Death camas stems burst from the soil like some kind of verdant chicanery, here where the snow recedes from the rimrock high above Lake Billy Chinook. On this last day of February, signs of spring come with warnings. Stay back from the edge of the cliff–unless you have wings like the Bald Eagles sailing below us, white heads and tails shimmering in the sun. Watch out for the cracks, holes, and crevasses in places that could swallow you up in one misstep.
Once properly humbled by the Central Oregon high desert, then keep walking with attention. Wes and I have joined the “dry side hikers” for an exploration along the juniper-studded rim. We’re alert to every sign of Spring. There! The first phlox flowers star their way into our senses with every purple bloom. Stoop down low to see the clustered white blossoms of a miniscule lomatium, or biscuitroot.
Be ready to jump up to catch the next eagle soar or the flying turquoise gem that is the Mountain Bluebird on the breeze. Heed the keening of Prairie Falcons nesting on an unseen overhang ledge of the basalt columns below. Glimpse a lone falcon ghosting along the cliff on fine-tuned wings honed by winds.
The day began in chill air with gloves and hats and cloth masks. The sky clarity felt cliff-sheer. The Cascades whirled in snowy white drapery above the far cliffs. Below us, even the tortured knowledge that we viewed a dammed reservoir formed from the waters of the Metolius, Crooked, and Deschutes Rivers could not take away from the sheen of cobalt sprinkling us with a certain dazzle.
When the light is unimpeded, perceptions come into laser focus. There’s no ignoring the lichen by my foot that is canary yellow and beckoning–come closer! When two ravens flap by in an obsidian-cut shine, only their passage matters. That is until the pair of Bald Eagles saunter past in an aerial flowing from a thousand feet up to a thousand feet down in a descent so gradual that we’re coming along, too, with the fish rising, a motorboat circling, and Canada Geese honking.
But wait! The scamper of a side-blotched lizard diverts my gaze to the nearby. Pursue. Lose. Ponder. The lizard’s vanishing place under a rock reveals another spring plant, this one with leaves like hands. The prairie star wildflower grows close to the purplish jagged-edged leaves of a rock penstemon. Signaling promise.
And so this day gentles along. Layers of clothing come off as the sun passes overhead. Only two days after gusting chill winds and blizzarding snow, we receive a gift of February’s departure. Perhaps the death camas rising early is not simply a warning of danger (do not eat!), but a reckoning of seasons in a continuum of renewing life on the rimrock.
We’re reminded of what’s lost in the whitened leg bones of deer and the downy gray feathers of a bird that may have been a meal for a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The line between the dead and the living becomes blurred. That may be the message of this crux of February tumbling into March. Decay nurtures life. Seeds sprout from the mysterious soil. Mosses and lichens illuminate after snowmelt. Falcons nest on a cliff. The first desert flowers shower us in hope.