Friday, July 20, 2012


We had essentially no rain all this hot summer -- until today. The prairie was suffering badly. How do its plants react? In the photo below, from yesterday, many small plants have already withered away to invisibility.

The normally tenacious bastard toadflax covers most of the ground, but it's dropping half-formed fruits and letting the leaves go yellow, as it moves its resources back into its shallow but secure roots.

The biggest green prairie dock leaf (15 foot deep roots) is holding on for now, but the smaller dock leaf is cashing it in. 

In the upper center, the leaves of wild quinine are curling. Rattlesnake master (to the left of the dock) has let one leaf go brown and is starting on a second. The grasses (bottom: little bluestem. left: prairie dropseed) are still green, but they're not growing.
We get a similar story from the purple prairie clover and black-eyed Susan in the photo below:

The clovers normally have long flower spikes that bloom for weeks. These are short and only bloomed for days. Prairie docks in this lower, less dry area are keeping their leaves, but they will put up no flower stalks this year. Shallow-rooted black-eyed Susan is shorter than normal by at least two-thirds. Instead of a dozen or twenty flowers, it's putting out just one. Some species are invisible here, like smooth phlox, normally busy maturing seeds, this year withered back into dust.

Today we got three glorious inches of rain. For the ecosystem, it's a whole new ball game. But for me, I think back to how gloomy I felt. Is it just because so many seeds that we planted have died? Or because so many animals breathed their last from lack of reserves in the too-small habitat fragments that are all we have left them? Or is it merely that the lush richness I rely on to inspire me wasn't there for my emotional nourishment?

For most of my “adult” life I’ve welcomed depression as a rare and helpful visitor from another realm. It says, "Stop. Think. Get outside your usual rationality and actions. Re-boot. Rethink. Consider what to change, abandon, risk or begin."

Can droughts foster planetary depression? How do we get it across to the larger culture that global warming is not just some different weather but is an act of planetary vandalism worse than the Taliban demolishing ancient art and temples? Beyond losing cultural treasures thousands of years old, we will be and are losing ecological treasures hundreds of thousands -- and millions of years old. Our children will be poorer in so many ways.

Thanks to those three glorious inches of rain I look forward to being able to collect seed again -- and to watching the inspiration and fun of ecological recovery.

Although I only see bits of it on the global horizon so far, I also look forward to the fun of watching and helping smart and dedicated people figure out how to focus widespread ecological intelligence on the health of the planet.


orchidartist said...

Great post - thank you so much!

I think about how disappointed our monarch (and other) butterflies will be, wanting to visit those short-lived purple prairie clovers. How easily folks pursue 'business as usual', not taking into account making those small lifestyle changes, that accrued over a lifetime, can and will make a difference to these precious ecosystems. - K

Stephen Packard said...

Orchid-artist: I agree with your concern for the many plants and animals that will suffer in this drought. On the other hand, these species have adapted to occasional droughts for millennia and eons.

You rightly suggest that global climate change is much more destructive and ugly. Yes, individuals need to understand and change -- although without convincing their neighbors and governments, the needed changes are not possible.

"Doom and gloom" predictions may convince some people. But changes in values -- away from materialism, consumption and competition -- are more what's needed. Thanks for your art. That's part of the answer.