Edge of the World – Next Light

That’s what the sign should have read Thursday morning. I got to the edge of town and faced a white wall. Once past the last stoplight, the world disappeared into fog. It wasn’t as thick as earlier this fall, where I could not see more than five feet ahead of the truck (and where having the “Kyrie” being sung to the Barbor Adagio is not conducive to peace of mind . . .) but it was distinctly odd. One minute there’s a world and lights and civilization of sorts, and then foomp! Grey-white and only hints of the possibility of something beyond the edges of the road.

We’d had just enough moisture overnight to cool the ground, where it wasn’t paved. My part of town has a relatively large amount of greenery compared to blacktop, and we had some mist and heavy dew, but not the wall-o-fog. As I headed west, the sky overhead stayed clear, and even the big part didn’t show much mist or fog. It lurked, waiting, “something lost beyond the streetlights” to paraphrase Kipling.

The fog hugged the land, only twenty or so feet thick, a white blanket over the world. It pooled more heavily over the now-dry lakebeds, snagged in the tall grasses and water plants. The fog’s texture appeared different, denser than just “fog,” as if I would touch something tangible should I park the truck and get out and pet the air. Even as I drove, the mist thinned here and there, allowing glimpses of fast-moving red tail lights on the distant interstate and on county roads. I heard a few western meadowlarks calling in the damp quiet, but no birds took wing.

Anything could have been in the fog. Had I caught sight of a herd of shadowy bison grazing in a playa, or seen other phantoms of the past, it would not have surprised me. By the time I got to St. Angus in the Grass School, the eastern sun threw rose and crimson over the mist, while streaks of gold rose over the world.

Some mornings are like that.


“Cry the Swans Down

the white swans and the black.” So wrote William Butler Yeats, talking about the wild swans leaving for the winter, taking summer and it’s youthful pleasures with them as they passed. I was reminded of the line as I left work yesterday. I heard the burbling call of sandhill cranes somewhere around the school, so I stopped, tossed my gear into my pickup, and listened hard, scanning the skies, trying to see them.

It took a few minutes, but at last, if I hid the sun with my hands and peered straight up, I could see them in the mild blue sky, far, far overhead. A pair of cranes flew south-southeast. A glance to the north showed a bit of haze and dust but no clouds or other storm sign. Perhaps the front would arrive as forecast and not earlier? Again the burbling calls, soft but insistent. More gazing, looking with unfocused eyes for movement, black specks against the blue, and four, then another four appeared, tracking a heading of 250 degrees (west-southwest). I’d not seen so many in three or four years. Last year I don’t recall seeing any cranes, although I think I heard some one morning. These were probably headed for the marshy wildlife sanctuary about 50 miles southwest of Amarillo. The lakes around the city have gone mostly dry, and the cranes are wading birds.

Cranes are ancient creatures, like Canada geese. They even look a bit like dinosaurs. My part of the world is a bit west of their main flyway, but sometimes they will come through. If I’m very lucky, a whooping crane will be tucked into the formation of sandhills as well. They sound wild, their burbling, trilling call so different from anything else in this area. To hear thousands of them at once, as happens up in Grand Island, Nebraska and other Midwestern refuges is awe inspiring. They belong to a different time, somehow, and yet they continue today.

The year is turning, seasons changing. Gold has touched the trees, and the hawthorn berries are orange-crimson, ripe of the taking. The kites departed a few weeks ago, replaced by a flicker, robins, cedar waxwings, and others moving south for the season. The lurking cold front coming toward this area is chasing them, just as the last one did. Butterflies have been numerous, but almost all have passed to the south, taking summer with them. Instead of 90s we are in the 60s by day, 40s by night. Low clouds roll in, sometimes with chilly, slow rain, then leave hard-edged blue skies almost as dark as indigo, sharp enough to cut the horizon like a knife. The hot dust scent has left the air, replaced by thin wisps of woodsmoke and cinnamon grass, touched with hints of sour cottonwood as the leaves flash to gold, then fall.

Summer is passing “with the white swans and the black.”

