Moisture is the prayer in a desert ecosystem. The one that encompasses all others: survival, joy, food, growth — everything the average spiritual fellow thinks about when consciously trying to live as close to heaven as possible. My travels indicate that this is true for all desert peoples (though the question of why everyone doesn’t simply live in a tropical region where bananas and coconuts are falling off the trees and rain comes every afternoon is a legitimate one). But since the dawn of the species, millions of us have for some reason been drawn to desert ecosystems, and here we promptly begin praying for enough water to make us a tropical ecosystem. There is an entire, raucous, dizzying Hebrew dance simply called “Mayim.” Water.
Here in New Mexico, secretive superstitions involving walnuts and captured ATV enthusiasts prevail that predate El Nino coverage on the Weather Channel. By late June each year, we want, crave and need rain more than a dentist office needs Muzak, and indeed exactly like a prayer answered we get 90% of it during this July/August monsoon season. Ideally. Back before Climate Change threw a wrench into everything. Even clouds. Even air current patterns.
When it does actually come, Monsoon is a daily, usually short explosion of moisture following a tense, weeks-long, steamy built-up. It’s a summertime climatological relationship, as moist Gulf of Mexico air floats North to meet and dance with our own blistering hot afternoons. As a result of this daily weather reality, outside work hours here in the summer are 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. In between? Daily hibernation: writing, cooking, reading to one another, swinging-in-hammocks-while-snuggling â€“ in short, this is where, why and when the siesta got invented.
Early on, this year’s Monsoon looked like it would unfold as a perfect time-lapse blessing for everyone. In retrospect, maybe it was too early: in mid- and late-June we had a few short bursts of storm activity (I’d come back from goat-milking dripping and smiling, glad to have dodged the lightning once again), but those somehow in the know, like my sweetheart, shook their heads and said, “This isn’t Monsoon. The clouds aren’t right.” And we’ve been craning our heads up ever since.
Because it is a delicate dance, this Monsoon courtship, and our Monsoon prayers. We want the necessary pairing of local and Mexican air currents to be a long, smooth one, like those marriages that seem they’ve been gently happy for a half-century. We don’t want a tumultuous love-affairâ€”violent and long-overdue — like in Gregorian 2006, when I spent 43 days unable to cross the nearest river (in a motor vehicle, at least) to get off the Funky Butte Ranch and my Valley. Some of my neighbors tried, as we discovered weeks later when the flood finally receded.
This was the time when my friend Lupy made the monumentally-kind gesture of swimming some emergency goat medicine across the river, as documented in Farewell, My Subaru. And still Noah, millennia after his career peaked, continues to get so much publicity for his mere 40 days and 40 nights stranded.
This year, though, we’re parched. You remember those nature specials where the wildebeest are all panting in the crusty riverbed, literally dying for Monsoon rains to come? That’s us, â€˜round about now. This is supposed to be our spring. July and August showers bring September flowers. According to legend. “Fourth of July is the start of Monsoon.” Old-timers keep insisting this to me, though it’s happened like that only once since I moved here. Make the connection, people. Work for the Grid to go from coal to solar and wind. In China, too.
Yes, Monsoon is late again this year, though, although it’s hard to define “on-time” in an era of weather patterns so chaotic that those same old-timers are scratching the brims of their cowboy hats and muttering, “I just don’t know anymore.”
The previous major culture here before the fast food one and the Apache, the Mimbrenos, split for Mexico the last time the weather started acting this funny, in the 14th Century. It’s unsteadying to me to think that seemingly eternal weather patterns can suddenly change. I mean, my area alone shifted from a winter to a summer Monsoon pattern within the last thousand years. Heck, the planet experiences an Arctic/Antarctic polarity shift every couple of million years, and we’re due for one any millennium now. I wonder how that will affect Climate Change models. Ah, well, I like to remember that the smarter of the Cave Men (my ancestors and yours) survived the last Ice Age. No point worrying about it. Whether thinking Cosmically or about the weekend’s ball game, the weather’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, for the most part. Although if worldwide solar and wind power plants will nudge us back the couple of degrees and so prevent the end of human life, well, I’m all for it.
