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Wasting Time

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IMG0194If you have read a few of these essays it may have occurred to you by now that a good share of my life has been spent wasting time.  You got that right.  I plead guilty.  Watching wildlife does not amount to much.  I was deemed too dull in my youth to become a scientist so the field of wildlife biology where I might have made a dollar or two watching wild animals was out of the question from the git-go.  Being a guide of one sort or another involved dealing with people, and that held no appeal for me.  I liked being in the woods alone with the birds and the bees where the deer and the antelope roamed.  So I was doomed to spend my life wasting a lot of time from most peoples point of view.

I got used to that over the years, and eventually found there were others who shared my passion, and realized that I was not entirely alone.  To boot, if you are fond of the larger animals like deer and elk you will find a good number of people who are kindred souls because a lot of people, at least around here, like to hunt.  Knowing about deer and elk is at least a manly thing to do.  Watching birds, of course, is rather more sissified, but acceptable more now than it was in the nineteen-fifties when I was in high school.

Which brings me to something that I have not yet spoken about in these stories, which is the subject of flowers.  Women, you understand, like flowers, men do not.  Men buy flowers for women on Valentine’s Day, women do not buy flowers for men.  Flowers are fem.  Sissies like flowers.  Weaklings, namby-pambies, wimps, softies, pantywaists, and mama’s boys like flowers.

Well, call me a sissy if you like, but I love flowers.  I cannot tell you how many hours I have pissed away over the course of my life wandering around looking for wildflowers.  I have been doing it since I was fifteen, which incidentally was about the time I was running a trapline with a friend of mine in the winter.  The nineteen-fifties are not much remembered as a decade of open-mindedness, and you can imagine without too much trouble, I think, how this affected my opportunities in high school.  I did not fit in well, to say the least.  I learned early on to stay to myself.

I had a friend many years ago who used to go along with me to the woods come springtime.  He was a real estate agent in real life, and I never have figured out why he enjoyed wandering aroundIGP2306 looking for flowers with me, but he did.  His wife would never go.  She thought looking for wildflowers was the next thing to having nothing at all to do.  Maybe she was right, and certainly she had a lot of company in her thinking, but we did not let that bother us.  Two years ago my friend flew twelve hundred miles to visit me, and you know what we did?  Wandered around looking for wildflowers.

Nearing the age of seventy, I’m still at it.  Two weeks ago the elk moved up from the winter ground, and were within a couple of miles of the house, so naturally I was up on the hill above the house at least a couple of times a day to keep track of them.  It was still late March, and the snow had barely gone off the south slope of the hill, but since I was up there searching for elk anyway I made a few detours to the spots that I expected the first flowers to appear.  I saw a few sprouts of Idaho Fescue, a native grass much loved by all herbivores, but aside from that there was nothing to be seen.  Still, I told my daughter when I spoke with her on the phone that evening that I had made my first flower walk of the year.

Now, some three weeks later, there are hundreds of  yellow Sagebrush Buttercups, a number of Pasqueflowers, some Biscuitroot, Besseya, and Mountain Douglasia beginning to bloom.  All of the earliest flowers that I would expect to be out anywhere from the middle of March to the end of April, depending on the weather, are out.  From now to the end of July hardly a day will pass, come rain, snow, or shine, that I will not take a walk to see what the flowers are doing.  Sometimes I will walk for a few hundred yards, at others maybe I’ll wander for a few miles, and it will never amount to a thing.  Of course, I will still be looking for elk, deer, and antelope as well as any birds that are about on these walks, and that means I will be combining two wasteful activities into one, thereby saving myself considerable time.  Time that would be wasted if I had to do each activity separately.

IMG0212It’s hard to justify such a careless misuse of time.  Mostly, of course, the process of self-justification is a waste of time in and of itself, and I try not to worry about it.  Still, there are days when I think I would have been better off to have taken up golf or bowling when I was young.  At least in those activities there seems to be a purpose, and you get to keep score in order to see how you’re doing.  You are stuck with nature when you go look at wildflowers.  All you can do is go, and see what is happening.  You have no power to make anything happen.  You learn to wait, and waiting becomes not just something you do in order to kill time before something glorious happens, but instead waiting becomes the activity itself.  Waiting turns out to be as important as whatever it is you are waiting for.

