Sensory Spring

I laid a cushion out on the patio and fell asleep. I was tucked under a sleeping bag that was in turn tucked into a second sleeping bag, both under a wool blanket, all against the night’s chill. I intended only to give myself a straight-up view for a while of the aurora, without neck strain. But I soon dozed off after closing my eyes, opening them again to see what had changed in the northern lights, closing them again, a few more views, then deeply asleep. By good fortune, this aurora corresponds to clear skies and only a thin crescent moon that doesn’t drown out the show with its own light. Along with the stars and planets (and annoying satellites), the slender moon just adds to the dancing colours and shapes filling the sky. The solar storm was the most intense in 19 years; looking up into the sky, straight up into the brilliant shower of intense radiation, I wondered at the absolute, aloof silence of such intense power.

I woke at dawn, rose to pee in the harassing dewy chill, thought of the aurora, thinking as I always do the morning after that it couldn’t have been as it appears in my memory. I considered going inside for a few more hours of sleep in the warmth of the house, away from the din of birdsong. But I so enjoyed my outside sleep, I wanted to sink back into it. Despite the noise, the feeling of peace brought a few more hours of sleep and dreams. I woke again with a smile when I realized I was hearing the swallows, who must have arrived from their southern quarters during my morning sleep.

I laid there for at least an hour, letting my senses wake fully, waiting for the sunbeams to round the corner of the house so I could rise in their warmth. The morning bird chorus hadn’t ended. Lincoln’s sparrows, northern water thrush, ruby-crowned kinglets. Not all the songbirds have returned yet, but already the chorus is rich, many species singing over each other all at once. On the pond, a duck softly pipes to her brood, all of them making funny wet noises as the ducklings learn to dabble for bits of food. Hornet and yellow jacket queens buzz along the walls of the house slowly and menacingly, surveying for nesting spots. So many of them this spring! This will be a bad year for stings. The first, soft unfurled aspen leaves tremble in the breeze, almost silent, just becoming audible; they’ll firm up and becoming louder, clapping in the wind all summer, sounding like a very large applauding crowd heard distantly.

Rising from my bedding again, back into the house where everything now seems mundane after such a rich night and morning. It’s a let-down feeling just like when a prolonged power outage ends and all the lights and motors turn back on. News, emails, the to-do list, cleaning last night’s dishes, making coffee (black, I’m out of cream), back to the computer, more news, analyses of and predictions for the world in its sad, sad state, then breakfast. Five eggs and a heap of buttery hashbrowns from home-grown potatoes brought in from the root cellar. A strong cup of cardamom tea.

Trevor and Buki head out to help clear trails for a couple hours. I have watering to do. The garden is so dry, and it’ll be a hot day. Trevor and Buki return, our trail-clearer and his partner leave. Buki goes in to sleep; she was up late last night with all us aurora-watchers, and up and active early for trail work, so she’s zonked, and I can get some work done rather than taking her out for her morning walk. Now the rest of the day is private. It’s sunny and warm. My shoulders were already sunburned from yesterday, but only on the top. I’m tanned nearly all over already, just not the tops of my shoulders because my sun exposure has been mostly at a low angle as I lie out on the dock, head-end away from the low, northern spring sun. Now the sun is high and I’m upright, with garden work to do, no time to lie down for a sun bather’s nap.

All through the gardening day, so much to see: A springtail perched on the stigma of a gentian. The undecided sinuous speed of a centipede suddenly exposed from under a pot. The bundle of fresh moss spore capsules not yet opened. The garter snake basking on a rock. So few snakes this year, and only the largest ones seen so far. I guess the winter’s thin snowpack let the cold penetrate deeper into their hibernacula than it should have, killing most of them, especially the smallest ones. The still-early garden bringing out more and more flowers in every colour but orange (why so little orange in the spring flora?). A calypso orchid in the nearby forest, the first of its kind we’ve seen close to the house, just outside the property line. The opening of fold-on-fold buds on the latest trees to leaf out; further inside the bud, flowers forming, and within them the gametes. Meiosis everywhere around us as the greening world prepares to create the next generation, creating the future. The opening leaves look so extravagant after those six months of winter’s miserly twigs.

