Tag Archives: climate change

Still Winter

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Making no claims to poetry, here’s a piece I started in 2009 and found again a couple weeks ago. Given 70 degree temperatures and wildfires on the Front Range earlier in the week, it’s a relief to find February can still be winter.

 

Still Winter

Still winter

Nothing moves except

White breath across the sky.

No body

Disturbs the silence

Of sun in stasis

Refracting fragile light.

And still

The winter comes

Crowding spring

Delaying warmth

Despite the lengthening days.

Until the equinox

Tilts northward

The forecast is the same:

Still winter

And still the cold remains.

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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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Foraging the Fence Line

Sure, it’s May 12th, but that doesn’t mean we’re wearing shorts and sandals on Colorado’s Front Range. Mother’s Day was snowy, today’s wind is cold, and tonight the temperature will drop into the 20s, putting this season’s apple crop in peril. Our wintered-over crops like spinach and onions are slower than normal this year, although what “normal” means anymore is anyone’s guess. As farmers in these days of climate change, we watch the weather instead of the calendar and plant or pick accordingly.

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I had intended to harvest asparagus this afternoon anyway before tonight’s predicted frost, but my friend Wendy’s blog post about foraged asparagus inspired me to take my camera along. Wendy’s post will tell you how to prepare asparagus without wasting any of the precious bits, so I’ll leave the culinary instructions to her.

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Instead, I’ll share what else I found on my walk around the farm. First, I stopped in the bluehouse—our passive solar greenhouse made from recycled patio doors—to check on the lettuces. We’ve been eating greens like arugula and chard ourselves from the bluehouse all winter, but last Saturday we harvested lettuce for all our members on the first pick-up day of the season. Bluehouse lettuce is never as crisp as outdoor-planted lettuce, but we’re not complaining about fresh lettuce in May, especially in this cool spring.

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Next, I walked the fence line on the west side of our property to find the bird-planted asparagus. I’ll let you figure out how that happens. John had picked a first round a few days ago and some of it was already going to seed, but I foraged a half bag of hearty stalks, enough for a quiche soon and some for salad too (I chop in bite-sized pieces, steam tender-crisp, cool, and add to spinach, lettuce, parsley, chopped boiled eggs, and roasted walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette). I also found cactus in the only spot they grow on our farm, back along the fence line near where our neighbor pastures his cows.

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Snow is still falling in the mountains; normally we can see Long’s and Meeker from our field. Today, only Steamboat Mountain just outside of Lyons is visible.

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On the way back to the farmhouse with my stash of asparagus, I run into John crossing the bridge by the flower garden. I glance down into the ditch, which is still nearly empty because the repairs following last September’s terrible flood are not yet complete, making yesterday’s snow quite welcome for our fields.

The lack of ditchwater hasn’t prevented the appearance of another spring foraging treat: the saddleback polypore mushroom that grows each year on the stump of our former rope tree over the swimming hole. Today’s find is fifteen inches across; we’ve harvested it just in time for optimal spongy texture. We’ll sauté it tonight for an extra treat, maybe with asparagus over pasta or toast.

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Our vegetable crops may be a little behind schedule right now, but I’m happy to be on the cool side of the weather rather than shooting straight to hot. We’re still worried about the above average snowpack, too, since the flood last fall has changed the river in unpredictable ways, but we’re glad to know water is on its way.

As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, on a farm, we work, we wait, and the land gives again. In this 23rd CSA season, we’ll adapt and change and flex and grow in whatever way the climate demands. We may not always get it right, but we’ll do the best we can, drawing on the knowledge, patience, and faith that, so far, have seen us through.

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For readers in the Boulder/Ft Collins area, I’ll be teaching a free interactive reading at the Estes Park Public Library this Saturday, May 17th, from 3-5 PM, with a special emphasis on writing stories about the September 2013 flood. Come join us!

I’ll also be offering a workshop at the beautiful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology on the Oregon Coast this September 27-28 on “Writing from Nature’s Artifacts.” Just the scenery will inspire you (and hopefully the class will too!).

 

 

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When the Rain Came

The rainstorm last night brought much needed moisture to our area.

But that’s just the weather report. So let me start again.

When the rain came, I was playing old-time music on the back porch of our Sunflower Community Room. We gather there once a month to share three hours of old-time groove with a revolving group of dedicated experienced and aspiring musicians. I’m not much good on the mando yet, but I know when a song really moves, when the music seems to find itself in the rounds of repetition, part A following part B, whirling us away in merry abandon until someone lifts their foot to signal the last go-round.

