Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Big pickups, wood-burning fireplaces, and the Hawk Above the Hayfield

Last Friday they forecast a storm of the century, but our little valley was right in between the two big storms that collided over Connecticut and Massachusetts to devastating effect.  The Old Man, who’s living with us now, was worried she wouldn’t make it out of New York before it hit, remembering with his long view the time she spent three days in a rest stop in Ohio, and the time she ended up on the floor of some airport for a couple of days.  She made the last bus out—at 3:30 pm.—and was home by 7.  The next day I shoveled for three hours, clearing a path for the EMT ambulance in case the Old Man took a turn for the worse.

Yesterday started with a frozen rain that coated the piles of snow with a crust of ice. Today a warm burst from the south pushed the clouds aside for tears of blue that ranged from pale pastel up to the east on the ridge, to a brilliant saturated Technicolor over to the south.  Tomorrow it was supposed to plummet back down ahead of a new storm, but now it looks like sunshine for the next week. 

This is normal winter weather here in the rural stretches of New York a couple of hours north of New York City.  Down there, though, where the coastal regions whip up winds and froth the weather with salty air, floods and freezes, high winds and surge tides aren’t giving up. Out in the Midwest, in Chicago where we used to live, there’s been almost no snow at all, and the temperatures have been wildly off their averages.

I’ve been reading back copies of Life magazine—starting with its first issues in 1936 and ending up around the moon mission. Weather is a favorite subject for American obsession, and sensational picture journalism loves to ramp up the rhetoric.  But Life started publication two years after what had been the hottest summer and hottest year on record in the United States.  1934 seemed to confirm the dour predictions that the Dust Bowl was not an isolate phenomenon. After that, though, a long stretch of temperate weather led us back through the rest of the Depression and the war.

Actually, Life had a hard time with the weather for its entire active lifespan—the climate in the U.S. seemed pretty temperate all the way up into the ‘70s.  There were tornadoes in Tornado Alley, always good for a sidebar, and local news photographers made a little cash with time-lapse pictures of the twisters eliminating barns and false-front Oklahoma and Kansas towns. There were hurricanes in the late summer and fall. Typhoons and floods and earthquakes hammered the rest of the globe, but Life didn’t have the best luck with freelancers in places where they took place.

The Missouri River flooded nicely in 1955, and Margaret Bourke-White did her trademark fly-around yielding a flood of aerial views of the spreading waters. There was a good flood in Texas in ’53, and Life’r John Dominis got a great shot of a man astraddle a homemade raft made out of three inner tubes, some scrap lumber, and an orange crate, floating in the midst of a fruit orchard with only the tippy-tops of the trees showing in neat rows. In ’53, Life got some official pictures of a flood in the Netherlands—dull, but serviceable, and one or two even showed a picturesque Dutch windmill. ’52 was a hot year, thanks to some very picturesque flooding of Venice, enabling the return of the ever-popular gondola moorings, this time with some newsworthiness.  Kansas also had some good flooding, and Life got a man out there to show the U. of Kansas students heroically piling sandbags. ’47 was good because both the Mississippi in the U.S. and major rivers in the U.S.S.R. flooded, providing a we’re-all-in-this-together counterpoint to the Cold War rhetoric of the moment. Oddly enough,1938’s great flood of the Huang He River in China, a location dear to the heart of publisher Henry Luce, didn’t get any photo-play at all, probably because the magazine hadn’t yet set up a sufficiently wide net of stringers in the backcountry there. But ’37 had sent superstar Bourke-White down to Kentucky for some heartstring-tugging images of pitiable victims of the floods there.

‘53’s North Sea flood, though, is worth returning to, because it’s the one that drove the Dutch to invest billions in a flood control system that’s now being touted for the New Jersey-New York-Long Island coastline that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  The Delta Works, begun shortly after the ‘53 flood and still being modified today, has so far cost each Dutch citizen 16 Euros—not a bad price, but wildly outdated. Building it today would require something more like 100 Euros per capita. Doing the same to the East Coast of the U.S. would cost, at a low estimate, a hundred times the Delta Works cost, and it would take decades to get into service, even as it deflected the floods and troubles elsewhere. Staten Island doesn’t have much of a future;  nor does the Jersey shore, or the Far Rockaways, or much of the coastline of Long Island. The Outer Banks of the Carolinas won’t be there long. Georgia, Florida, Texas…

Not that we need to worry about that here in the Rondout Valley. Yet. We have the Shawangunk Mountain ridge to our east, and the Catskills to our west. But every river and stream running through here takes its source up in the mountains, and every year the flooding has shocked oldtimers and flooded houses and barns dating to the 1600s and 1700s.  Two years ago, we got a swimming hole where our property abuts Harry’s.  Last year, it filled in again. The farmers are losing their ability to predict a year’s season; Hurricane Irene left the Davenport’s farm almost entirely underwater, and the Gill’s up 209 toward Kingston was pretty much a washout, too. Rumor had it, if they’d had a buyer, both families would have packed it up.

This year the price of firewood plummeted as the devastated woodlots of Irene’s winds came in the market fully seasoned.  Propane hasn’t moderated, and heating oil’s still high and going higher.  Natural gas prices have dropped quite a bit, but that doesn’t do a rural dweller much good, since the nearest pipeline is all the way up in Kingston, 20 miles north. A lot of wood is being burned this winter.

