Fireweed

Fireweed: Gambel Oak Quercus gambelii Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Gambel Oak
Quercus gambelii
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Fireweed Epilobium angustifolium Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Fireweed
Epilobium angustifolium
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Today snow blankets Utah’s forest floors, yet just a few months ago wildfire management teams were battling blazes across the state. With over 1,000 wildfires burning an estimated 63,000 acres in Utah in 2021, it was not difficult to find one. As I observed plumes of the Bennion Creek fire from a safe, comfortably cool spot atop Manti-LaSal’s Skyline Drive last June, Disney’s Bambi wildfire came to mind. Wildlife no doubt scurried while humans raced against windy conditions, hoping to contain as others evacuated, all bracing for inevitable short-term as well as long-term impacts. Smokey the Bear campaigns have called for prevention and suppression since the 1940s, and reports showed that human-caused wildfires were fewer in 2021 than previous years, yet nature itself is still sometimes to blame.

Yesterday as I visited with a close friend grieving her daughter’s recent and abrupt passing, we reflected on a summertime adventure we shared through an alpine burn scar, blackened, silent, and desolate. We wandered again through our memory of acres and acres of torched forest. Regally standing amid the charred stumps and nothing else, though, were thousands of beautifully bright pink-purple flower colonies. William Shakespeare’s poetic
“Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,”
describes this hardy plant named fireweed, not for any fiery red-orange blossoms but for being a colonizer of recently-scorched landscapes. Long before grasses, Gambel oak, and Lodgepole cone sprouts start to emerge out of the ashes, flashy fireweed will grow to sometimes nine feet tall. The flowers bloom from bottom up, and when the top flower bud blooms, winter might be just six weeks away. Also called willowherb, fireweed seed heads are long pods filled with silky feather tufts that unfold to carry tens of thousands of seeds on the wind, signaling the end of the season. As time passes, other plants will take over as successive vegetation cycles do, but once you’ve seen majestic fireweed thrive in an annihilated forest, you never forget it. Wildlife loves fireweed just as much as I do. Deer, elk, moose, and even grizzly bear along with all sorts of pollinators are attracted to her deliciously vibrant color.

January is a quiet reprieve from summer blazes, a time when renewal and rebirth is our focus. Right now forest phoenix fireweed seeds are just awaiting the thaw, eager to bring solitary but stately vitality to otherwise dismal gloom. Out of something devastating comes a little bit of lovely. After World War II bombings, fireweed bloomed in the heart of London for the first time in decades. I imagine my friend’s Crystal and fireweed would agree: Why be a princess among others when you can be the queen?

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Courtesy Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Ballard, Heidi L., Emily Evans, Victoria E. Sturtevant, and Pamela Jakes (2012). The Evolution of Smokey Bear: Environmental Education About Wildfire for Youth, The Journal of Environmental Education, 43:4, 227-240, DOI: 10.1080/00958964.2011.644352, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00958964.2011.644352?casa_token=4uSEKZ1Po3QAAAAA%3Al5k-XuM1LI80cCIZD3Ywg4E_3shIs8S-h-iVQ7uumEhvN-mGmaogdve04Y9tEeUqlxA2Li0Y3PVv

Boling, Josh. Fire. Wild About Utah, August 13, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/fire/

Capdeville, Sarah. Fireweed: A Colorful Reminder of Change. (2015). https://www.mtpr.org/arts-culture/2015-06-05/fireweed-a-colorful-reminder-of-change

Collard, Sneed B. Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests. (2015). Bucking Horse Books. https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Birds-Valuing-Natural-Wildfires/dp/0984446079

Green, Jack. Holy Smokes! (2021). https://wildaboututah.org/holy-smokes/

Mullen, Luba. How Trees Survive and Thrive After a Fire. (2017). https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/your-national-forests-magazine/how-trees-survive-and-thrive-after-a-fire

Olsen, Shawn and Debbie Amundsen. Gambel Oak in the Landscape. (2021). USU Extension. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1905&context=extension_curall

Peery, Lexi. Utah Saw a Decrease in Human-caused Wildfires. November 2, 2021. https://www.kuer.org/health-science-environment/2021-11-02/utah-saw-a-decrease-in-human-caused-wildfires-this-year-but-officials-say-fire-season-isnt-going-away

Shakespeare, William. The Phoenix and the Turtle. (1601). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45085/the-phoenix-and-the-turtle-56d2246f86c06

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fireweed. (2016). https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/wapmspg12854.pdf

Vizgirdas, Edna. U.S. Forest Service Plant of the Week: Fireweed. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/chamerion_angustifolium.shtml

Wells, Kathryn and Timothy J. Haney. D is for Disaster. (2017). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504217714262 Volume: 16 issue: 2, page(s): 62-64. (2017).