As for the here and now, change is in the air, literally. After this last decade’s floods, fires, hail, locust plagues and drought, my typical chat with my fifth generation old-timer non-Sierra Club-member rancher neighbors involve a lot of sky-staring (on their part). Followed by statements like, “Yep, this creek used to run year â€˜round,” or “I dunno, Monsoon used to be in full force by now.” Or “Nope, never seen hail like that â€“ not in August.” (This might be uttered while one of said old-timer rancher neighbors is repairing the acequia that adjoins our properties for the second time this year. And yet, strangely, these are the same fellows who will insist again next year and against all evidence that Monsoon begins with the fireworks on July 4th. It’s like sensible, intelligent people who continue to vote Republican after all we know about Karl Rove and Swift Boating.)
I had some warning about all of this weather kookiness: I first saw it in the Arctic a decade and a half ago, as this is where Climate Change first shows itself — in, ya know, entire Eskimo whaling crews floating away on formerly reliable ice sheets that had suddenly become small ships.
Monsoon (we desert dwellers think of it almost as a person with that name) this year isn’t totally absent. It just seems unsure whether Climate Change is allowing it to make a dashing or a timid entrance. We’re getting lots of blustery thunder, but very few downpours. All talk so far, and it’s a month “late” already. Even Led Zeppelin knew that there was a limit to how long you can keep a loyal fan base waiting.
Why isn’t Monsoon coming when it should? Sigh. How much time do you have? The Climate Change Debate is almost impossible to contextualize. Yes, there are the facts of the past fifty years. And those of the past 500 million. A reasonable person (let alone the dirty tricks department in the advertising agency for a coal mining consortium) can wonder which is more relevant to look at in terms of the present’s undeniable and terrifying Climate Quagmire.
For my part, the personal experience that had the most impact on my position in the debate (other than the century-old walnut trees that washed out of my creek bed in last August’s hail storm/flood) occurred in the Yukon Territory in 2002, where I interviewed a beer-enjoying regular guy of a Canadian researcher (not, incidentally, a political progressive), who is doing what, even taking into account decorum, can only be called Caribou Shit Research. The long and the short of it is, each year the Arctic snow pack is retreating further and further, allowing older and older piles of caribou dung to become reachable for the first time since the winter after it was deposited. By carbon-dating the Milk Dud-shaped poop (ranging from the current year’s through droppings 11,000-years-old), and then studying the heavy metals (caused by airborne pollution) in it, this researcher (named Rick Farnell) can discern a lot. Fort instance, that the amount of Climate Changing-toxics in the Earth’s atmosphere spiked massively right when the Industrial Revolution (and the associated coal burning) started. And guess what else? There’s been a crazy, unprecedented, unaccountable Malthusian growth curve in the levels of heavy metals found in the dung since then. Gulp. There’s only one explanation: humans burning coal and other fossil fuels like petroleum.
Scary stuff, to be sure. If the world’s coal mines don’t shut down pretty much immediately, will Monsoon ever come again? Well, I have something of a safety net, at least for now. Thanks to solar power, gravity and drip irrigation, I’m not as panicky as my bag-packing Mimbreno predecessors no doubt were in this same situation 700 years ago. My corn is starting to silk, the tomatoes are tantalizingly â€“almost ready-, a bumper crop of peas are winding down, and the squash, carrots, peppers, and edamame are also looking as good as can be hoped. So with nothing else to do but stare up at the sky with my neighbors like a wildebeest in the Serengeti, I took a break for a hike with my friend KB.
I almost didn’t. There were goat hoofs to trim, shade gazebos to build, books to write, and most of all, I treasure time at home with my family, watching us all react to ducklings hatching, goats acquiescing to hoof trimming, and mice infesting the solar battery room. But after a postponement or two I explained away as “I’m so busy because of recent work travel” (I had a spate of live speaking events in Oregon, Colorado and Northern New Mexico), I met KB at the valley corner store and we drove on Kung Pao Chicken fumes to what was for me a new trailhead. In other words, I gave in to a plan to exercise for three hours in an idyllic mountain summer-scape, with datura petals greeting me at the early morning start, and the season’s first lemoncillo blossoms perfuming the creek-side air at 6,000 feet of elevation in what can be only called very, very old land. Yes, I left the Funky Butte Ranch for a couple of hours. One has to make such sacrifices sometimes in the name of inspiration.
