Shoulder Seasons: lessons in non-attachment

I had been saving up lots of images and pearls of wisdom about gardening and permaculture in the inter-mountain west to write something about the Farm. Things had been going very well for over a month. Temperatures had been unseasonably warm, annuals were germinating on the their own from last year, the rhubarb was out of control, the Mt. Hood hop was taller than me, all the fruit trees were blooming and some shrubs had immature fruit already. But Mother Nature, as it turns out, doesn’t give a fuck about my plans.

Goodland apple tree and tulips on Sunday and four days later in snow

After two days in row of over 80 degree temperatures [not normal in May in Montana], the weather took a turn. First dumping wet snow in buckets that threatened to break limbs and then dropping down to 26 degrees threatening to freeze all the blossoms and young shoots that had no way of knowing after a month of spring that it was not in fact spring. In the last three days we have gotten at least 8 inches of snow, I say “at least” because the ground still isn’t frozen so the first several inches melted and did not accumulate, making everything a damned soggy mess. Then there was enough snow on the ground that it allowed other snow to accumulate on top even though the ground remains unfrozen. The sun is out today, but everything is still under the snow and will be probably for several more days because, even with more rain forecast for tomorrow and daytime temps in the 60s, it takes a long time to melt that much snow. The specific heat of water astounds.

As a self-soothing technique, I have been reading a lot about specific heat the last few days. It is hard to stay calm about the likely death of one’s entire food forest. Here’s the thing about Montana: it can snow at any time here. The latest I have seen it snow in Helena [not one of the coldest places in the state] was June 26th, 2008. It snowed 6 inches of wet heavy snow overnight, breaking limbs and knocking mature leaves off trees. We went to the farmer’s market in snow boots and wool hats. It was back up in the 60s but the afternoon. At elevation [we are at about 4800 in town so this is not considered very high] there could [*should*] still be snow in the mountains into July. Famous stretches of road in Montana like the Beartooth Highway outside Yellowstone and Going to the Sun Road in Glacier are routinely not cleared until the 4th of July to even drive over, and snow is ofter falling again in August. For our purposes in Helena, however, we can usually count on Memorial Day weekend as a safe time to plant annuals knowing that a cold snap in September probably means no tomatoes, or a house full of flats of green tomatoes echoing one’s May flats of leggy annuals.

There is a lot of season extension work one can do to start annuals before Memorial Day, because a 70ish day growing season basically just means one is getting kale and one cannot live on kale alone [and I really like kale]. I do these things. I have thermal plastic and heat mats and grow lights and a little greenhouse and I designed our raised beds to be fitted with hoop houses. I’m a responsible zone 4 gardener and as a result my tomatoes, peppers, and squash are inside waiting to go out [getting leggy] and my brassicas, peas and radishes are under plastic, happily not frozen to death or broken by heavy snow. When it was 80 on Saturday I wanted to put those warm weather plants out, but I resisted the temptation. But that’s just the annuals…

The rest of our homestead is given over to perennials. Fruit trees and shrubs and flowering plants and herbs for pollinators. Perennials decide when they want to come back to life and they base this on a variety of cues related to daylight, soil temperature and sustained durations of both. Here in town the large trees flower and leaf out last. I like to think this is because when those trees were smaller they were more cautious and they didn’t get clobbered by a late April or May snow, so they lived and continue to flower at their later rate. But even the large flowering trees were completely in bloom when this storm hit. They have no memory of a month of daytime temps in the 70s or higher and [more importantly] night time temps above 35 but mostly in the mid to upper 40s. All the experience of even the wisest of trees told them it was spring. My young fruit trees and shrubs, experiencing their first spring after winter dormancy were not foolish either. They bloomed even a little behind some of the older trees, first being fully in bloom on Sunday.

There is a larger metaphor in here, by the way, and I can see it when I stop grieving the probable loss of my plants. Sometimes, our hard won experience is just wrong because the information that we have to go on is no longer accurate. Really, the solution to the problem in my garden is that it should not have been 80 degrees last weekend, it should not have been over 40 degrees at night for most of a month, and then when it snowed 8 inches on May 20-21st all the perennials would have been just a few inches high, all the blossoms and leaves safe in their buds, and the damage would have been unnoticed or just a delay in normal growth. But now, a month of spring doesn’t really mean anything. Our plants have to be ready for wildly erratic changes in temperature that are highly unpredictable, and they have to balance the loss of an entire season’s fruit against trying to flower early and get a few more weeks of growth and reproduction in.

Plants, cannot put on sweaters and they cannot turn up the air conditioning and they cannot move to a place with less winter or more water. Where I live the climate is already pretty harsh, most things do not want to grow here because it is very dry [most precipitation comes as snow] and very cold alternating with pretty hot. Plus we have shitty top soil. Trying to live off the land here through subsistence agriculture was always a hell of a long shot, mostly made possible by things like hoop houses and growing things like potatoes and kale [and animals that eat grass]. But in other places, like say California, where the weather is [was] really nice and every thing grew year round, a lot of plant varieties will not be able to adapt to desertification and fire. This is why climate change causes food insecurity. It’s not so much that there is a problem with global weather patterns changing, they have changed many, many times through the fullness of life on earth. The problem is that a lot of the plants that we eat are not going to be able to adapt to these changes. They will die, or fail to reliably yield every year, and we [and lots of other creatures] will not have enough to eat. I mean, we all know who will continue to have enough to eat, I don’t think humans are going to go extinct. We’ll still have rich people…

It’s of course, very hard to think at this scale when the cherry tree that you photographed every day to track the progress of its opening buds is frozen in full bloom, petals yellowing from burst cells, cherry compote of early August a promise left unfulfilled. In truth I am devastatingly sad and furiously angry about what has happened in my corner of the world. My red currant, whose aphid infested leaves I individually washed with soapy water last summer, had already begun to set fruit. Will the tender fruit survive under its 55 gallon trash bag that I dutifully shook free of snow for the last three days? Will the leaves and blossoms? Will the stalks and roots? I can’t know how much is too much for these plants.

I also feel guilty for being sad and angry because I know that the modern world chews up and spits out ecosystems for breakfast. We clear cut whole forests, dam rivers and flood fields, we tear out viable plants with hundreds and thousands of years of relating to one another and we plant palm tree monocultures to fill our processed food with palm oil. This feeling that I have for my quarter acre of baby restoration and food forest is almost nothing compared to what we have already done to this land to put a city here and cover it with lawns and ash trees and pavement.

So I’m in mourning for asparagus spears and strawberries, gooseberries and cherries, tulips and alliums, irises and bleeding hearts, hops and raspberries. And also for a way of life that I viscerally understand is threatened and uncertain.

I am not a Buddhist. I understand what Buddhism teaches as true though. Attachment to outcomes is suffering. I am suffering a lot right now. It would be better for me to have spent years understanding that terrible things happen, that I am small and lack control, that the best way to protect myself is to recognize that bad things will happen but to not be affected by them. But I don’t really know what to do with that. If I didn’t allow myself to experience the terrible things, how could I be overcome by the beauty of my garden fully in bloom? By the tremendous gift of a rhubarb harvest given entirely to friends? By the miracle of roots sleeping underground waking up into a green shoot?

I like to feel my feelings because that is what they are for. Sometimes one must be laid low by the horrific tragedy of being alive. Because life is fleeting and fate is capricious. I was reminded of it today and now I feel like I can’t forget. I know I will again, and I will pick up a shovel and spread soil over a young plant and hope for it to grow, but not today.

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