Guest Post by Allen Bush
Willie Nelson warns, in his song of the same name, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…” Then he offers a way out: “Make ‘em lawyers and doctors and such.” Willie, I have a better idea. Make ‘em gardeners and such. The pay scale won’t come close to that of doctors and lawyers, but the company will be a lot better.
My mama would have liked the small group I hung out with in early June in Colorado. These day trippers — gardeners and nurserymen — are a little odd (think of them as horticultural cowboys) but that’s half the fun. Peculiar neurological hard wiring allows them to imagine their gardens as an extension of the Colorado high plains — or wherever they wander. The process seems to require an environmental trigger during childhood –- backyards, wood lots and empty spaces. The take-away, when the stars are aligned, can be the endless magical realm of possibility and discovery.
There is no statistical way to analyze the love for gardens or the natural world. Precious few receive this joyful good fortune. Put my posse in a garden or on open grassland, and then watch in amazement as they poke around for plants — like slow moving rats in a maze. In spite of gray hair and creaky joints, this bunch is seldom bored, still believing their best days are ahead of them. What’s up with that?
This expression of child-like curiosity – at least for one day in early June — can be explained in three magical words: prickly pear cactus.
Joel Hayward was our tour guide to the Fountain of Youth. Hayward grew-up on a ranch near Deer Trail, a small town about 70 miles due south of the Pawnee Grasslands. His grandfather homesteaded here during tough times, when the Colorado Great Plains were parched and the native prickly pear was the last option for cattle feed. His granddad, out of desperation, rigged a blowtorch and burned-off the spines. The cattle ate the spineless cactus.
Lauren Springer Ogden had told us the day before about the towering Pawnee Buttes, but it was the nearby grasslands that got our attention. Lauren said they were at their peak. High country flowering in the Rockies was a few weeks away. We took the hint. Hayward volunteered for the mission. Although he knew the area perfectly well, he didn’t say anything about what was in store. Our trip was a surprise, planned with uncanny stagecraft.
East of Fort Collins, on a windswept day, we drove past fields where rows and rows of corn had been pummeled the night before by a vicious hailstorm. Roadside cottonwoods were stripped bare of their leaves. Pellets of ice were still piled-up in drainage ditches. Past Ault, Colorado, not far off Highway 14, we turned off the main road. Stray cars and trucks passed by.
The curtain went up at the Pawnee Grasslands. The show was on. There were horned toads, burrowing owls, swift foxes, prairie dogs, antelopes and the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia polyacantha. Who the hell stops in the middle of nowhere for pricky pear cactus?
Hayward came loaded with cold drinks, binoculars, a telescope and a vast knowledge of the area’s cultural and natural history. He knew where to stop — lessons gleaned from dozens of visits since he was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. Bill Barnes, Steve Castorani, Harlan Hamernik and I were along for the ride.
We pulled-over near Keota, a ghost town. The plantsmen posse scattered over the new playground, across the treeless expanse of fruited plain, where we found thousands and thousands of flowering prickly pears, in shades from cream-colored to screaming yellow to reddish purple.
An hour later, Hayward tried to herd the cats back to the car. There was more to see: Prairie clover, Geyer’s larkspur and Hooker’s sandwort. Wide-eyed gardeners, because we know what we’re looking for, see even more than cowboys do.