Sunday, February 03, 2013

Winter Depredations

Weather: Warmer morning and afternoon temperatures; last rain 1/28/13; 10:34 hours of daylight today.

What’s still green: Few rose stems; juniper, pine, and other evergreens; yucca, Madonna lily, some moss. Grape hyacinth leaves green after the snow disappeared.

What’s red: Cholla; apple, apricot, sandbar willow branches even redder.

What’s grey or blue: Winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves. Snow-in-summer leaves desiccated in the past week.

What’s yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Small brown birds.

Weekly update: Four seasons is a nice name for a restaurant, but it’s not the best summary of Española weather.

When I was a child in Michigan, the upper-class clothing store knew better. In January, after the white sales, the windows were filled with bathing suits. The manager was not anticipating Spring break. These were for customers heading to Florida. In those days, the winter of Sarasota and Palm Beach followed the winter of Christmas.

My almanac puts it differently. It has a generic table of day lengths by date with translation codes for specific areas. These formulae are related to the length of the sun’s rays breaking over the edge of the sphere. This year, the winter of the solstice ran from November 22 to January 18.

We’re now in the killing times, when the worst of the cold is past, but the sun is merciless. Last Sunday, I noticed it drying trees after the previous day’s misty rain. The light shone on one side of the branches, like it does over the moon. The difference between dark and light was more pronounced than usual, because the sun had dried one side more than the other.

I thought. So this is what killed my neighbor’s globe willows. Technically it was sun scald that occurs when the sun heats the outer part of the tree, then cools the trapped moisture inside in the evening. But the sun glinting off the black locust was as close as I’ll ever come to seeing the sun’s differential treatment.

Most trees lost their leaves months ago. Now, the shorter plants are losing theirs. When I walked to the prairie Sunday, I passed the purple coneflowers leaning over the garage walk I’d photographed before. Leaves had fallen on the blocks, that weren’t there the day before.

They were gone yesterday, blown somewhere.

The stickleafs now are barren candelabrum with sockets of brass and tin.

The leaves of summer have shriveled and fallen.

When I was walking, the prairie ground was soft underfoot. At first I thought it was moisture that had sunk into the dry upper layer of soil. Then I looked. Those leaves are breaking down. Dried grasses are disintegrating.

Some of the shortest blades are some annual monsoon grass that first appeared in barren areas after the Las Conchas fire. They sprouted and died within a month. Last summer it did the same. Now, it’s a carpet protecting the soil.

Last summer’s monsoons scoured the far arroyo bottom, breaking off small plants and sending them down stream toward the Rio Grande. The low branches of chamisa on their islands in the water path had been able to hold some of their understory. Sunday, they looked like hens with their chicks pulled under for protection.

The tamarix toward the left bank had been less lucky. Its ground had been washed clean. But now, it’s dropped the summer’s needles and begun rebuilding its nest.

On the other side of the arroyo, where no trees and few shrubs have taken root, the ground was nearly bare last Sunday. Unlike the chamisa and tamarix, which are washed by currents in the arroyo, plants on the right bank are buffeted by water washing down from the bank.

There, only short grasses have braved the flood plain.

Winter isn’t just breaking up the remains of plants. It’s still working on evicting the gravels that settled during the glaciers.

Clouds stayed for a few days after the rain, so the ground has remained damp. When the sun breaks through, afternoon temperatures are way above freezing. In the past few days, seed pods have begun to split open and fall into the litter below.

When the afternoons warmed, I didn’t split my skin, but I did exchange my Shetland wool sweaters for the ones made from lighter-weight lambs wool. My view of weather is still conditioned by that department store. Spring woolens, as I was taught by my mother, come with the next change in winter.

Notes: Thomas, Robert T. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 2013.

1. Tansy head, 2 February 2013. The leaves have shriveled, but not fallen.

2. Bush pea pods on the left bank of the far arroyo, 27 January 2013. The leaves have shriveled, and most have fallen. Both pods and leaves are accumulating below.

3. Black locust tree in the sun, 27 January 2013. Bradford pear in background.

4. Fallen purple coneflower leaves and Silver King artemisia branches, 27 January 2013.

5. Stickleaf in far arroyo bottom, 3 February 2013. Most of the leaves have fallen, leaving stem and empty seed pods.

6. Stickleaf last summer, 25 August 2012. The closed seed pods rose above nests of leaves.

7. Remains of short, annual monsoon grass in barren area of the prairie, 27 January 2013.

8. Chamisa on island in water path of far arroyo, 3 February 2013. Its lower branches have kept the fallen seed heads and other litter from washing away.

9. Tamarix needles accumulating under a tree on the left side of the far arroyo bottom, 27 January 2013.

10. Right bank of the far arroyo after the rain, 27 January 2013.

11. Close up of flood plain with stubs of several grass species between the gray remains of dead bunch grasses, 17 January 2013.

12. Catalpa pod opening, 2 February 2013. The one to the left is beginning to open.

13. Arroyo ground under bush pea pod, 27 January 2013.

14. Fallen baptisia pods, 2 February 2013.

No comments: