Friday, January 29, 2016


Rocky Mountain cirque, cut by a glacier now gone.

This has been an easy open winter — so far — which is what was predicted.  But we watch the mountains nervously to see how white with snow they are.  And we squint at the news when they show us that the glaciers are disappearing.  We already knew that Glacier National Park was not named for its many glaciers, but for the great scoop of geology that was formed by glaciers.  Repeated glaciers, putting down layers carried from wherever they started, inconsiderately putting the rocky sources on top of the fertile soils.

Valier sits alongside -- and because of -- what’s now named “The Pondera Canal Company” which was founded when Swift Dam was built on reservation land owned by Major Steele and his Blackfeet wife, and partly funded with federal money but never legitimated legally.  In 1964 the dam collapsed and killed over thirty people.  I was here then.  Sid Gustafson was a kid or maybe not born yet, but this event was so local and deep that it takes someone from here to get it right and he’s from here. 
Out in April, pre-order now.

Now owned by the Pondera Canal Company, and Cargill, a worldwide grain business, this irrigation system supports Valier and other villages at the center of a wheel of ranches, strip-farms using high levels of oil-derived chemicals, a huge monoculture.  The federal government is demanding the realignment of water allocation first defined mostly by habit.  Since the Blackfeet are at the headwaters, they have the first legal claim, which they have not used over the years.  Many plans have been laid and even some canals dug, but everything always dwindles off to nothing on that side of Birch Creek, which is the southern boundary.  On the south side, off the rez, ranchers press hard to get as much water as they can.  Water is profit.  If the federal government forces reallocation, some ranches will fail.

We all look to the mountains.  That’s where the water begins.  This east slope country is in the center of two great atmospheric forces, sky forces.  One is the wind that comes from the West, laden with ocean water.  It must pass over several mountain ranges, the last and most serious being the Rockies.  Water is heavy.  The air drops it as rain or snow, until it is light enough to pass.  That's where trees grow tall. 

Chinook arch

We look up at the mountains and see a storm shelf — in winter a snow shelf — of clouds forming a kind of higher, rounder range behind the Rockies.  If there are clouds on the east side, they are pushed back in a great curve of blue called the Chinook Arch.  It means that there is wind up high, pushed by the jet stream from the West, and things will warm up fast.  Go to bed with feet of snow under the window, wake up with water traveling fast over bare ground.  And the Rockies turn dark blue.  The snow pack sinks.  The water master at the Canal Company rethinks how much water he should impound behind Swift Dam or in Lake Francis, a secondary impoundment.

On a little stream that runs through Heart Butte, the beavers in their round house rouse and consider that there is more water running.  They rush to raid the willow brush so as to poke more sticks into their dam.  Not all of them manage to evade the traps set by the local Blackfeet in hopes of making a little money for Easter bonnets for their daughters.  Beavers are too busy to worry about it — they’re not thinkers.  They DO and what they do is impound water.

A beaver lodge

The trouble with global warming is that it throws off timing that has been calibrated by millennia of weeding out whatever doesn’t work.  That goes for water, vegetation, crops, and snowpack.  If the weather is already warm or too warm too early, the snow pack can’t melt slowly over the summer, keeping the trout as chilly as they like to be.  The water is gone by late summer when the cottonwoods need to suck ground water. 

The second wind stream comes down from the Arctic.  It’s not so violent as the 100 mph Chinooks and it is not katabatic because it is not decompressing when descending a mountain -- that's what creates the famous hot katabatic winds.  There are only single volcanic buttes to the north.  So the air comes cold and hard, more of a bulge than a wind, an erratic pattern in arctic air pressure, possibly caused by melting polar cap.  If cold air meets wet west coast air, which it often does over this place, we get snow.  If the arctic air is not so cold, we get rain.  

Even Texas gets the shivers.

Rain washes away snowpack.  Nothing stores the water then — except beavers.  A zillion busy beavers equals one big heavy snow year.  Recently it has been discovered that when smallpox killed so many indigenous people, the North American weather was changed.  The people had set fires, cut wood, even planted crops.  Without them, the vegetation started storing carbon.  The same thing happened in Europe when the Black Plague wiped out the majority of the people.  On the other hand, one vigorous volcano spewing filtering dust and rising to float in the atmosphere was able to make the weather so cold that no crops grew that year and people starved.  It’s not radioactivity that makes the atomic bomb so dangerous, nor even the ghastly immediate effects of the explosion — it’s the ability to throw so much dust into the air.

Kids are like beavers — they are always busy.  If a beaver doesn’t gnaw all the time, its teeth will grow and grow until the beaver can’t eat.  They need to gnaw.  The same with kids.  They need to think all the time and ideas are their willow banks, the raw material for the impoundment of knowledge. 

Tony Hartshorn with kids

This message from Tony Hartshorn arrived via email:  “I’m a soils scientist interesting in applying for federal funding to co-develop (with folks at the Blackfeet Community College) educational materials that might reignite interest in Blackfeet soils, patterned at some level along the lines of Les Carpenter's "Natural history of the Blackfeet Reservation" or the NASA astronomy tutorial "Blackfeet Skies" that Leo Bird helped with.  I've tracked down this 1969 soils map, discovered that some libraries will not share maps of the reservation (or apparently share scans of those maps), and most recently learned that CH2M Hill ran backhoes all over the reservation about 10 years ago to measure soil water-holding capacity (though those results are somehow not public).  This effort loosely aligns with ongoing ideas to lead a "Drought planning workshop" in Browning close to the end of March; that effort is mostly being led by Lea Whitford.  I am eager to figure out a way to harness soil stories for greater student engagement.”

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  Tony said there were 150 attendees at the meeting !!  He’s on the faculty at Montana State University in Bozeman if you want to find him.

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