Lucas Thompson: The pursuit of life

The passing of time in this wild, rugged desert is not dictated by the seconds, minutes, and hours that invade human perception. Rather, it is witnessed in the stimulus and interactions between the climate, weather, geology, and biota as the tilt of the earth revolves in its global cycle around the sun.
As paradoxical as it may seem, the hot and arid climate of the Colorado Plateau has fostered abundant and complex systems of plants, animals, and even visible colonies of soil organisms. Like most other locales, the canyon country comes into full life and color during the months normally referred to as ‘springtime.’ Determined by increases in temperature and moisture, these factors create ideal conditions for seeds to germinate and plants to engage in their vibrant state of reproduction and photosynthesis.


We have been blessed to witness this proliferation of life and the grandeur of these interactions throughout our canyon treks and river expedition. During these experiences, I have been fascinated by and consciously engaged in the flora of this region. Patterns and initiations of plants relate to a particular branch of science and natural history called phenology. It is an investigation of the processes and order through which organisms become living and begin to procreate. By acknowledging bloom or bud, and pairing that with factors such as elevation, slope, water availability, and annual climate and weather, one can learn much about the ecological producers of a region. These observations were important personally, for such a prolonged glimpse of springtime in this place is rare in a lifetime, and I strive to embrace this opportunity whole.
The majority of our time in the Horseshoe Canyon corridor was a balance between learning new organisms and observing the time at which they come to bud or bloom. One layover day at a canyon named Burro Seep was the perfect blank canvas for life to come with in the desert environment. Cottonwoods, Water Birch, Single-Leaf Ash, Prickly Pear, Barberry, Yucca, Serviceberry, and Oak were all identified during a plant study, but bare branches and stalks gave evidence to the fact that deciduous patterns had not yet culminated. Ascending out of Burro Seep Canyon brought about the blooming petals of a Western Wallflower. One would wonder what advantage the short, humble plant had by showing its colors so early. Does successful pollination increase with less diversity of plant pollen in the air? Do the hot summer months play an early demise of this flower, so thus it springs earlier? Or perhaps it is just this particular population of Wallflowers that are eager to show their pride. Individual plants are much like human beings in that their genes vary so that different traits are exhibited. Some may differ in size, others may blossom (or enter a pubescent state) earlier or later. This genetic diversity accounts for differences and assures a greater chance of survival for a species as a whole. One must remember that evolution is a practical beast and traits usually, if not always, occur for a distinct and beneficial reason. Pinpointing that reason is the difficult part. Such is the life of a natural historian focusing on phenology. It is a knowledge that originates from a hefty dose of practical reasoning, diligence, and a patient, elongated set of observations.


The next several weeks following Horseshoe Canyon were spent backpacking the Dirty Devil River corridor and canoeing the Labyrinth Canyon stretch of the Green River. It was at these times that we witnessed spring patterns truly initiate. What began as the humble buds of cottonwood, oak, willow, and sumac grew into leafy riparian paradise along rivers and in side canyons with seeps. Above these water-loving areas lay the realm of Green Ephedra, Buffaloberry, Barberry, Indian Paintbrush, Globe Mallow, cacti of several types, and much more. Although this region was dry and rocky, these flora made efficient use of their immediate environment. Whether it was the small and basic flowers of the Ephedra and Barberry, or the grandiose and brilliant Blooms of Red Claret Cup and Lavender Fishhook cacti, these organisms thrive and benefit from the seemingly sparse ecological conditions and relationships that this place provides.


All of these organisms, each in their own unique way, are an excellent example of resilience within a harsh, sometimes unforgiving environment. The pursuit of life is strong in this place, and that has been readily apparent with each step taken and every placement of paddle in the water. Even though these regions pay no heed to days and months, schedules and appointments, they still progress. The buds and flowers, leaves and colors will eventually depart from vision as season cycling continues. Yet for now, this desert, where the only constant is change, assures me of one thing only: That both I and these unique forms of life grow together and simultaneously through the nurturing environment that surrounds.

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