Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spring in the Rockies

This morning dawned with rain shushing softly on the metal roof of our house; now the showers have turned to snow: big clumpy flakes falling straight down like a steady rain of wet, pure-white feathers. The snow is melting, not accumulating, which is a mixed blessing here in March. Snow lasts longer than liquid water, seeping into the soil instead of running off the surface. But any moisture is welcome after four weeks of hot, dry winds that have dried the soil surface to dust and evaporated the snowpack on the peaks - our summer water - like a blow torch.

The green and crinkly leaves of spinach in my kitchen garden are now dotted with white clumps of snow. The new leaves on the golden currant shrubs along Ditch Creek just below our yard, the first trace of spring green in the wild except for big sagebrush, which keeps its gray-green and pungent leaves all winter long, stand out brilliantly against the rain-darkened stems. I haven't been outside to look, but I bet that the mosses and lichens that dot the surface of the soil in our restored bunchgrass and wildflower grassland are plumping up and turning green. They respond within minutes to even the smallest amounts of water, "waking up" from dormancy to make food and go about their lives in the brief periods of moisture that infrequently grace this arid environment.

It's spring in the house too. The seed trays that I planted last weekend with six kinds of tomatoes, four kinds of basil, oriental eggplants, and baby butterhead lettuces (thank you Rene Shepherd of Rene's Garden Seeds!) are dotted with tiny green sprouts. The flat with the tomato and eggplant seeds sits on a heat mat, and that extra bit of gentle warmth 24/7 means that the seeds began sprouting just four days after I planted them, and will grow larger, sturdier root systems, a distinct advantage when I put them out in the garden and they have to deal with spring weather here at 7,000 feet elevation in the south-central Rockies: hot days, nights below freezing until at least mid-May, and those blow-torch-like chinook winds. Spring here is not the least-lamb-like, but it's always interesting!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Writers passing through

This month, Richard and I have hosted a succession of writers coming through Salida. First was Ellen Marie Metrick, poet of place and heart from Norwood, in southwest Colorado, here to teach poetry and perform at Sparrows, Salida's annual poetry festival. Ellen blew in on a cold March wind and brought us sunshine and warm weather - and left us Tonics For Disembodiment, her mini-chapbook of words from land and home. Here's a sample:
ii. Moon
The canyon walls vibrate
with bat calls
beneath cooling boulders
earth's spin
reveals celestial bodies
this is not the time
for sleep
keep our eyes open
This old poem
always has something new
to show us

Next in were Donna Druchunas, driving her chrome yellow Mini Cooper and Deb Robson, in a lipstick red PT Cruiser, both from Fort Collins. They came to participate in The Arts @ The Library, a series that brings artists of all sorts to speak at the Salida Regional Library. (The series is co-sponsored by Art Works for the Heart of the Rockies, a non-profit that aims to "weave the arts into the fabric of our community" and "make the arts accessible to all.")

Donna is the author of the best-selling knitting book, Arctic Lace, a story that twines knitting patterns with memoir and the history of qiviut, the downy fiber of musk ox, and the cooperative of Alaska native women who knit exquisite and ethereal creations with this rare yarn. How could you not want to read a book with a preface titled "Following My Obsessions to the Arctic"? If you've never knitted in your life and never intend to, read it for the history of a luxury fiber that has to be felt to be believed and the women who work against extraordinary odds to bring it to life.

Deb is her publisher through Nomad Press, a one-woman press fired with a passion to bring traditional fiber arts the attention they deserve. On her web site, Deb says Nomad is

a small, fiercely independent publisher. . . . that honors and teaches traditional creative and artistic skills and processes with a strong emphasis on textile crafts, especially knitting.

