Saturday, July 07, 2012

Grim Thoughts on Heat and Drought

thoughts on ecology, childishness and the quality of mercy

I get depressed when the plants are hurting.
Even though I know on one level that I should be happy for the ecosystem.
Stress does it good.
Drought helps the important (and supposedly “delicate”) conservatives rub out some invasive weeds.

But how can I help agonizing over drought?! Everything wilts. Flower buds fall off; much turns brown; many rare animals may die, especially in isolated fragments.

My life is tied to the ecosystem. When it’s gasping for life, I’m desperate to help. Yet there’s nothing – totally nothing – I can do.
You can’t water hundreds of acres.
(Rain dances are not effective.)
You can’t even water the tens of acres where you broadcast rare seed last fall.
You can’t apply sun-screen – or give the plants shades.

I do carry water through the heat to newly planted plugs of some of the rarest conservatives that we can’t restore in any other way.
But it’s depressing too. What a waste of time! Or – not a waste? – just some very hard work that may be futile, but may work? I lugged water this year to plugs of lilies, prairie violet, prairie gentian – to tide them over.
I lugged water to white-fringed orchids, hoping to help them set seeds and build up the population, despite the drought. Drops in the bucket, or rather more like drops in a dry ocean – but it may keep them alive until rain.

Is there any fun? One phenomenon that is indeed plain old superficial fun
is to watch the deep-rooted plants thrive while the shallow-rooted wither Our current drought isn’t as “bad” as some. The prairie can turn as brown as death – yet with perfectly green and happy leadplants, prairie clovers and false indigos looking like no one ever told them there was a problem. The roots of some plants are so deep that they’re sucking moisture rainstorms long, long ago.

In the photo, we're early in a drought. Most species are still green, but most are also slowly dropping flowers, or holding back flowers that haven't opened. Yet,  the deep-rooted compass plant (yellow flowers) thrives with deep-rooted pals, butterfly weed (orange) and leadplant (purple). 

In some other season, conversely, many light rains in summer may favor the plants with upper-soil roots. In that cases, the deep-rooted ones may stress. That’s what diversity is for. Whatever the conditions, there are plants ready to take advantage.

My emotions are more about myself than about the ecosystem. When there’s thriving life and beauty, it’s like a message to me of hope, courage and confidence. Only a small part of my subconscious seems to be able to take the long view. I’m immature.

On the other hand, an ecosystem matures only through many cycles of unusual weather. Drought, flood, heat, cold, disease, grazing and browsing. Seasons of plenty and seasons of want. Beautiful, powerful and sustainable diversity results.


Steve Halm said...

If the drought continues, how feasible is it to organize a 'water work day'? Bring in volunteers each with a few gallons of water that they provide and hit the most stressed and in need plants? It may be a band-aid approach, but with this wacky weather who knows? If it saves some rare plants it may be worth it....

Stephen Packard said...

Steve, thanks for the "water work day" idea. Indeed, I have myself spent a good deal of time hauling water to endangered and other special plants in the wilderness. It's a strange feeling, and yet at times it seems worth it. When the last prairie white-fringed orchids, or eared gerardias, or Bicknell's geraniums are threatened, we do it at some sites. At least they may be able to set seed for next year. Larger populations may be more resilient. On the other hand, where you work at Deer Grove East, I don't know of any species that I would recommend we do that work, as a priority over other needed work. (The restoration contractors at DGE are using vehicles to haul water for the recently planted shrubs.) In any case, you raise a good question, well worth more thought.

Bernie Buchholz said...

The heat and drought are upsetting, especially if you are watching tens of thousands of first year juveniles struggle in a new "corn field to prairie" planting. How many juveniles are dying and which seeds are simply not germinating?

But this weather is also a great chance to expose impostors and learn about the soil. Nachusa Grasslands has enjoyed at least six straight years of average or better rainfall, often seemingly perfectly timed for maximum plant growth. But have these conditions caused some impostors to thrive where they are unsuited for long term perseverance? Will the culvers root (Ver vir) and wild lupine (Lup per), to name just two species, be long term players in full sun dry to dry mesic sand prairie?

The drought is also fully revealing how frequently the Nachusa soils vary within just a fraction of an acre. In defiance of my expectation that low elevation areas will stay moist compared to upland knobs, areas of thriving green plant mass stand in stark contrast to crispy dry areas that encircle them. Never before (in my short six years) has the variability of water retention been so apparent. The damp versus dry puzzle suggest that we might target overseed species to match their preferred hydrology.

The drought reinforces the use of diversity the leading measure of "quality" restorations. More diverse prairies have more ways to respond to extremes of weather.

Stephen Packard said...

These words in response to the wise comments from Bernie Buchholz: And for those who don't know his reputation, Bernie is one of the wonderfully hard-working and creative stewards at Nachusa Grasslands.
His first comment that strikes home with me is the pain we planters feel for the rare seedlings -- when it doesn't rain and our babies die. All that hard work, gathering, preparing, mixing and planting -- down the drain. I remind myself that each season is a gamble, but if you plant year after year, as we do, all the species will come. Let's hope this year many chose to remain dormant to germinate next year, as some seeds do. Let's feel confident that this season will ultimately benefit diversity and quality.
And like Bernie says, what a great year to map out the wettest and driest spots, for special attention when we subsequently plant our wettest and driest seeds.
Bernie, thanks for the many good thoughts.