They were all in the boat, each one eager to catch the biggest fish, or to be honest, any fish at all. I stayed on shore to sketch while Dad, son, and daughter rowed out onto the lake. They were briefly distracted by a beaver who emerged from under a floating log to thwack his tail in warning before he ducked back into his hideaway. It seemed only fitting that I embroider the fishing expedition onto my travel Story Quilt.
I continue from my previous blog about a Douglas fir forest that was structured in “layers.” Here we were camped in another patch of the “landscape quilt”, a ponderosa parkland that surrounded a beautiful mountain lake. Notice the littlest fisherperson is about to catch the biggest fish, while another gets the boot, and Dad is quietly catching a trout for breakfast. Those were the days before “catch and release.” We ate what we caught, within fishing limits, of course. For most of the embroidered lines I used outline stitches or crewel, satin stitch for filling in the big fish. Large French knots indicate the heads on figures; Cretan stitch for the boat, which required a solid look. Interestingly, the Cretan stitch comes from the Isle of Crete, where it has been used for centuries.  Even stitchery has a past to consider.
The embroidered images on the quilt cause me to remember the fun we had, yes, but also cause me to reflect on what I learned from my naturalist husband. I settled into my chair, sketchbook in my lap, and inhaled the fragrance of the ponderosa pines. The tall trees were widely spaced, parklike. The ground surface was a springy accumulation of cones, thick layer of pine needles, and shaped bits of bark off the trees. In such a dense forest, middle layer undergrowth is sparse because the tree root systems are so extensive they crowd out other vegetation. We did find antelope bitterbrush and Oregon grape. Grassy meadows with wildflowers could be found where there were openings in the forest. In early spring we delighted in the Pasqueflowers that pushed up from pine needle beds. Delicate blooms of pale lavender about six inches high swayed in the breeze, a stark contrast to the end-of-winter, still dormant forest.
Pale Lavender Pasqueflower
Ink sketch with preliminary lines
What makes trees group together in plant communities? Early studies emphasized competition between plants, a rather limited viewpoint. Conservationists recognized mutual benefits. Communities are not just random mixtures of plants, animals, and microbes. Each has a fundamental dependence on at least one other that may be nutritional, reproductive, or protective. The interactions can be very complex, not just chainlike, but a web. The complex patterns of plant communities don’t appear to be chance affairs, because the same patterns and groups of plants can be found over the landscape, given the right growing conditions.
Plant communities provide habitats. In the ponderosa parkland community we could expect to find mule deer walking through, porcupines, golden-mantled ground squirrels, chipmunks, mountain cottontail rabbits, mountain lion, birds such as Steller’s jay, mountain chickadee, pygmy nuthatch and others. Underground we could expect to find worms, insects, bacterial and fungal decomposer species. Dried manure and an abundance of ticks told us that at certain times of the year the area was open range for cattle. The outdoor life has some annoyances like ticks and mosquitoes but being outdoors is the reward. Ecosystems at the core depend upon a stable plant community such as this one. This ponderosa parkland has been successful in this location for many years.
Plant communities are a good analogy for human communities. To be a successful community requires living in harmony. Living in harmony requires respecting and appreciating the webs of life and contributing to the interdependence. Life supports life by employing fundamental laws of nature. (1) Every part of the web is connected by some means to every other part of the web. (2) There is no such thing as a free lunch because each plant, animal, microbe, or life form contributes to the system in some particular way. Without that, life systems falter.
A third fundamental law of nature is simply put: (3) Everything must go somewhere. Natural decomposers recycle leftovers and dead material. In nature, there is no true waste. To our shame, we now have to deal with the scandalous discard of human-made objects, which do not decompose; as well as manufacturing and energy waste that is toxic to ourselves, in particular, nuclear waste.
To reflect on our basic question: “how then shall we live?” let’s remember the fourth fundamental law of nature: (4) Natural systems know best. Do we believe that? Truly? At the moment we are not living within the systems, and we are seriously fraying the webs of life. If our new ways and ingenious inventions, however brilliant, don’t fit within the natural laws, can we refrain from introducing new life forms, products, or systems? God’s creation in all its wholeness is already working. It has a long track record of successes. It provides endless possibilities for exploration and study. When we know more about those workings we can offer beneficial support to the core plant communities. We can re-mold our cities and towns; re-establish business as a “social service”; and pursue the paths of peace.
After hauling the boat all the way from California to the Rocky Mountains, it was good to see it on the water. For travel, we tied the twelve-foot aluminum row boat upside down onto the top of the travel trailer, oars and all, then transferred it to the top of the pickup truck to drive to fishing destinations. As we traversed the landscape quilt that blanketed the Southwest states, we found Ponderosa Parkland to be a common “quilt patch”, usually at 6,500-8,000 ft. elevation, given the right growing conditions. The family crew enjoyed fishing on a number of the lakes and reservoirs. The spiritual peace that restored us that Sabbatical year happened in great part because of the plant communities where we camped. The ambience of a stable working life community that encompasses underground life, surface ground cover, shrubs and small trees, tall trees and canopy, is a comfort, a shelter, and a habitat, however brief, for visitors. The expectation of discovery awakened our senses. We absorbed the peace and the sense of stability.
In Ecology, A Pocket Guide, Ernest Callenbach states, “We have much to learn from the natural world about living in some degree of harmony.” Can we begin now? We are all in the same boat.
Check back next month for the continuing story of my Sabbatical Quilt.
Nature Notes: Companion planting in the garden is well known to work. Have you tried it? Search out the possibilities for your favorite vegetables and flowers. Plant your garden with mutual benefits in mind. May your garden thrive and contribute to the planet food bank!
Gospel Lifestyle: Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. (Matt 12:16 NIV) Can we also live in harmony with the natural world? In what ways can we further benefit our local community? Our plant communities? Remember even the tallest trees share web benefits with the vegetation layers of their plant community. Life supports life.
Good reading: The Road to Beaver Park, Painting, Perception, and Pilgrimage by Janice E. Kirk. (https://www.janiceekirk.com/the-road-to-beaver-park/) Here is the story of our Sabbatical year when we traveled the landscape quilt of the Southwest. We studied plant communities everywhere we went. We absorbed the peace, stability, and harmony of each one.
 Stitchery for Children by Jacqueline Enthoven (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1968), p. 97
 Ecology, a Pocket Guide, by Ernest Callenbach (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press: 1998), p. 27.