By the end of this six-week trip, I have changed quite a bit. At the beginning, I was less fit, unsure of how to backpack, nervous about the bathroom situation, and completely unfamiliar with the ecology and culture of Montana. During our first section in the Snowcrest Mountain Range, I was introduced to so many things. A new landscape, people, sleeping arrangement, knowledge and plants. I learned to tune into the processes of the natural world, the dynamic of our group, and my own physical and emotional needs. On my way to “use the woods,” I noticed a plant, growing tall in the sun; the pink bells caught my eye. The plant drooped from the heft of the buds and had spiky appearing leaves. The pop of color was especially noticeable in a green and brown meadow, just barely recovered from snowmelt. It was two days after the summer Solstice, and spring had barely sprung. This flower was a positive distraction on my way to do something I was scared of.
The next day, we did our plant study. I got to sit with this plant for two hours! I applied my Western Science perspective when I noticed its patterns, like lacy leaves and tendency to have 3 buds per plant. The flowers were not yet open and faced down, which did not discourage multiple insects from flying to it, in hopes of pollination, I suspected. One plant was home to 11 eggs that would probably birth moth-destined caterpillars. The pinkness of the flower isn’t limited to the petals; the stem turned from green to pink after the first set of leaves. Individuals of this plant commonly existed close to others of the same species. These pink flower patches commonly coexisted with another leafy plant that I refer to as “starplant” (tall larkspur, Delphinium glaucum).
One of the first readings that we were assigned on this course was an interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer called “Two Ways of Knowing” where she talked about seeing plants as beings rather than objects. Her perspective is a synthesis of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science, and she advocated for incorporating both methods in a way that each approach can compliment the other. With this perspective in mind, I also examined the plant through the lens of “who are you?” rather than my previously mentioned approach of “what are you?” When I acknowledged the personhood of the plant, I acknowledged different things.
Most plants had starplant and same-specied neighbors. It is unique in color and form, but embraces its identity through a contagious confidence. It is a welcoming and trustworthy individual, proven by the many insect visits and presence of eggs. After my two-hour long meeting with this plant, I gave it a name: the fern-leafed rosebud. I later learned that its common name is prairie smoke or Old Man’s Whisker’s (Geum triflorum). I also wrote a poem for my new friend…
Friend of the beetle, source of color in the field,
three pink flowers to me and bugs they appealed.
The bees and I love you, I know your hosts will too,
How lucky I am to know a plant as inspiring as you.
Hefty flowers that you carry, a tasty odor you emit,
It’s sad that many will not get to know you like this.
Old Man’s Whisker’s, the starplants’ friend,
I can’t help but wonder… will I see you again?
Sure enough, this species was at our campsite in the Tobacco Root Mountains on June 27. But it looked different here! I was happy to be united with my now familiar friend. Some of the plants were sticking straight up, with many feather-like strings emerging from the top. These qualities led to a nickname for my plant, troll’s head (Geum trifortium). I recognized my friend from its leaves, pink stem and neighbors. The drier, warmer and lower elevation at that location must have contributed to an acceleration of springtime blossoms.
I noticed the troll’s head (Geum trifortium) close to our trailhead, so we saw each other on my way to and from the Tobacco Root backcountry. On the way back, I noticed a high proportion of blooming flowers. I wonder what they noticed about me! Was I fitter? Had I conquered my nerves? Was I louder, smellier, or pinker than I had been the last time I saw the flowers?
After this moment, it was a while until I got to see my flower friend of this species again. It wasn’t until the last backpack day of our whole trip on Section 3, July 17, that we met again in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This was after an 8-day backpacking trip, on mile 8 of that day, after leaving camp at 6am, and climbing to a mountain pass. At the top of this pass was a meadow, filled with fern-leafed rosebuds (Geum trifortium). They were all at the end of their bloom, with crispy stems and soft flowers. They had wilted but were still alive. They were about to be done, just as I was. At the mountaintop meadow, I felt proud of us both. I am grateful that I got to know prairie smoke (Geum trifortium) as it got to know me. I am happy that we watched each other blossom.