Fair in the Air

The smell of fried, and of animals. Rows and rows of home-canned goods and cupcakes and Pumpkins of Unusual Size. Flashing lights on spinning rides, and excited voices trying to persuade you to buy a new gadget, or upgrade your storm windows, or to plant native plants, to wear more cotton, and to find Jesus (preferably at their place.)

Yes, it’s fair season!

Pro-tip (especially if you have kids): Eat a little, ride the whirling things, then eat the fried stuff.

Pro-tip (especially if you have kids): Eat a little, ride the whirling things, then eat the fried stuff.

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“You Darkness that I Come From . . . “

Darkness, night, dark nights of the soul, following a star in the heavens, comets as portents . . . What does it mean if all of that goes away? Both in terms of astronomy and interesting people in star-gazing and studying the heavens, and in the sense of culture and religion? Those were some of the topics batted around at one of the FenCon panels.

The title phrase comes from one of Ranier Maria Rilke’s letters to a young poet, in which he (Rilke) muses about preferring darkness to firelight, because night includes everyone, while light shuts out those beyond the glow. I confess to having always been one “acquainted with the night,” as Robert Frost phrased it. I grew up star-gazing, taking walks after dark, going on Owl Prowls at the nature center, and so on. I prefer to keep lights dim, even as my aging eyes are less sensitive to light in general. I grew up understanding all the star references, and learning celestial navigation, and so on. But what about generations that can’t see stars, or anything dimmer than the quarter moon, because of city lights?

For astronomers, to lose the stars is both sad and a professional problem. Who will pick up the mantle after the current generation retires, if younger people don’t learn to look up, and are not fascinated by the wonder of “what’s out there? Why does it look like that?” Light pollution is a serious problem for migrating birds as well, in some cases. It can be a real pain for pilots, because finding the airport in a sea of lights is Not Easy if you don’t already know what to look for. Especially if you are not on an instrument approach with everything set to get the radio beacons or GPS fixes. There’s a runway down there. Somewhere. Or is that I-80?

Some people reply to the plaints with “There’s an ap for that!” You can point your phone or tablet at the sky, or ground, and get a star chart for whatever you are aimed at. Hubble and Webb telescope images are far more colorful and detailed than what you can see through a 6″ backyard telescope or binoculars. And some places still have a planetarium, to simulate going out at night without the bugs, traffic, light pollution, stiff neck, or risk of mugging. Who needs real stars?

We humans do. We need darkness to properly rest. We need to be reminded to things outside of our ken, of worlds greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of wonder and amazement kids and adults get from seeing the stars and identifying the patterns and shapes, the nebula and galaxies and planets, that even a great planetarium can’t quite match. There’s no ap that will reveal the heavens in their glory on a cold October night in Yellowstone, when so many stars filled the sky that I couldn’t identify constellations or planets. The Milky Way cast shadows, it was so bright. Or out at Black Mesa, Oklahoma, as the summer stars marched across the peak of the heavens and a coyote or ten called back and forth.

Darkness stands for evil in many religions. Darkness is when bad people lurk, and thus when heroes do their thing. Humans generally don’t see as well at night as by daylight, although there are a lot of variations on “not as well.” We don’t see color, and discerning patterns and “is that a shadow or a hole” becomes a bit more challenging. Not that it stopped people from working, traveling, or doing things at night in the past. Today, we flood the night with artificial light to make travel (in vehicles) safer, to discourage footpads and robbers and other mischief makers. We fear darkness more than in the past. Which came first – not going out into the darkness, thus leaving it for evil to use for shelter, or evil growing in the shadows and chasing “good people” indoors when the sun sets? Yes?

St. John of the Cross reveled in night, in his extended poem and meditation “Dark Night of the Soul.” Night brought the lover (G-d) and the beloved one (the mystic) together. Night is for lovers, for philosophers, for socializing. Night holds sweet secrets, conceals private pain from those who would mock or minimize what is very personal and real. Night is greater than we are. Darkness and stars, the moon and planets, remind us that we are tiny creatures in a big, mysterious, wonder-full universe. Who made the moon and hung the stars? What are the stories of the shapes in the night sky?

