January last seems impossibly distant. Memories from back then are round-edged and worn, like relics of a lost civilization. The pandemic was dawning, of course, although few of us in this country had a clue what was to come. Lockdowns, masks, grimly mounting death tolls? Other people’s burdens, far away.
Late January: The color of our winter.
I was more concerned with work that took me away from the comfort zone of my home office—and with the weather. After multiple storms brought plunges into single-digit temperatures and two feet of snow in October, we were braced for a hard winter. A low of minus 7 the night before Halloween carried us into November, which delivered another foot of snow. But then the pattern abruptly changed. December brought two dribbly little snowstorms, January a handful of flurries that tallied less than two inches. Precipitation was respectable in February, but it came in small accumulations, snow flashing and vanishing on the hillsides like a time-lapse film, white in the morning, tawny brown by afternoon. March, which is normally one of our wettest months, repeated the pattern but with half the snow. Through April, May, and June, small storms passed in feverish pulses, chills between over-warm days.
Out in the pastures, the grass started to come up, stalled, and went dormant again. Buds swelled on the two cherry trees in the garden, but only one of them bloomed; as the incessant cycling of too hot/too cold persisted, the buds petrified on the dying tree’s branches. I’d been smug about landscaping plants up near the house, sure the remnants of October’s drifts were protecting them from temperature swings and desiccating winds. True, perhaps, but I’d forgotten: season-long drifts like those also shelter rodents. Safe under the crust, the voles nibbled the bark off honeysuckle and dwarf lilac stems, clipping through some but killing many more by girdling them.
One sad little lilac.
Over on the east side of the house, the white-flowering tea rose had been freeze dried in the first of fall’s wintry blasts, its leaves and fully-open flowers preserved in monochromatic browns. Certain it was dead, I was preparing to hack it out of the ground when I noticed a few fringes of dark green unfurling at the base. The old leaves and flowers shattered as I cut away the dead stems, but the plant re-emerged; like the lilac and the honeysuckle, it is malformed and scraggly, but alive.
The fuscia rugosa rose had leafed out as usual; tucked in a corner of the stone retaining wall, it was sheltered from the worst of the wind. When a smattering of sweetly tapered rosebuds began to form on both roses, I enjoyed a day or two of optimism—signs of hope!!—before every bud was systematically nipped off by a browsing mule deer.
I can’t really fault the deer, of course. The drought is stressful to us but potentially deadly to them, and flowers are food. Little surprise, then, that they also ate the blue columbine and delphinium: whole plants, browsed down to the ground. Nor were the native wildflowers immune; all the slender-tube skyrocket I’d managed to start from seed near the house where I can see them and watch the hummingbirds feed met the same fate as the roses, with every flower spike eaten. When I looked out the window one day to see a doe nibbling on the lopsided lilac, I barreled out the door, yelling, calling her something worse than a bitch.
Meanwhile, the plague was unfolding.
No, not that one.
Miller moth outbreaks are a regular occurrence along Colorado’s front range, and they’re worse in dry years. The adult form of the army cutworm, the moths migrate west from the plains to spend the summer in the mountains. Well, we’re in the mountains here, and if the moths were passing through on their way to higher country, they took their time doing it. The hay garage and barn are well-vented and riddled with crevices, so the moths easily find their way in but can’t seem to navigate back out. For many weeks, I clamped my jaws shut whenever I opened a door to one of those buildings, lest a flighty insect find its way in my mouth rather than just pelting me in the face. In the barn, they stacked themselves in a linear cluster in one back corner, a floor-to-ceiling dark column that shivered slightly, as if that portion of the building were coming to life, or perhaps, like something out of a nightmare, decomposing.
Moth marks left on the walk-out door of the hay garage.
Their numbers in the house were minimal in comparison, but their desperate fluttering set my nerves on edge. Moths puttered frantically at the windows and flailed around the reading lamp at night, threatening to plunge into my wineglass. They flew out of the tubes of the cellular blinds and occasionally out of the fold of a hanging towel. They drowned in water glasses and left brown spots of what the extension office website assures me is not shit, but meconium, “waste stored during pupal development” (so, wait: aged shit??) on windows, windowsills, walls, the blinds. I picked up my muffin one morning, and the moth that had nestled up against it stayed prone on the plate; I’m not sure if it, too, had been warmed for 11 seconds in the microwave. The paper was still on the muffin, so I ate it anyway, albeit without great enthusiasm. Another day, I poured my first cup of morning tea, not quite so groggy that I didn’t notice the dark blob flowing into the mug with the amber liquid: a moth that had crawled into the spout of the teapot and gotten itself lightly poached.