Spring/Winter Skies

Texas, and the attached parts of North America, had a little weather last week. I believe this is called “spring.” It started with temperatures in the 80s F on Sunday, then colder weather on Monday, a thunderstorm on one side of town that became snow. The other side of town got drenched with training thunderstorms for a few hours, then snow. Come Tuesday morning, six inches of very heavy, wet snow covered everything. The temperature was 33F. Work started late, and the roads were mildly interesting because of the slush under the snow.

The heavy overcast had begun breaking up even before dawn, revealing glimpses of dark, almost glowing blue through the rents and tears in the grey-brown clouds. The sun shone down by afternoon, causing grumbling among those who didn’t bring dark glasses. Wednesday? Howling north winds, colder, and signs and buildings fall over in the 50-60 MPH winds.

Come Thursday, everyone was ready for a break. The skies . . . For a few hours, a field of spotty snow-virga and rain-virga, as well as real snow and rain showers, swept down from the north. Calm air predominated, then a gust of wind from the collapsing showers would rush past, chased by bits of rain and snow. The clouds bubbled on top, with grey, flat bottoms trailing blue-grey sweeps of moisture across the land. They drifted over the snow-draped land, white below, grey between, and white and crisp turquoise above. A few very high ice-clouds feathered over from west to east. In the gaps between the showers, you could see forever, or at least to the edge of the higher ground.

A few birds had ventured out, including a sharp-shinned hawk that dove and rose on the wind whirls, hunting for mice and foolish young rabbits in the pastures and lake-fringe. A meadowlark reminded everyone who owned the land, while a killdeer darted across the road. The doves stayed low, trying to be invisible as an even larger raptor cruised overhead.

Veils and sweeps of light and shadow, sun and rain/snow, passed across the plains. To say that they looked a bit like opaque jellyfish doesn’t do the beauty justice. I’ve never seen anything quite like that here. Bigger storms, yes, and virga yes, but not like that, tiny snow and rain showers quietly sailing down the land.

Creative Commons Fair Use. Original source: https://www.thoughtco.com/virga-precipitation-and-dry-thunderstorms-3444323

When the Wind Goes Still

Quiet. That is the first thing you notice is the quiet. It wasn’t the “calm before the storm” sort of tense, waiting quiet that you feel with thunderstorms, the tension in the air before the deluge. No, this was just an evening without the constant sound of traffic. It was a Sunday evening, which tends to be pretty subdued in my part of town, at least when it isn’t cook-out season. I went strolling to take advantage of the chilly but not windy weather, and because I’d been in my office most of the day, working on Day Job things.

Even the usual dogs kept their thoughts to themselves. A few birds cheeped or complained, but they too seemed subdued. The presence of the Cooper’s hawk watching the world from atop one of the larger trees might have encouraged avian reticence. Soccer practice had wrapped up at the school park, and softball season was yet to begin. A dog walker hurried past, stretching her legs to keep up with an eager grey mixed-breed and we waved but didn’t “howdy.” She needed all her breath for trotting.

The sky faded from daytime blue to a subdued twilight blue grey. Quiet filled the air. The dull roar of traffic, blown in by the wind from a highway or the cross-street that marks the edge of “my” territory, remained away. Instead I heard the sound of my steps, when I chose to make sound, the tap of my walking cane on the pavement, and the occasional brush of my jacket sleeve against my side. The faintest hum of vehicles intruded, far softer than I am accustomed to. It isn’t until the wind stops that you realize how much traffic noise intrudes into a “quiet” neighborhood. That evening was one of those times I remembered.

Snow produces silence, a heavy hush. Snow eats sound, devouring it, muffling the world. On very rare occasions, a soft east wind will blow under a heavy overcast, bringing the sound of chimes from a church. Not that evening. Only stillness, the absence of tree noises, the lack of traffic sounds, the resting silence of animals and birds. Snow quiet . . . has a weight to it, encouraging contemplation and lowered voices. The first scrape of a snow-shovel seems an intrusion of sorts, requiring an apology for disturbing the hush. This evening was not that sort of quiet.

By the time I turned toward home, the first evening stars had faded into view. Orion glittered down from the peak of the sky. The seasons turned, for good or ill, and spring would began creeping up on the land. I stopped in the front yard, savoring the stillness, and saluted Orion. He’s my touchstone, my year marker. When everything else goes off-kilter, Orion still rises, distant and serene, chasing the Seven Sisters and Taurus across the sky, his two dogs close behind. A dog barked, the polite woofs of warning from a well-drained home guard. Quiet returned.

