When A Tree Falls

Missed us by that much — although the brittle top did make it as far as our driveway.

In case you were concerned, don’t be: the five drops of rain we’ve received have long been whisked away by the blistering, unrelenting wind. Our drought status remains secure.

When these wacky scientists tell me about climate change, they focus on how warm it is going to get. They neglect to mention the wind. The wind! There is no Maria(h) about it. I don’t want to worry any of you, especially Lynn, but I find myself thinking of the scene in James Michener’s Centennial where the Dust Bowl-era farm wife is driven mad by the dirt invading her house until she turns her carving knife on the entire family.

So far, our house is better put together than that woman’s, and we don’t have great gouts of dust blowing endlessly — just sometimes across the highway as I’m going in or out of town. But we haven’t even received a bill for our window cleaning of last week and all of the glass is already covered with dust spots, thanks to those five drops of rain that then didn’t even do us the courtesy of supplying any moisture.

So let us then wonder: if a tree falls on a lot in Riverwalk and you are asleep when this happens, does it make a sound?

To be perfectly technical, around here it’s not “if” a tree is going to fall but “when,” especially during this lifetime of April-May with endless, 24-hour winds gusting well over 40 miles per hour. Cottonwoods, our official HOA tree, have a rather human lifespan of 90-100 years, and we have many senior citizens residing within our confines. The wind has not been very considerate of this elderly population.

Here’s something you may or may not know about cottonwoods: they sing. Cottonwoods are a very voluble bunch, creaking in even the slightest breeze. I once heard this oddly-pitched song, and as I moved along three blocks I found Bruce Bartleson (more on him below) coring into a cottonwood to check the tree’s health. In a museum in Santa Fe years ago I learned about carrettas, carts made of cottonwood that facilitated migration north from Mexico. You could hear those coming from miles away, singing the travelers toward their destinations.

It would follow, then, that such a talkative tree would have a death cry, at least a plaintive keening as it topples, but when a giant neighbor called it quits at the hands of the wind sometime Friday-Saturday, Lynn and I heard nothing.

Before we sited our house, we consulted with a tree expert who eyed our substantial crop of senior cottonwoods and predicted we should expected to lose one or two every year. That prediction has yet to come to pass, but the neighboring lot, which we gave some consideration to buying instead of this one, loses trees on a regular basis.

The one that went the other night came with some good news: it didn’t land on our house. Me being the math whiz I am, I tried using Euclidean and every other kind of geometry there is after we built to try to determine if this tree would be in striking distance if it ever fell, and I asked our insurance agent multiple times if we were covered in the event of a tree topple. (In the manner of insurance agents everywhere, I got a lot of vague assurances, but I still in my heart harbor the suspicion that insurance companies can spin anything into “an act of god” that somehow is beyond their ability to pay out.)

Geometry was on our side the other night, as the tree — completely hollowed out and rotten to its literal core — fell to the north of our house. Looking at the carnage out a window as I opened curtains, Lynn did wonder if it maybe hit my truck, but happily the tree fell short there, too.

But it did fall, a casualty of time pushed into oblivion by the angry wind. As the wind continued unabated all of yesterday through the night into now (forever, I’m afraid), I suspect there will be others who join it. So far, however, somehow, we have evaded the red-flag warnings that surround our county and extend to other places, including perhaps the entire state of New Mexico, for drought-fueled fire.

I’m not sure why we’re not part of this hardly-select club, given that Lynn and I were out in yesterday’s wind trying almost futilely to get water to the trees and bushes we invested in last year as part of our bid to help save the planet. The water that did make it to the ground evaporated almost as quickly as it landed.

It reminded me of the year awhile back when the rest of the state was parched, including the Arkansas Valley to our east where all the fields were dry dry dry. The eminent journalist and pundit Ed Quillen came over to Gunnison from Salida for, of all things, a water conference and was absolutely outraged to find Western Then State watering its sidewalks, along with its lush green lawns.

We were not having the Arkansas’ same water issues that year, but this year may be an entirely different kettle of fish. We already sent most of our reservoir’s contents downriver last year in a failed bid to aid Lake Powell; this year they anticipate Blue Mesa will “fill” to less than 50 percent, with nothing left to give even as intakes start poking their snouts skyward in Powell and Mead and the skeletons start leaving their watery closet. (Have you read how they keep finding bodies in what was once the submerged depths of Mead? And that’s your drinking water, Las Vegas.)

While we’re breathing sighs of relief that Crested Butte’s snowpack was “average,” weather-record hobbyist Bruce Bartleson and a former student of his took a deep dive into data and discovered that the “average” works on the last 30 years. What is “average” today would have been a “low” year when I was a kid. Gunnison has lost 10 inches of “average” in its snowpack. Instead of 50, we’re supposed to be pleased when we get 40 inches of snow through the winter.

But we didn’t come anywhere close to that the last few months, and now while the wind brings a distinct chill to the air (which may help keep the snow that is in the high country from melting all at once, unless it’s just being whisked away by the wind), it’s also leeching every last drop of water out of what passes for our lawn and our poor little trees.

And the poor big trees, which by the virtue of their size mean they have endured up to a century of Gunnison weather. Time is coming for them, as it does for us all, but this waterless, windy new norm may be hastening the process. The sound they make when they fall should be not just the cottonwoods, but all of us, keening.

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