Weather Whiplash, Rhubarb Revival, and a Big, Black Bear

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With our first basil and garlic picked last week, the farm is poised at that ripening moment in wait for the high summer harvest to come. How did we get to the middle of July already in this topsy-turvy season of cool June, three-hour hailstorm, and loss of trees and fruit blossoms from last November’s abrupt freeze?

“Weather whiplash” is the term I’ve heard lately for the extreme unpredictability and sudden, ping-pong changes in weather patterns these days. Having a lifetime of familiarity with the weather in this region, I know we’ve entered an era of uncharted climate conversion, but to what we’re converting isn’t clear.

Take rhubarb in July. We’ve never picked rhubarb in July before. This year, we’ll get a second round of rhubarb—and that’s weeks after a hailstorm ripped the rhubarb to shreds. Rhubarb revival, I’m calling it. Sure, we’re happy to have more rhubarb, but it’s unsettling to realize our climate has changed enough to alter the growth pattern of a perennial plant. Perhaps the hail stimulated the plants into going to seed again as a survival mechanism. Is rhubarb sending us a lesson about adaptation that we ought to heed?

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A couple weeks ago, John and I were eating lunch on the screened porch of our community room when we sensed something moving nearby. A magnificent black bear with a tan face ambled around the corner of the ditch bank and onto the wooden bridge 50 feet from where we sat. The bear sat down Buddha-like on the planks near the end of the bridge, calmly licked its paw, and looked around. It didn’t seem to see us through the screen, but it may have smelled us. Soon it put its front paws down, turned around, and wandered off the way it had come, stopping to tip the nearby bench first in case it found food underneath.

What you don't see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge--this close to the porch

What you don’t see is the bear sitting on the end of the bridge–this close to the porch

Did we really see a bear? A real bear? It came and went so quickly, it seemed more an apparition than a wild animal. Still, I waited a few minutes before tiptoeing out across the bridge to see where the bear had gone. Bears can move quickly; it had disappeared into the trees along the ditch. I must have been mesmerized by its beauty, that lustrous fur, its wise face. I wanted to see it again—from a distance.

After another fifteen minutes, John and I crossed the bridge together and walked out cautiously to check on the bees. (In hindsight, we should have taken the truck.) Luckily, we didn’t run into the bear, finding only a trampled spot along the ditch where it stopped to check for bugs at the base of some trees. The bees were fine; an electric fence is protecting them now.

We’ve seen lots of bear evidence on this land but I’ve never seen a live bear here and John only has once from further away. We were surprised to see a bear in the middle of a June day; they usually come down in the fall before hibernation.

What we hadn’t taken into account was last November’s freeze. The same 70-degree drop in one-day temperature that destroyed our fruit harvest also decimated the food supply that bears and other animals would be eating in the mountains right now. Weather whiplash strikes again.

Later that night, we heard a noise outside like a door slamming. Ten minutes after that, our neighbor called to say the bear was in her yard and heading for the highway. I ran down our driveway with my camera in the hope of getting a picture from a safe distance, but when I saw that the bear had knocked over our trash can, I thought better of being outside with an animal that large running around. Even today, a certain kind of dark shadow in the trees makes me pause. If one bear has come down from the foothills, what’s to stop another from following? As a friend suggested, we may need to bang pie plates together when we’re outside at night.

And so the season goes. We make the summer’s first pesto, cover our crops with net to deter deer, and hope the second round of tomatoes has time to ripen before the first fall frost.

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I read a report recently about governors in states with large rural populations meeting to discuss the impact of climate change. People in rural areas, they realize, will be more heavily impacted than people in cities, at last initially, since we depend on weather for our livelihoods, live closer to the natural world, and have reduced access to emergency services. I don’t know the outcome of that meeting, but I am glad that officials are recognizing the difficulties farmers and others in non-urban communities are already facing.

Weather has always been the factor least under a farmer’s control. Today, that incapacity is magnified by a political paralysis to stop the conditions creating even more instability in the climate upon which we depend. In the midst of all this uncertainty, one thing’s for sure: it’ll take more than banging a couple pie plates together to face off what’s coming.

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3 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

3 responses to “Weather Whiplash, Rhubarb Revival, and a Big, Black Bear

  1. John and Kayann, Round here the bears have returned to live, whereas when I was a child my mom said she saw a bear once…like a distant echo of a primeval being. But now, everyone living on both sides of the mountain have photos, hear banging in the night if they don’t keep their garbage indoors, and often catch momma and triplets scampering across the back yard…My two close neighbors had closer bears: one seen sitting human style on the front porch railing, calming dispatching the bird seed in the feeder there, and the other, felt a presence as she sat watching TV in her living room/dining room. She had her back to the door and windows on the deck. When she turned around there was Smokey standing on his hind legs with his front paws pressed on the window glass. He actually went from window to window and checked all the doors this way. She said she was glad she hadn’t left any open!….But of course she’d been continuing to feed the “birds”from a feeder off her deck, despite my repeated remonstrances that ‘feeding bears is illegal!” After that event she decided not to feed the birds any more. Actually most people stop feeding birds about April 1 for this very reason…This was in early June.

    Great post as usual. Kayann why don’t you offer your blog as a column for the news papers? A local friend Lee Reich provides a gardening column to a number of newspapers from local to syndicated ones. Lee retired from a tenured professorship at Cornell Ag, and makes his living by offering gardening workshops, and via his columns. He always provides photos too.

    xo xo patty

  2. Lorna

    Nice post. We had a bear visit us a week ago and leave a large bag of garbage under our trees and a bird feeder on the ground. I agree with John about the post and love the pretty pictures.

  3. johnmmartin

    Nicely written. I always like the way you can combine the really large concerns of these times and the small bits of life in the country – well, large bit if you count the bear.

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