The faintest, mildest, least-noticeable of all things can still have tremendous impact. Take lichens, for example: the most wonderful of flowers, even gardens, on a microscopic scale. Strong enough to wear down stone itself over time, but so delicate and dainty and fairylike that they are rich and glorious even in their seeming fragility.
No matter what the reasons, the weather is different these days than both what I grew up with (all those centuries ago!) and what the locals in most places call ‘the usual’—really, really different. It’s not that Toronto has suddenly become the center of the tropics or San Salvador is now an iceberg floating along the edge of a glacier, it’s just different. The highs and lows have become both more pronounced and more prolonged in many places, from what I can see.
Where I grew up in Seattle, for example, its mythic status as Rain City and the region’s fame as being constantly wet were exaggerated, much of the truly soaking rain happening on the Olympic Peninsula as a result of the mountains’ effect on traveling clouds, weather fronts, and so forth, and thus less of it eventually reaching Seattle’s sheltered spot on Puget Sound. Instead, there were lots of grey, overcast days and light drizzling ones, but the measurable rain was moderate. In fact, the region generally has had plenty of rain to sustain, in its temperate climate, a stupendous variety of plants year-round, from the great towers of evergreen trees to their tiniest replicas in forest-like carpets of moss.
There were, as anyone anywhere knows, secrets and surprises in this unique climate. In the neighborhood where my grandparents had their apartment when I was young, right next to the shores of the Sound, I was awed by a few yards sporting healthy palm trees. These were not native to the northwest, nor even the slightest bit common—hence, my amazement at their exotic punctuation of the expected landscape—but they grew there without requiring any particular magic, because the microclimate along the West Seattle shoreline has remained remarkably sheltered and coddled by Mother Nature.
Now, it’s a more frequent phenomenon to see all sorts of semitropical plants creeping into the Seattle area landscape, and at the same time, more and more xeric plants. The hot weather of summer does, in reality, get a little hotter and stick around a little longer than it did in years past. It also tends to be drier. The total annual rainfall average hasn’t fallen into a chasm, but it’s creeping lower gradually, and this winter-spring cycle has been a record-setter for low snow pack, sending a fair number of ski resort owners into early and/or even permanent closure and more than a few homeowners into rethinking their home sprinkler systems and dispatching lawns in favor of water-saving raingardens. A few years down the road, it wouldn’t surprise me especially to see yards that look remarkably like the iconic ones of Las Vegas popping up on many northern properties as well.
Some of this change in nature’s attitude toward us is bound to change how we can and should live our lives. The watersheds that once supplied an abundance of cheap, readily available drinking and gardening water and hydroelectric power to wide swaths of the country are shrinking and already being bargained for more aggressively, even disputed. The world is already water-poor, despite newly over-watered and flooding regions, and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if at some point water becomes the basis of more wars than oil and politico-religious reasons are today. I hope I’m not around to see the day.
Meanwhile, it’s still something of a novelty, never mind those long-ago days of perhaps two or three landmark palm trees in West Seattle, to see what’s happening in the gardens and seasons of this changing world. Never thought I’d see things the way they are, and that’s not just talking about the weather. Maybe I’ll get a grass skirt and celebrate it with a neon-colored summer drink served with its own paper mini-umbrella while it lasts.
Short bursts of breeze in the long leaves,
the slightest of eddies as though
their pulse were pumping actual red cells
through the tall margins of the field—
Likelier that their real nature as flammable,
short-lived bursts of vigorous and
violent life, destined to flame
up, out, leap to cosmic oblivion, and die—
Are these our guides, or are
they mirrors of the flimsy, volatile existence
that we share? Only there, in
the margins of the field, do the flames
and shadows of our being have
a moment’s sway, for better or for worse,
of honesty out in the sun. Only there,
where the grass grows tall and yet
has not the strength or
depth of root to thrive, do we
see how little of the energy
with which we’d credited ourselves
really shines for longer than
a short, weedy season, bending
this way, bending that, and sparking
into sudden flares of incandescent
before returning to earth,
having distinguished ourselves, yet still
flying a bold red flag as if
Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.
Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.
Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.
This strange new climate we’ve been experiencing in north Texas lately, never mind on the west coast where drought has reentered the vocabulary for the first time in eons and the northeast where winter and massive storms have ruled in a newly lengthy way, makes me think I’m on another planet. Or perhaps a parallel reality. Whatever it is, it seems a bit surreal and decidedly unfamiliar.
In the last number of days we’ve had more rain, more thunder-and-lightning, and more windstorms—even a small tornado or two touching down not far from our home—than many past years have seen altogether locally. We’ve driven along what are normally pastures and meadows and bone-dry fields and low runoff gullies and seen what looks like it should have the iconic airboats of the southern swamps speeding through: trees and brush sticking out intermittently from extensive marshes where we’ve only ever seen dry land. The phenomenal density and lushness of the grasses and trees, wildflowers in rampant carpets blooming for weeks on end instead of days, and swarms of early insect madness all explode around us in unprecedented extremes.
Then, today, a brilliantly sunny, rather hot, almost cloudless day; it was exactly as I would expect here in a typical mid-May. The rosebush behind the kitchen, shorn before the last storm of its spectacular but doomed bucket full of blooms lest they be beaten to death by the ongoing rain and hail, decides to pop out a couple of fireworks to celebrate the sun’s return. The birds are sunning themselves on every branch and power line as though to soak up rays as quickly as they can. The local lawn crews dash madly from house to house.
Because the weather forecast says we should expect about 7 or 8 days, at least, of rain and thunderstorms to begin again tomorrow.
And isn’t that the way things go? We decide we know how the world will operate, how we expect life to move forward, what we will do within it, and immediately we are given a firm reminder that nature will do as it pleases, that change is inevitable, and that we are small jots on the map of history. The sun will blast its way through a wall of weeks-long storming and then the storms will drop their dousing movable sea back down over the landscape for another round. We make our predictions and forecasts and duck and weave to move through it all as best we can guess we should, and it all changes again.
For now, I am content to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. All of it is rather exciting and surprising and even, welcome. And there’s nothing I can do to stop change. So I’ll just enjoy the weird phenomena as best I can, soak up the rain and then stop and smell the roses between times again when the opportunity arises.
It’s springtime, and that means I look at my yard with an especially keen eye. Toward eating, of course.