Massive lava flows pushed around the lower John Day and Deschutes rivers over the course of several million years leaving them to find and carve new routes, often next to the very ‘plugs’ that filled their former canyons! Today, deep below the layers of hardened basalt that form the palisades and ramparts projecting out in tiers from the smooth full curves that rise above us, we look through 15 million years of accumulated history. The fine grained basalt shatters and fractures in line with their mineral structure under the forces of water, weather and gravity. Sagebrush and grasses dominate revealing an oddly ‘netted’ pattern across the sloping canyon hillsides, lit by the often harsh sunlight, illuminating some kind of subsurface movement of the thin soils that soften the slopes. The ‘net’ looks as if it had been draped across the land then stretched sideways catching and snagging on what lies beneath in a never the same, but consistent repeating pattern. It shows best when the angle of the sun comes across the pattern, not when it hits it head on or when clouds make it too diffuse. Coarse falls of shattered basalt spill down to the canyon’s bottom always seeking their angle of repose. The sagebrush steppe plant communities cover the surface and in their richness and vigor speak to the soils beneath. Along seeps and drainages cutting verticallly down the canyon’s face, spring lasts weeks longer, and species crowd in that you won’t see other than near the river. The surface botanical palette in this way reveals what lies beneath…if one knows what to look for. Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a great place to observe this. Continue reading
It’s the edges, the margins, that always contain the most diversity. Large expanses of unbroken landscape take a portion of their character from their scale, a vastness, that the uninterested can often view as monotonous. Seemingly endless expanses of ocean, desert, prairies even forests, can lull some into indifference, a kind of blindness, in which they lose interest and fail to see the intricacy and richness of that which surrounds them….By overlapping two different landscapes places can take on a complexity that neither has alone…and may even arouse many of those inured to the natural world surrounding them. Two different landscapes sharing a common edge can form ecotones, where each landscape contributes species in patterns not found across the vastness of each alone. Cut a river through an arid landscape and it becomes altogether different often with stark changes within a few feet. Such is the arid canyon landscape of the Deschutes River immediately north of Bend, OR.
You cannot make someone like something. To many, a desert will always only look brown and dead, but for those attuned to them, deserts can be beautiful, awe inspiring, expansive, places of raw earth and geology, intimately tied to sky, filled with little jewel boxes, hidden just out of view and down at your feet…places of rock, delimited by the scarcity of water, with plants that not only tolerate its paucity, but require it, where the sun and wind seek it out. My wife and I grew up in the ‘Sagebrush Steppe’, the Oregon High Desert and on its edge where it meets the Ponderosa Pine Forest. I often spent hot summer days with my family water skiing on reservoirs in the dammed up canyons of the Deschutes and Crooked rivers, while she often found herself living out of places like Summer Lake and northern New Mexico for the summer. We both still feel the draw of these places, while others only hunger for more green and lush landscapes where the scale is shifted and plants cover the earth often with flowers that you can’t help be pulled to. As a horticulturist, I actually appreciate both. Continue reading