She also publishes a select group of young adult novels. (The connection makes sense when you read the books!) For those of you who dream about publishing your own or other's books, here's a sample of what it's like to be an independent publisher and freelance for other publishers:

Several fall-release titles from several publishing companies have been landing on and being launched back off my to-do list, my desk, my computer. On some, I'm the writer; on some, the editor; on some, the production department, marketing department, and publisher. Because these projects are associated with a variety of companies and topics, their schedules are not even remotely coordinated.
She's crazy. But it's publishers like Deb that bring voices like Donna into print and books like Arctic Lace to life, giving us all a wider and richer view of the world.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Green morals

I'm always astonished when people justify some action that hurts another species or its habitat by saying something like, "If we don't do this, people will suffer. We can't save every species, after all." Why not? Life, as it turns out, is not all about humans. It's not even mostly about humans. It's a community effort involving more species than we even know exist. It's the relationships and interactions between all of those species - not just the ones we bother to conserve - that keeps ecosystems healthy, that buffers fluctuations in climate and weather (until things get out of control, as they have with rising levels of greenhouse gases), and that keeps Earth a green and habitable place for us all. But we consistently don't get that point. You'd think we were the only species that mattered.

"Saving Fens" read the headline on the front page of my small-town newspaper, the Mountain Mail, recently. A fen is a cold-water, high-mountain bog or marsh, in other words, a wetland at high altitude. Here in the arid West, the species that depend on our scarce and unevenly distributed water supplies have evolved all sorts of ways to take advantage of the liquid stuff wherever it occurs, and fens are no exception. These mucky, marshy swales in high valleys where summer - the time from thaw to freeze-up - may last two months or less, are incredibly diverse places, richer in species than any other habitat around them. They are home to a host of lives unique and common, from tiny primroses, rare scarlet wood lilies, and dwarf willows to mountain plover, an endangered grassland-dwelling cousin to common killdeer, and speed-demon pronghorn antelope. Fens are high-altitude sponges, storing water that, released slowly over the summer, evens out fluctuations in streamflow, keeping aquatic insects and trout alive.

So saving fens seems like a good idea. But that's not actually what's happening, as a closer reading reveals. The City of Aurora, Denver's thirstiest suburb, and the Pueblo water utility, are looking for support for an effort to legitimize destroying fens, by drowning them under high-mountain reservoirs. Their plan: pick the chunks of the bog with heavy earth-moving equipment and move it elsewhere. Why? Not because they like fens: because the presence of fens has already derailed a reservoir project proposed by Pueblo and prevented Aurora from submitting an application for another.
Most of your high mountain valleys are going to have fens and that's the same area you are going to look at for development, said Gerry Knapp of the City of Aurora.
Currently there are no mitigation tools out there if you impact a fen. . . . We are trying to develop and show a method of mitigation.

Mitigation, for those who aren't familiar with that multi-syllabic jargon, means "recreating destroyed habitat somewhere else." Sounds reasonable on the surface. But it's very difficult to "recreate" a wetland, especially a high-mountain fen, where growth is slow because of the short summers - the thick layers of peat soil that form the spongy and nutrient-rich base of these wetlands may take centuries or millennia to accumulate. And the standards for what constitutes "recreation" are not all that stringent. So what these water entities are proposing is basically to be allowed to destroy wetlands assuming they can demonstrate some standard of "mitigation." But if you can't tell for centuries to come whether you've been successful in recreating the wetland, what happens if you've fails, and the original wetland has long since been drowned under a reservoir? You lose a wetland, a sponge that assures streamflow, habitat for mountain plovers and deer flies and technicolor wood lilies, a unique piece of life on Earth, that's what.

And for what? This is not about humans' survival or even their great inconvenience. It's about preservation of lawns. The reservoirs that Aurora and Pueblo would like to build will largely go to supply residential water use, some 60 percent of which will irrigate home landscapes, that is, lawns. Neither city emphasizes water conservation, which studies show could supply their water needs for the near future. Instead of devoting resources to supplying water through conservation, they're devoting resources to evading the regulations that prevent them from drowning high-mountain valleys, and the marshes that are the richest and most diverse places around. That's as smart as cutting down the rainforest, the lungs of the planet, so we can have cheaper hamburger. Destroying fens to store water for people's lawns and toilets is just wrong.

