Alpine Flowers

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On three days of my tuolumne Meadows vacation this summer I took the shuttle bus to Tioga Pass, at just under 10,000 feet. From the pass I followed trails to the Gaylor Lakes area on the west and to the shoulder of Mt. Dana on the east. I enjoyed views and flowers up to 12,000 feet.

And the flowers! Here at treeline and well above, they flourished in spectacular manner. At these elevations the exposed slopes are covered by snow for much of the year. Strong drying winds whip across them. Most plants here are perennials, whose roots continue living throughout the winter. As soon as the snow leaves, new shoots break forth with a head start for the short growing season.

The plants here grow in mats close to the ground to shelter from the wind. Leaves are small and leathery to minimize the drying effect of that wind. Small brightly colored flowers appear on short stalks. For many plants, specific species of bees and flies have adapted to pollinate them.

At 12,000 feet on the shoulder of Mount Dana, I ascended a long smooth slope paved with gravel and small stones. From a distance it looked just like that description. However, as I drew near, I found it was carpeted by closely-spaced mats of green, each with dozens of bright white flowers just above the dense foliage. In places, you could barely see the mats for the flowers!  I had to take detours in order not to step on them.

In another location, a steeper slope of lichen-covered rocks several inches to a couple of feet in size, I found a mat of the same flowers growing right among the rocks! I couldn’t see soil–must have been down between the two rocks it was growing on top of.

I remember another time several years ago, near a high summit in Kings Canyon National Park. At 12,000 feet a cliff of clean white-and-black speckled granite was split by a narrow crack. Growing in that crack were bright pink Sierra primrose and a bush with a dozen delicate yellow columbines.

These experiences all speak to the incredible, joyous force of life in these mountains!

Here it’s especially obvious, in these harsh conditions of wind, winter snow and cold, little water in the summer, and little soil. However, I see this force also in more hospitable places: in forests where redwoods grow to the sky; in cities where grass will grow in a crack in a sidewalk; in the rainforests of New Zealand, where plants of all sizes and descriptions cover moist soil and ferns and vines grow on great trees.

I see it also in human lives. When adversity strikes, individuals rise to the challenge and persevere through enormous trials. Yes, this tremendous life force is all around us and lives within us as well. It connects each of us with the creative and life-giving reality of the universe–call it God, Allah, or whatever. What a blessing.


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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