I live in the shadow of the highest stretch of the Rocky Mountains, a horizon-spanning wall of ridges punctuated by snow-streaked peaks that top out at over 14,000 feet elevation. At sunset, the blue-hazy shadow of those alpine summits creeps across the valley, casting dusk over the landscape. They cast a rain-shadow too, forcing the storms to rise so high to pass over their craggy summits that rain and snow skims right over us, 7,000 feet below. Hence the high-desert character of the landscape here in the valley-bottom, a place dominated by tough and fragrant shrubs, with green lines of trees only along the rivers and streams, and in town, where we baby them with yard water.
For people used to the verdant green of places where rain and snow fall regularly, this sparse valley takes some getting used to, despite the breath-taking range of peaks. Our sunshine is constant–residents whine if one cloudy day stretches to two or three. The precipitation is more sporadic than not. Our annual average, in fact, is ten inches–less than an inch of moisture a month.
Lately, even that has been out of reach, as a string of dry years has deepened into serious drought. Last year, we barely broke five inches, and that only because we started out with a record wet winter. This year, we went the whole first two months on just two-tenths of an inch of moisture, and it took almost another three months for the year’s total to rise above an inch.
Instead of a green spring, the season blew in dusty brown and bleached, borne on howling, wrinkle-forming winds. This was shaping up to be an ugly year, worse than 2002, when streams dried up and forest fires filled the air with stinging smoke.
And then last Thursday, an arc of moisture curled southeast from the Gulf of Mexico, pushing across Texas and through the Southwest, and then curved back northeast over the Southern Rockies, including our valley. The rain started that morning, and by the time we came home from yet another book-promotion trip on Friday morning, our rain gauge had more water in it than we’ve seen in over a year: it read three-quarters of an inch! We were overjoyed.
That evening, more rain fell, a shower that began as a gentle patter–rain on our metal roof is one of my favorite sounds–and kept raining into the night. The next morning, the gauge had crept up to an inch. On Saturday, the rain took a break, but it started in again on Sunday, and by the time the Gulf moisture moved out east over the Plains, we had gotten almost two inches of rain. The bunchgrasses and wildflowers in the yard drank it up and grew several inches overnight. The garden began sprouting in abundance. The wild landscapes around town were washed with pale green where only bare tan soil had shown just days before, and the tree and violet-green swallows did ecstatic swoops catching insects over the creek.
That’s life in the desert: just when you think the landscape is going to dry up and blow away after months and months and months of drought, rain comes and life leaps up and starts to dance. It’s a miracle, this awakening. To see green appear overnight is to remember that redemption is not only possible, it happens. Right here before your eyes.
The photos are mine, from our front yard after the first slug of rain. It’s even greener out there tonight.
One book note: This morning I recieved a lovely note from Faith Middleton, the host of a Peabody Award-winning talk show on Connecticut Public Radio. “Wanted to let you know,” she wrote, “that I gave your book a good review on my show… . You are a beautiful writer.” Wow! Listen to her review. (It’s her twice-monthly hour-long book discussion show. Walking Nature Home comes in at minute 28. Click the arrow under the words “episode audio” and move the marker to 28 minutes if you want to skip right to it.)
And don’t forget to check back in next Thursday, June 4th for Janet Riehl‘s visit on her tour for Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.