Without stars, we humans lose both astronomy and spiritual wonder. At least, that’s what the panel and those present eventually drifted toward, although no one said it in those words.

Apple-Crisp Days

No, not for baking, although right now I’d really like a plop of apple-crisp with vanilla ice cream, or apple pie with vanilla ice cream. No, I’m thinking about the sort of day that starts chilly, turns crisp, and is full of smiles, laughter, kids doing kid stuff, and signs of the turning season. It might not be perfect, but it’s worth savoring.

Most days, I still can’t go out for a walk unless it is early morning, because the sun is still too intense, and the weather too warm. However, more and more strong cool fronts are coming through, dropping temperatures and warning that winter will ease in (or roar in) sooner than we’d like to think. The berries on the hawthorn are half-turned, green shifting to blazing orange. The leaves are also starting to shift color, soon to be crimson. The sweet gum trees are also turning, brown crisping the edges of the large green leaves. Acorns have begun to drop, to the delight of doves and other birds that wait until a car rolls over them, then feast at ease.

Soon, fireplace smoke will start to replace the perfume of smoking meat in the evenings, although not entirely. When the weather permits, grills and smokers remain in service all year around out here. Piñon firewood and other specialty woods are starting to pile up here and there with prices posted by the bundle, half-cord, and cord.

The Mississippi kites have gone south. Autumn is here.

Book Review: When the Sahara Was Green

Williams, Martin. When the Sahara was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be. (Princeton U.P. 2021) Kindle Edition.

Once upon a time, millions of years, tens of thousands of years ago, the region called teh Sahara was green. Sometimes it held enormous rivers. Volcanoes erupted, were crowned with glaciers, and fell silent. Huge fish swam in the giant lakes and rivers. Lush vegetation of varying kinds grew on the land.

Then something happened. Actually, a very large number of somethings, including the entire continent moving in such a way that tucked the Sahara into a dry swath of climate, and Europe (the landmass) cutting the moisture supply to the northern regions. All long before humans ever wandered the landscape. So, as Dr. Williams points out, you can’t blame humans for the desert. Which may be the most useful point in the book.

Martin Williams is a geologist who specializes in deserts and how they got that way. His first introduction to the Sahara came in 1970, when the group he was with couldn’t go to Libya because of a coup in progress, so they went to an even drier region instead. As he and the group leader went ahead of the others (on camel, as the others got the Land Rovers and other vehicles repaired), Williams noticed evidence of human presence, and of a river, in a place where no water could be seen. That made him curious, and the rest is this book.

Half geology and half travel, the book is a very readable account of the Sahara’s deep history, going back to the Cambrian. It has nice maps and diagrams, although more would be useful, especially in the e-book version. The illustrations are hot-linked, as are the end-notes, so you can go back and forth, but that gets tiresome so I just studied the major diagrams and memorized what was where. Williams has a knack for translating from geology into good prose, and blends the deep past with more recent explorations and observations. He works roughly chronologically after the introduction, going back to the Cambrian and moving toward the present climate regime.

Contrary to popular understanding (and most nature shows I’ve seen), the Sahara is not an endless sea of tan dunes. About a quarter at most of the land is sandy. This is in part because sand is needed to make sand, and large swaths of the area don’t have the right rocks. More common are huge rocky “pavements”, and clumps of hard, black or red hills. Some are volcanic, some are tougher sedimentary remnants (think Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia). Volcanoes in East Africa played a role in drying the region, blocking flow from what is now the Indian Ocean. Africa moving north to collide with Europe, closing the Tethys Sea, didn’t help, since what is now the Med has gone completely dry, most recently during the last phase of the Ice Age. Then things improved until the Younger Dryas, before returning to the current arid phase.

The edges of the desert move. This is not, as Williams points out, because of overgrazing, slash-and-burn farming, or air chemistry. It is because of changing rainfall patterns linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean monsoon. How are they connected? No one knows yet, but there are a lot of guesses. In wetter phases, the North African grasslands and brush move south, or the sahel region moves north. When things dry out, the Sahara grows once more.