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/


Erosion Made My Favorite Places

Erosion Made My Favorite Places: Bluff of Little Flat Top Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Bluff of Little Flat Top
Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer

Muddy Creek Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer Muddy Creek
Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer

North Fork Pleasant Creek Terracing Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer North Fork Pleasant Creek Terracing
Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer

Blackburn Draw Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer Blackburn Draw
Courtesy and Copyright Shannon Rhodes, photographer

Brendan Wenzel says the inspiration for his picture book “A Stone Sat Still” was a familiar boulder nestled in a tidal inlet near his family’s home. This stone was a dining place, a perch, a tool, and a landmark, but dependably there day after day, year after year. When I shared this book as a writing workshop launch with fellow educators, it drew recollections of sandboxes, rock collections, garden pavers, mantle stones, stacked-stone cairns keeping us on the right trail, and deeper connections to fathers. I wrote about how stones definitely don’t sit still when I am around. When my father would take us fishing, my brothers and I would most likely be skipping every flat rock we could find across the lake’s surface instead of manning our poles. Even now I can’t resist rolling a moqui marble down desert slickrock or plucking up a river rock to chase scurrying stonefly larva beneath.

Dr. Eric Newell, director of experiential learning at Edith Bowen Laboratory School and summertime river rafting guide, wrote about the secrets stones hold for him: “I like to pick up rounded river rocks, turn them gently in my fingertips, feel the smooth contours, and wonder where they journeyed from to this resting place—how long did it take for the eons to shape and polish them? And what would rivers be without stones?—the meticulous ways the currents stack and sort boulders to sand grains by size, coming to understand that every wave on the surface of the river is created by stones beneath—and the metaphor that provides for seeing and understanding children, adults, and even myself.”

Mountains, boulders, stones, cobbles, gravels, pebbles, sand grains, silt, mud. If the water is muddy or the wind is dusty, we know erosion is happening. It forms valleys, smooths jagged rocks, and carves unexpected slot canyons in the desert. It also causes black blizzards and landslides. According to Mark Milligan of the Utah Geologic Survey, the early decades of the 1900s saw the Civilian Conservation Corps setting to work not only building canals and roads, but contour terracing to stall mountainside erosion here in Utah. There is a sign on Skyline Drive in the Manti-LaSal National Forest that reminds us that those CCC boys were digging horizontal trenches above our cities well into the 1950s.

Many people equate erosion with the destructive forces that wear down earth. Yet, in her book titled “Erosion,” Terry Tempest Williams pairs eroding with evolving. She wrote, “Water freezes and shatters stone; rocks fall from the force of gravity; new rapids appear in rivers. Storms gather and floods roar through dry washes, cutting and scouring a wider channel…” We have water, ice, wind, and time to thank for the erosion that created Natural Bridges and Arches, Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Goblin Valley, and Muddy Creek and Blackburn Draw.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I’m wild about erosion’s role in shaping Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller, https://upr.org/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Courtesy Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Atwood, Genevieve. Geology of Utah. https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/g/GEOLOGY.shtml

Manti-LaSal National Forest Visitor Guide. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5370798.pdf

Milligan, Mark. What Are Those Lines on the Mountain? From Bread Lines to Erosion-Control Lines. Utah Geologic Survey Notes, v. 42 no. 1, January 2010. https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/erosion-control-lines-on-the-mountains/

Olsen, Beth. Utah’s CCCs: The Conservators’ Medium for Young Men, Nature, Economy, and Freedom. Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 62, Number 3, 1994 by Utah State History. https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume62_1994_number3/s/163708

Oskin, Becky. Mars on Earth: How Utah’s Fantastical Moqui Marbles Formed. 2014. https://www.livescience.com/47936-how-moqui-marbles-form.html


Wenzel, Brendan. A Stone Sat Still. 2019. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P11LB4A-pjI

Williams, Terry Tempest. Erosion: Essays of Undoing. 2019. New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books. https://www.amazon.com/Erosion-Undoing-Terry-Tempest-Williams/dp/0374280061

Brushes

Paintbrush (Castilleja) Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Paintbrush (Castilleja)
Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Of all the lovely wildflowers to enjoy in Utah, indian paintbrush has to top my list. The nickname “prairie fire” is an accurate one, highlighting the variety of colors we find: reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, purples, and sometimes a mixture of two. In Tomie dePaola’s children’s picture book “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” Little Gopher discovers “brushes filled with paint, each one a color of the sunset.” The legend is a flashy tale celebrating this member of the figwort family and stories captured in rock art. Of course, our petroglyphs are fascinating, but I like to imagine how the pictographs adorning many of Utah’s “learning rock” sandstone walls may have been painted with brushes, fingers, and other tools many centuries ago.

