Look! Shooting stars!

 

My favorite Oregon wildflowers are called shooting stars, delicate darts whose blossoms with their sharp-pointed anthers and swept-back magenta petals seem to hurtle toward the soft spring earth from their height of six inches or so. These are among the first flowers to appear in our oak woodlands, long before the oaks themselves show any inclination to bud, and they dry up and disappear with the first blast of summer heat. Scattered here and there in brown grass, shooting stars are surprisingly easy to overlook. Once you notice them, however, their intense color and graceful shapes arrest the eye, and suddenly it’s hard to see anything else.

This weekend, I was finally able to get out into the Oregon springtime after several weeks of travel. As an avid birder, I was curious to see what birds had arrived in my absence, but first, I needed to make sure that I hadn’t missed the shooting stars. No; there they were, at the peak of their splendor.

This splendor is intense, but intimate. Shooting stars do not create gaudy displays like the bluebonnets in Texas or poppies in the California foothills. They do not paint whole hillsides with color. You can only perceive them by standing among them, and they are best appreciated from just a few inches away, preferably while you’re lying on your belly in the spring sunshine. I spent a few hours doing just that, lying among the flowers, listening to the ardent trilling of the chorus frogs in the stock pond down the hill and the scissoring calls of hungry swallows streaking over my head. As time passed, it gradually became real to me that I was home again, back in place.

By a marvelous coincidence, this same late-April weekend marked the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. So, in the middle of the night, I again found myself lying down outside, on my back this time. Again I was looking at shooting stars, but these were miles, not inches, away; astronomical, not botanical. Seemingly utterly different, both kinds of shooting stars had these things in common: they demanded my full attention, they were beautiful, and they were brief.

The trip I had just returned from was a natural history cruise in South America, with me as one of the naturalists. Lying in the dark, waiting for the next shooting star, I had the leisure to reflect on that rather odd role, the official naturalist. What did my tour members expect from me, and did I succeed in providing it?   The paying customers expected a high degree of expertise, of course. Indeed, they often assumed an entirely implausible degree of expertise – as if, faced with the staggering and frequently uncatalogued diversity of the Amazon, we could identify every blossom, butterfly and bird call. They also expected not to be bored; professional naturalists need to be entertaining as well as informative. All this was well understood, and I think my colleagues and I successfully met our passengers’ expectations.

But as another meteor flashed across the sky, I saw my role as a naturalist in a different light. Informing and entertaining people are means, not ends –– means toward something more fundamental. What do we owe the natural world that sustains us?  The response that I encourage is simply gratitude. And the most basic expression of gratitude is to be mindful of the gift: to pay attention.

We all inhabit routines, routines that add up to our lives, but paradoxically take us out of the actual moments we live in. Travel dislocates those routines, and in that dislocation lies a chance to see more clearly. As a naturalist, my goal is to make the most of this opportunity and encourage people to look at some extraordinary natural thing with intensity and focus. Precisely what they choose to see is up to them, but I can help by pointing out the beauty and fascination that surrounds us.

The shooting star streaking across the sky has spent unimaginable eons drifting as a cinder in space. Its visible existence, when it interacts with other matter, lies in that split second of time as it flares across our sky, and then is gone. The shooting stars that flower beneath the oaks come and go each year, each visible only for a few days, and only seen by those who look.

And so, here is the single most important word I ever say as a naturalist. I have spoken this word in response to anteaters in the Amazon and icebergs in Antarctica, and now, inspired by Oregon shooting stars, I offer it to you: "Look!"

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -