Every year, usually in early July, a columbine appears next to the front deck of the cabin (right). I had seen its leaves in late June and wondered if the otherwise lush plant would flower after weeks of almost no rain. It did but at only about half to one-third its normal size (below). In this time of drought and heat, I see how nature survives: by shrinking back, doing what it needs to do to maintain but not able to grow or thrive.
The grasses around the cabin are about half as tall as in years of plentiful moisture. In the valley bottom, where there is no shade, the grasses have already gone brown. In years past, they’ve stayed green through August, at least. On the younger aspens, the branches are drooping, and many of the branches on the conifers are dying—their needles turning brown and dropping off. Flowers that usually bloom later in the summer, like the purple asters, are flowering now, as if the lack of precipitation has triggered some survival mechanism: bloom while you can because you don’t know if the situation will be any better next month.
In the past few years, a few aspens have started to grow in a somewhat dry area between my and my neighbors’ cabins (right). I’ve tried to encourage that growth as a small but natural privacy screen between us. The tallest aspen appears to have established a strong enough root system to survive, but the younger ones are limp, like they’re struggling to stay upright. With almost no moisture for at least three weeks and record-breaking heat, I’ve been watering the young trees in the hopes they’ll survive.
Because I have no plumbing at the cabin, watering means using the hand pump behind the cabin to fill a bucket and then carrying it to each tree. Needless to say, it’s labor intensive, and there are probably 50 trees, many of them aspens, on the property. All summer long I’ve been keeping my eye on them while studying the weather forecasts for any promise of precipitation. Occasionally, I'll invoke the weather gods, but to no avail. I’ve tried to rationalize the situation: nature knows how to take care of itself, how to conserve water and store it in wetter times.
But this weather is not normal. In past years at the cabin, the hottest temperatures in the summer were in the 70s during the day, and that usually cooled down into the 40s at night. But now daytime temperatures hover in the 80s, with night-time temperatures lingering in the 60s.
I feel helpless watching the plants struggle (above, like these aspen saplings), just like I feel helpless viewing the state of world affairs. I can’t do anything to help separated immigrant families or prevent any more orcas from dying in the Northwest seas. But I can start watering my thirsty aspens and ponderosas—pail by pail.
Call it a labor of love or a futile gesture. But I can’t just sit and do nothing.