4/30 Progress

Mile and a bit walked, 3400 words despite various distractions and interruptions. Book probably a 3/8 done. Still a little dust in air, so the sky varies between faintly tan to Wedgwood blue.

Dust Up

And not in the sense of a small fight among congenial enemies, either. No, I’m looking at a full-bore, right out of the 1930s, 1950s, 1920s, 1910s, 1890s, 1860s, 1840s, dust storm. Oh, wait, not just the 1930s? Nope. Dust has always blown in the High Plains.

James P. Malin first pointed it out, in a set of articles for Kansas History in the 1940s. If you go back to the earliest newspapers and diaries from the settlers on the Great Plains, you will find reports of dust. Long before the plow broke the plains, the dust blew back and forth, north and south, east and west. We don’t know if the infamous Black Rollers of the 1930s and ’20s also occurred, because the Comanche and others didn’t keep records, but we know from archaeological reports that dust storms rolled across the plains since before the end of the Ice Age. No, the mammoth and giant ground sloths were not wheat farmers, nor did the Clovis and Folsom cultures have domesticated livestock that overgrazed anything. No internal combustion engines, no coal-fired power plants, no dust mulch left by dry-farming.

The current weather pattern matches that of the 1950s in many ways, including dust. Today’s batch is from Colorado and Kansas. Other days it tumbles in from New Mexico, or Texas, or the Oklahoma Panhandle. The soil is dry and the grass sparse after five years of below 30-year average rainfall. The wind picks up that dust, first a little, then more and more, and redistributes it. Today the sky has a reddish-brown tint, occasionally shifting to dark red-amber as thick batch of dirt blows through. Cold and dry means dust as much as does hot and dry.

And it filters into the house and cars via any little gap, just as it did in the Dirty ’30s and Filthy ’50s. I’ll be dusting like mad before bed, because I have terrible dust allergies. Yes, the windows are closed and latched. But one window, in the bathroom, stays cracked open for ventilation and the stuff comes in there, and every time I open a door.

Only one thing will settle the dust. As Ian Tyson sings, “Give me clear blue skies/ and Eighteen Inches of Rain.”


4/28 Progress

3300 words, hour at gym. Lovely day, except for the horde of starlings attacking the suet feeders. Am tempted to see if one can, indeed, bake four and twenty blackbirds into a pie.

Wonders of Weather

“Wonder if it’s ever going to rain.”

“You remember Noah’s flood?”

“Not personally, but I’ve read the story a few times.”

“We got two inches out of that deal.”

Climatologists and biologists classify the western Great Plains, or High Plains, (the region from eastern Montana to the Edwards Plateau, from the Rocky Mountain foothills east to the 100th Meridian,) as steppes with semi-arid climate. In English, that means the region has limited moisture, constant wind with high evaporation rates, and rainfall varies between “not all at once please” to “ahhhh, lovely” and “frikkin dust mutter mutter.” And blizzards. On the up side, major earthquakes are exceedingly rare and hurricanes tend to fizzle down to “tropical rains” by the time they stagger this far inland.

Between the variability and the agricultural foundations of the economy in this swath of North America, weather is always a safe topic of conversation. “Had a two-inch rain last night. Two inches between drops,” is not uncommon. “Nice sunset/sunrise.” “Think the wind’s going to blow?” (Meaning there’s 25 kt winds in progress, the birds are walking, and small children are not permitted outside unless tied to a 50 lb weight.) The causes of the weather are also discussed. I once heard that the reason ill-timed rains had arrived was “because those Lutherans were plowin’ on Sunday.” Why the Almighty would punish everyone else, or how Catholics, Church of Christ, and Mennonites were supposed to stop the Lutherans (MO Synod) remained undetermined before I had to leave the coffee shop.

I recall lovely summer nights spent sitting at various airports, cold soda-pop in hand, watching massive storm towers exploding into pillars of brilliant white, anvil tops sprawling east and north. As the sun set, they turned ivory, then rose and violet before fading into deep Wedgwood blue and disappearing into the twilight. And with them went any prayer of rain. Other times the air felt thick and wet, hanging heavy in the late afternoon. Shadow overspread the sky and the horizon turned dark. Overhead, the clouds developed the wavy undersides called mammalations, aka “do not fly there” because the churning rough air. When the air went still, and the sky turned a sickly green yellow, the hair on the back of the neck stood up. Time to duck for cover, as rain plummeted down. If luck remained, all that fell was rain or small hail. Otherwise the sirens wailed and the prayer went up from hundreds and thousands “please make it go away, please may no one get hurt.” And usually no one was.

Winter on the western plains is cold and windy, with horizontal snow. Or vertical snow, up to three feet deep that farmers love, ranchers growl at, and city kids frolic in, while the sheriff asks people to stay home. Sometimes the northern sky turns blue, but a different, deep low blue. Batten down the hatches, bring in the last of the tomatoes, and send the kids out with a jacket, because a Blue Norther is approaching. The temperature may drop 50 degrees Farenheit in an hour. But the clear, hard blue skies that follow, and the diamond hard glittering stars!

This leads to interesting metaphors and figures of speech. “Blowin’ like a son-of-a-gun,” is not uncommon. “Colder than a well-digger’s hip pocket,” “hotter than the hinges of Hades,” “so dry the trees are chasing the dogs,” “so hot I saw a dog chasin’ a cat and both were walkin’,” are not unheard of. During a lay-over in a small, central Plains town, I overheard a gent explaining that “Last night I heard strange noises down in the garden.”