Humans didn’t cause this, but modern governments can make things worse for the people of the desert. Ordering Bedouin and others to stop moving, even when drought moves in for a decade or two, causes misery for the nomads and for the farmers around them. Killing off livestock “to stop overgrazing” isn’t the best answer, per Williams. Understanding the actual reason for the drought, and making space for people to respond in ways that work, is the better solution.

Williams is concerned about human effects on the environment, but he’s not pounding the “two legs bad, four legs good” drum that so many do. I suspect his background being in geology makes the difference – he’s used to looking at the looooooooong term. He talks about the humans who lived in what is now the desert, how they coped with the gradual changes and shifts, and what we know and don’t know.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have an earth-science background to enjoy it, but it does make for faster reading. The illustrations and charts are good, and there are lots and lots of endnotes for those who want more.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.

” . . . You can’t miss it.”

As I was leaving the church where I currently sing, I overheard the tail end of a rancher giving “how to get to my house” directions to the new minister. I bit the tip of my tongue to keep from chuckling aloud, because I’ve been to that ranch, and yes, you can miss it. Among other things, it should be on County Road C, except there is no County Road C, just B and E, because C and D are ranch driveways on opposite sides of the blacktop. And that’s the easy part!

Country directions, even in the era of GPS, are a challenge. Ranch access roads don’t make the map, or are washed out and a new route created, or are not where G-maps claims. Road and crossroads names change. The GPS doesn’t realize that the road doesn’t go straight there, even though it should, because of a large, deep canyon in the way. Instead, you take a county road (known locally by number, not the new-ish official name) east to a shallower part of the canyon, switch to a dirt road for a bit, cross the stream, then double back once south of the canyon and pick up the dirt-becomes-pave road, and so on.

One of my favorite sets of instructions, back in Georgia, included, ” once you’re over the bridge, come on a little ways, then turn when you get to the little church with the big cemetery. If you get to the big church with the little cemetery, you’ve gone too far.” First, you had to recognize that the bridge was, indeed, a bridge, or you went three miles past the turn you wanted. Then you had to spot the little white church, and recognize the cemetery, which was very large but not all that full yet. (I suspect someone was planning far ahead when he or she donated the land to the church.)

Then there’s “it’s the house on the acre on the acreage, off the blacktop road.” Which describes, oh, half or more of the houses in the rural parts of the Midwest. Sort of like “He’s driving a white pickup. You’ll have no trouble spotting him.”

Not Repeating, But Rhyming

China and western Europe have drought. The previous year had flooding and cold. Eastern Europe alternate hot and cool. Parts of North America are dry, then drenched, while other parts get warm for extended periods. La Niña has dominated the ENSO pattern in the Pacific for two years now, and may go neutral or shift to El Niño after February.

We’ve seen this before. The 1200s and early 1300s, the early 1600s, low solar energy output augmented by a bunch of tropical volcanoes going off, with the Italian volcanoes and Iceland’s Katla tossing out their own contributions, caused a massive climatic downturn in the northern hemisphere that led to some of the worst-for-humans weather patterns in centuries. Cold and wet, hot and dry, floods and rotting crops, summers with hard frosts in June, droughts that dried the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, plague and other disease outbreaks, civil unrest and regional wars . . . The Seventeenth Century stank worse than rotten eggs and a dead cow in a confined space in August. And it wasn’t because of CO2 or the internal combustion engine. It was the internal combustion of the sun and some volcanoes.

El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation are patterns. They don’t repeat on set schedules, because there are far too many variables, only a handful of which climate and weather people are 100% sure about. To make things more complicated—as if Nature needed help!—there are connections between the snowfall and rain in East Africa and the El Niño pattern. We just have no way to know how it works, but we know it is there because of the enormous Nile flood calendar. Climate specialists can cross-reference written and proxy data from South America and Southeast Asia with the Nile flood records, and there is a clear pattern.

What we can’t predict are volcanoes. A massive volcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia probably played a major role in the weather shift that triggered the rodent population explosion that led to the Plague of Justinian as well as the cold, wet, stormy weather that battered north-western Europe in the 500s. Nor could we predict the spate of tropical volcanoes in the 1300s and 1600s, or the Year Without a Summer (Mt. Tambora, tone it down!) The right volcano in the wrong place can cool things considerably. Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines dropped global temps by 1-2 degrees C for a year or so.

