I stood among the multicolored stones of Death Valley, gazing at the greatest wildflower bloom I’ve ever seen — the greatest bloom of a generation. I had driven from my home in Oregon through the night to see this spectacle, and now that I’d arrived, I found I was unprepared for the power of its beauty. I was on the shore of a golden lake of flowers, a lake that filled this deepest valley of the continent.
of varieties of wildflowers contributed to this bloom, but in Death
Valley in mid-March, by far the predominant species was desert
gold, a knee-high sunflower whose massed golden blossoms lit the
sky. Its seeds had been slumbering for decades — in some
cases, perhaps for a century — among the rocks, only to be
awakened by the record six inches-plus of rain that fell on the
desert this year.
The other species formed a garden of
names almost as colorful as their flowers: desert trumpet and
snake-head and turtleback, honey-sweet and pickleweed, pebble
pincushion and gravel ghost. I know many nature-lovers who feel
that identifying flowers, birds, and butterflies robs them of their
mystery and prevents pure appreciation. I’ve found the
opposite to be true. The concentration and clarity of vision
required to identify a flower takes me deeper into its beauty,
strengthens my awe at its particular perfection.
trip, I was blessed to be with friends who shared this perspective,
and we happily crouched among the rocks to focus on the details
that make all the difference between a broad-flowered gilia and a
broad-leaved gilia. Each identification made, we raised our eyes to
the color-drenched landscape and were swept away all over again.
Our awestruck appreciation was not unique. We were
sharing Death Valley with a mighty host, many thousands strong.
They had come from every corner of the United States, and from
Canada and Europe and Japan, to share in this moment when
everything aligned to create the perfect bloom. The crowds, the
intense but mellow energy, the high spirits, and the sense that
this was a once-in-a-lifetime happening, all contributed to an
atmosphere that can only be called the Woodstock of Wildflowers ...
A few of the participants would not have been
out of place grooving to Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane all
those years ago. But most were inhabitants of a very different
reality. SUVs replaced VW buses as the vehicles of choice, and
immense RVs formed a fortress-like city that seemed to loom over
the sprawling, dusty parking lot that was the "overflow
campground," home for our time at Bloomstock. Still, for all the
variety of values among the attendees, we had all come to Death
Valley for the same reason: We were all chasing beauty.
Beauty is like love. It afflicts us all, leaving us happier and
more sad, richer and poorer, more foolish and more wise. It is
indispensable to a good human life. In its absence, we seek it,
often not quite knowing what we seek or understanding the lack that
we feel. The search makes us one, the Republicans and the
Democrats, the old and the young, the drivers of Hummers and of
hybrids. When I stood among the flowers with a NRA member from El
Paso, I felt profoundly hopeful.
Bloomstock was a fleeting moment, and too soon it came to an end.
My friends and I all had jobs and responsibilities, and we
reluctantly tore ourselves away. It was a long drive home.
When, after many hours, we reached northernmost
California, a blizzard descended around our two cars, the only
vehicles on that long and lonely road. As we drove slowly through
the night, the numberless snowflakes surrounded us with an
ever-blooming chrysanthemum of snow as they flowed past the
windshield. It was a bloom almost as spectacular and certainly as
fleeting as the golden lake of flowers filling Death Valley. While
we were chasing beauty, it had captured us.