Back when I lived in Alaska, the land was brand new. Glaciers had only retreated 9,000 years ago — the proverbial geologic blink of an eye. On this Monsoon interlude day, by contrast, I was hiking along Precambrian rock that clocked in around the two billion year range. Two billion years young. (Take heart, Joan Rivers â€“ in certain contexts, you’re the spring chicken you keep paying surgeons to re-construct)
Does old land bleed over and manifest in wise people? Well, I’d say after being in this ecosystem full-time for three years now that it does at least in deep thoughts and unconventional ideas (New Mexico has the highest ratio of crazy inventors per capita in the world). Maybe that’s why everyone who sticks around these parts seems to have been here forever; we become part of the place in hue and pace. And everyone in Alaska (including the unfortunate recent governor) seems like a tourist.
I’m glad that the rock under my feet had a track record. I can use a little elder energy in the course of the whole wisdom/enlightenment/contentedness effort. Whether or not it was thanks to the local tectonics, the hike was outstanding (even by New Mexico wilderness hiking standards), proof that a lot can happen while a fellow is waiting for Monsoon. Maybe this is why people in places like Bangladesh and Mozambique seem so often to be caught unawares by the coming of rainy season: they’re thinking about other things.
For example, on this day, I was dipping my toes in a pool for ten minutes before KB, who had been wandering off in some ponderosa pines, returned and immediately noticed that the bank was brimming with tiny leopard frogs. Then I blinked, and simply decided to move on to a new Charlie Parker chart in my (believe-me) very amateur saxophone jams. I must’ve had a sense this level jump was coming, having pulled out my horn before leaving for the hike with a promise to my fourteen-month-old son to jam with him when I returned later in the day (he on woodblock, building block, and tambourine).
But how could I have known that the iPOD shuffle mode (which seems to get wiser with every iteration, to the point of eerieness) would choose the Coltrane/Miles syncopated jam “Two Bass Hit” as we packed up for the hike and propel me in a more adventurous musical direction for the first time in months? There’s so much thanks to go around: the Apple engineers, the musicians themselves, the frogs.
Looked at in isolation, the decision to choose a new jam chart might seem like a minor revelation, but it is metaphorical as well as musical for me. I want to know: am I a person who stays with the same, relatively easy Bird jam, laid our note-for-note in my appropriately-named “Fake Book” (that the industry term for it), forever, or am I capable of moving on to a new challenge when I for whatever reason tell myself that I’m ready, hopefully incorporating the previous phases’ lessons while dancing always in the exploration/contentedness ballroom?
To sum up fourteen pages of notes and hours of contemplation on this topic on this hike: today I remembered that everything in my life is in-sync.
What a relief.
I consider this kind of level jump a miracle to be given thanks for as much as Monsoon itself. And like so many miracles, it nearly didn’t unfold. Forget about my earlier dawdling about even embarking on the hike. Our choice of the heavenly location (and I’ll presume most of us know how important location is) was a spontaneous, last-second, and somewhat dangerous executive decision by me around a hairpin curve (you can really get some velocity driving on vegetable oil in a Ridiculously Oversized American Truck). KB flatly didn’t want to embark from this trailhead I suggested. He had been fighting it for almost two years, in fact. This was the first time I didn’t listen.
Every time we had passed the turnoff for this area since 2007, I would comment at some length about how it draws me, given the rock outcroppings and nearly year â€˜round running water visible from the winding mountainous road. It’s the most spectacular, National Park-quality section of this particular stretch of remote highway — on that everyone agrees. But “there’s no rock views on this hike, no water, and not really any trail,” the usually-correct KB asserted with authority, dismissing my suggestion perhaps 19 times. He had once before been there, years ago. “We’d be scrambling over hot rocks all day.”
“Wow, thanks for picking this spot,” he said three hours after his 20th dismissive incantation failed, sipping water amid a patch of wildflowers. “I wouldn’t have known â€“ look at those rock outcroppings!”
“All it took was giving up resistance after two years to your hiking partner’s strong inclination to give the place a shot.”