Nor can we pinpoint forecast what will happen exactly where. Eastern Europe might be slightly above average while Western Europe and Britain freeze. Or bake. A heavy winter with lots and lots of snow might be followed by a hot summer and drought. We can guess trends based on recorded and past oceanic temperatures and winds, but all forecasts are odds. My part of the country has good odds of reverting to average-for-the-past-thirty-years rainfall if next year is an El Niño, because that shifts the storms patterns south, more directly over this area. But that’s averages, not “RedQuarters will get 22 inches of rain between February and November.”

So if I seem a bit mellow about the latest “sky isn’t falling and it’s all the fault of the Global North minus China,” it’s because I’m looking at the long patterns. No, it isn’t any comfort when my water bill skyrockets as I try to keep the grass not-entirely-dead or the gas bill zooms because of Snovid ’21: Part 2 the Sequel. (We only got down to -4 F, with windchills of “miserable.” And up here we had rolling four-hour blackouts on a schedule, not the weeks without power like down-state.) Nor do I envy Europe if the predicted effects of the Tonga volcanic eruption do cause colder weather on top of the usual chill. Is it all mankind’s fault? Only if we’ve figured out how to trigger volcanic eruptions, or how to dim the sun, and I do not refer to adding fine particulates to the atmosphere, or putting mirrors in space to reflect “excess” solar energy.

I still don’t like drought, or blizzards, though.

Breaking Summer’s Back: The August Norther

Earlier in the month, Dorothy Grant and I were commiserating about hot weather and maybe the big rain maker that was chugging along would break the heat for a while. Alas, it wasn’t the one, although it did drop temps from 104 F to 84 F, which was a welcome change. The rain was even more welcome, for those who got some.

The big August system came in last weekend up here, and dropped things from the upper 90s to the upper 60s. For high temperatures. That’s the sign. Indeed, temperatures have stayed below the 30-year average for the past week, and seem to be remaining low. Oh, they’ll bounce up again in September, because they always do during the Tri-State Fair (just like it used to rain during FunFest every May when that was still held), but the worst seems to be past.

The August Norther, or Grey Norther as I sometimes call it, is the first really strong cold weather system to come down the plains during late summer. It starts as a wind shift, from the common southwesterly winds of summer, the dry, hot winds from the desert. Instead the windsock swings around to the north and northwest, sometimes northeast. Moisture comes in as well, the humidity creeping up from bone-dry to slightly damp. People start looking north, and checking the weather reports from places like Guymon, OK, and Dalhart Texas, up to the north of us. If they start getting cool, with light rain (or sometimes with heavy rain and storms), and Kansas and Colorado are also cool, then you know what’s coming. People with weather joints like my hands grit their teeth, because it hurts. Change is coming, even if we can’t see it and we don’t get restless like we do in thunderstorm season.

Clouds begin to mass on the northern skyline, low and dark or towering and ferocious. Either way, the cold air flowing south down the plains churns up the air, making clouds and scattering moisture over the landscape. Sometimes it is a cool, steady rain that lingers for hours and soaks everything slowly, perhaps flooding low places if things are just right. Otherwise it is a snarling, crashing storm line that drenches the world and sends streams out of their banks as low-water-crossing signs start to go under water in town and the usual places have street flooding. The rain is always welcome in August – nothing is ready for harvest, the winter wheat has not been planted, and the cotton and sorghum are still growing. Ranchers like the rain because it gives the grass a boost to start it growing again, or to keep it growing.*

The next morning wakens sluggishly as low clouds cling to the world, hiding the sun. The wind has faded a little but cool or even cold air continues to ooze down from the north. Instead of the 90s, 50s and 60s dominate the temperatures. Light drizzle may fill the air. It won’t soak you through, but it chills you if you don’t have a windbreaker or light jacket on. Joggers rejoice, and dog-walkers brace as old dogs gain new life from the cool air. The smell of dust is gone, replaced by mist, perhaps by the scent of drains in need of more flushing. Your glasses spot up, especially if you face into a cool, water-rich wind. Hot, spicy tea tastes very good when you come back indoors, lightly damp and a touch chilled. You can open the windows and let fresh air in without baking or getting dirt blown all over everything. The world looks greener already.