Often, when we see indian paintbrush, whether we’re in Utah’s deserts up in elevation through subalpine meadows, we also see sagebrush. They are both native to Utah. In fact, some species of indian paintbrush are root-parasites for sagebrush, intertwining roots to access water and nutrients because they lack small hairs on their own.

Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)
Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
The Utah State University fight song captures the love we have for the spots in Utah where sagebrush grows. To celebrate Aggie homecoming, my first grade class went out this week to explore describing adjectives of sagebrush compared to those for rabbitbrush, another brush native in Utah. One student wrote that rabbitbrush smells like strawberries and is bushy yellow. Another thought that it looks like a banana, smells sweet, and likes bees and rocks. Alternately, a student wrote that sagebrush is minty, soft, and “smells horrible.” We learned to recognize the sagebrush leaf three-toothed tridents and the magical way rubbing the leaves on paper both releases and traps that distinctive fragrance.

Mae Timbimboo Parry, once a recordkeeper of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone, sketched how to identify sagebrush in much the same way. In his appendix of “The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History,” Darren Parry shares his grandmother’s handwritten field notes about sagebrush, indicating its use in tea and purifying ceremonies. I was surprised at first that she did not include indian paintbrush in the list of plants until I realized that willow, wildrose, sego lily, and sunflower all had practical uses beyond their beauty. Some have said that the sagebrush is the backbone of the West, and I would add that indian paintbrush adds a splash of color.

Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)
Courtesy and Copyright © by Shannon Rhodes, photographer
Along with horsebrush, buckbrush, blackbrush, bitterbrush which is also known as antelopebrush, and rabbitbrush, indian paintbrush and sagebrush tell a Utah story as distinctive as that portrayed in the brushstrokes of the pictographs of this land.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Alpine Nature Center. Is It Rabbitbrush or Is It Sagebrush? https://www.alpinenaturecenter.org/rabbit-vs-sage.html

de Paola, Tomie. The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush. Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. 1988. https://www.tomie.com/https://www.audubon.org/news/celebrating-sagebrush-wests-most-important-native-plant

Johnson, Jeff. Head of Sinbad Pictographs in San Rafael Swell. https://thetrekplanner.com/head-of-sinbad-pictographs-san-rafael-swell-utah/

Larese-Casanova, Mark. Desert Plants Field Book. Utah Master Naturalist. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1911&context=wats_facpub

Mozdy, Michael. Bold Figures, Blurred History: The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon. October 2, 2016. https://nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/09/29/bold-figures-blurred-history-great-gallery-horseshoe-canyon

Miller, Pam, and Blaine Miller. Rock Art in Utah. https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/r/ROCK_ART.shtml

Parry, Darren. The Bear River Massacre: A Shoshone History. https://heritageandarts.utah.gov/the-bear-river-massacre-a-shoshone-history-a-conversation-with-darren-parry/

Repandshek, Kurt. Traces of a Lost People. The Smithsonian Magazine. March 2005. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/traces-of-a-lost-people-84026156/

Scotter, Troy, and Nina Bowen. The Rock Art of Utah. Utah Rock Art Research Association. May 13, 2020. https://urara.wildapricot.org/page-18203

Strand, Holly. Woody Plants of Utah. Wild About Utah, December 15, 2011. https://wildaboututah.org/tag/rabbitbrush/

Strand, Holly. Sagebrush. Wild About Utah, January 14, 2009. https://wildaboututah.org/sagebrush/

Susec, David. The Barrier Canyon Rock Art Style. The B.C.S. Project. http://www.bcsproject.org/barrierstyle.html

U.S. National Park Service. Seeing Rock Markings in a Whole New Way. https://www.nps.gov/articles/cany-rock-markings-photo.htm

Wampler, Fred. Paintbrush and Sagebrush. University of Mary Washington Gallery. http://www.umwgalleries.org/paintbrush-and-sagebrush/