“Yep,” he agreed, and added that calculation to his personal decision-making machinery. The day was inspirational for everyone, even our dogs. Even the frogs.
So I came home from this yet-another-miracle-hike, parked the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck, and greeted my family warmly. They were happy I was so happy. I was spilling over with loving energy and frog stories. Then, after the cacophonous new sax jam, as I headed down with my son on my back to milk the goats, of course — it started to rain. Can you imagine my joy? I was briefly concerned I might explode. Maybe we had unintentionally modified Charlie Parker into a successful Rain Dance. It certainly didn’t sound like the record.
But the thing about Monsoon is, Be Careful What You Ask For. The other day in the post office I heard one ancient rancher say to another ancient rancher, “I’m ready for it” to much accompanying cowboy hat brim-scratching by all parties, including mine. Spiritually maybe. But there’s no way to be “ready” for Monsoon in terms of say, road damage. Or the semi-annual need to swim out of your Ranch for supplies for between one week and two months. Especially if Monsoon comes on strong and late, as the marriage of El Nino and Climate Change seems to favor.
A good Monsoon usually costs me about $5,000 in backhoe road repair alone. And that’s not counting the stress of dealing with theâ€¦relaxed pace of local contractors when your former driveway looks like a replica of the Grand Canyon and you have nine apple saplings and 2,000 pounds of animal feed you have to hand-carry a half mile before the afternoon’s thunderstorm hits. (In southern New Mexico, even the wasps have a chill work pace.)
This is my reality because I pay taxes to my Banana Republic of a County but receive few services in return. Not even Realtor Catcher Pick-up or Sprawl Protective Services. Something about my being too remote, and my road being too narrow for county vehicles to maintain. I think I just haven’t figured out the right person to bribe yet. As a result, my road looks like the highway system in one of the less stable parts of Somalia. I think a lot about how to solve this annual problem myself, and I realize that for the cost of really implementing my journeyman hydrology runoff theory, I might as well buy a veggie-oil powered backhoe myself.
So when I see a neighbor on my morning run and he or she gives me the whole skyward gaze and “I’m so ready for Monsoon” line, I always say, “Hey, back in ’06 it didn’t even start until mid-August.” And then I make a big mental deduction from my bank account. It could still happen this year.
But today’s milking-time “storm” was another false alarm. It’s still cloudy as I write, but the Monsoon opening act continues to tease with ineffectual drizzles and booms (we have the second highest frequency of lightning ground strikes in North America). No point getting upset about it. It will do exactly what it’s going to do, and nothing else. If you take it personally, what sprinkles we have been getting can seem almost insulting to my corn and to me, like spritzing a dying man in the Sahara with a spray bottle.
And I am nowhere close to dying.
It’s nearly bedtime now. Tonight I gave the goats an evening walk in the Funky Butte Ranch lowland (I am so tempted to put “shepherd” on my next tax return under “occupation”). Stumbling back to the Ranch buildings in near-darkness and drenched from the still high-double digit temperature, I pulled burrs out of my toes, and kissed the ducklings goodnight. Then my sweetheart and I embarked on a fairly epic meal. To give a partial account, we put Funky Butte Ranch-grown basil, parsley, rosemary and marjoram into our favorite baked three-cheese ziti with Funky Butte Ranch chevre and all the herbs also worked into the Funky Butte Ranch Natalie Merchant mozzarella, immersed in a sauce cooked down from Funky Butte Ranch tomatoes (and some California organic garlic). All appetized with a salad of Funky Butte Ranch lettuce, peas, carrots and tomatoes. And I had the day’s nine hundred and third revelation while we ate: next time I’ll use the rosemary to make an olive oil-based dressing.
But let me back up an hour or two to Revelation #864: Monsoon can come when it will, if at all. I am alive. That is enough. To satisfy my personal responsibility urge, I’m trying to do what I can to get the darn coal mines and oil refineries offline. And I feel so fine tonight that my only lingering question is, “Is The Universe Really In-Sync, Or Is The Way I’m Living In This Phase Of My Life Making It Feel Like It Is, Maybe Even Making It So?” (Insert your Mind-Over-Matter platitude here.)
