In my little corner of world, just north of the Sandia Mountains, piñons look like they’re hanging on.
I noticed many new cones when I reached the top of the mesa this morning, almost as if they exploded overnight. I have been so focused on snakes and wildflowers this spring, I hadn’t yet really examined the trees. Snow lasted on the north side of the Sandias through March and into April this year and now we’re about a week into some early heat. This is all the snow left now, near 10,000 feet.
In a good year, maybe the snow should be on that north slope at that elevation in June. I can’t remember. My mind’s eye is comparing it to recent, almost snowless years. We haven’t had a two-footer at my 6,000 foot elevation since 2006. And whether that was an old normal or a new rare, I can’t say. I’ve been too fascinated with my anecdotal observations to look at the actual records, or the science.
I can’t remember whether the moisture this year and last is better or worse or average and, of course, I have that human weakness — a sense of only a sliver of time. But I do see young trees and a lot of cones for the second year in a row.
I moved to this place from another Placitas home many years ago because the property, while still close to work in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, is steps away from 197 acres of BLM land that so far have escaped trades and development. In the photo below, taken from part of it, you can see the now-dry Las Huertas Creek extending west to the Rio Grande. I walk here just about every day. I guess it’s been around 10,000 times over mostly the same route, over the lifetimes of three great dogs, and now a fourth, sometimes twice a day, over 28 years.
I witnessed the big piñon die-off of 2003. Two-dozen died just around my house. Since then, I think I’ve been witnessing a revival, right here, of new trees and accelerated growth. I don’t think I am overlooking the regular four-to-seven year cycles for cones and nuts.
But I know I am short-sighted when it comes to tree growth and drought and climate change. I’m sure the cycle of piñons is more complicated than I can comprehend. Even the experts I read seem to acknowledge some mystery about piñons. I’ll just say I am observing a second year in a row of good piñon growth on this speck of public land just east of the upper middle Rio Grande valley.
There are places where I count a half-dozen young trees in a 20-foot by 20-foot plot. I’m sure since the ’03 die-off. And where I thought piñons were most successful starting in the shelter of a bigger juniper, most of these are scattered, out in the open.
I await better science than mine. I remember a lesson a long time ago about the limitations of my mind’s eye.
I was ranting to then-Albuquerque Journal science writer John Fleck about how I missed the days in New Mexico when we got real snow. I cited a three-day walk around the Bandelier backcountry in the winter of 1972-73, I think it was, and the big snow that started to come down that Christmas morning. The science writer might have been deep into an exploration of tree rings at the time. He got me to see that the humans, or at least I, often mistakenly think of flashes in the pan for the rule over time: One wet year does not speak for them all, but it’s likely to be what’s remembered as the standard. I quickly stuffed my anecdotal evidence back in my hat and have remembered since the frailty of my human view against the span of millennia.
Meanwhile, I am on to my next local find: junipers are suddenly bearing their second batch of berries. I have read that these trees often pollinate twice, winter and spring, but I am easily excited by my own discoveries.
After correcting a few things in this earlier blog post, I switched to Twitter and saw what environmental and climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck called a “megadrought update.”
There also was this May 4 tweet from John Fleck, now the director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources program:
Our Land: A Decent Winter Becomes a Lousy Spring on the Rio Grande: “Chavarria, a hydrologist, saw something else in the records: Snowpack in the Rio Grande watershed is decreasing. And it’s melting earlier.”
I know that year to year droughts can be highly localized and moment to moment my field of vision can’t see the bigger picture. There is also the problem of blogging versus science.
It’s becoming clear to me that I need to rewrite this entry, maybe turning it upside down. And I haven’t commented on the changes in absences in other plants, like grass, at my tiny observation post. I keep forgetting about growing aridity in the region as a whole.
I know what I see in the trees but sometimes I worry that if I were a cartographer the world still would be flat.