So peaceful.
These branches are going to be amazing when the leaves come.

Among the aspen grove, there are a few pines.  They grow very slowly under the canopy.
Back to the main channel, there's something very beautiful about water.
A good view of the tapestry of the dense thickets and open glades within the grove.  The main channel is mostly obscured by the deadfall.
The sky and branches reflected on the stream.
A small waterfall.
A closer view of the waterfall.
I *think* the bone is an antelope (Pronghorn) leg bone, but I could be wrong.  The bone was sticking out of the hillside, the dark end buried in dry leaves and soil, the light end bleached by the sun.  The dark end is rough from the blood and meat that was once on it, the light end clean and smooth.
The bone spoke to me, so I kept it.  I think the dark/light, dirty/clean, rough/smooth, flesh-blood/bone contrast shows well, the Divine Twins, the Divine Androgen, Yin and Yang, opposites, but one being, one thing, united.
Going back to the car, I went up a bit higher to a lodgepole pine forest at about around 8460 feet.  Pines are much different from the rest of the trees I've mentioned, obviously.  Instead of the random spread canopy, pines normally have a central trunk with branches radiating out.
Pines are evergreens and needled, rather than deciduous and leafed.  After the bare branches of the aspen grove, the green of the pine forest is quite a contrast.
Also notice the difference in bark.  The aspens, willows, and cottonwoods have a constant, solid bark, but pines have a layered bark that sheds its outer coat as it grows.
The first thing you notice walking into a lodgepole pine forest after an aspen grove is the general lack of ground cover.  No grass.  Very little underbrush.
The canopy is much more sparse, but the trees are tall enough that the ground is in shadow year around.
The young trees are stunted.  Very few survive and they grow very slowly compared to young aspens.  They need sunlight to grow quicker and bigger.  This only happens after a fire.
Some snow hasn't melted here either.  In addition to the snow, this picture shows the openness of a pine forest.
Notice the lack of needles on the middle two trees in this picture.  The only time needles are missing are when part or all of a tree has died.  These trees were more than likely killed by the pine beetle.  There is a cycle in these forests.
The trees grow to a point where young trees can no longer thrive, becoming a pretty static forest, the dead needles piling up, created a thick carpet that very little can grow in.  This is ideal habitat for the pine beetle, which begins to thrive and multiply.
The pine beetle boroughs into the trees and kills them, more and more dying.  A dead pine is very dry and burns easily.  When the amount of dead trees reach a threshold, fire comes.  The fire burns through the dead trees and dead pine needles, destroying much of the forest, but killing most of the beetles.  Lodgepole pine have two types of cones, the normal ones that bring about the stunted small trees I showed above that only grow up when a large tree falls and lets sunlight in, and a type of cone only opened by fire.  The fire that destroys the older trees opens the years of cones buried in the dead needles, and the forest rises from the ashes like a phoenix, growing up to replace the burned trees until the forest becomes static again and the beetles start to destroy it again.  Creation and destruction.

Scattered among the pines, there are a few aspens.  They tend to be in clearings, and seldom spread into a grove, as sunlight is sparse.  You'll notice the snow here.  This is a result of the clearing.  Most of the snow that falls doesn't make it to the forest floor, resting instead on the bows above, only coming down as it melts.  But in clearings, it falls clear to the ground.
Moving some of the pine needles, you find that under the dry needles is rich, wet soil.  The needles hold the moisture in, creating great soil for the pines to grow in.
The needles in this forest are about two inches deep.  Some forests, they can get six or eight inches deep.
Here you can see the straight trunks and open space of the forest.
This forest feels and looks completely different from an aspen grove, but is just as still and just as peaceful.  Both are a world apart.
The whole forest isn't flat, but rolls down the hill toward the river below.
The trees are so majestic.  If an aspen grove is a temple, a pine forest is a throne room.
The sky is always visible and brilliant, but all the light is indirect.
Another look at some of the stunted young trees.
Lodgepole pine are called lodgepole because their straight trunks are ideal for building with.  The Native Americans used to build their lodges from them.  This back and rail fence is made from small pine trunks.
Another nice view of the forest.
Here is a small try in a clearing that has had the sunlight to grow without being stunted.  It's trunk is currently about six inches across.  The older trees are about a foot and a half across.
A small tree and another view of the buck and rail fence.  Buck and rail fences were quite popular, because they are free standing, not requiring digging a hole for a post, and very stable.  The buck is a two sides triangle, two poles meeting in the middle, the other ends on the ground.  Rails are then nailed to these bipods, connecting them and stabilizing them.
Another view against the sky.
Here's a view of part of the forest from back a bit.
And of a pine covered hill.  This particular forest covers many, many acres.
One last view of the trees before heading home.  The tree on the left is beetle killed, and the one on the right is healthy.

So, there is a tour of what the trees in this area are like this time of year.  There are a lot of esoteric truths you can find in the details of these trees, and the forests and groves are textbooks and sacred texts, teaching the secrets of the universe.

If you want to learn the craft, if you want to walk the path, the best thing to do is to start to observe.  Observe what's around you, the cycles, the little details.  Learn from the landscape around you, from the flora and fauna, from the rocks and streams, the soil and rivers.  Watch.  Observe.  Learn.

The answers to all things are in the Air - Inspiration, and the Winds will bring you news and knowledge if you ask them properly. The Trees of the Wood will give you power, and the Waters of the Sea will give you patience and omninesense, since the Sea is a womb that contains a memory of all things.
~Robert Cochran's Third Letter to Joe Wilson, Feb 1, 1966
~Muninn's Kiss

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