Around here, there are three classes of people when it comes to climate change, and all three of us are contributing to the problem, all three of us have our heads in the sand and our short-term interest driving our daily actions.  There are the non-believers. Kurt, Jr. up the hill has a top-end 4x4 pickup—long bed, double-cab, flare fenders, the whole bit. He’s put stacks behind the cab with glass-packs and when he downshifts they make a lot of noise.  At night, you can see the flames popping out the top.  God only knows how he gets the thing to pass state inspection.  Last year and the year before he and his friends used to smoke pot and drink beer around a campfire they’d build in Harry’s clover field and then when they were ready, usually around 10 at night, they’d fire up the Snowmobiles and race around the field doing figure-8s before crossing the stream to run an obstacle course set up in our hayfield, then hit it up to Paul and Sarah’s, then onto the Rail-Trail for a little illegal drag racing. Somebody talked the Staties into running a few patrols, and that led to some DUIs and some trespassing charges and fines and safety school stints.   This year the Snowmobile crowd has tiptoed quietly along the edge of our woodlot before ducking into Harry’s  and heading for the rail-trail.

But Kurt, Jr. hasn’t forgotten. He knows who made the calls—hell, we all told his dad, Kurt, Sr.  Every time he comes past the house now, he downshifts and hits the accelerator, hard. He’s my alarm clock. He does the same in front of the Baker’s up the hill—God knows what crime they committed to deserve it, but there it is. In the summer, Kurt, Jr. races dirt-track Modifieds over in Accord.  He’s got a few other toys too—an ATV I seem to remember, and a dirt bike. 

Kurt, Jr. doesn’t believe in Global Warming.  It’s too inconvenient.  Everything that gives him pleasure contributes to the problem. By contrast, his father, Kurt, Sr., has worked for the Ulster County roads crew for thirty years or so.  After Irene, he and his crew had to repair just about every culvert and county-road bridge, and he knows damned well that things are changing.  He also knows damned well just how much money it’s costing the county and the state with every disaster.  Our county’s small enough in population that you can see the effect on your property taxes and it’s not pretty. He’s got a fair amount of land, between him and his wife and his mother, and like a lot of people he’s gone over more and more to woodburning stoves and furnaces as the taxes eat at the heating oil budget.

Around here, a month’s propane in winter runs you $500 or more—and that’s with a well-insulated house and a habit of keeping the thermostat low.  Heating oil is worse. So the winter mornings are aromatic with the smell of woodsmoke, just as the clear fall days are a symphony of chain saws and mechanical splitters and tractors dragging the sledges full of split wood out to be covered and allowed to season for a year or two. 

It’s a romance of the senses, especially for the weekenders who like to think they’re embraced in the bosom of the rural life. But most of the wood stoves and furnaces around here are old-school, which means each one contributes the equivalent of four of Kurt, Jr.’s 4x4s worth of climate-change pollution.  Moreover, the trees being cut down for firewood aren’t being replaced at nearly the same rate as they’re being depleted.  This is an area full of forests dating to the years after the great blueberry burns of the early 20th century gave way as blueberry farms made wild blueberry picking uneconomical.  The good burning trees, like oak, are at full maturity now—a century or so later.  If they’re replanted one-to-one, they’ll be back to soaking up CO2 in the early 22nd century.

Meanwhile, the weekenders drive up from New York City on the Thruway, doing 80 and 85 to get here sooner, stuck in interminable traffic jams down by the city where they idle and inch, idle and inch for sometimes hours.  Their houses with the picturesque huge stone fireplaces ablaze on Friday and Saturday nights and all day Sundays are paid for by hard corporate labor, long hours, and lots of travel—air travel. A single New York-L.A. round trip contributes about as much to global warming as a year’s worth of driving a moderately new car. A weekender doing two round-trip flights a week makes Kurt, Jr. look like a Sierra Club eco-hippie.

The sun is setting on the hayfield, turning the snow shades of pink and red. The hawk is perched in the top of the ash tree that will soon be dead from the devastations of the Emerald Ash Borer, a virulent parasite brought to the U.S. from Asia by international trade in the ‘90s. The creek is rising as the snow melts up in the Catskills and by tomorrow it will have overflowed its banks, depositing small icebergs within the treestand that separates Harry’s clover field from the hayfield. The trees are already compromised; the rise and drop of the creek so accelerated this last decade has undermined the old ones, leaving them to topple into the water where they capture the branches and logs and scraps of old farm structures during the spring thaw, making dams that push the creek up over its banks. The old outhouse, once far above flood stage, has listed to the side and will probably collapse this spring.  I didn’t have time to shore it up this year;  I was too concerned with getting culvert and French tile and working with the Bushes, Wayne and Wayne, Jr., to dig drainage swales in the hayfield and between the house and the barn so the dirt could hold topsoil and nutrients. All summer, all fall, the hawk watched as we did this work.  Now he has the hayfield to himself, except for the evenings when Kurt, Jr. and the boys run the Snowmobile caravan along the edge of the woodlot, duck onto the old timber road, and head out into nature. 

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