The moth outbreak subsided, eventually. The same cannot be said of the rodent population, which has rebounded following a die-off a few years ago. After two virtually chipmunk-free summers, they are back, as are the golden-mantled ground squirrels, woodrats, gophers, and, of course, the shrub-mangling voles. Mice, too: they found their way into the house through a split in a third-floor window screen. Agile chipmunks and woodrats resumed using the second-floor deck as an elevated latrine. An eggplant plant coming along nicely in a pot out there was felled in the night, its sizeable stalk, limp leaves still attached, left lying across the rim of the pot like a taunt. Out on that same deck one day, movement caught my eye on the ground below: a 14-inch stalk of lupine in full flower, vanishing down a gopher hole. Golden-mantled ground squirrels, which have tended in the past to be shy and willing to pack up and move if I chase them a few times, were undeterred this year. They bounded away from my threatening feints like terriers at play, and then pranced back toward me when I brought out the horses’ feed pans, eager to stuff their cheek pouches with oats.
This might sound cute, but I assure you it was not, particularly when the exuberant family groups started to attract the attention of rattlesnakes. Whereas we might lay eyes on one, possibly two, and often no rattlers over the summer, this year so far we’ve encountered eight* on foot and have seen a further four or five on nearby roads. Leading Moondo back to the pasture one afternoon after letting him graze on a tall patch of grass, we crossed paths with an almost-four-foot-long rattlesnake, heading the other direction. Like a focused commuter on a sidewalk in Manhattan, it shifted course slightly to avoid a collision, but otherwise ignored us entirely.
Headed in the right direction: away.
Compared to the many upheavals we’ve experienced in public life this year, my local troubles might sound like welcome diversions. But it’s all adding up, and my reactions to these minor aggravations are increasingly overblown. Every slight seems filled with foreboding, with a sense that the world is tilting too far out of whack. Even more than events in the national news, the drought magnifies the sense of ominous acceleration. Where I live might be great for social distancing, but right now we’re in a slow-moving natural disaster. To be safer at home involves being an eyewitness to stunted grass and wilting shrubs and a dearth of wildflowers (particularly when compared to last summer’s abundance) and dark-bellied clouds that pass by, always on their way to rain somewhere else. I worry about our water well, I worry about overgrazing the pastures, I worry about fires.
In the face of it all, I’m inclined to withdraw. I can rationalize cutting myself off by pleading sheer fatigue or state mandates or worry over risks posed by others’ nonchalance. Surely it’s best to narrow my bubble of interaction.
This makes sense with regard to COVID-19; the very nature of a public health crisis is the ease by which one person’s action (or lack thereof) can put others at risk. The tricky nuance is that while physical distancing is a sane recognition of the hazards of a global pandemic, the impulse to disengage from public life is exactly the wrong response to everything else. The common denominator in the pandemic, the current social justice movement, and the global climate shifts that have spurred this years’ drought into high gear is how we, as individuals, act (or not) in response to vast collective problems. None of this is just about me or just about you, and yet it is about me and about you.
The problem with the impulse to self-protect lies in how easily that instinct morphs into self-interest: suddenly it’s all about me, full stop. This is the basis for arguments trying to convince us that giving consideration to matters of mutual well-being threatens our autonomy.
By choice and preference, this blog tends to focus the particulars of this place, but that’s not to say I draw a hard line between here and there. Drought, online discourse, critter trouble, social unrest, and public health are all related in that they illustrate how intricately my existence here is joined to natural systems and networks of human interdependence.
I’ll be the first to admit that the chaotic days of this very long year are testing my willingness to keep tracing those connections. I keep reminding myself that moving my attention back and forth from the bubbles encircling myself and my loved ones to the broader orbit of civic life and environmental consideration—and then back again, from global to local—isn’t such a big deal, really. The scale has expanded, but those shifts are nothing new. Switching our attentive capacity between self and other is an ancient survival skill. True, the pace and the intensity of what’s being asked of us now is debilitating, but as a social species, human beings wouldn’t still be around if we hadn’t learned a long time ago how to toggle our thoughts and energy between personal and group interests. And I suspect that the movement of our gaze between those poles is usually when we notice the opportunities lurking amid the crises.
In the interest of full disclosure, and because we need a little color, the clematis did NOT get eaten this year.
*During the writing and editing of this post, I had to change this number twice.