This is my literary and my living style. I love being able to balance the deserved irony of current times with a return to earnestness. It’s time the tension pulled in that direction â€“ toward Heart being more cool than Cool. I don’t think that to feel and express genuine emotion is weak. As far as I’m concerned, the universe is perfect. Somewhere, there is an explanation even for the periodic horrors. The plagues, the child deaths, the holocausts, the leadership manipulation for power and profit. The evil that comes in the same cosmic parcel with the overarching heavenly reflection.
I guess I can fall back on the whole “push-and-pull of good and evil is necessary for us to understand which is the better direction as we as individuals try to live closer and closer to heaven.” If that’s so, is that why I need to be weeding the garden in triple-digit temperatures for weeks on end when it’s supposed to be raining copiously? Indeed, it’d be easy to say that summer in the desert without Monsoon is miserable. There are certainly miserable elements of it. 98 degrees and windless at 2 a.m. aren’t ideal sleeping conditions, to cite an example I’m going to be facing in a couple of minutes. But there comes with a delayed Monsoon a dense aura of expectation. I think of all of us in this valley, sitting around in our fields and staring at the sky. You don’t want to leave home and miss it (or worse, get flooded out). You find time for obscure Ranch upkeep, like cleaning the chicken coop, or cleaning the bathroom.
And when it does come? Oh, when it does come! The desert emerges as an all-systems-go wildflower factory, a spongy verdant dreamworld so polychromatic, horizon-to-horizon, that no coconut- and banana-producing equatorial “paradise” can compare. Because of this universal need satisfied, smiles become contagious, feuds are settled (at least for the season), people hold doors for others, and chip in if someone’s short at the register. It’s the same phenomenon as a sunny day in Portland.
Much, much scarier is the prospect of the rain not coming at all. The desert year without Monsoon is like an elected official without PAC money: it can’t continue to exist under the current system. This afternoon, a smoky wildfire-without-Monsoon haze lay over my valley, heightening the sense that this high desert forest, with its annual and perfectly natural lightning-caused fires, but with no miracle last-minute late Monsoon rains, would really be in trouble. As in, I better move that Ranch fire-thinning project I’ve been putting off higher up my priority list. And so I rely for deep sleep on that tantalizing connector, the word “yet.” As in, friends observe with terrified eyes and trembling voices that the Monsoon hasn’t arrived, and it’s August already, and I say, “Yetâ€¦”
It can still come.
Maybe it will.
The operative syllable in Monsoon is “soon.”
The clouds are building up every afternoon.
Maybe they’ll start exploding into rain every day for five or six weeks.
I’ll transfer the money for road repair to my checking account.
Better late than never.
I look for additional signs. And they are there. In fact, the other species here on the Funky Butte Ranch are starting to act like they’re in level jump transition as much as I am. I had to refill the hummingbird feeders for the second time today — the manic little miracles are swarming, darting in a deafening frenzy of orange and olive green wings outside my office window (above a parade of week-old ducklings). I hope all the bird activity is a Monsoon harbinger. There is endless precedent for this. To give just one example, the animals other than civilized humans all fled before the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. They knew. I want to say I and my fellow creatures feel it coming here. True, I’m an optimist, but why else would I be feeling such expectant inspiration?
Indeed, brainstorms in every kind of mind seem to come with particular force and frequency at this time of year â€“ maybe we have storms in our heads because we’re praying so intensely for the more traditional, external cloudbursts. Maybe the Monsoon happens in the creative part of the collective consciousness before the clouds explode and hose us down just as we are about to overheat. Perhaps we have to as a region come up with enough good ideas before the necessary ionic balance is achieved or surpassed.
In case that’s how it works (that is, in case it’s the universe and I responsible for this feeling of expectant in-sync-ness), I’m writing away now, a next non-fiction book, a new novel, last-minute edits on a Washington Post essay, this Dispatch, questions from producers about a potential Farewell, My Subaru television series. Meanwhile, I’m dripping my body’s last reserves of moisture on the keyboard. It’s affecting my mouse’s performance. No matter. Channeling the indefatigable energy of the hummingbirds (imagine getting from Costa Rica to Alaska via New Mexico on a few sips of sugar!) I’m going to keep typing until I get drenched.
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