The nearby creeks call from their cascading tumbles over the mountain slopes and through their nearer cobbly channels. It’s a sound carried louder by the night’s denser air, but a sound that should be louder than it is during this prolonged drought. The thaw continues, but only up high, and there’s little snow pack up there this year to feed the creeks. There’s only one patch of snow remaining in our view of the mountain slopes. The final melting of that patch is our indication of when it’s safe to plant out the tender vegetables in the garden, when there will be no more frost until September or October.

The bats swoop and flutter silently at dusk, more of them as it becomes harder to see. Also at night, the heavy, low whirr of passing June bugs (Melolonthinae, a kind of scarab beetle). Why “June bugs”? We find them in May, not June. And “foolbugs” would have been a better name. They’re inelegant, they fly aimlessly, they crash into things with a tumble and struggle to get up again. Their bodies are as plump and as aero-non-dynamic as the fattest grubs. But somehow they manage to find each other and mate. While typing this, next to the corner windows of my office, I wonder what happened to the giant silk moths, who used to flap noisily at the windows at night, but who now are absent most years. There was one last year, the first in a long time. None this year so far. And fewer moths of every species. Even here on the edge of the wilderness, it’s the insect apocalypse. Why?

Spring. The clouds are starting to remember that they can do more than in their winter repertoire. We’re waiting for our annual early summer monsoon, when the clouds grow tall, shade us in the afternoon, and call out thunder to each other and give us rain. Or so we hope. Most recent years have brought a weakened or failed monsoon. It isn’t just climate change doing this to us. It’s industrial logging. In the past 25 years the timber companies, with government and public approval, worked fast to reduce the canopy cover by half across the upwind plateau. They’ve badly diminished forest transpiration, drying our air. Now there’s less for the clouds and their supporting thermals to work with, so we rely on the Jetstream to bring us summer rain. But in summer, especially in July through September, that atmospheric stream doesn’t want to remain at these latitudes. And the Jetstream has gone loopy, with exaggerated undulations that get stuck in place, bringing flood years to one region, and drought years to another. We keep finding ourselves stuck on the hot and dry side of those loops. The reduced summer rain has dried our forests out badly. Half the trees on the stony plateau west of the house have died and fallen in the last 15 years. And half the trees have died in the subalpine forests to the east. The whole region is drying out. Giant wildfires are the result. And those fires are the further cause, driving a vicious cycle, as so much mass tree death and incineration has further reduced transpiration, drying the region’s summer air.

But the nearby forests remain alive, though weakened. The understory surprises us everywhere. I’ve seen twenty spring seasons in this landscape, but every spring still amazes me with its greening forest: reemerging queen’s cups, lilies and false Solomon’s seal, impossibly delicate oak ferns, the spikes of rice grass, the opening parasols of wild sarsaparilla. Winter and the subsequent brown season are so austere, and now, suddenly, everything is Baroque.

This is the ornate living world that most of the world’s humans no longer experience in their cities, suburbs, and slums. And few people, even if they find themselves in the wilds, would notice much of it, no matter what is happening around them. I notice, at least some of it, though there’s always more to discover. Trevor notices. I’m sure Buki notices even more. Our awareness of the sensory is part of what draws us three together here at the threshold of the wilderness.

I dread the time that is coming, when this wild landscape also burns. And then everywhere we look around us, we will have to look at the austerity of blackened snags. The post-burn green-up will be wonderful, but it will green up into a further drying, heating world that will have less and less in its repertoire, less for the senses. At least humanity can’t reach the aurora and ruin it. No matter how hard we try, we will never touch any of the universe but our immediate surroundings. At least the sky will remain ornate, though our view of it is now foreverly compromised by those damned satellites and other space junk.

I should stop typing and go outside to see what is happening. Even indoors with the windows closed, I can smell the sweet perfume of the cottonwoods.


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