Not just wrong, it's immoral. And I'm not alone in thinking that way. No less than the editorial board of the New York Times has come out for green morals. In "Evangelical Environmentalism," the paper's editorial board emphatically stands up for our moral responsibility to this rare blue planet:
. . . It is antiquated to limit the definition of morality to the way humans behave among humans. Those days have been over ever since it became apparent that humans - busy thinking about only their lives - had the power to destroy huge numbers of species, whole landscapes of habitat, and in fact, the balance of life on earth. The greatest moral issue of our time is our responsibility to the planet and to all its inhabitants.
From a hot and windy March day in a valley in the arid West, where our winter snowpack has already given way to powder-dry soils, I say, Hear, Hear! And blessings on us all, for we're all in this together.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Sandhill cranes in spring

It's almost spring, and that means soon I'll hear the husky voices of sandhill cranes calling to each other - "Khrrrr! khrrrr! khrrrr!" - as they ride the winds northward high over our valley. Right now they're gathered, some 20,000 of them, in the marshes and farm fields of the San Luis Valley, one pass south of us in southcentral Colorado, to rest, tank up on food, and socialize during an extended break on their long migration between winter homes in the marshes of the southern Southwest and northern Mexico, and nesting habitat in beaver ponds and wet meadows as far north as the Arctic Circle.

One spring morning, my husband Richard and I loaded our photographer friend Glenn and his case of camera gear into the van, along with our Great Dane, Isis, and left the house in the darkness before dawn, bound for the San Luis Valley to see sandhill cranes.

By the time we reached Monte Vista, it was light. We turned off the road at the marsh where we expected to see flocks of murmuring cranes - and found none. We went to another marsh, and struck out there too. Finally we rolled down the window and listened. From off to the west came the distant swell of crane voices; we drove in that direction, tracking the sound on the chill air pouring in the open windows. Down a dusty dirt two-track, past a clump of still-winter-bare cottonwoods, and there they were.

Hundreds of gray-feathered, red-capped bodies clumped in the stubble of a cornfield, probing the soil, pairing up to leap into the air and dance, jostling each other, lifting long beaks to the ever-lighter sky, and all the while, calling in those throaty voices.

There were tall cranes and shorter cranes, grayer cranes and dusty brown cranes. The gray birds were adults; the brownish ones last year’s young, still carrying their juvenile plumage. The taller birds are a separate subspecies, greater sandhill cranes. They are aptly named: at four feet tall, with wings that stretch as much as seven and a half feet from tip to tip, and weights of up to ten pounds, they almost tower over the smaller subspecies and weigh thirty percent more than those birds.

As Glenn’s camera shutter clicked rapid-fire, a solid ribbon of “Khrrrr, khrrrr, khrrrr!” crane voices rolled over us, a call often described as “bugling,” though it lacks the brassy character of that instrument. It’s a husky and seductive sound, haunting and melodic, that can carry for miles. Now and then the nasal “Krek!” of a young bird punctuated the flow, like an adolescent whose voice is breaking.

Most of the cranes in the mass of birds were feeding intently, pacing through the stubble with measured tread, searching for food. Their long necks dipped in a steady up-down rhythm as their spear-like beaks probed the soil for waste grain and insect larvae.

As the sun came over the horizon, a pair began courting just a few feet away. One bird leaped into the air on long legs, wings spread wide, then landed, legs bent in a bowing motion. The other leapt up too, then bowed; the two stretched necks upward in unison and crossed beaks in a graceful silhouette as if posing.

At night, the tall birds gather in the safety of valley marshes; by day, they fly out to feed in nearby farm fields and wet meadows. As the days grow longer and warmer, the cranes become restless. They take flight at the slightest disturbance, leaping into the air with their long legs and lifting off on wide wings, then circling and setting down again, all the while calling.

As the sun sank below the horizon on that spring day, the sandhill cranes we had been watching began to lift off by the tens and fifties, rising on outstretched wings into the sky, circling higher and higher. Group after group of the huge birds lifted off, spiraled to gain altitude, and then headed north, disappearing into the dusk, until all that remained was the echo of those throaty calls, “Khrrrr, khrrrr, khrrrr!”

I'm talking about sandhill cranes and the valley they call home in spring and fall at the Monte Vista Crane Festival in southern Colorado, this Friday, March 9th at 7 p.m. My talk is sponsored by the Crane Festival and Arkansas Valley Audubon Society. Join us!