On September 1st, the day after our uphill climb, we awoke to a stunning sunrise in the mountain meadow at the Nanny Creek headwaters. It rained the night before, clearing the summery smoke blown toward us from a forest fire in Idaho and making way for autumn. Indeed, the chilly y air had a decidedly autumnal feel as we sat in a circle having a morning discussion of plant ecology and biodiversity. As a prelude to our plant study assignment that we’d spend most of the day completing, our instructors, Dave and Brooke, introduced us to the idea of ecological refugia. Defined as a protective growing environment where an organism can retreat to when its normal environment is disturbed, an ecological refugium houses a unique set of organisms. Perhaps our meadow was a prime example of one.
We concluded our discussion for the morning, and Rosie, Robert, and I spent some time doing yoga in the browning grasses of the meadow. The past few days had been a taxing transition for each of us, who traveled from far away to be in this new place, to sleep in tents on chilly nights with people we didn’t yet know, and to think of how we could have been comfortably moving back to college with our friends. But at last, we were settling into our new tent-dwelling existence and beginning to focus on the environment around us. I meditated upon this as I held downward dog pose alongside a person who I just met last week.
We recommenced class around 11 am to learn about the plant study assignment that we’d be spending the day completing. Excited to find our own plant to commune with for the day, we all headed off to different parts of the meadow and sought a plant based on widely varying criteria: Sam chose the plant whose leaves had the most intriguing scent, Rae, Anna, and Rosie found what they thought to be the prettiest, Lincoln sought the plant that was tallest in the field, Robert picked a plant with a distinctive leaf shape, and I (Catie) selected a plant based on its location near a sunny creek bank.
We spent the next three to four hours sitting with “our” plant—mine was the mountain bog gentian, and I grew quite fond of it as I drew it in detail, surveyed its population around the meadow, described all its parts, gently dug one out to examine its roots, and even tasted a leaf. As I sat there, observing my gentian quiver in the characteristic meadow breeze, I thought of how it had evolved there for thousands of years. I marveled at how the particular plant I’d examined for hours was adapted so specifically to this lush, sunny meadow, a refugium from the harsh, windy, dry environment of the ridge we’d climbed yesterday. Intriguingly, the population of this meadow’s mountain bog gentians was slightly different from the other populations of mountain bog gentians throughout western mountain ranges. My plant’s stem was tough and rigid, and its leaves were cropped closely to the stem—results of its growth in this environment: the dramatically glaciated limestone overthrusts that characterized the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Sawtooth Range, the updrafts and downdrafts that caused such strong winds, the late snowmelt that caused flowers to bloom to late, and the cool nights that caused the fireweed to turn brilliantly red so early in the fall.
Even for me, who grew up tending to our many different fruit and vegetable gardens, always acutely attuned to seasonal changes and the qualities of the Midwestern ecology that I love so much, I had never spent so much time just observing and appreciating a plant. I pondered how we were all so new to this type of extended observation, and yet, we were all here in this meadow, appreciating the escape from the normal pace of life and the pressures of college and reveling in the early autumn sun with our plants.
More significantly, perhaps, was the idea that this close plant examination was a prelude to the close self-examination that was already beginning and that will be central to our course as we work towards our ultimate quest of creating and writing a personal land ethic. Our meadow refugium offered the perfect environment to begin this quest, as we all felt safe and free to ask questions and explore our thoughts together. Our entire Montana Afoot and Afloat course seems to be a kind of refugium, offering a unique set of opportunities for us to explore and develop our academic and personal interests and our land ethic. As we walked around the meadow and presented our plants to one another, I couldn’t wait to get to know each of the students on the course and delve into new academic, geographic, and cultural territory.