I went in to supper.

Natural History Writing

A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.

What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.

White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.

So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.

I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.

The Sound of Almost Silence

The Air Quality regulations at Redquarters require that certain activities involving solvents, epoxies, lacquers, and model-aircraft glue must be done out of doors, or in the garage with the doors open. Since the afternoon was windless (!) for the first time in . . . a while, with temperatures between “tolerable” and “quite pleasant in the sun,” I did my chore on the back porch.

High clouds softened the late afternoon sun, still well south of west. The little bit of moving air had gone still. No dead leaves moved, no breeze stirred. The absence of wind sounds caught my ear. Without wind, traffic noises do not carry as far during the day, so silence reigned. The constant hum vanished. The last time I heard such quiet was at night after a snow storm had passed. To hear it by daylight . . .

A female cardinal chastised me from the branches of the neighbor’s overgrown holly, then lapsed into quiet, duty done. A different bird with an unfamiliar call responded across the alley. It had a harsh almost-trill, and I didn’t stop work to turn and identify it. Otherwise no birds moved, none called, and silence filled the air. Perhaps a hawk lingered in the area. Perhaps the doves and robins had selected a different neighborhood to plunder of worms and nut-meats and birdseed.

Just before five, as I packed up my tools, conjunto music erupted from a block or so away. Someone had finished work for the day, probably the plumbers or other trades working on a remodel. I’ve walked past the house several times on my evening strolls. Apparently the 70+ year old house needed a lot of work, or the new owners decided to do everything that they wanted all at once and get it over with. The crews tend to stop work around five, and that day was no exception, based on the direction of the music. I heard a few verses, the song changed, then car doors slammed and quiet returned.

You get so used to the background noises of traffic, dog barks, bird chirps and screams, and wind that it’s easy to forget the area can be quiet.

Autumn’s Coin

The sun shone through gold leaves and brown on Saturday afternoon. Huge tan platters, slightly curved inward, rustled and skittered down from the sweet-gum tree outside my office. It sheds bark first, then large leaves that catch the wind and rustle and dance across the yards when the wind is right.

The light has shifted, slanted and clear. Summer’s smoke and dust have faded away, leaving sunlight with an edge and a golden cast to it. Or is it the gold and yellow and tan and crimson in the leaves that tint the passing light? We’ve entered the season of weakening sun. I can go outdoors bare headed and in short sleeves and not crisp. Oh, I’ll still burn if I’m not careful, but not instantly. The light and milder heat feel good in the crisp air. The sun blesses instead of punishes. It provides energy, encourages hurry—harvest is ready, now is the time, the fields are golden and the late fruits are ripe. Gather what you can, while you can, in the fat weeks and months before winter.

Not everyone loves the falling leaves. The community tabby picks his grumpy way between the largest of fallen leaves. He cannot sneak when every step crackles and crunches. The orange cat minces, one white foot carefully placed, then the other. He steps with great care among the brown. Or he clings to windowsills, edging along above the fray until the windows run out and he is forced to return to the ground.

People are busy. Some rake leaves, others mulch them in. At RedQuarters we wait for a generous carpet, enough to make the neighbors concerned about propriety and tidiness, then run a mulching mower over everything. One neighbor is out planting late-season flowers and hauling sacks of mulch. Another replaces brackets for Christmas lights, while promising not to put the lights up until Thanksgiving. House painters work down the street, touching up trim. Dad and I will wait for the last hold out of the trees to scatter its burden before we tackle the gutters. That tree’s leaves always end up in the gutters, even if we use gutter guards. It’s a plot, Dad’s certain of it.

A few birds have moved through. Waxwings and robins, the kites, all came and went. I saw a heron the other evening. The bats seem to have migrated south as well. I await the winter owl, the goldfinches and snowbirds. We have not had many geese yet. They might be waiting, or may have diverted to better-watered routes. Last month I heard sandhill cranes pass overhead. None since then, that I know of.

The light shifts, the sun slides south, the year turns. Orion’s heralds have appeared in the east.