The clouds might burn off, thinning before revealing the sun. Or they might win the battle, hugging the ground and hiding the sky. People hunt for jackets long ignored. No one complains, though. The cool air is welcome. This past weekend didn’t bring as much rain to town as people had hoped, but other places got a gracious plenty, places that missed the previous round. Everyone relished the coolth. Not until two and a half days after the first clouds raced in did the sun appear, too late to heat the day.

Three days in the 60s and 70s, followed by humid, cool mornings and warm but not baking afternoons, that’s a sign. Summer’s back has been broken. The worst is past. Heat will return, but not the weeks of water-stealing desert wind, not the nights so warm the land just simmered in the darkness as people sweltered. The days grow shorter. The sun has moved far enough south that sunbeams peep into my office windows in mid-afternoon, still muted by the leaves on the neighbor’s tree, but present.

The seasons always turn. Everyone knows that in our heads. But when June fades into July bakes into August, our hearts need a reminder that the rains will return. Cooler days will arrive, easing the strain of summer. The Summer Triangle is moving farther and farther west each night, and Sirius has begun to appear in the east. Autumn will arrive. Our hearts know that now. The richest part of the year, the cool, prosperous time of harvest and warm spices and good things.**

Summer’s time is past. The wheel turns.

*Depending on what kind of grasses you have. The native grasses are “warm season” and start later in the spring, then keep going during summer and go dormant fairly early. Cool-season grasses like to die in summer, and thrive in earlier spring and the autumn.

**I’m leaning on tradition. Wheat harvest here is in June, cotton can stretch into December, but the fall seems like harvest because of the fair and other things. Winter can be lethal out here, but autumn is the time everyone waits for.

Book Review: The Last Day of the Dinosaurs

Black, Riley. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of our World. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022) Kindle Edition.

I freely admit I grabbed this because it was on sale and I wanted something completely unrelated to anything else I am working on (Scottish history, Vlad III, academic histories of various kinds). I enjoyed the heck out of all but part of one chapter. The book is a celebration of life, and of what survived the worst single-event extinction in planetary history.

Black does a fantastic job balancing hard science with very plausible might-have-been-likes. The introduction explains why Hell Creek is the main lens through which the dinosaurs’ world is studied, and gives a bit of background on paleontology, including why the K-T event is now supposed to be the K-Pg event*. Black writes very well and puts you into the places and times being discussed.

The book starts in the late Cretaceous, with a Triceratops and a Tyrannosaur. It’s hard to go wrong with that combo, at least for those of us who went through a dino-mad phase as kids. Black discusses the ecology of Hell Creek, the world of the dinosaurs, and what happens when they die. Then the camera pulls back a bit to take in the boloid aimed for Earth.

The impact and the following hours and days are described very well. You might want to read this with some ice water at hand, because trying to imagine a world that gets turned up to “broil” for 24 hours is pretty miserable. Black handles the gore, and the chemistry, quite well. The story moves around the world, considering what effect the erupting Deccan Traps had (an important one, actually), and the effects of the impact event on the seas. The author then jumps to one week, one month, one year, and so on.

This brings up what I considered a strength but others found as a weak point: the book jumps around from the main narrative to look at other places around the world at the same time. So Hell Creek is the main story, but Black will cut over to Antarctica, the Indian Subcontinent, the Atlantic (once it opened up enough), and so on. Also, Black dramatizes events, using data available through scientific papers and sources. Some people don’t like this approach. I found it useful, BUT I’m also well read on paleoenvironments and so on, so it wasn’t entirely new to me.

Black hammers one point pretty hard: nothing was predetermined. The non-avian dinosaurs went extinct because they were perfectly adapted to their world. When the world went to hell, literally, that was that. But nothing said that the meteorite would hit at that angle in that place. Nothing said that the Daccan Traps would ease the global cooling. No special gift led primitive primates to develop so quickly compared to other mammals, or that monotremes and marsupials would fade out compared to true mammals. Black’s other oft repeated point is that life didn’t stop. That’s one of the author’s pet peeves, or so it appears. Existence did not cease with the dinosaurs. That world ended, but ferns and cycads hung in there, fish, reptiles, things that could hide underground or under water all made it. Perhaps not for long, but the story didn’t end with Chixulub.

