Monday, May 1, 2017

Gaining a search image

Canyoncountry appears stark at first glance. In winter, the shrubs seemed too scrubby and impossible to tell apart. Almost (dare I say it)… boring. Most have small, nondescript leaves. Even cliffrose (Purshia), that produces creamy fragrant blossoms, appeared dull and inconspicuous.
Down into the canyon
But not anymore. Spring transformations are happening. And I’m hiking with a naturalist with years of experience in this area. Nothing is dull anymore.

Up at the trailhead, Robb notices a cliffrose-like shrub, but this one has broader leaves and a spreading growth form. A different species?
Broader leaves of Pursha tridentata
Later, we find out it is Purshia tridentata, a close relative of P. mexicana, which is the one seen more commonly around Moab. If I were alone, I’d have overlooked it completely.
Pursha mexicana, the cliffrose commonly found around Moab
There is joy in hiking with someone who knows an area really well. When I was little, on days I as having a test my dad would always tell me, “Just sit next to the smart kid.” I never cheated on tests, but that advice became a life philosophy over the years, morphing into “make friends with the smart people, watch what they do, and learn from them.” It’s the ticket not to just learning facts, but learning how to learn and interact with this environment.

The trail tumbles down through the sheer Wingate Sandstone, like so many of my favorite hikes begin. Down below, there are some springs hidden beneath the ribbon of spring-green cottonwood that we are going to check out.

Robb’s butterfly net is slung over his shoulder and he periodically runs off chasing something I don’t see, returning to show me a treasure. “Look for green or brown triangles,” he says as he gently taps each cliffrose with the handle of his net and watches to see if it stirs up any butterflies. Looking for Desert Elfin, a species he’d not seen in this area previously.

Each species spotted is photographed and recorded in iNaturalist, an online, georeferenced tool for identification and sharing of natural history data. By the time we are done with the hike, other people have provided an identification for P. tridentata (which Robb entered into iNaturalist at the trailhead). What a helpful tool!

Soon, I’m staring to see the movement of tiny flittering creatures filling the canyon. I'm getting the search image down.
Plus a collared lizard
More shrubs are examined. Robb tells a story about blackbrush and how it is one of the oldest living things around. Blackbrush is low-growing and appeared to me all winter as even more boring than cliffrose. But learning how it could be hundreds of years old fills me with awe.
Down in the wash, the clear water girgles along and creates a deep pool lined by brilliant green algae.
As we climb back up, I marvel at how the butterflies come into focus, the birdsongs fill my ears, and how much more there is to see here than at first glance.

The next week while roving trail at my park, I spot a little brown triangle of my own, a Desert Elfin. And am grateful of for a newfound search image that makes a seemingly inconspicous world come to life.
So exciting to spot this Desert Elfin on the Devil's Garden Trail at Arches!


  1. Ooh botanizing! And natural-izing?? Looks like fun! It's been a few weeks since we've been anywhere but our yard so I need to get out and do some of that.

    1. Yes, it's sure been fun, all this botanizing and (i)naturalizing.