By Toner Mitchell
Though it’s only been two years, it feels like forever since New Mexico had a winter. Throughout the last one (2017/2018), during which we sported short sleeves in February and fished dry flies in March, the peaks called to mind Hereford cows, mostly brown with white blotches here and there. After 16 years of restoring the wetlands of Comanche Creek, we wrung our hands – and at least one of us shed some tears – at thoughts of snow-free meadows and the thousands of elk we knew would set up camp. Sure enough, the aroma of elk poop was inescapable in May, and the meadows were closely shaved as predicted. Then the cattle had their turn, and when the monsoons finally came, they came weak.
So my elation at the current banner snow year carries a trauma-induced aspect. I should welcome a return to the good old days of long skis and deep powder, though maybe without the skis (there’s a reason many of us prefer modern alternatives to things like wood tennis rackets, bamboo fly rods, and futons). But I know what I know. For one thing, the 70s and 80s (my powder years) were among the wettest decades in modern New Mexico history. This is not my childhood’s New Mexico anymore, nor its climate. So even as I watch flakes floating down outside my window right now, trust in our good fortune comes hard.
I’m trying to see this snow as just snow, no meaning, no context. Just snowballs and snowmen, slickened sidewalks and streets, traffic muffled and patient. My young son entering the house with arms full of firewood, his cheeks waxing pink before my eyes, the dog by the fireplace exhausted from plunging into drifts. At the sight of black clouds, I gather ski gear or fill my fishing duffel; I can’t wait to hear the squeak beneath my boots and break ice from the guides of my flyrod. I love how snow lets you see where animals have been and where they’re going, the triangle marks of jackrabbits weaving through the piñons and the coyote prints among them. Last week on the San Juan, I was mesmerized by the circuitous paths of wing marks on the snowy banks, robins harvesting midges that were stranded there. Nothing beats a snow blue sky.
Meaning will be assigned in due time, though probably much earlier. The same local weatherman reporting the summer sun as a miracle (in New Mexico), will throw a Dopler radar hissy fit at the slightest whiff of precipitation, possibly naming the storm so that blame can be accurately laid for all the death and destruction.
Blizzards will bring meaning to the lives of climate change deniers, although context is always problematic. As they bask in gotcha victories, they have no answers on the increasing intensity of wildfires and hurricanes. Some refer to a “naturally” warming earth, but rarely above a whisper and never with any confidence.
The climate change whackos, of whom I am a proud but reluctant member, are just as dramatic, if more prone to invoking science, when ascribing meaning to weather. I’ve always viewed water from a fishing perspective, but now I’m always measuring. How much snow do we have? When will runoff start? How long will it last? How much will it mitigate that bad thing that happened? The monsoons are late this year. All this snow we’ve had makes me geeky about soil improvements – more moisture improving carbon uptake improving water retention. For crying out loud, I consider that fun!
In my imagination at least, there are people who sense the truth of climate change but will only commit to being agnostic, perhaps out of fear of being assigned someone else’s views on taxes, healthcare, religion or a wall. Out of necessity, it seems to follow, they’ve attained the Zen state to which I aspire. Weather is just weather to them. That’s as far as they will go.
It’s how the light hits the ground, how it sparkles the snow, sharpens the lines, brings out the colors. There are birds in the air whose identity they don’t know and don’t care to know. In this moment, it’s yellow grass peaking out, dirt that is dry or still mud. The land isn’t healing or dying, the snow not a bandage but a blanket. The land’s resting until spring and that’s all.
Toner Mitchell is TU’s water and habitat coordinator for New Mexico. He lives and works in Santa Fe.