Mosier, Oregon: Shades of the Hood River Valley

Shades of the Hood River Valley

Notes on the importance of color in nature, from the Hood River Valley area.

A line of bubbles is trailing through the water where Hood River flows into the Columbia.  A head emerges from the water.  And this complete stranger takes off his mask and yells, “yahooooooo!” before he realizes I’m standing there.

He explains that he’s been looking for an expensive piece to his kite board boom, which had sank here where Hood River enters the Columbia.  He explains that he had been looking for it for over a week, and only after donning scuba gear did he find success.

The man explains that he had just recently moved here.  Before that, it was Mexico, where he chased an outdoor life.

Hood River creates two spits of sand that jut out into the Columbia River.  This makes an ideal entry point for kite surfers and windsurfers, who flock to the small city named after the river - Hood River - from around the world. At this very point, the Columbia funnels wind in a way that exists in only a few other places in the world.

In the afternoons, when the wind picks up, hundreds of kite surfers will walk out these spits of sand and let their kites fly in the air. The kites come in many colors, and I am always in awe at the sight of men and women speeding across the water under bright sails.

Western Red-backed Salamander

Biological color sometimes comes in small packages. This salamander, which features bright red and orange lines, surfaces only for a few weeks in spring.

Hood River, the city, is like a cross between Hawaii, with its blue water and steep green cliffs, and British Columbia, with its piney woods and snow-capped peaks.  But Hood River is among the most exceptional small cities in North America for its people and culture: packed with microbreweries, restaurants, sports and outdoor gear outfitters, restaurants and cafes, and all sorts of people who hunger to live an outdoor life of skiing, climbing, biking, fishing and even outrigger canoeing.

Along with people who hunger for an outdoor life come good gardens.  And it is these gardens in the frontyards of Hood River homes that qualifies the city for me.  I’ve always judged places by its gardens, and I think, as the measure of a town, it works pretty well.  Colorado City, the fundamentalist Mormon town on the Utah-Arizona border, known for marrying off thirteen year old girls to aging polygamists, has nothing in the way of a good garden.  See how this works?

If I judge places by their flowerbeds, then there is this one thing I do at restaurants and hotels, and I did it again this morning while passing through the lobby of the Hood River Hotel.  I noticed a bouquet of orchids and exotic shoots that was made of plastic.  While the Hood River Hotel is one of my favorite hotels, I cannot help this fact – a plastic flower display is a subconscious dealbreaker for me.  A restaurant can have exquisite food and wonderful service, but the final touch of a fraudulent bloom does the place in for me.

Columbia Hills, Washington

Looking out over the Columbia Hills towards Oregon.

I am particularly attuned to the fake flowers today, because I have also been wondering about the cultivated flowers hanging from windows and spilling from planters.  Both are made by man.  Cultivated flowers, with their perfect colors and giant blooms do not exist in nature.  If both are manmade, and if the plastic ones are more perfect, what is it about us that prefers the ones that are part nature?

I am wondering all of this, because I have been following flowers all year, a plan of design I have sought for the last 10 years, where each month I travel through a West Coast region during its peak blooms, roughly traveling northward.  And I will continue this pattern late into the summer, moving up in elevation and latitude.

There are plastic flowers and there are cultivated flowers, but certainly, the lowest of all flowers must be the wildflower, which is rarely as vibrant in color, and which blooms for such a short time, and is most often quite smallish, and fragile, and in a word, unspectacular.  So why is it that I, like so many others, am actually moved more to travel in pursuit of wild, native flowers?

Early the next morning, I wonder about this even more while walking on the Rowena Plateau.  In the hour before sunrise, yellow and lavender flowers carpet grasslands for miles, and from here, it looks as though the hill of blooms rolls right into the Columbia River.

Rowena Plateau, Oregon

Wild sweet peas in a wooded meadow on the Rowena Plateau.

After sunrise, the butterflies also rise, and the rufous hummingbirds too, both of which feed on the flowers.  There is something about the variety of color in hummingbirds and butterflies that has drawn me to them as well.  And again, I have to ask myself – what is it about the color of wild things that we are so drawn to as a species?

I am walking on a path through the flowers, and I am thinking about this aspect of travel philosophy, and I have a feeling that this fact plays into it:

Biological color in both plants and animals exists because animals have eyes.

Think about it this way: the flowering plants, which are the most diverse and dominant plants in the world, evolved to take advantage of the fact that moving animals have eyes.  By using all sorts of lures, flowering plants were able to find ways to ensure their survival by getting animals to disperse their seeds and pollen.

Many butterflies and hummingbirds have evolved some of the most amazing colors, and color patterns in the biological world.  The amount of brilliant and unusual colors in butterflies is so vast that lepidopterists are still discovering unknown species throughout the world.

Northern Pygmy Owl

Northern Pygmy Owl, Hood River Valley.

And hummingbirds – although confined to the new world – are like flowers in that in their tiny package is concentrated bursts of color.  These hummingbirds – the rufous hummingbirds, have layers of complex luminous colors.  Their relatives in South America are more dazzling in their flourishes of parrot and orchid.

But again, it's important to note that the reason these animals have such bright colors is because animals have eyes.  Butterflies have complex colors because they need to distinguish themselves from other species in order to reproduce – the more species of butterflies, the more variation in color needs to take place.

And the hummingbirds too, come in such a diverse array of brilliant colors because each species must evolve brighter and richer as females choose ever more brilliant males.  Hummingbirds have wild colors because female hummingbirds have eyes.

But the plants, which need to specialize, need to continue to lure animals to do their work for them, and so they evolve to build ever more complex relationships with the animals upon which they depend. So much of the structure of individual hummingbird and butterfly species is design to interact with certain plant species. A long hummingbird beak, for example, may have been created by a particularly alluring bright red trumpet flower, and through the millenia, these two biological packets of color evolved into ever more brilliant, specialized organisms.

So why do natural colors attract us more than the more perfect, bright and shiny plastic flowers? I am still thinking about this the next day, when I am driving up the Hood River Valley. In the distance, I can see Mount Hood. Below me are rows of cherry, peach and apple orchards, their blooms just beginning to fade.

Those fruits, before they were cultivated for our use, were designed by plants to lure all sorts of creeping and crawling and flying animals to them. And the reason why we like the taste of fruits is because those plants - through the long and random process of evolution - designed tastes that animals like.

Blooming Lupine in Catherine Creek, Washington

Blooming lupine at Catherine Creek, Washington.

Here is the important part - we evolved from those creeping and crawling and flying animals, and so, that is why we still find the greatest pleasure with the most natural flavors.

Taking the advice of a birder friend, I turn off onto an orchard road, then follow a series of roads up the slope of the Hood River valley until I get to mixed pine and oak woodlands. I step out of the car, and walk into the woods.

I call the call of a northern pygmy owl, and within two minutes, standing on a tiny branch only eight feet away from me is a tiny six inch animal that is perfectly camoflaged. His feathers are not brilliant or showy. He is like so many other animals, in that he has evolved to be invisible. Only when he stared directly at me do I see those yellow eyes, impossibly bright.

It is a strange, magical moment, to stand in the woods staring at the eyes of this tiny but ferocious bird of prey.

I have no idea why some owls have bright yellow eyes. But I do know why so much of what we seek and desire in travel comes from biological color. And therein explains why we prefer natural color: we are animals and we have eyes, and we are products of millions of years of evolutionary interplay of color.

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