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Know the West

A mystery the size of your fist


I am wondering about beargrass. This summer brought such an explosion of blooms to the Northern Rockies it was front-page news - more beargrass than anyone can remember, more beargrass than anyone can explain. So much beargrass that you don't have to be a naturalist to stop the car and marvel at the hillsides blazing white.

A single flower of Xerophyllum tenax, as it's known by botanists, is remarkable enough to catch most any eye. Up from a base of glossy, dark-green grasses shoots a four-foot stalk that bursts at the top into a perfect oval bloom the size of your fist. In twos and threes along the trail, they seem like white torches burning day and night. In thousands along a hillside, they easily swallow a small hiker, dusting everything they touch with a silky pollen.

Each beargrass plant is expected to bloom only once every six or seven years - or three or five, depending on who you talk to. This year it's hard to find a plant that isn't in flower, and almost as hard to find a good explanation for the bumper crop.

This being the information age, I figured the answer had to be out there somewhere. Perhaps some dedicated botanist who has studied the cycles of beargrass or other lilies might know. I turned to my computer, but alas, our botanist - if there is such a person - apparently has not posted his or her findings on the Internet.

I did find something else, however. One of the largest directories to the Internet, which covers entertainment, business, sports, politics and even street maps, doesn't even list nature among the categories of interest. Searching for Xerophyllum tenax, I can find Tenx Software Engineering or win a copier or a Ford Explorer. But for beargrass, there are "no related articles."

Why does this bother me? After all, the explosion of beargrass is small potatoes next to the extinction of salmon, the decline of frogs, or the shortage in honeybees.

Add beargrass to the long list of stuff we don't know, and move on.

If I could, I would. It's not often that a flower gets in your face - literally. The beargrass this summer forces me to notice that what's really missing, along with certain botanical facts about a common lily, is something far more important than information, and that is wisdom.

Wisdom is not a 10-year study of beargrass blossoms; it's not a matter of measuring rainfall or climatic variations. Wisdom is the big story: What happens to a forest when beargrass goes wild like this? What does it mean for deer, bats, fire, mushrooms? What about next year, or the next hundred years?

"Where are the elders?" I wonder. Who keeps the knowledge that extends beyond the short span of a human life - beyond the span, even, of science itself? Who keeps the story of ponderosa pine trees that lived here before Isaac Newton?

I think we all know it's not on the Internet. The loss of wisdom, be it folk, aboriginal, tribal or spiritual wisdom, has not been reckoned in our account of progress.

We need this vision. If not for the beargrass, we need it for the salmon, the frogs, the bees and the pines. We need it for the two-legged species that, for all its information, has not yet lost the ability to wonder.

'Asta Bowen writes in Somers, Montana.