Life on the Fringe

06-10-2019

By Bobby DeMarinis, expedition guide on the S.S. Legacy

As the Legacy leaves the eastern Cascades behind, their snowcapped peaks fading into dusk against a pastel sky, we are destined for the Northwest’s boundless arid lands. We travel farther up the Columbia, the rich, rain-nourished Douglas fir forests that brand Washington the Evergreen State becoming increasingly far-flung from this dry, wind-dusted desert of sagebrush and sunshine.

By the time we reach the Snake River, we are in the heart of shrub-steppe, the most expansive natural grassland of the continent. Shrub-steppe, also known as sagebrush country, beards the mountains and fills the canyons and valleys of much of the American West. This immense ecosystem bounded by the towering Cascades and Sierras to the west and the mighty Rockies to the east extends south from the Canadian border through eastern Washington and Oregon, into California, Nevada, and Utah, southern Idaho, southern Montana, and Wyoming.

Here in the lower Columbia basin, shrouded in the vast rain shadow of the coastal mountains, the land and its inhabitants are influenced by the harsh reality of this place. It has been several weeks since rain last graced the earth here, and incessant winds have swept through the prairie, inhaling what little moisture there is with every dry, inescapable gust.

We enter this world in search of the rich diversity of life that endures here, living on the fringe. Flowering rabbitbrush and hardy bitterbrush spread out across the landscape, softening the heat-hazed horizon, caught among an ocean of grass in scattered stands like tiny forested islands. We stop along the trail at a grand specimen of the most prominent plant to populate the shrub-steppe: an ancient, lichen-adorned sagebrush.

The sagebrush tribe, Artemisia, is a large, diverse genus of plants with several hundred species, belonging to the Sunflower family. Artemisia species are generally hardy herbaceous plants and shrubs, which are known for the powerful chemical constituents in their essential oils. With each breath among this sagebrush sea, we delight in the powerful aroma wafting over the land. This fragrance, more so than any words or images, truly captures the spirit of this place. The name artemisia derives from the Greek goddess Artemis, whom Homer refers to as the goddess "of the wild land, Mistress of Animals." 

In this place of extremes, sagebrush thrives and gives life back to the land. It has shallow roots that quickly soak up moisture from the surface of the earth and a large taproot that snakes deep into the earth to pull moisture from down below. The water it draws to the surface nourishes shallow-rooted grasses and wildflowers. Sagebrush provides food and habitat for sage grouse, quail, jack rabbits, and mule deer. Its branches drape heavy with leaves, sheltering the shrub-steppe’s wildlife from the unrelenting glare of the summer sun. A community of life able to survive in the bountiful shadow of the sagebrush.

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