Some of the most exciting new things I’ve noticed recently have been plants that live in shallow water. This isn’t a real classification of lifeforms, just a hodgepodge of different things I’ve seen in the last couple years.


Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata)

The only species in its genus. As an herb it has been used to put people to sleep.

In some places, they are a reliable presence in fens. This individual grew in small forest pond in the southern Madison Range. The plants covered the surface all the way across. I would’ve liked to spend more time with it, but in the two seconds it took me to get these two photos, I had mosquitoes getting caught in my nostrils and lining up along my lips. I was in a near-panic and it’s just a miracle these aren’t blurry.


Northern arrowhead (Sagittaria cuneate)

Apparently the roots on this one are good eating and called potatoes. Or more specifically, duck potatoes.

In a foot or two of water, a plant might grow from a little bunch of grass-like leaves, with one long stalk leading up to a floating, arrow-shaped leaf. Quite the presentation.


Marsh cinquefoil (Comarum palustre)

An oddity in the large cinquefoil family. It grows in the north, cold places, and especially in peat bogs. It is popular with flies for having the smell and color of carrion.

Since I never read a description of this plant before I found one in the field, it was a wonderful and unanticipated discovery.


A few others.

White water-buttercup:

Lady’s thumbs:

Narrow-leaved bur-reed:

Cow lily:

Rocky Mountain parnassian

Parnassian butterflies, aka Snow Apollos. Named for Mount Parnassus in Greece, a massif large enough to host a ski resort today, and former home to nymphs, Apollo, and the Dionysian mysteries.

Parnassians are adapted to life at elevation. Their white wings can act as solar reflectors for their dark bodies, which absorb the heat. They have been documented flying in snowstorms. They overwinter as eggs, and unlike most butterflies, make silk to attach themselves to something during metamorphosis.

During mating, males produce a sphragis, or “waxy genital plug,” to prevent the female from mating again. That’s what you see going on below. The sphragis is not exclusively a ball and chain. It also contains a gift of nutrients: mostly salts that the male filters from water puddles.

Clodius parnassian

Parnassians are also unusual in that the dark-looking areas of their wings are in fact translucent, because they lack the scales that ordinarily give pigmentation.

In my area, parnassian larvae feed on lanceleaf stonecrop, a succulent plant that inhabits many dry niches from montane to alpine. They can use secondary compounds from the plant to make themselves unpalatable to predators.

It’s a challenge for me to get any pictures of butterflies using my point-and-shoot. I thank the Parnassians for tolerating me.

The new normal? Mountain vista in July.

Mount Maurice is the north-easternmost summit in the Beartooth Mountains. On June 6, 2019, we carried our son up it, and for the first time in 3 1/2 months on earth, he was on top of a mountain.

There was nothing deliberate about our choice of location. The top was covered in trees. I had to maneuver quite a bit to get this view along the Beartooth Front, looking southeast.

Our reason for being in the area, our real destination, was Meeteetse Spires– the limestone crags we were looking straight down on from Maurice, as seen above. It’s an Area of Critical Environmental Concern– one of a couple dozen in Montana.

Meeteetse Spires was brought into the public domain in 2009 by the Conservation Fund in order to protect animal habitat and rare plants. While we were there, I couldn’t find the endemic to the area, Shoshonea pulvinata (known from about ten sites nearby and nowhere else in the world), but I did find a couple flowers that were new to me. Also, one of my all-time favorites: Townsendia condensata.

The forest varied. Some beautiful cottonwood stands in the canyon bottom; doug fir and limber pine on arid, south-facing slopes; and some serious lodgepole tinder boxes.

We were able to make it back in the area last June, walking a big loop out of Line Creek one day.

This year, somebody started a fire in there on June 15th, and it got away from them. In the ensuing weeks it consumed everything from plains to alpine and is now about 30,000 acres. A July 10th press release mentions, “A new plume has popped up on the summit of Mount Maurice this afternoon…”

It is small consolation that the burn slowed when it encountered this other huge recent burn in the forks of Line Creek. Or that it was stopped just short of the trophy homes on Freedom Trail.

Everywhere I go these days I try to see things as I would for the last time.

One year and four days ago we drove to the southern Gravellies for the day. We canoed across Cliff Lake, walked a few miles to Hidden Lake, had a picnic.

This year we made plans to go back. We’d bring camping stuff this time, had a spot picked out. Camp in the shade of those nice big trees, jump in the water to escape the heat.

I love taking pictures of mature forests. It has always been ironic to me that you can catch foresters referring to them as “decadent.” As though they should be stopped before reaching this point.

Amazingly, there are only two wildfires listed in the Greater Yellowstone right now. All that means is that I write from a vanishing point in time and can’t say what will hit us next. Pretty much the entire ecosystem is in severe or extreme drought right now, some of it historic– like flows on the upper Snake River, some 22% lower than 1988, when a million acres of Yellowstone National Park burned.

One of the two current fires is called the Goose Fire. 2,475 acres. It just jumped the southwest arm of Cliff Lake, pictured below. So much for fire lines.


Last week Jen and I were walking two hours to the east, in the Absarokas, on a trail through steep, mature forest. I thought: I can’t believe we spent so much time bushwhacking through this range back in the day. It looks impossible. Noting then that nearly every spruce tree was dead, I remembered how, when we worked in the area, flurries of bark beetles could be seen in the air, catching the sun like snow crystals. The beetles girdled the bark on nearly all of those trees and the next year they turned red.

Ten years have passed and now the spruce forests are falling down. The forest a jackstraw mess. I find myself marveling and taking pictures of it: “forest primeval” stuff, puts an awe of nature in me. Then I try to understand what I’m really seeing. The way things look now, they may have never looked before, and they may never look again. Fires were suppressed, fuels accumulated, and far more importantly, the climate changed. It’s entirely possible that what’s growing (or dying) there now isn’t what will grow back. Either it simply won’t get a long enough chance, with a high-frequency burn cycle in place, and/or that floral regime won’t even be able to get started in the new climate, hot and dry.

How do I look at this world? I’m seeing it for the first time no less than I’m seeing it for the last time.

Everything above, pictured on July 8, 2020, is in flames. We ate dinner outside this evening as ashen fir needles from the Goose Fire dusted our table, and the sunlight poured in fluorescent orange bars across the ground.

What is life? It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. –Isapo-Muxika