Young, Lauren. Saving the American West’s Sagebrush Sea. May 19, 2001. https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/saving-sagebrush/

Mormon Crickets

Mormon Cricket female Anabrus-simplex Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Mormon Cricket female
Anabrus-simplex
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Children’s author George Selden described the impact of a cricket’s chirping in the bustle of a subway station in his book “The Cricket in Times Square” like this: “Like ripples around a stone dropped into still water, the circles of silence spread out. …Eyes that looked worried grew soft and peaceful; tongues left off chattering; and ears full of the city’s rustling were rested by the cricket’s melody.” Combine this musical talent with Jiminy Cricket’s gentle reminder to always listen to my conscience, and it is no wonder that I would drift to sleep on summer evenings enamored with cricket songs. How, I thought, could such a beautifully-sounding insect be the villain in Utah’s legend we know as the Miracle of the Gulls, memorialized in Minerva Teichert paintings and Temple Square monuments?

Decades later, near Fremont Indian State Park, I met a Mormon cricket for the first time. I cringed as I watched thousands of these creatures hopping across the mountain path that afternoon, and I understood how merciful those California gulls must have seemed, swooping in to gobble up the insects, as the Mormon pioneers struggled to develop a defensive, crop-saving plan as newcomers to this land.

Mormon Cricket female Anabrus-simplex Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Mormon Cricket female
Anabrus-simplex
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Utah settler Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young captures a bit of the incident in her 1848 journal entry: “May 27: …today to our utter astonishment, the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans…, and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige to be seen. They next swept over peas…; took everything clean.” These hordes of insects were not new to the area, however, as we know that explorer Peter Skene Ogden noted “crickets by millions” in his 1825 journal account over 20 years earlier.

Did you know that Mormon crickets are not crickets, grasshoppers, or cicadas, but large shield-backed katydids that walk or hop rather than fly? Their smooth, shiny exoskeleton can be a variety of colors and patterns, like the reddish-brown female I chased and studied this summer in Fishlake National Forest. They have long antennae, and each female has what looks like a long curving stinger extending from her abdomen. This ovipositor allows her to deposit 100 eggs or more that look like gray or purple rice grains just below the soil surface. The males, on the other hand, lack this structure, but they “sing” as a way to attract females, and reward their mates with protein-packed spermatophore prizes.

Katydid or bush cricket Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Katydid or bush cricket
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
These insects can be solitary mountain-dwellers but make headlines when they swarm in huge bands, marching in one direction as omnivores, in search of anything to eat: cultivated crops, succulent forbs, sagebrush and other shrubs, other insects, and even their own kind. Researchers tracking migrations determined they can travel more than 50 miles in a summer, perhaps a mile a day, and for many, including those early Utah settlers and others hoping to shield crops from Mormon cricket devastation, it is a sign of relief to see the last one for the season. They do make for a great story, though.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Anderson, Rebecca. Miracle of the Crickets. Utah Humanities. 2011.
https://www.utahhumanities.org/stories/items/show/223

Capinera, John and Charles MacVean. Ecology and Management of Mormon Cricket. Department of Entomology Colorado State University. 1987.
http://www.nativefishlab.net/library/textpdf/17378.pdf

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Crickets and Seagulls. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/crickets-and-seagulls?lang=eng

Cowan, Frank. Life History, Habits, and Control of the Mormon Cricket. United States Department of Agriculture. 1929. https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT86200155/PDF

Hartley, William. Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story. 1970. https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume38_1970_number3/s/107089

Kent State University. Study Reveals Mass Migration Of Mormon Crickets Driven By Hunger, Fear. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily.com, 2 March 2006. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/03/060302174524.htm

National Geographic. Giant Swarm of Mormon Crickets. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy3dQJYquoY

Palmer, Matt. Get a Jump on Mormon Cricket and Grasshopper Management. https://extension.usu.edu/pests/slideshows/ppt/03sh-insects-mc.pdf

Selden, George, and Garth Williams. The Cricket in Times Square. New York: Ariel Books, 1960. https://www.amazon.com/Cricket-Times-Square-Chester-Friends/dp/0312380038

University of Wyoming. Mormon Cricket Biology and Management poster. https://owyheecounty.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/MormonCricketbiologymgmtposteruofWYB1191.pdf

The Wild Episode. Mormon Cricket: The Cannibal Swarm.
​​https://thewildepisode.com/2020/12/11/mormon-cricket-the-cannibal-swarm/

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/