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I head out for an early afternoon walk, following the narrow, snow-packed foot path I’ve made up a south-west facing slope to the top of an unnamed hill. The government owns the land, but rents it back to a local rancher. In a few weeks, the rancher will set loose his herd on this grazing lease to feed. For now, there’s me, four deer, a mama moose and her two calves.
The spring sun blazes unhindered through a cloudless, Alberta-blue sky. A vague trickling sound laces the stillness as I walk. It’s the soft sound of the snowmelt dropping to Earth, guttering before its downward adventure to meet the creek.
The path leads me through a stand of aspen, up a gentle rising meadow to the top of this nameless place. The slope is a blinding white, snow-covered field, electrified by early afternoon light. The white glow is interrupted by a few circles of dull brown thatch showing through the snow. Here and there, willow sprig glows orange. A rose twig is bent with the weight, a single wrinkled rose hip perched atop sits like a tired guard.
In the middle of the first melt, I see a flash of violet. I stop. I squint. My spirits lift. I think I know what this is. The splash of colour lures me away from the path, into calf-deep snow to investigate. Four or five steps in. I know.
I see a crocus, standing defiantly against the elements. It’s broken through the dull beige and browns of winter thatch. Lavender petals spread like upraised arms, guzzling spring sun while the rest of the earth sleeps late.
I approach to pay respect to this brave life form and its bold claim to life. It’s the first one I’ve seen this year. I kneel. This one’s a little over three inches, by my eyeball estimate. The taller ones measure five inches. This one is short, even for a crocus.
Out where we live, most living plants are nervous to invest too early in the spring. The Prairie grasses lay, sleeping late into the spring before hesitantly poking through the winter thatch. But there are the bold plants who jump out of the ground first, as if to say “me first.”
The crocus is the first of the “me firsts” of spring. As plants go, it’s a Zacchaeus. If all the grasses and forbs were up, the wakened Prairie would swallow the crocus. But alone this early, it steals the show.
The crocus doesn’t grow just anywhere. The crocus is part of the ancient Prairie ecosystem. The flowers bloom in areas where the unbroken “Prairie wool” (the thick, deep fescue mane of Prairie grasses) is intact. The crocus is part of the prairie understory. Understory plants often get an early start to grab light before the taller plants hijack the sun.
The plowing of these ancient grasses releases some of the fungal partners the crocus craves, and once the fragile web of dependencies is broken, the growing stops. Once the Prairie wool has been tilled, the entire ecological guild breaks up and the original growth, including the crocus, leave.
These fragile dependencies also mean that a crocus is not easily corralled by clever gardening. It’s a wild flower in the true sense of the word. It will grow where it finds its friends. It grows where it wants to. It’s a flower with a bit of attitude. Not too eager to please. Not begging to be seen.
Much of the original Prairie grasses are intact on the hills north of Millarville, Alta., where we live. The area isn’t great for crops. We’re in a spot with a short growing season: frosts, late and early, hector all growing things. Much of the land is forested. The climate is better suited to ranching. And the Prairie wool is excellent for grazing.
If one believes that plants have personality, and I happen to, the crocus’s character is as beguiling as its bloom. It stands tall in the Prairie landscape, in the minds of those who know of it, far taller than its short stature suggests.
Sometimes, tallness is a matter of presence. A crocus has an unkempt look to it: It’s covered in what look like prospector’s whiskers. This according to some botanists, makes the plant seem less appetizing. It works, too! When animals graze the ancient grasses and forb, they leave the crocus and clear the overstory for the crocus. The taller plant life gets eaten. The crocus left alone.
Sometimes, tallness is a matter of timing. The crocus is a giant because it’s first. It leaps to life, while the slow and timid still sleep. The crocus reminds me of a young child, so surprised and delighted by life it stirs before the world weary can be bothered. It leaps awake while the rest of the world continues to doze. It declares to anyone paying attention “it’s time to get up.”
Tallness, in our times, is sometimes a matter of spirit. Tallness is a living largesse, a wildness of heart. To me, the crocus seems like an emotional giant. It bets big. It bets early, investing everything it has in finding spring first. And this makes it the tallest of beings. This is the promise of every crocus: that character, independence and the willingness to find life are enough to change the season.
Bill Bunn lives in Millarville, Alta.