Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Long Shadows

We have come to the season of long shadows.

My friends' house sits on a lake bed in the northern basin of "basin and range." The 360 degree horizon is punctuated to the north and east by low hills, and far to the south, along the curvature of the earth, stand peaks that soar 10,000 feet. The mountains are volcanic. Cinder cones abound; obsidian outcrops in a multitude of colors. Adobe roads grid the landscape in a strict NSEW pattern. In winter they are impassibly slick, but these days they are hard, dusty, unforgiving.

Late September in the high desert is an unimaginable distance from the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" to which I fly next week. I have stopped here to regroup, to give my friends respite from farm chores and the pounding, unseasonable heat, which is 10-15 F above normal, making for a 50-60 F gradient each day. The nights flirt with frost; the days succumb to the 90s F. There is no hint of rain in this drought-trammeled corner of the world. The humidity is so low that you can feel it draw the moisture from your body.

The sun drops behind the horizon; the alpenglow burns red and gold. Chickens and quail go to roost; bees sleep. After dark, the arm of our Milky Way galaxy makes a brilliant white slash down the sky; just before the first light of dawn, giant Orion stalks over the horizon in pursuit of the Pleiades.

Population in this county is sparse, and getting sparser; this year's drop in school enrollment tells of people leaving to look for work. The presence of neighbors is revealed only by the yellow glow from sodium lights near barns and houses, which dot the blackness as far as the eye can see. So remote are some ranches that their children attend five-day boarding schools in the middle of nowhere.

This is sagebrush country, broken by intense green circles of alfalfa and the linked steel arches of wasteful pivots that suck at the declining water table. Wells are now sunk to a depth of more than 300 feet. These plots represent agriculture at its most destructive: huge amounts of sulfur modify the soil pH, polluting domestic wells; tons of fertilizer run off into the lakes to the south that form a critical refuge for millions of migrating birds. One alkaline lake I passed two weeks ago had tens of thousands of avocets and stilts dipping its waters for brine shrimp.

I was last here in the late spring when morning birdsong was deafening, the variety of species greater than I have seen anywhere but Africa. Eagles, owls, ravens, wading birds, cranes, egrets, sandpipers, songbirds, swallows, assorted black birds, buntings, hawks soared, fluttered, flapped, shouted, chirped, sang, screamed, croaked, rattled in the early light. Coyote packs whooped and yipped antiphonally across miles of scrub, and afternoon thunderstorms moved in stately pavane across the vast bowl of the sky.

Now at the equinox the land is silent, or nearly so. The hum of pumps, the click, whine and hiss of pivots have ceased. One or two fields of alfalfa are ripe for a last cutting, while along the highway, raked windrows await the baler.

In a field directly south, winged gleaners feast on oats the combine scattered. Brewer's blackbirds rise and wheel, chukking to themselves; a resident flock of babbling geese haunts the stubble, lifting occasionally to circle and survey for predators; a pair of cranes rasp in the dawn light and are gone.

Even the coyotes and ravens haven't much to say, though their tracks tell of their presence, as do those of jackrabbit, cottontail, deer, antelope, bobcat and cougar. Once or twice this past week, a red-tailed hawk appeared on a telephone pole; a kestrel flashed its russet in the yard as it chased a yellow-rumped warbler. But the land is mostly still, a slow, hot wind moaning in the corners.

In the morning quiet when I walk the endless tracks there is a sense of waiting, not the usual calm of autumn shot through with the anticipation of spring after a winter's sleep, but a waiting tinged with anxiety, for the next shoe to drop: waiting for relief from the heat; waiting for work that is not out there; waiting for rain that does not come; waiting for the well to go dry.


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