For two weeks in a row, I've been blessed with fieldwork in a sublime Cascadian meadow. This last time, I encountered other western Washington folks who'd made the trip top see the legendary camas bloom--the place is so famed for this blue lily that it's common name is Camasland. Last week was the time to see the bloom at its peak, when the flowers are so thick that swaths of meadows turn blue; I offer these photos (which are pathetic stand-ins for the real scene) to those who missed the day. Explorer accounts back to Lewis and Clark speak of camas meadows that appeared to be lakes, although to my own eye (connected to a mind that demands less sense) the biggest areas of camas looked like pools of sky, complete with fluffy white clouds of American Bistort.
Camas is just the best known of many plants in this meadow that are important to native people. This meadow is a treasure to the Wenatchi and other tribes that came here generation after generation, congregating in large numbers to harvest the roots, socialize, and later light the fires that kept the meadow from reverting to forest. The soil is black from thousands of fires, dark rich testament to centuries and millenia of tending to this special island of meadow in the Cacadian treed terrain.
While the blue may look more like sky than water to me, the camas lily appreciates lower, wetter ground, which means that sometimes it lives in the silt of relict channels and silted in streams. Camasland is a flat meadow within a bowl of forested hills, and the stream that winds through it has meandered here and there over the years. The photo above shows the faint blue of camas in one of those old channels, with the yellow flowers and larger foliage of balsamroot on the banks. Difference in elevation between these zones is only a few inches, but that's enough to nurture quite different vegetation on each. The meandering blue is an echo of a stream, a channel living forever.
This landscape is special to modern people as well. Years ago, the state decided to conserve the ecosystem here, and set aside most of it. There are rare species involved, but the place is special also because of the abundance and cultural importance of some of the more common species present. Preserving this place forever means that the ancient yet fleeting beauty of a wildflower meadow will not become a housing subdivision (the fate of most prairies west of the mountains) or some other modern development that will be fleeting compared to the natural and cultural history of Camasland, but which could do irreversible damage.