We were playing on the screened porch to try to catch any breeze a breathless evening offered when we glanced an unanticipated flash of lightning strike west of the farm toward Long’s Peak. I hadn’t checked the weather report lately, having conceded the inevitability of many hot July days to come. Our June temps were the hottest on record since 1977 and May and April were similarly record-shattering in terms of warmth. We’d been so many weeks without a real rain here, even the possibility of rain had grown dim. With only a few slight showers in the last two weeks bringing little rain but many lightning strikes to start some of Colorado’s worst fires, any sign of lightning was sobering. I’ve lived here long enough to know that lightning near Long’s means a storm is on its way. Still, a real storm didn’t seem particularly imminent.

I don’t know which song we were playing when the rain came. John says it’s all the same song anyway, and he’s got a point. Old-time music draws on endless variations of melodies within a given key but the fact that each is named and remembered proves their distinction. The names themselves are part of the music; names like Bear Went Over the Mountain; Sally’s Got Mud; Sweet Milk and Peaches, Run Down Boot, and Squirrel Hunter portray the down-home feel-bad feel-good sense that playing old-time brings.

Perhaps we were playing Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom, a traditional song that pre-dates that president (a relatively newer “old-time” song, Nixon’s Farewell, commemorates another). And then the wind picked up, blowing one strong gust through the porch that sent me flying into the community room to shut doors and windows before the tablecloths were thrown askew or worse. Still, I didn’t think the storm would amount to much and went back to the circle to join another round.

When we were knee-deep in the next song, the rain began, barely a few drops falling before the thick clouds opened over Stonebridge, pounding the tin roof over our heads. When lightning cracked above us, we raised our eyebrows, glancing outside at the dimming light, but kept our groove as the rain poured down.

Which would finish first, the song or the storm? Another flash of lightning decided the point. The rain had more staying power than we did. As we finished the song, we turned to each other, surprised at what we’d come through. We brought the rain, we laughed. A real rain. A cloudburst. A thunderstorm that promised more to the fields than anything we’d seen in months.

The rain lasted 10 minutes and left puddles in the ruts of the driveway outside. A few people left to get home before dark and a few more arrived with umbrellas. As we began another song, the wind blew cold air across the porch. After so many weeks of heat, it felt good to be chilled. Until it didn’t and we moved inside to finish the evening with a few last old-time songs.

As we left the Sunflower Room with our instruments, the nearly full moon filled the puddles in the road with light. The night breeze hummed the storm’s exuberant passing, a melody of moisture replenished, crops revived, and farmers and musicians refreshed anew.

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Rain, Finally, Rain

With no snow in March and little moisture in April, we’ve been thinking about drought here on the Front Range. Snow pack looked good last fall but dropped to 50% levels with the dry spring. Agricultural experts are warning that this is the first of a three-year drought cycle and advise farmers to plan properly. We’re not sure what “properly” might mean for us, except to water as much as we can now, especially perennial plants and trees in the hope of getting them through the hot summer.

In 2002, the irrigation ditch at our farm went dry. If it hadn’t rained in mid-August, we might have lost our crops. We planted our vineyard that year and did lose many of the vines. We’re worried that this year could be that bad or worse—and if not this year, then the next. The grass near the barn looked parched already; we’ve been watering the fields as much as we usually do in July. We’re luckier than others who don’t have a ditch at all or who live further from the head gate and run out of water earlier in the season than we do, but once the water’s gone, it doesn’t matter where on the ditch you live. Last Friday hit a record high temperature and we wondered how we’d get through a summer that seemed to be starting months earlier than it should.

And then it rained. Sunday night was a real rain, not just a few drops but enough rain to wear a raincoat, and yesterday was cloudy with a little drizzle. Both nights were cool but not cold enough to freeze the grape buds or baby fruit on the trees. Perfect. The mountains got some snow as well, which may help ease irrigation worries later on.

This morning, the farm looked different: fresh, verdant, and relieved, like it might make it through the season after all. I transplanted mint under the outdoor water spigot at the house. That’s where my grandmother kept her mint on the North Dakota prairie, the only place it was guaranteed moisture; when she’d water the flowers along the side of the house, the spigot would leak onto the mint. My grandmother didn’t waste water. She even washed dishes in a tub in the sink so that she could throw the water on the flowers when she was done. She’d make tea from that mint, the coolest drink in the hot summer.

The smell of mint still reminds me of my grandmother and the childhood summers I spent on the farm. Planting mint under our own spigot seems like a hopeful tradition. Whatever this summer brings, we’ll do our best. We’re still worried about a warming climate that is changing our weather patterns and impacting the way we farm, but for now, we’re happy for the reprieve of a rainstorm and the return of spring.

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