“Oh?” another airport loafer inquired.

“Yup. Flipped on a light and saw that the racoons had formed a bucket brigade to water the sweet corn.”  Grins all around. I don’t doubt that this gent also has excused himself with “Gotta go and spray my catfish for ticks” or “It’s so dry, I’ve got four-year-old catfish that don’t know how to swim.”  Joking helps ease the pain of watching your crops, grass, and cattle shrivel under the water-sucking southwest winds and blistering sun.

I’m an Odd. I like living where you can see weather coming. Some people claim that the absence of trees makes people from the High Plains arrogant: we have nothing larger than ourselves. I think it goes the other way: we’re more inclined to humility because of the huge sky overhead and the enormous weather that passes through.

Something Completely Different . . .

A meditation from my flying days . . .


Rudyard Kipling described the feelings of a soldier far from home with a poem that opens “Smells are better than sound or sight for making your heart strings crack.” Over the years, we come to associate certain scents with places or events, such as pine scent with mountains or the sweet spices of clove and ginger with Christmas baking, perhaps at a Grandmother or Aunt’s house when we were children. In stories, the Devil is often associated with the sulphury stink of rotten eggs, and writers talk about “the metallic stench of death.” Fresh cut grass may evoke long, blissfully lazy summer afternoons, or winces of hard, hot work under pounding afternoon sun. It all depends on whom, when and where. For me, the scent of prairie grass means “airport.”

I don’t know which kind of grass it is that makes the sweet, cinnamony perfume that often blows on southwest winds. It’s probably close to, if not the same as, the one that makes the deceptively sweet, white smoke of burning short-grass. Whatever it is, I’ve come across the plant most often on the High Plains, from the Dakotas to Texas. Over the years, it has come to mean home, and a certain happiness sweeps through me whenever the drying wind carries the scent to my nose.

It was my first visit to a small airport in far western quarter of the state. The runway, while plenty long, was forty-three feet wide, raising both my eyebrows and my attention to any crosswind, which was minimal. The waiting ambulance whisked my med crew up to the own hospital, where they would meet our patient, confer with her doctors and get her ready to be flown to a bigger facility. I arranged things inside the plane, finished the paperwork and settled down on the top step of the air stair door to read.

The late morning air felt as perfect as it gets – not too warm, but comfortable in the shade of the plane. A steady south wind flipped the slightly tattered windsock before chasing bits of tickle grass over the asphalt ramp and off towards the town. A few cars whisked past on the road beside the airfield but no one stopped. Good weather, a good book and my favorite brand of soda pop made the wait very pleasant. And the wind blew cinnamon. Rich smelling, but not overpowering, threads of prairie grass scent drifted under my nose, reminding me how much I enjoy my work and the part of the country I do it in.

People used to airline travel and places like Wichita, Oklahoma City, Sioux Falls, and other city-surrounded airports don’t realize how different and important these small, rural airfields are. Don’t get me wrong—we need the O’Hares, DFWs and Denver Internationals of the world. But small airports provide stopping places for agricultural aircraft, for cargo operators, and air ambulances like mine. Not big or fancy, lacking control towers or radar antenna, these thousands of smaller airports form the backbone of much of aviation. And without the big jets and city scents, the cinnamon wind blows through.

I enjoy cinnamon airports. Some I enjoy more than others, but they all scratch an itch somewhere inside. Meadowlarks and a cinnamon-hinted breeze mean home to me.

Scent of Memory

“Smells are better than sounds or sights For making your heartstrings crack./

They start that awful voice ‘o nights that whispers ‘Old man, come back.’/

And that is why the big things pass, but the little ones remain:/

Like the smell of the wattles near Lichtenburg/

Riding in, in the rain.”  (“Lichtenburg” Rudyard Kipling)

For reasons only known to my warped mind, a faint whiff of diesel exhaust carried on crisp morning air makes me think of Vienna. You would think that, say, fresh-baked pastries on the breeze, or the scent of riverbanks and new-mown grass would be more appropriate cues, but no. Diesel exhaust on the morning breeze makes me think of Vienna.

Many memories cue onto scents. Despite what Proust wrote about, flavors don’t carry those links for me, only scents. Rich cinnamon on the breeze summons distant grass fires and small airports in the western Great Plains, surrounded by native grasses that bow and hiss as the hot afternoon winds dance past. The sour smell of cottonwood leaves conjures up afternoons in late October and early November, listening to the calls of thousands upon thousands of wild geese and ducks along the Missouri River. A hint of muddy decay filters into that memory, and I can see myself and my sibling in our bright-colored parkas trotting through the woods along the riverbank, leaving tracks in the soft almost-mud of the trail, our parents just far enough behind to give us an illusion of adventure.

Hot motor oil summons the coughing roar of big, air-cooled engines. They chuff and splutter before surging into life, engines older than my parents, hung on airframes rebuilt so often that only the data plate and throttle levers still belong together. And laughter and calls of warning, beware of propwash and pilots blind to what might be in front of them as the S-curve back and forth, snake-dancing their way to the runway.

Pine smells are mountains. Cold breezes and tickles of hints of hidden snow. And desert rose summons rain, cascading out of high-based grey clouds piling up and spilling off the San Juan mountains to drench the Colorado Plateau and mesa Verde. veils of rain trail across the broken land, beyond the banks of dark-leaved desert rose. Desert rose and wet soil, the gift of the two o’clock rains of the summer monsoon. A cold trickle tickles the back of my neck, a memory in scent and touch.