Monday, June 22, 2009


The prairie is soaking. This is our monsoon month, June, but it has been dry until now. The stats for Great Falls in June 2008 were 3.07 -- for June 2009 so far it's 1.19 with “normal” (a word that doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning when you’re talking about Montana weather) for June on this date being 1.66.

In terms of the Year So Far, “normal” is 7.79, last year was 10.02, and this year is 6.36. We’re a bit on the dry side in Valier, but we’re also in a pocket of “dry” that includes Glacier (that’s the rez, though some of it sticks over into Pondera where Valier is) and a few other adjacent counties: Toole and Teton. This is just about the cross-hairs of the cold weather cells that track down from the north and the wet weather cells that track in from the Pacific Northwest, sometimes so quick that one can seemingly taste iodine and salt in the air. You can bet it’s wetter on the west side of the Rockies.

The last decade has been drought years here, with an improving outlook as time moves towards now. One measures drought several ways, not just by rainfall. A crucial part of it is snowpack, which has steadily diminished over the last century. Indeed, the glaciers in the mountains -- which is the part of snowpack that never melts -- have been diminishing for 10,000 years, since the planetary ice cap began to pull back. Ten thousand years -- that’s when agriculture began, the foundation of civilization as we know it. That’s just five times the two millenia since the year one of the Christian Era.

Water resource people watch two other measurements: soil moisture and forest moisture. Soil moisture is mostly about agriculture: the higher the moisture level, the better the crops will be. The better the forest moisture level, the less likely to have a big fire year. Here’s a little chart of the thousands of acres burned in the past decade:
2000: 1,160
2001: 147
2002: 110
2003: 737
2004: 18
2005: 109
2006: 1,047
2007: 776
2008: 107
You can see there is enormous variability.

The pattern of fire doesn’t seem to correspond to moisture levels because the timing of the moisture matters so much. The worst pattern is a lot of rain early in the season, so that there is a lot of growth in grass, weeds and brush -- then a prolonged dry spell so that all that potential fuel becomes tinder-dry. Another bad pattern is a sequence of growth years with NO fire, so that potential fuel builds up into an exceptionally hot burn. The early plains Indians took matters into their own hands by setting fires, but most of the May/June prairie fires were the result of the thunderstorms, created by cool land solar heating into a chimney of hot air, rising into massive thunderheads where the collision of hot/cold air causes lightning.

Everything is connected to everything else and the prairie tribes tried to throw their weight into good outcomes -- much grass, fat buffalo, no one struck by lightning -- by opening their Thunder Bundles to sing and dance. The summer solstice which passed us Saturday night is a religiously significant event all over the planet. I celebrate by listening to Paul Winter’s concert in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Go to this url for details and to listen.
In Winter the solstice is a midnight event, but the Summer event is at sunrise.

Rain this time of year is an aesthetic event. This rain came in last evening while I sat here keyboarding by the open window, suddenly realizing I was smelling rain. I looked out at yard and tree which don’t show rain, but pretty soon it was raining hard enough to hear its soft percussion on leaves. Then it was time to check which windows were letting rain in. It’s never the same ones. The cats sat with their arms up their kimono sleeves, passively watching the little birds flit around in the moving leaves. This was “small rain” as in one of my favorite hymns.

In fact, one of the things I miss about a Unitarian congregation is the singing. The hymns I love most are the nature poems coordinated with some traditional tune. Here’s an example, a poem by Joseph Cotter, Jr. (1895-1919 -- he died at 24. We are as grass, so easily cut down.)

On the dusty earth drum beats the falling rain,
Now a whispered murmur, now a louder strain.

Slender, silvery drumsticks on an ancient drum
beat the mellow music bidding life to come.

Chords of life awakened, notes of greening spring,
rise and fall triumphant over everything.

Slender, silvery drumsticks beat the long tattoo --
God the Great Musician, calling life anew.

The tune in the UU hymnal is WEM IN LEIDENSTADEN, attributed to Friedrich Filitz (1804-1860).

Valier is not in a romantic landscape except for the mountains on the horizons. We are in wheat fields and irrigated alfalfa fields. The big circle wheeling sprinklers stand along the road and across the fields. People are cautioned not to go stand under the rain of them, since some people feed their herbicides and pesticides onto the fields through the irrigation system.

Lake Francis, the main irrigation impoundment, is brimming with water for only the second time since I came back in 1999. This spring I heard frogs and yesterday I saw a heron stalking the margin, plus a little gather of pelicans farther out in a bay. The island where birds build nests is protected except from boaters this year. Last year you could just drive out there on your ATV and smash ground nests. The Dark Side stands cowled alongside the golden stripes of wheat in a way we all know well, esp. those of us who sit at the bedsides of cancer victims while they shrivel.

Farmers and ranchers around here are of two minds: one kind tries to understand the ragged rhythm of the weather and land, so as to dance with it. Another uses the same pattern and timing as his grandfather and father did. Over the long run they generally come out about equal in prosperity. The ones who crash are the ones who lose their nerve, don’t believe in any system. The ones who profit most are the ones who love the land -- not the money.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I love this passage!:

"The island where birds build nests is protected except from boaters this year. Last year you could just drive out there on your ATV and smash ground nests. The Dark Side stands cowled alongside the golden stripes of wheat in a way we all know well, esp. those of us who sit at the bedsides of cancer victims while they shrivel."