Painting by Sarah St. George
We call it “the February Thaw” , a time about now when the weather turns gentle for a few days. This year this week it’s a near-Spring with temps reaching for sixty. Jack Woods used to try to time his calf crop to arrive in this little gap, but he complained that he never managed to hit it quite right. Wiser heads suggested that if he just stuck with the same timing, his chances of birthing in the right time would be more likely. He just wasn’t that kind of guy and if he had good luck, he could strike it big.
To understand the reality of this break in the cold, one must learn a new word. (At least it was new to me.) “Sinesoidal” means that the forces of the weather are always oscillating as they go about their cycles and gyres. A sine wave or sinusoid is a mathematical curve that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation. It is named after the function sine, of which it is the graph. Besides the “February Thaw” (or sometimes the January Thaw) there is one in the fall we call “Indian Summer.” No one can explain the atypical days in either season.
It means that the long glacially-formed prairie here is streaked with white in places with a north side of any rise less likely to get direct sun. In summer those places will be thicker with vegetation because the moisture lingered a little longer. Driving a pickup across the land will make the driver conscious of this, and prompt him or her to stay on the sunny side.
Right now the rancher’s pickup will be dragging a hay-bale unwinder, managing to undo what was done last fall in rolling up the huge round cylinders of grass or alfalfa. A long carpet of dry green stretches out where cows come to eagerly meet it. A few gravid cows will stand braced, a little apart, waiting for the moment of labor to be upon them. Already there are more than a half-dozen small figures as compact as they were in the womb, curled on whatever hay isn’t eaten right away.
I watch one field when I go east along #44. It’s sloped, so it never turns to mud. This field was sterilized by the profound cold of a hard winter. When all the calves have come, the cattle will be moved to another field and this one, now fertilized with manure, will be harrowed and irrigated to grow alfalfa, which will be wound up again in fall as the cycle comes back around. Thus ranching is a tango with the great ballroom swirls of the northern planet.
Just before the Civil War, the American importation from Iran of alfalfa plants, a kind of pea, saved many a ranch because it produces so much forage and goes so deep for moisture. It must be re-sown every half-dozen years or so. The dried leaves make a pleasant tea.
A long time reader remarked that she had expected the weather in Montana would be deep persistent snow and cold, like Laura Ingalls Wilder tales. But that’s the weather away from the mountains with their warming catabatic winds. The reader summed up my weather as “variable.” Lots of jokes about that: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will be different.”
The main thing about snow here is that it’s like a live thing, moving and piling up against doors and windows on the lee side of a building. One must have at least one door that opens inwards, but even then problems arise. Corky got up to feed cattle out at the Doane ranch (the Flatiron place that through the estate of Bob Scriver and with the insight of Eloise Cobell, became an ecology study location. https://www.visionsserviceadventures.com/blog/elouise-copbell) When he pulled open the door, he found himself facing a perfect mold of the outside of the door, right up to the top. Luckily he had a shovel indoors, but the problem was what to do with the snow. There was no place to throw it outside. In the end he filled the bathtub.
No migrating birds have showed up here yet, though there is news to the south that they’re moving. Instead, our heralds are swelling buds on the poplars outside my window and bright yellow branches on the willows I can see up the alley. The melting snow is awakening roots, which means that our underground piping infrastructure is breaking from being pushed around and invaded. The water line on the corner and even the gas line next door. The house is subtly changing shape as our gumbo soil swells according to where the water is dumped by gutters. One never knows how hard to pull on the doorknob, because the door fits differently every time. “Frost” will rise through asphalt, breaking the highways.
On Groundhog’s Day and Valentine’s Day — approximately during the spring thaw — Mother Nature, like Jack Woods, has programmed the burrowing rodents of the prairie to start their romance engines so there will be babies in a month or so, about the time the real Spring begins. They’ll need to retreat to the burrow as March and April will always be full of storms, sometimes sweeping through in hours instead of days.
Valier is an irrigation town, one with a bitter story of dam failure in its past, and though many people let that slip out of their awareness, the state of the snowpack in the Rockies is of crucial interest. It is as surely a resource as a coal mine, except that if all goes well, the treasure replaces itself every winter. https://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/ftpref/data/water/wcs/gis/maps/mt_swepctnormal_update.pdf 117% of the average today. (2-16-17) It’s looking like a good year for grain crop harvest.
But not a good year for grain crop marketing. Too much of a good thing around the world: too much grain. (It's not a plenitude problem, it's a distribution problem.) Some farmers will go to pulse crops (peas, like alfalfa). The secret to nature is not biggest, mostest, but rather fittingest. Bees that are there when the alfalfa blooms, baby ground squirrels that are there when the hawks have nestlings and the foxes have babies in their own burrows, calves that arrive in fields that have been blanketed in snow and where the rancher has raised enough hay to unwind in swaths even if the spring blizzards scour the land.