Black takes the story up to a million years after the impact, then offers a last chapter meditation on change, extinction, and the resilience of both dinosaurs and life on Earth. I admit, I skimmed this, because it brings in the author’s personal life and I’m not really interested.

However, the appendices are fantastic. Here Black explains what we do know, how we know it, what is still being argued over (99% of everything), and the sources used for each chapter. This is an excellent way to document the material while keeping the bulk of the book fun for non-experts, without resorting to long footnotes. I like chatty footnotes in academic books, but they don’t suit a semi-narrative like this one.

I’d recommend the book to people who want to know more about the death of the non-avian dinosaurs and what came after. A bit of background knowledge in science is helpful but not really needed, since the author does a good job explaining terms and concepts. Some of the authors hypotheses have already been challenged, which I’d expect. After all, paleontologists seem to love nothing more than a good argument. OK, finding an intact member of a new species probably comes first, but a good argument’s not far behind.

*Sorry, to me K-Pg is either KP&G, the power company, or the initials of what is now KPMG before they added the M. It’s the K-T line to me.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own funds for my own use, and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher for this review.

Book Review: The Forager’s Calendar

Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)

I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)

The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.

Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)

The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.

The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.

As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.

I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)

This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.

Loving a Dry Land

I’m strange. My favorite places to live are all semi-arid, which means that most of the time, they are hard lands to make a living from. “A semi-desert with a desert heart” as Marc Reisner described it, wet years are followed by hard-scrabble half-centuries of dust, fire, and struggling to find water and to keep the wind from stealing that water. And when it does rain, mosquitoes fill the grass, low places become bogs, snakes move uphill and indoors, and people get snappish and moldy on the north side. We’re too used to the very sun we curse, grumble at, and hide from.

But I love this part of the world. I can see weather coming, even if I can’t get away from it. There’s nothing to hide behind once you get away from people and the trees we’ve planted. The Llano Estacado is one giant emergency runway, the few canyons excepted. At night, stars cover the world from here to there, making navigation easier once you know how to sort out which stars you need. Bison and cattle thrive here in wet years, growing fat on the short grasses of the prairie and the medium-height grasses of the playa lakes. The constant wind drives pumps and household wind-chargers, dries laundry, and keeps the mosquitoes at bay. Mold and mildew are uncommon, although turning into jerky and/or getting kidney stones are a constant concern.

In the mornings, meadowlarks and mocking birds, redwing blackbirds, and white-wing doves serenade the world. Wild sunflowers face east, welcoming the sun. In summer, Mississippi kites launch with the first thermals, soaring up and up to find bugs. Larger raptors also linger, Coopers hawks, a few golden eagles in the canyons, vultures (aka “the county hygiene society”) wherever they choose to congregate.

Foxes and coyotes trot among the grasses, blending in as they hunt rodents, grasshoppers, locusts, and anything else that looks edible. Mr. No-shoulders slithers here and there, bullsnakes and rattle snakes and other things that discourage you from putting you hand into holes. The occasional mountain lion and bobcat meander through, and pronghorn antelope race along, diving under fences to get away from the overly-curious.

When rains come, and winter fades, the land can look like knee-high velvet. The wind hisses and mutters over the flat land, bending the playa grasses as it passes. Cloud shadows flow as well, darker patches on greens and browns. Wildflowers appear in pockets, and wild sunflowers loom come late summer. As the days grow short and the rains fade away after the equinoctial storms, the grasses cure, brown, seed-heavy in all their forms. They are rich fodder for cattle, and for flame. March is fire month if the rains do not begin, or if snow has not fallen. Trees are rare and valued, those that can tolerate heat and cold, constant wind and hard sunlight on alkaline soil.

I love the high plains. It’s not an easy place. It’s not a “pretty” place. But it’s home. If I ever have to leave, I will miss the land and the people.