Drought and Grief

Smoke from the Springer Fire turns the dawn orange over the Arkansas Hills last week.

You have to get over the color green.

Wallace Stegner’s advice about how to live sustainably in the inland West is not a suggestion. You won’t survive, he says, in these largely arid expanses between the 100th Meridian and the relatively well-watered West Coast, if your soul requires green.

Especially this year; especially in the Southwest and the Southern Rockies, where last winter’s snow pack–the source of our summer water–was so sparse as to be scary, and spring heated up so quickly even that paltry moisture simply vanished.

Which is why we have nine wildfires burning in Colorado right now, three in the southwestern corner, two west and one east of Colorado Springs, one near Leadville, and two in northern Colorado. Two of those fires are now contained, meaning they are burning within fire lines, but they are not controlled–on the way to being out; the other seven are not anywhere near contained, especially the largest three, the 83,000+ acre High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, which has so far burned nearly 250 homes and cabins and cost more than $29 million to fight, the 8,300-acre Weber Fire southeast of Mancos, and the 3,400-acre-and-growing Waldo Canyon Fire immediately west of Colorado Springs.

A tattered and worn tiger swallowtail, most likely a western, resting on the relatively green and well-watered hanging basket of flowers on my front porch.

The high temperature here in Salida, at 7,000 feet elevation in a mountain valley that is always dry, but not usually this parched, topped out at 99 degreesF yesterday. That’s the hottest by far in the 15 years I’ve lived in this high-desert valley in the rain-shadow of the tallest stretch of the Rockies.

I feel as tattered and worn as the tiger swallowtail butterfly in this photo, which looks like it has been through heck and back, its tails and the lower edges of its wings broken off, and the scales completely rubbed away in several places.

Wholeleaf indian paintbrush blooming in my native grassland yard because it’s gotten some supplemental water.

The landscapes I love are hurting in this drought, and that hurts me to. I can water the native grassland and wildflowers in my yard sparingly to keep them alive, but I can’t water the mountainsides around my valley. I can only watch helplessly as mountain meadows usually green at this time of year turn brown, as the evergreen foliage of the pinon pines and junipers on the nearby hillsides begins to dull, as the streams and the green band of riparian vegetation they nurture shrink.

We’ve received less than three inches of total precipitation in the first six-plus months of the year. That’s not enough to keep alive the living communities that animate these landscapes–from microscopic soil inhabitants to black bears and towering ponderosa pines, from rustling willows to lithe trout. These landscapes have survived long droughts before, including the decades of drought in the late 1100s that were a factor in causing the Ancestral Puebloan people to move from cliff dwellings like those of Mesa Verde to more reliable water sources along the region’s major rivers. But I’m guessing that survival wasn’t easy, or pretty.

Richard Cabe at 18, all James Dean restless creativity….

As I watch the landscapes I love wither in this extraordinary drought, I grieve the losses. For the company we humans are losing as each individual, and in some cases, whole populations of plants and animals, die out. For the homes burned in the wildfires. If this is global climate change, I hate it already.

And I grieve for my personal losses too, especially that of the love of my life, sculptor and economist Richard Cabe, he of the brilliant mind and boundless creativity, gone on to whatever is next in the cycle of life after he died of brain cancer last November.

How do we survive times like this? I know that I turn to nature, be it ever so beleaguered by drought and fire, and look for the grace notes–like that tattered tiger swallowtail or the brilliant indian paintbrush blossoms–signalling that life manages to thrive despite all.

Those small miracles remind me that joy lives on; I only have to pay attention and let it in.