Scrambled seasons: Spring mixes with autumn

Written by Jayson Jacoby November 15, 2013 08:20 am

Autumn tends to be the most banal of seasons around here but this current version has gotten up to quite the dickens.

I was over on the breaks of the Snake River last week, immersed in fall.

I was wearing a red-and-black, all-wool hunting coat (warmer than manmade fleece but also considerably scratchier).

I had a bolt-action rifle slung over my shoulder, an elk tag in my backpack, and a keen-bladed knife in my pocket which has not touched blood in many years.

It was not cold, but the air had a proper autumnal chill.

Then I saw a flash of bright orange about 100 feet ahead, conspicuous among the whitish gray chunks of limestone littering the steep slope.

(Forgive my redundancy; in that country there are many slopes, and all of them, it seems to me, are steep.)

I figured someone had dropped a scrap of clothing, or perhaps it was a strand of that nearly fluorescent nylon tape that some people, lacking Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, use to mark a trail.

(I wonder whether sometimes travelers festoon trees and shrubs with this eye-catching tape not because they ever intend to return, but because they want to prove, to anyone who might come that way again, that somebody else was the true trailblazer.)

But as I came closer I realized, with something like a shock, that the spark of color came from a wildflower in full bloom.

From two stalks of Indian paintbrush, to be botanically precise.

(Or, to be taxonomically precise, Castilleja applegatei.)

My surprise wasn’t because of the species — Indian paintbrush is quite common on rocky slopes — but because of the season.

As with most wildflowers, paintbrush blooms during the spring and summer.

The annual show of color sometimes persists for a short while after the equinox by virtue of species such as pearly everlasting (its common name was well-chosen).

But I had not before, at least in this area, seen paintbrush blooming in November, nor, come to that, in October.

But then neither have I seen quite such a profusion of lush new grass in this season, a phenomenon commonly called the “fall green-up” and one that doesn’t come around every year.

My father-in-law, Howard Britton, who’s been tramping around this country for better than half a century, said the green-mantled mountains remind him more of spring than of fall.

No one would confuse the Lookout Mountain country with, say, Ireland.

(No shamrocks, for one thing. And the discarded cans are more apt to be Keystone Light than Guinness.)

Yet it is a queer sensation to wend between sagebrush and juniper, on the cusp of winter when the predominant colors tend to be dun and gray, and notice that your boots have disappeared under a shaggy green carpet of fresh fescue and cheatgrass.

The explanation lies largely with, or rather in, September.

On average it’s the second-driest month of the year in Baker County. And in our arid land that makes it an awfully dry month indeed.

But not this year.

The rainfall total of 1.62 inches at the Baker City Airport was the sixth-highest since 1943.

Most years the fall rains, if they come at all, don’t arrive until November. By then temperatures are so low that grasses and other plants can’t make immediate use of the moisture. Like as not any new green growth is quickly replaced by the white of the season’s first widespread snowfall.

But a soggy September is a different matter.

There were plenty of balmy afternoons during October, and the first half of November, except for a couple of days, hasn’t been especially wintry, either.

And so we have been treated to a glimpse of spring’s renewal during a season more often associated with desiccation and even death in the plant world. 

Yet at the same time the snow has never completely abandoned the Elkhorns, which got their first dusting in late September.

A strange season, to be sure, but in my view a pleasant one.

The heavy grass is a boon for deer and elk (I presume the latter species exists, although I saw none during several days of hunting), which will be healthier and better able to endure a hard winter.

And though I don’t wish the wild animals ill (maybe I’m still a little sore about the invisible elk), it would be well if the early snow is a harbinger. The local reservoirs need a deep snowpack to make good the losses of the past two droughty years.

That we might get both, the green and the white, reinforces my love for this place and its climate, which, though it has something of the crotchedy old uncle in it, always seems to return the affection.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.