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NATURE HAPPENINGS - OCTOBER 2001

An Autumnal Outing with History
by Damian Fagan


I am surrounded by history. As golden leaves from the aspens pirouette and plie in their grand finale, I see the present but feel the past. Not the ancient past of inland seas recorded in the fractured rocks that seem carelessly strewn over the flanks of the mountains, but rather the more recent past, say the last two thousand years.

Before me raises Mount Mellenthin, a balding peak that rises abruptly from Geyser Pass. Named after Rudolph Mellenthin, a U.S. Forest Service ranger killed in the line of duty back in 1918. The official story states that he lost his life while apprehending a WWI draft dodger. But another version exists that “the Kaiser,” as this German immigrant was referred to by the local cowboys, was dealt his fate due to his Teutonic nature.To the right of Mellenthin, is Mount Peale, a long ridge that rises up to the highest point in the La Sals at 12,721 feet. Dr. Albert Peale was a mineralogist on the 1875 Hayden Survey, an inland survey that mapped and explored the La Sal Mountains and other areas in southern Utah. And a bit farther east is the volcanic looking Mount Tukuhnikivatz - Tuk for short. There seems to be some confusion from this name’s origin. Perhaps he was a Ute shaman that members of the Hayden Survey encountered.

But it is not only the peaks that remind me of the past. There is the Indian paintbrush, its crimson flowers boldly in bloom, advertising to the last hummingbirds and butterflies that there is still nectar to be had. The bar is still open. The paintbrush’s genus is Castilleja, after Juan Castilljo (1744-1793), a Spanish botanist. Below me, withered from early summer frosts and bearing few browned leaves, is the Gambel’s oak. William Gambel was a protege of Thomas Nuttall, a famous naturalist who roamed the west in search of plants and birds. The Nuttall’s woodpecker bears his name, a. species that doesn’t reside in these local mountains.

But this story is about Gambel, who once crossed the Moab Valley and who later died of typhoid fever at the ripe old age of 30. Even the white-crowned sparrows, mountain residents that abound in the Moab Valley during the winter, bear his name Zonotrichia gambelii.


Covering the upper flanks of the mountains are intermixed patches of aspen and spruce. The aspen, Populus tremuloides, bears golden leaves, indicators of the approaching autumn. Their leaves, borne on long petioles like flag staffs, dance or tremble in the wind; hence, the species name tremuloides. Where the aspens stop, the dark zones of Engelmann spruce start up. Dr. George Engelmann (1805-1884) was a German botanist who came to America to explore the Mississippi Valley and who authored many scientific papers.

Lower down on the slopes, and growing near my vantage point, is another conifer - Douglas fir. Its reddish brown bark is furrowed into deep grooves which resemble a miniature version of the Basin and Range Province. The pendulous cones of the Douglas fir entice mountain chickadees and pine siskins to explore their scales for seeds and insects. Called Pseudotsuga menziesii, this tree honors Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) a surgeon and naturalist who accompanied Vancouver on his Pacific Coast expedition. Pseudotsuga means “false hemlock,” a Japanese name bestowed upon this fine tree.

The list goes on. Stellar’s jays named for George W. Steller, a German zoologist and arctic traveler. Cooper’s hawks that honor William Cooper (1’798-1864), founder of the NY Lyceum Society. Clark’s nutcrackers, after Capt. William Clark (17701838) of the Lewis and Clark-Expedition- I feel a kindred connection, on my autumnal stroll, with the souls of these great naturalists, surgeons, explorers and others whose time has passed, but whose epitaphs are not only etched in stone but are remembered in the flights of birds or the greenery of vegetation.

 


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