Five Steps from Aldo Leopold

If you are interested in national parks and wilderness areas in the US, or in land restoration, or in hunting and nature writing, you have probably heard of or read something by Aldo Leopold. If you are involved in wetland or stream restoration or remediation, you know the work of Luna Leopold, Aldo’s son, and Dave Rosgen, who studied under Luna and who devised a way to describe bodies of moving water in ways that are 1) useful and 2) universal.

I was revisiting an older post recently and started counting back. I studied under one of Rosgen’s students. That makes me four academic generations from Aldo Leopold. Closer, perhaps, because my teacher met Luna briefly at a conference when my teacher was younger. My other grad school pedigrees trace back to Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. If you are into environmental or western US history, this is sort of cool. If you are outside of academia, you probably consider this information slightly less useful than the TV remote is to a goldfish. 🙂

I happened to be shifting books around two weeks ago, and rediscovered my copy of Luna Leopold’s textbook on hydrology. It is a bit dated in some ways, but still very useful. After all, water still flows uphill toward money, or downhill after a rain, at a rate that varies with the surface under the water and the intensity of the rainfall. Streams still erode their beds (degrading) or build them up by leaving extra sediment behind (aggrading). Hillslopes still slide downhill if conditions are just right, and take houses with them. Unless someone changes gravity’s intensity, or the physics of water flow, certain calculation methods and rules of thumb remain valid.

Luna was the son of Aldo Leopold. Aldo wrote some of the best articles about landscape, wildlife, and how we see them, that I have read. His Sand County Almanac and Other Writings is a classic among hunters, naturalists, and people who like reading about landscapes and critters. If I could write like that, and see like that . . . Sigh. He visited the Colorado River delta while it still had a goodly amount of water in it. He also acted as a predator control officer for the forest service back when all wolves and bears were to be extirpated. Then he saw the results, and became one of the strongest advocates for wilderness preservation and predator conservation. He died of a heart attack while fighting a small wildfire on his neighbor’s property in Wisconsin in 1948. All of his five children became biologists or hydrologists. His ideas about conservation, stewardship, and “land ethic” provide a balance between the “use it all up” side (now long gone in the US) and the “don’t touch, humans are bad” end of the environmental scale.

Aldo died in 1948. Luna died in 2006. Last I heard, my teacher is still around, as is Dave Rosgen. You can buy Aldo Leopold’s books today, and I encourage you to do so. They are great writing, even if you don’t agree with all of his philosophy. He and Loren Eisley are two of my favorites, although they are very, very different. (Eisley gets . . . Odd. And metaphysical, and strange. But his poem ‘The Innocent Assassins” and some of his essays on night and darkness are fascinating.)

Peach-Colored Sunrise and Skittering Leaves

Autumn arrived on Sunday week, by way of a two-round cold front. First came a wind shift, from southwest to northeast. Then colder, wet skies full of low-hanging clouds and rain. Autumn is fully here, at last.

I woke early Sunday morning and half-napped after taking care of the cat. I’d left the windows cracked open the night before, because the high had been in the low 90s F, and the wind wasn’t supposed to get too strong overnight. The more fresh air that gets into the house, the better it is, to an extent, and I prefer to be a little cool at night. So I heard a few traffic sounds, drying leaves rustling on the northerly breeze, and the burbling trill of sandhill cranes. That caught my ear and I sat up, listening hard. Cranes? Surely if I heard anything it would be geese. No, the sound came again, passing northwest to southeast. Cranes, calling with that distinctive ancient sound as they passed overhead in the pre-dawn hours. Which suggested that the front might be stronger, and closer, than forecast. I got up, petted the cat for the third time, and hurried out to stroll.

A few tiny spitters and drips of rain blew on the rising wind. Low clouds, shredded and torn by the wind and the mixing air, hurried overhead, red-tinged in the city light. I could see glimpses of higher clouds to the west and east, with clear skies retreating to the south. As I walked, the clouds thinned and changed color. Soon they glowed the warm peach-pink and old gold of sunrise. Color swept the sky, stronger to the southeast and west than in true east or north. Peach became pink, then white grey as the first round of clouds passed. The tiny drops and hints of rain didn’t grow any stronger, at least not for a while.