Which is a strange sort of paradox with which we humans are not particularly comfortable.  We are the “can do” species.  We are both genetically and culturally programmed to make things happen.  “Stop moping around the house,  go outside and find something to do,” mothers of my era were fond of saying.  Now parents pack their kids from one event to another instead of letting them make their own fun, but in the end it all amounts to the same thing, which is that humans are expected to make things5 happen.  We see waiting only as an end to a means. When you are out on the town with Mother Nature, however waiting is the name of the game.  Little can be made to happen.  Waiting is life itself, and things happen only when they happen.  The elk, the deer, the antelope, the birds…none of them is interested in making something happen for your benefit.  Except for your potential as a predator, or in a few remote cases, as a source of nourishment, you do not even exist.  The flowers come and go without regard to humans.  They were around long before we were.  Inasmuch as they are a benefit to humans it is only because we have deemed them to be so.  They have no notion of such a thing.  Nothing in nature is designed for the convenience or pleasure of humans.  If you go to watch the elk they may show up, or they may not.  If you have some time to spend looking for wildflowers they may be where you think they will be, or they may not.  You may have gone out on a date with a beautiful woman, and found her with her hair still in curlers.  Your time will have been spent one way or the other.  Whether it has been wasted will be up to you.  Mother Nature is unconcerned.

IMG0222All of the good things that have happened to me in close to forty years of living around here have been a function of waiting.  The more time I wasted the more good things happened.  I love wildflowers because they are pretty.  It’s as simple as that.  Whether it is one small flower on a stem of Prairiesmoke, or a field covered with ten species of flowers, I am always astounded that such extravagant beauty should exist.  Most of my friends and neighbors could not care less, and wouldn’t know a lupine from a rose.  I don’t care that they don’t care, and from the first small buttercup at the beginning of the growing season to the riotous growth in June and July I am always out there waiting, wasting time.

And this is how it often works out.  I find the first buttercup in early in April, then a Pasqueflower appears sheltered in the sagebrush.  The next day is cloudy with a strong northwest wind.  By the next morning eight inches of snow has fallen, the temperature is ten above zero, and it looks like January.  The sun returns in the afternoon, and three days later the snow is gone, and a few more flowers poke out of the ground.  This pattern repeats itself three more times before the end of the month, but the last day of April is sunny and warm.  The first Yellowbells and a few Shooting Stars are out on top of the hill.  Ah, I think, spring has sprung.  Tomorrow is May Day.  A little girl in a pretty dress and Mary Jane shoes will take a basket of wildflowers to her grandmother, and they will share cookies and milk in the sunshine while sheep frolic in a nearby meadow.

She will need mukluks and a parka, however, because May Day greets us with six inches of snow.  The morning of the sixth brings ten more.  Everyone around here is distraught.  My wife and I makeIMG 0890 the best of it, and take off across the haymeadow on the snowmobile the next morning to go to Fairy Lake nine miles up the into the mountains.  We have a good enough time, but we are just wasting time, waiting for spring.  “Almost no flowers on the hill after all this bad weather,” I note in my journal.

That is the last of the snow, and though it rains every two to three days for six more weeks we are happy to have it.  At least it is not white, and does not take three days to go away.  By the twenty-first the weather is cold and disagreeable, but the fields are green, and a dozen species of flowers are in bloom.  By the end of the first week of June the weather has not improved, but four dozen species of flowers are in bloom, and we are surrounded by elk, deer, and antelope along with their newborn babies.  There is lots to see even if we do have to bundle up as if it is still the dead of winter.

Then on Fathers Day, summer arrives, and I shed my long-johns for good.  The landscape erupts with wildflowers.  Instead of walking carefully so as to not miss anything as we had done some weeks before we now wade through patches of flowers.  Some days later we host a flower photography class as we have done for many years.  A dozen people arrive in wildflower heaven.  There is so much to photograph most do not know where to start.  When I walk to the top of the hill in the middle of the morning I find one student working up there, and the others scattered around within four hundred yards in all directions.

“Finding anything to take a picture of?” I ask.

IGP3734“Oh, my god,” she replies as she adjusts her camera near a group of wild roses growing on a rock ledge.  “I can’t believe this.  I’ve never seen so many flowers in one place.”

“Pretty good show this year,” I say.

“And a deer with two fawns just came out of the aspens and went off through those flowers down there,” she said pointing to a field slathered with irises, camas, and lupine.  “That would have made such a cool picture.  You are so, so lucky to live here.”

“I agree,” I reply.  “Sometimes the weather around here gets a little annoying, and I get tired of waiting for this, but I’ve learned to live with it.”

“Oh,” she says, “I’d put up with almost anything to be around this.  This is worth waiting for from my point of view.”

“Mine, too,” I say.  “Mine, too.”




















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