Colby Mitchell, Director of Field Education Curriculum, Instruction, and Research
Knowledge of place is inextricably linked to an awareness of the passing seasons and all the ecological and cultural events that mark the rhythm of a life connected to the world. Each winter in Jackson plods along with protracted steps. Phenological events from November to March are, relatively speaking, few and far between. My own winter landscape prominently features storm cycles that draw me into the mountains to slide downhill on snow. As I’ve come to know this place, I’ve been increasingly preoccupied with the transition from winter to spring, both for the ecological happenings and for the cultural phenomena that come in tow. My personal phenology of spring leaves the mountains, where winter persists, in search of wonder and rejuvenation on the creeping edge of warmer times.
River bottoms are some of the most interesting places in spring. Retreating snowpack reveals the casualties of a harsh winter in the form of animal carcasses. Before the high mountain snow melt begins, the water is clear, and fishing can be excellent on a warm, sunny day. Before willow buds begin to swell, a day spent collecting brightly colored stems gives way to the meditative monotony of weaving baskets to carry the fruits of my summer gardening labor. Busying my hands after a season of long shadows and short days is a much needed form of therapy.
As the precipitation changes to rain across much of the valley and the search for sun out competes my desire to stay put, it’s time for the traditional pilgrimage to the desert of southern Utah or Colorado. There are likely more Jackson license plates in Moab every April than there are in Jackson. The desert trip offers a prime opportunity to dry out and stay fit during the shoulder season. Upon returning from sand and sun, I’m always struck by how much changes during a week away. The aspens have begun to show their little green highlights.
The speed limit on route 22 is back to 55 mph, and tour buses have begun to escort the first waves of visitors to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
As the bustle around town returns, I again retreat to river bottoms in search of the elusive and delicious morel. Each year, the hours I spend wandering floodplains add another layer onto my mental map of the best hunting locations, which dry channels flood first or last, and
other clues for what may bring a successful foray. My attention to night time temperatures and upcoming precipitation is reminiscent of the focus I apply to the winter storms of the ski season. A successful hunt is not unlike hard earned turns in deep snow. Elation is a thread that cuts across the seasons of a life well lived.
Treating each season as a distinct entity does a great disservice to the dynamic nature of this place. I am grounded at the intersection of place and time by the subtlety with which each day or week gives way to something new.