Thursday, August 08, 2013

Seeing fire in the river

This is my monthly "Desert Sage" piece for the Deming Headlight.  It appeared in today's edition of the paper.

Lo, we have a river!

Our monsoon period is here, with spectacular lightning and thunder putting shame to our recent 4th of July displays.  Now we get our major delivery of rain, and the dry beds of the Mimbres have actually been running. 

In some places, neighbors of our valley reported that the river was running a scary black color due to runoff from the Gila and the Black Range, where the Silver Fire raged early this summer.  In that instant, even non-poets could easily see the fire in the river. 

A river can show us a lot.  There is an old Korean fable about a monastery by a river.  The zen master is returning from a trip to town, riding his horse up the hill.  In the river along the path, he notices a single piece of lettuce floating downstream, and urgently spurs his horse.  “Something is wrong up there,” he thinks.  “Otherwise no one would allow that piece of lettuce to drop and float away.”  At that moment, he sees the kitchen master running down the path after the piece of lettuce, and he relaxes.  “Never mind.  Everything is fine.”  It’s a lovely story about paying attention and taking responsibility.  More than this, it is about seeing God’s hand in every creature, the breath of all humankind, and even in a bit of lettuce.

A couple of weeks ago, there was enough babble in our brook that one could imagine kayaking off the 180.   Even now, after most of that has receded,  there is still enough to see the flash of sunlight dancing on a moving surface of water – and even that might be enough to tempt the observer to a false hope that New Mexico’s drought might turn a corner.  Maybe the Chihuahuan Desert’s lush grassland will recover and prove those killjoy scientists wrong.

Unfortunately, the longer view, as shared with us by climate scientists, biologists, land managers, and range experts, suggests that our state is getting drier at an accelerating rate.

A sensible conversation about our climate, how it is changing, and what we can do, continues to elude us in part because we willingly confuse weather with climate in order to ignore the problem.  Deniers of climate change seize on a cold snap or a snowstorm as evidence that global warming and other evidence of climate change are not real.

This can be explained in a single uncomplicated sentence:  weather is how the atmosphere behaves locally at one moment, and climate is the longer view of how weather behaves.  The complex effects of atmospheric changes affect our weather, agriculture, the spread of disease, and much more. 

In this rare glimpse of our river, we see the Mimbres running black and understand that the valley is flushing itself clean after a wildfire, in an ancient cyclical process.  Wildfires are part of a natural process, too.  Yet in the longer view, wildfire seasons are longer and deadlier, and not only because of local land management.  Drought conditions in combination with drier and less stable atmospheric conditions are real influences on the patterns and behavior of wildfires.  And while we argue politics and deny climate change in order to protect our economic system and social order, New Mexico’s ecosystems are collapsing, the desert is becoming more arid, and our terra firma is turning to sand. 

Our lapse of attention, or willing ignorance, amounts to much more than a piece of lunch flowing downstream.  Collectively we are failing to be shepherds of our inheritance.

When this glimpse is gone and the river is dry again, will it move us?  

[Image:  The Mimbres as viewed from a spot just north of Deming.]

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