Leaves fall rapidly from our backyard cottonwood trees as I write this, flickering and steadily streaming towards the dead, brown grass. It makes me wonder just what else may be in store for this infamous year of 2012.
I have searched my memory banks as thoroughly as I can, and I just can’t remember seeing leaves in free fall this early in the year. Even in Colorado the autumn season is normally some time away, so that can’t be it. So why then, have the leaves begun to turn yellow and die?
It is the drought of course, as if I needed a reminder. The thermometer on the back of my house reads a hellish 97.7 degrees at 3:30 P.M on another cloudless summer day. The sun is unbearably intense at our mile high elevation, and I don’t think I could even bear to scan the humidity reading. It would be a great afternoon to be a lizard.
It’s difficult to do much of anything outside. Just ask my dogs, who can seem to do little else but pant away in the shade, or our rabbits, who have seemed to have gone to ground. Or ask my wife, who constantly reminds me that I am not putting enough water on her pampered peonies.
Early leaf fall is a sign of biological stress, and of that there can be no doubt. Cottonwoods need a lot of water, and of that there is none. They began to yellow and die in scattered patches some weeks ago, and by now they have used or are using up all of the remaining water in their canopies to survive these toughest of all times. It would appear that the leaves have done the best they could for the tree in this trying year, and they simply have nothing left to give.
I know a little about the magnitude of this drought from what I read in the news reports. I know that almost all of the counties in Colorado have been designated as agricultural disaster areas. I know that the chair from which I write this is sitting squarely in the 25% of the country or thereabouts that is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions. I know that this drought may be a once and a lifetime event for many of us, or so we can hope.
Still, I cannot seem to come to grips with the sight of falling leaves in early august. The calendar seems to be askew, as if I’ve misplaced a month or two. My mind races as it strips a gear, and I don’t know if I can put Humpty Dumpty back together again anytime soon. I am stressed, and I can feel that I am not alone. It’s everywhere, in everyone and everything, and all around.
Global warming, I don’t know? 2012, we shall see? Some folks postulate that it could be all part of a natural cycle, as if humans have been around long enough to offer an opinion. Or is it something…more?
I do know that my heart goes out to all the farmers and farm family’s affected by this terrible drought. I feel for the bears who will have such a desperate time finding food and fat to sustain them through the inevitable winter. I wonder how our once bountiful fruit trees will fare until next spring, and if many of the trees will just give it all up for good. I hope that our drinking well will survive the trials, and somehow replenish itself with non-existent waters. I have many wonders, and worries, as no doubt do you.
Most of all I wonder of the earth, and hope that our modern technological hubris has not damaged her elegant and life-sustaining systems beyond repair. I hope that in the end, she has not given up upon us all.
They are interested, of course, but not so interested that they would get up from their comfortable chairs and walk out through the snowy woods to witness that chaos of hooting and yowling that takes place during the great horned owl nesting season at the end of February. Wilderness and wildlife, history, life itself, for that matter, is something that takes place somewhere else, it seems. You must travel to witness it, you must get in your car in summer and go off to look at things which some “expert,” such as the National Park Service, tells you is important, or beautiful, or historic. In spite of their admitted grandeur, I find such well-documented places somewhat boring. What I prefer, and the thing that is the subject of this book, is that undiscovered country of the nearby, the secret world that lurks beyond the night windows and at the fringes of cultivated backyards.
From Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years On OneSquare Mile, by John Mitchell, talking of the owls, the natural, and human history, of his semi-rural neighborhood near the close hangouts of Henry David Thoreau.
The heavy hand of winter can be particularly punishing in the high Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. It is the meanest of seasons, often impossibly long and completely covered with a certain color of white for months on end. Living here at this time of year is all about ice and storm and driven snow, and when conditions are right it seems that there is no place that the bone chilling winds cannot touch. They are alive, animated with purpose and jagged edges, and always ready to reach out to let you know that there is nowhere to hide, nor escape.
At its worst it is possible to convince yourself that the steel-blue landscape laid bare before your eyes could never recover from such terrible, life threatening blows. The earth rolls and creaks with the dark numbness of the night, and carries on with the dull resignation of harsh reality. It is a timeless conflict between something old and cold, and the thawing breath of something new. Spring becomes a disjointed and haunting memory; a shimmering prize on the edges of raging conflict in a battle for the heavens.
Old man winter suffers no fools. Fail to give it the respect it demands, and it will kill you quick, without remorse. At the heart of the matter it remains a clearly defined struggle between life and death for us and for all the little things. Often it seems a most special and personal test, designed especially for you.
The trial is not only physical, but spiritual, and mental too. It is a measure of wills in a contest expertly developed to discover who will break first, left to lie down defeated and shivering upon the frozen ground.
Who knows how many less fortunate men have buckled before the indescribable hardship and despair of an unforgiving winter, and simply relaxed into the false glow of hypothermia and its inevitable outcome? It is a sad result to be sure, though perhaps an easy choice for some, held captive under unbearable circumstance.
It’s best to prevent things from getting to this point, and I prefer a brighter strategy. At times like these, I think of birds. And not just birds of any random kind, but bluebirds, and robins.
They are birds of the common folk, but these are not your average feathered creatures. Writers with much better words than I have spoken of them for centuries, trying to capture the magic and momentousness of their arrival. They are the proverbial harbingers of Spring, the dawn breakers, and the shining bringers of light. No other birds can offer such cheer to the lonely, windswept soul.
