The warm sun glistened off the clear water of the river. The sound of water gurgling over rocks filled the sound-scape, bringing focus to the river. The San Juan River at this point rapidly steps down from the high volcanic Eastern San Juan Mountains into the sandstone and shale mesa's, the steep gradient giving a swift flow.
Traveling by river is new to me - so the land on the banks of the river here is also new to me. As the river cut into Mancos Shale, the mountains on the horizon line shrunk at a rate that seemed to match the pace in which snow was disappearing from the peaks in the distance.
~ Neon Spring ~ When I think about spring in the San Juan Mountains, this is the quintessential image that comes to mind. Neon green leaves burst from the various Populus species, like cottonwood and aspen. Snow clings to the highest peaks. Photo taken May 2020.
It seems like every spring I enjoy admiring the fresh buds of cottonwoods and willows glow neon green along our steams and rivers as the snowpack recedes up-slope. The warm sun in spring air is often juxtaposed against a wintry breeze, a reminder of snow capped peaks as the sun foreshadows the heat of summer. The juxtaposition results in me wearing t-shirts and shorts, skin caked in goosebumps. It has never been clear to me whether my spring goosebumps are the result of the chill lingering in the air, or the result of my anxiety about summer.
Summer in southwest Colorado can be intense. May and June wilt the vegetation in cloudless skies, bringing about a fire danger that has the potential to disrupt life. Fire is part of these ecosystems - the mountain sides are covered with evidence of fire, and the Southwest is rich with stories of fire. Our forests have a long evolutionary history to adapt to fire in these arid landscapes. Ponoderosa pine has thick bark and prunes its lower branches to prevent flames in the understory from leaping up into its canopy. Higher elevation forests are speckled with openings and areas with various densities of trees and pockets of aspen, from how fire danced across the slopes. Fire is so much part of the landscape here that the peoples who have lived here for thousands of years have naturally incorporated fire into their culture. From ceremonies to agriculture, fire has provided critical utility to the peoples of the SW - so much so that they maintained fire on the landscape in different ways based on the distance to their communities. In the villages proper, people used fire for ceremonies and celebrations of life. The result of these historic fire uses is evident today - from shrub fields to various forest conditions, the landscape is a story of flames and people - to live here we must learn to have a relationship with fire.
A surface fire in Ponderosa pine burns the grasses while remaining most mature overstory trees intact. Fire has always, and will always be a critical component to maintaining forested landscapes in the Southwest. Photo taken September 2019.
As I gazed up stream at the bare stems of the willows and felt the current of the river underneath me, I felt my own eyebrows sink in concern as the distant peaks appeared to be losing snow and the river seemed low. 2020 was a weird year. A global pandemic slowed human society, and the reliable monsoons for the southwest took a vacation, failing to bring rain during an already droughty time. The summer air was filled with smoke from wildfires from the Pacific Northwest rainforests to the central Rockies of Colroado. The soil remained dry and dusty, even in the alpine. What would normally be luscious fields of wildflowers were yellowed leaves. The thirsty soil remained dry until the first snows arrived. After a winter of below average, but still decent snowpack, the soil is still dry, absorbing much of the melting snow, leaving the rivers thirsty. The low flow in waterways means abysmal forecasts for irrigation supply, raising concerns for farmers. I reflect on what low soil moisture means for plants - drought stressed plants could mean more fire. Continual drought could mean struggles for tree regeneration after a fire.
A smoke filled sky creates an eerie and luminescent sunrise over a remote peak in the San Juan Mountains. At the time of the image being taken, the Pine Gulch fire, well over 100 miles away, chocked the skies with smoke as it mixed with smoke from California wildfires over a thousand miles away. The airsheds of our ecosystems are shared, bringing complexity to how we relate to diverse landscapes. Photo taken August 2020.
The future brings such great uncertainty. Any genuine projection of what could be will be installed with nuance and uncertainty. Ecosystems have delt with drought - and fire - for centuries and millennia. This drought is different in that the human population is the highest it has ever been in these regions. Humans are contributing greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, causing rapid shifts in climate. Our humans are sprinkled all over the forest, and our relationships with fire and land are degraded to a reactionary state of fear. To ablate our fear, the last century has been a pendulum swing of adapting policies to prevent fire to the modern era where we now want to prevent the negative aspects of fire by manipulating the trees. Some have come to regard trees as straws, consuming water could be in the rivers and irrigation ditches. Others recognize that trees provide shade, cooling the understory, and retain more water in the soil. The concerns are nail bitingly palpable, and it seems evident that all too often we boil the complexity of the ecosystem and obsesses over one component of the complex, intertwining processes. Can we protect our water by managing our forests? Can we protect our forests by managing our water? Can we protect our ecosystems? By incorporating their complexity into our worldview?
The scene that warped my mind into deep reflection on what a river tells us. What a river can share by its flows, by how its banks dance and glow, by what a river can tell us when you pay attention to its story. When you listen to the depth of the snow and the gurgle of the rapids and the sway of the trees - what are the stories that are shared.
The above questions consume my mind as a current sweeps me downstream. The density of thoughts in a moment is overwhelming, and spinning away from the upstream view reveals a series of rocks to navigate, and being present suddenly becomes critical. The complexity before me in the river is complex, and there is no way to boil it out. Being present is observing the signs of the times, that are always - the only constant is change.
For more information on some ideas referenced in this writing, see the blow literature:
1Wasko, C., Nathan, R. & Peel, M. C. Changes in Antecedent Soil Moisture Modulate Flood Seasonality in a Changing Climate. Water Resour. Res. 56, no (2020).
Roos, C. I. et al. Native American fire management at an ancient wildland–urban interface in the Southwest United States. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 118, (2021).
Roos, C. I. & Guiterman, C. H. Dating the origins of persistent oak shrubfields in northern New Mexico using soil charcoal and dendrochronology. (2021) doi:10.1177/09596836211003255.
Wasko, C., Nathan, R. & Peel, M. C. Changes in Antecedent Soil Moisture Modulate Flood Seasonality in a Changing Climate. Water Resour. Res. 56, no (2020).