Sunday, April 17, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: White and pink flowered trees, including apples and choke cherry, scatty forsythia, first lilacs, tulips, moss phlox; local ditch running.

Outside the walls and fences: Cottonwood, western stickseed, tansy mustard, alfilerillo, native and common dandelions, cheat grass; buds on fernleaf globemallow; Russian olives leafing, but still have last year’s fruit; Juniper berries forming; Siberian elms beginning to drop seeds; Russian thistles germinating; new pigweed seedlings up.

In my yard: Sweet, sour and sand cherries, Siberian pea tree, baby blue iris, grape hyacinth, vinca, yellow alyssum; buds on daffodils; new leaves on sea lavender, Goodness Grows veronica, Mönch aster; lilies and hostas emerging; peach, beauty bush, weigela, caryopteris and Russian sage leafing; mahonia leaves turned green in center after the plant was soaked by a hose leak.

Bedding plants: Pansy, sweet alyssum; buds on snapdragons. The big box where I bought the alyssum is selling plants three times the size as the nursery where I got the pansies and the local hardware where I found the snapdragons at nearly half the price.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Bees around Siberian pea; house finches and other small brown birds flee when I get near; gecko, small black ants, house fly outdoors.

Weather: Winds and no rain; snow remains in Sangre de Cristo; last rain 3/8/11; 13:45 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: At work, I talk with a woman who believes global warming is directly responsible for her allergies. Since scientists report the one is increasing, she anticipates years of worsening problems with the other.

Would that causality were so simple.

Recently a team led by Ulf Büntgen published its survey of tree rings in central Europe for the past 2,500 years that suggested between the years 250 and 550 the climate changed every decade or so, alternating between wet and dry, cool and warm. That was centuries before the next major climate change, the ice age that began in North American in the 1300's, and apparently was totally unrelated.

He told Michael Marshall, those oscillations were particularly difficult for farming societies like the Roman Empire, because they were long enough to “harm agriculture but are not prolonged enough for people to adapt their behaviour.”

The Goths, who invaded the Empire, probably weren’t any better at adapting to change, but their migratory lifestyle made it easier for them to move when conditions worsened, then settle when things improved.

Historians are too aware of the many factors involved in the decline of the Roman Empire, to accept the possibility that an unstable climate alone was responsible, or even basal. Likewise, anthropologists haven’t been able to build a defendable case that the coming of the ice age was the reason the Anasazi abandoned the Four Corners. They can agree the move was preceded by drought and increased violence, but they can’t agree if diminished resources were the primary factor or human urges and egos were more important.

The arid southwest probably has had an unstable climate ever since the Rockies rose to divert moisture laden winds millions of years ago. Last winter and early spring were unusually wet and cold; then in late spring, temperatures rose abruptly and the rains stopped. We had almost no snow this winter and no rain until last week. Winter temperatures were abnormally cold; this spring has been unusually warm and windy. Our geographic location makes it difficult to know if these variations, and are our allergic reactions to them, are part of a long-term planetary trend, or just another cycle.

Native trees, like the one-seeded juniper, adapted to environmental stress centuries ago. Last year, after an unusually wet winter, male junipers produced more pollen than they had in a decade, 2,245 grains per cubic meter of air. This past March 8, during the drought, pollen levels reached 3,364 grains, nearly 50% more than last year’s record set on March 24.

I didn’t notice a larger berry crop last fall, but the heat and drought that followed the spring pollen release could easily have intervened to offset the effects of male activity. Last weekend, the female tree near my house had begun to produce purple fruit, but not enough yet to suggest it has the same response as the males to severe conditions.

I blame the high pollen counts on variations in moisture. Others blame the cold winters. The man measuring the pollen for Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department, Dan Gates, blames an abrupt warm period just before the pollen was released for the concentrated density.

My Siouxland cottonwood is supposedly a sterile male. This year it produced mounded rosette fountains along its branches before it leafed, as if it were doing everything in its power to produce pollen. The native male is now blooming down the road, but it’s too soon to know if the flower chains will be longer or more pollen laden.

In contrast to the dioecious natives which have responded to stress with greater attempts by males to perpetuate the species, imported hermaphroditic members of the rose and olive families have given up trying to reproduce, and are concentrating their resources on their own survival.

For two years past, the bountiful flowers on forsythia shrubs were killed by frost. Some plants in the area this year are blooming fine, but most are chartreuse from a distance with sparse bits of yellow up close. Mine doesn’t even have a flower on every major limb.

Apricots, for the most part, simply didn’t bloom. My tree had two flowers, each at the tip of a vertical branch. A week after I watered it for three hours, it produced a few more. When I walked over to my neighbor’s tree, which usually is cloaked in white, his only flowers were way at the top and not every branch was fruitful. Apial dominance, that tends to limit fruit production to stem ends, even in good times, was defining what was allowed to reproduce.

Again, I tend to blame the lack of water and assume they'll leaf when they get some moisture, but others are blaming that February cold spell and fear the trees have already died.

If people here were still dependent on what they grew, these would be hard times. Last year, there was no fruit, the tomatoes were meager and the corn didn’t grow much. The men who run a truck farm down the road abandoned their field in July. This year there will be few apricots.

Unlike the recent settlers, who haven’t yet had time to adapt to climatic oscillations, the grasses and annuals that were here first will do fine. On the prairie last Sunday, a few days after our only spring rain, there was more green at the bases of the needle, rice and blue grama grass clumps. The ring muhly is beginning to revive in my yard.

The first seeds up along the road were the allergenic pigweed, which promises reinforcement for the woman’s perception that her well being is determined by something greater than mere weather and my view that pigweed is simply exploiting our constant abuse of nature.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested a person couldn’t perceive the true pattern of motion while sitting in a moving train. Likewise, we can’t recognize geologic trends until they’re finished. We have clues. But, when we try to apply the general to our personal situation, our expectations define what we experience. We can’t know definitively why this year is so hard on trees and shrubs, if it’s the cold or the drought or the winds, if it’s global warming or routine climatic instability, if it’s human behavior or something beyond.

We can agree, it’s been one tough, colorless spring.

Notes: See entry on vinca, 21 December 2008, for literary-cultural responses to one of those periods of agricultural failure.

Büntgen, Ulf. Quoted by Michael Marshall in “Fall of Roman Empire Linked to Wild Shifts in Climate,” New Scientist, on-line 13 January 2011.

_____, Willy Tegel, Kurt Nicolussi, Michael McCormick, David Frank, Valerie Trouet, Jed O. Kaplan, Franz Herzig, Karl-Uwe Heussner, Heinz Wanner, Jürg Luterbacher and Jan Esper. “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility,” Science, on-line 13 January 2011.

Uyttebrouck, Olivier. “March's Yellow Smoke,” Albuquerque Journal, 17 March 2011.

Photograph: Siouxland cottonwood, 10 April 2011.

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