In this part of the country the calendar may say it is Spring long before it appears it is so, and this year has been no exception. Typically, by now I am pacing about with one eye skyward, eager for a flash of blue or an unmistakable red. Turned to the south like the doting and overprotective parent, I anxiously search for the approach of the school bus now late for its’ scheduled stop. Things can get rough for the lover of birds.
It is no small wonder, this movement of life. No one can predict their arrival. They can not be tracked along their journey. Who knows what makes them head our way, or how long they dally at each stop. It is only for them to know, and they get here when they choose. This year it happened exactly on the first day of Spring, and it was the Bluebirds that graced us first.
I happened to be driving when I saw them, and as I turned a sharp corner on the first day of Spring on a back road as the sky exploded with dozens of fluttering bits of blue. It was if my world had changed in an instant, and I felt a great weight lift from my sloping shoulders.
Pulling quickly to the side to keep from crashing, I stared transfixed with wonder and joy and marveled at the colors in the early evening sky. It was a perfectly choreographed display of innocent beauty and it brought tears to my eyes.
What else can one do when delivered before such grandeur?
“…Winter is no mere negation, no mere absence of summer; it is another and a positive presence, and between its ebbing and the slow, cautious in-flow of our northern spring there is a phase of earth emptiness, half real, perhaps, and half subjective. A day of rain, another bright week, and all earth will be filled with the tremor and the thrust of the new year’s new energies.” —Harry Beston, The Outermost House
“This is one of the earliest birds to arrive in the spring; it is a question which we are likely to meet first, the Bluebird or the Robin, but not infrequently a flash of the cerulean color tells us the Bluebird has won in the race northward.” — Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, by F. Schuyler Mathews, 1904
“How the waiting countryside thrills with joy when Bluebird brings us the first word of returning spring. Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” — WL Dawson, Birds of Ohio, 1903
*For more information and a great website about Bluebirds Click Here.
Update: March 4, 2014
I had my first bluebird sighting of the year today, a broad-shouldered male, and it happened in just about the same spot as it did last year but more than two weeks earlier on the calendar.
This male was as bold and blue a bird as I have ever seen, and was in fact a credit to all male bluebirds everywhere. He saw me coming and rose into a buffeting wind with that characteristic bluebird gait, hanging there in the magnificent universe for all the world to admire. I had no way to know that he was particularly interested in showing off to the lone female watching from the dead brown grass and tangled weeds nearby.
It warmed my blood to see him after so many months of bright white snow drifts and steel-gray, overcast skies. I am sure that she appreciated his display in ways I could never fully understand.
It was odd to see a male and female together so early in the season, and it was especially unusual for them to be the first birds of the year. I had always believed that the males arrived ahead of the females in order to establish dominance over other males and secure a territory to their liking.
Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes a male and female pair arrive on the breeding grounds at the same time, ready and willing. Still, it seemed a bit odd that they seemed to be the first and only birds to make it back so far, unlike the previous year when dozens of males all appeared almost overnight.
It’s been a strange year all around, with numerous storms and heavy snows which have built upon the ground since last November. The weather as a whole has seemed cranky and confused, with lingering low pressure systems and wild and violent mood swings. The signs were easy to read upon the birds.
A most obvious indication was the arrival of large flocks of robins in January, which seemed strange not only to me but to several of my friends who were quick to point it out. They were wild and agitated groups of birds, milling about restlessly while searching for a comfortable clime found most anywhere but here. One friend stared in amazement, as robin after robin appeared to attack the eves of his house, desperate to catch a drop of snow melt drizzling from his roof.
There is something quite unsettling about the sight of an obvious icon of Spring staring forlornly at deep snow and bare branches, puffed up bravely against the blustering gales. It’s an image not easily processed against what one has always known to be true.
Most of the robins have since managed to remain and survive until the snow banks receded and disappeared, though I know not how. It is true that not all robins migrate to the south, and that some do overwinter even in northern areas. There is also some evidence that more and more robins are migrating northward earlier in the year due to shifting weather patterns.
Yet the birds seem out of synch, as if their internal clock has wound too soon and their surroundings do not quite match their memories. No doubt we feel their distress on some undefined level, and like our feathered friends we can’t quite make sense of the changing world either.
But there is one thing is for sure. The bluebirds and robins have blessed us with their return journey, and stand ready to beat back whatever remains of the cold and dark times of winter.
I shall turn to the East and the rising star to celebrate the passing of another raw and soul cleansing season, while keeping one eye turned to the South for the telltale flash of blue, and red.
Update March 9, 2016
Here Again – One Big Male Blue On the Wing Today – a wonderful sight at the end of this very snowy, tough winter.
Peacock, Doug.Grizzly Years: In Search of The American Wilderness. Zebra Books, New York, 1992, 375 pages. Mass Market Paperback. Inscribed by the author on the back of the first page “To Bruce & Jamie, From their pal Doug in Aspen Co 3/93 For The Wild Ones”.
In Good condition, with some general cover wear and some cocking to spine. Signed copies are not commonly offered.
$21.95 Postpaid in U.S. (Subject to Prior Sale). To order please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
From the back cover:
“Beyond its riveting adventure and solid natural history, Grizzly Years is a powerful argument for the preservation of all things wild. It is also the extraordinary personal chronicle of a man redeemed by the American wilderness”.
Chapter titles include Indian Country, Year of the Grizzlies, The Bitter Creek Griz, Demise of the Grizzly, The Sacred Bear of the Blackfeet, and more.
Peacock was the inspiration for the George Hayduke character in Edward Abbey’s infamous environmental novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang” (a must read in itself, by the way). A more irascible, confounding character there has never been. Hayduke lives!