Winter drought

Anyone visiting the southwest right now would probably say we’ve been having a beautiful winter.

And they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. We’ve been having warm (70-80 degree) days, clear blue skies. I’ve been walking everywhere this winter, because it’s so lovely out, walking and smiling at the jaggedy outline of mountains against sky–a view that has very much become part of my personal definition of home.

Yet a visitor might not see what’s missing: the water.

A visitor might not see that the mountains are gray when they should be green, might not notice that yards that were bursting with green weeds last winter are now brown and bare. A visitor hiking in our mountains might not knew which of the dry riverbeds they cross ought to have water by now, might not know that the paddles of the prickly pears aren’t usually quite so flat and crinkly, might not see that the accordian-folds of the saguaro are deeply pleated this year, not plumped out by rain like last winter.

A visitor might not notice how the grasses are mostly yellow, not green, this winter; and if they did, they probably wouldn’t instinctively look to the mountains, and wonder whether fire will eat its way down the slopes this summer, as it did three years ago, and four.

Winter is one of the two rainy seasons here; we usually get half our rain in winter, the other half with the summer monsoons. Last winter was a wet winter, the first wet winter in years. Green weeds and green grasses grew everywhere, wanted and unwanted; I spent hours and hours in the yard, trying to tame them, yet glorying, too, in how eager everything was to grow. When spring came the wildflowers bloomed, more vividly than in some years, bursting into a few weeks of bright color as soon as the rain stopped, or even before. Last winter made those of us who live here hopeful, made us think maybe we were moving out of drought at last.

But this winter has been the driest I can recall, in the 12 years I’ve lived here. Most winters–even the dry ones, since we’re in a drought cycle right now–have at least had at least a winter storm or two, and enough moisture to put frost on the car windows in the chilly mornings.

This winter, we’re going on … I think it’s 111 days without rain. Not 111 days without a serious rainstorm–111 days without a single drop of water falling from the sky.

I remember the first time I was consciously aware of living in drought. Not in the desert–when I was still in St. Louis then, the summer between my junior and senior years. That summer, bark fell in brittle sheets from the trees. I walked along sidewalks littered with it, fascinated, not as troubled as I knew I should be. I was falling in love that summer, slowly and deeply, and most things were more fascinating than disturbing. In human terms, it was a good summer.

And in short-term human terms, this is a good winter. I’m walking lots, working lots, getting out and about and appreciating the city in a way I’ve maybe forgotten to the past few years. It’s a beautiful winter–warm days, blue skies.

But once in a while I remember that it’s my human eyes that find it beautiful, and that, in fact, the desert is not well this season. I imagine the generations before me who couldn’t look at the blue sky, smile, and then turn the faucet or make a grocery run to get what they needed. We’re protected, in many ways here. Not forever. Maybe not even for very long. But for now.

And I know the cycle of the desert year. I think of a spring without wildflowers, and a summer with wildfires, and I know that this warm, dry winter is not the whole story.

Occasionally some white, high clouds make their way across the sky. I look up–perhaps not unlike those generations before–and hope for rain, but this year, the clouds always move on.

It’s February now. That’s almost spring. Even in wet years, spring is dry. Soon, there won’t be any clouds at all.

So because I know the desert year, I think ahead, past the wildflowers and the wildfires, to July and our summer thunderstorms. And I hope that then, maybe, there will finally be rain.

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