Big brown leaves hissed and clattered across the street and driveways, chased by the wind. The sweet gum trees had begun shedding earlier, first their bark, then their big curved leaves. Now they shapes danced away on the wind, bouncing as they traveled. The big crescents of locust seed pods clattered down to the ground. They didn’t need the wind’s help to fall, they weighed so much, laden with seeds. The neighbors would be out that afternoon, raking them into something like a pile. At least those that the squirrels or the rising wind didn’t send to visit neighbors or into the street.

That afternoon, the light strengthened and shifted. Hard light shone down through the first brown leaves. Only the sweet-gum and locusts had begun turning, although the Bradford pears and oaks hinted at the possibility. The hawthorns, berry-heavy and crimson, glowed, leaves long gone as is their wont. Blue skies full of autumn light arced over the world. The lingering sweet-gum leaves looked almost gilded, the sunlight turning them and everything else faintly gold. The autumn sun has a quality, I’m not sure how best to describe it. Gold, almost hard-edged, but beautiful and almost gentle. Even on warm days, something is missing. Summer’s ferocious lion is tamed, mellowed with the aging of the year, softer. Clear light, free for now of smoke and dust, angled more and more from the south, bathed the afternoon, bringing out the best in the day. Even the rising north wind could not ruin the sweet moments.

Come late afternoon, dark northern skies had flowed south. Heavy clouds covered the sky, rain-laden clouds, their burden wrung loose by the twisting wind. Darkness and rain came together, heavy with a few bursts of lightening and snarls of thunder. The “equinoctial storm,” perhaps, although it came later than usual. This entire year has been off-kilter, so why not the traditional storms as well? No heavy weather here, just the token flash and grumble of a cold-front driven storm line buried in stratus, a reminder of what had come before.

Monday morning, Orion and the Seven Sisters glittered down, fresh-washed and hard in the hours before sunrise. They hovered just past the zenith, winter’s heralds. The morning smelled clean, and crisp, with a tease of smoke in the air. Come Friday, the fatty-rich perfume of piñon would arise from chimneys to proclaim the first frost’s coming.

The year turns, the stars pass in silent order. All is well.

Monarchs and Swallowtails 2.0

It’s that time of year.

Ours are on fennel.

Alas, the giant butterfly bush (Buddleia) in the front yard succumbed to age and hard winter weather.

Fair use from: https://gardenerdy.com/butterfly-bush-care-maintenance/

We had a lot of swallowtail caterpillars back in the summer. And the cardinals ate all of them. However, Mom spotted a few second-round caterpillars recently, and moved them to a dense stand of fennel, well hidden from cardinals and jays.

Ansel Oommen, budwood.org. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar. Used under Fair Use for non-commercial usages. Image from:https://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=5560093

The monarch butterflies came through a few weeks back, in late August. This is early, and they didn’t linger. The main migration seems to have shifted east this year, although that might be due to the lack of rain in the few weeks before they appeared. NM and CO dried out a little before we did, and were hotter, so that might also have encouraged the shift. Plus we didn’t have much that the monarchs cared for. They were all next door, pestering something red and fluffy (not a Buddleia) at the neighbor’s place.

The Mississippi kites, which arrived late this year, departed about the same time. The cicadas went silent last week, more or less, and the crickets are not as numerous as in August. Spiders have begun moving into the building at Day Job. We’ve had a few cool fronts knocking the temperatures down from the mid-upper 90s to our seasonal average lower 80s, but nothing really huge, yet. Those came through in August. We are also dry, even for this time of year. It is as if a switch flipped. Last week was hot and muggy, this week is warm and dry (from upper 60s F dewpoints to upper 40s dewpoints).

Orion is at the peak of the sky when I go out at 0600 to walk. The year is turning, will we or nil we. I want cooler weather. I’m a little worried about a repeat of Snowvid 21, or the October storm of last year. But there’s nothing I can do to change the weather, or to stop the change of seasons.

I am peeved about the Buddleia, though. I have yet to find a replacement as hardy as the big yellow one in the front garden. And the big purple one in the back took quite a beating from the cold this past winter, and June’s heat didn’t help.

*shrug* Welcome to gardening on the edge of a high desert.