It’s amazing what a little water will do. And by a little water I mean seven inches in three weeks. And by do, I mean turn brown and black land green, cause mosquitoes to spontaneously generate, and start a morning chorus of lawnmowers.
The native grasses of the High Plains respond well to fire, if it is followed closely by water. The short grasses—gramas, Buffalo grass, some spartina types—are not truly pyrophilic like those of the Great Plains. Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, the waving grasses that reach six feet into the air in a good year, thrive when burned every few years. Fire removes the tree and brush seedlings, eliminates the dead layer above ground, returns nutrients to the soil, and generally “cleans up” the prairies. I’ve seen the spring burns in tall grass, and it’s truly an awe-full sight, even when you know the fire is under control and can’t escape certain boundaries. The short grass is a little different.
Shortgrasses developed under intensive grazing instead of burning. Grass fires were not unheard of, but heavy, episodic grazing by buffalo did more to shape the development of buffalo grass and the gramas.
Fire on the short grass steppe tends to move quickly, at the speed of the winds. Back in the day, it could run hundreds of miles before it stopped, turning the grass behind it into clumps of smoldering black. Yucca smokes for days if not drenched into submission. The ground turns black, and the wind whips bits of ash into the air. Grass fires smell sweet, almost overly so, with an undercurrent of cinnamon. Once you smell a grass fire, you never mistake it for anything else.
Over the past winter and spring, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles have had a sate of fires, some small, some terrifying because of when and where they occurred. And without rain, it looks as if the land is ruined forever. But add a few inches of rain and two weeks of humidity, and oh, wow. You’d think the Lord dropped green velvet over the landscape. The grasses spring up, hiding the ashy black, and coating everything in a lush, soft drapery of new growth. You want to get out of the car and pet it, it looks so good.
Along with the grass come the insects. Mosquitoes, of course, and dragonflies not long after. The fires help keep the ticks down to a reasonable number (as do our hard winters. From roughly Plainview north cattle are above the dead-line, where so-called “Texas fever” is endemic, or was.)
The air smells soft, and the skies lost their brassy, hard edge after the first week of rain. As much as I hate the chaos that is Schloß Red (until the foundation gets fixed and the floor and wall repaired), I love the rain more. We got another inch this past week, and you’d think the entire town won the lottery.