Sunday, November 04, 2012

Storm on the Border

Siting at my computer in  my attic office I look out over the snowy slough below a strip of  golden fluff left over from durham harvest mixed with patches of snow beyond which lies the grove of leafless trees on a bluff to the west of the  almost invisible red barn. My fingers tingle just a bit in the cold.  The temperatures today never quite made it above freezing, but the wind forgot to blow.

Prediction from NOAA  for the next couple of days includes the arrival of an Alberta Express.  The line on the map that delineates the border between Canada and the USA impresses my mind so that somehow the weather follows the 49th parallel. 

Of course, it doesn’t.  But as always what one thinks is far more important than any fact floating through the intellectualsphere.  Of course ,the weather to the north will be more exciting, less forgiving, and always colder, wetter, and more deadly than the weather on this side of the border.

In fact, it is the Rockies, Canadian and American, that really affect the storms that make it into our little corner of the prairie.  Hardly a corner, our land encompass over a thousand square miles of short grass prarie over which weather moves  along ancient patterns established by warm air rising from the Gulf of Mexico two thousand miles south to mix with arctic billows sliding across The Gulf of Alaska through the various canyons of the Rockies out onto the plains. 

All we can do is cope with whatever the eddies far out in the southern or northern oceans leapfrog into our atmosphere.  We dress warm in winter and undress more by more in summer but we always allow for the winds that cool by myriad degrees in winter and by ever so slight degrees in summer.

The worst storms in over twenty-five years lingered in our own half acre in the winter of 2010-2011.  The rain storms of spring 2011  filled the slough to within twenty feet of the house.  Sump pumps worked 24/7 to empty the ground beneath basements.

During spring planting, farmers in the cabs of behemoths of the industry slid down into wind rows, stuck four or five feet into the clay bottoms beneath the four inches of topsoil.  No vehicles could pull them out.  Patience was the mantra of the day.

And then on 1 May the warmth disappeared and a giantic storm rolled in off the Gulf of Alaska dropping vast numbers of feet of snow on mountain tops and still had enough moisture when it met the uplifting  Gulf of California stream to drop four feet of snow and winds up to ninety miles per hour on our land.

There we sat suddenly with no electricity.  The wet ground followed by the extreme wind conditions in the pulsating storm  pulled the electricity poles loose like a seven year old loosing a front tooth. 

The ground was so soggy that the huge electrical line equipment bogged as soon as they left the roadside. Seventy heavy duty repair vehicles lay stranded up to their knees in mud surrounded by puddles of water on which mallards mildly ducked beneath the surface to feed and Canada geese preened on the upper quarter of huge wheel wells watching ‘manunkind’ attempt to repair what they could not reach.

And we?  We hooked up the propane heater to keep warm, kept the refrigerator door closed so that milk would not sour any faster than it might.  We pulled out the jig saw puzzles, moved furniture so that the table top was close to the bay window and used the white cloud cover to illuminate the puzzle pieces as we gossiped about the worst winter we could ever remember living through.

The Australian had stories of Nepal where he had climbed some of the world’s highest peaks.  Bart, who had been born in Manley, told stories of widowed women who walked thirteen miles through snow drifts  with a plucked roaster in hand to visit neighbors who lived in shanty shacks buried under sod roofs at the turn of the last century.  I remembered the ice storms of the late 1940s in the lower peninsula of Michigan when we were not allowed to go out of doors for fear of huge tree branches cracking and dropping.

There was the story of the little second grader who wanted so much to be part of the social group with whom she sat in class in the midst of spring thaw. In the playground she tried to be part of the group as they forced her to stand in the middle of a March stream at the back of the playground.  There she stood with the water just almost leaking in over the tops of her rubber boot tops.

When the bell rang, the others who had held her captive in her icy prison ran to the classroom.  She gingerly tiptoed back to the bank of the small stream and immediately told the older children in her four room school house.

The perpetrators found themselves in identical situations during recess the next day. 

The second grader had learned a lesson.  Suffering in silence was not an option.  Seeking out the support of older, wiser, more powerful persons paid off.  And the gift of gab was an essential tool in restitution.

In the midst of our evening stone soup made from contributions from several households in town on our propane stove top, we all commiserated, drank the last bottle of wine in the house and when everyone left for home, we turned off the heater to save on fuel and snuggled into the down covers to keep warm.

Five days later, Montana/Dakota Utilities figured out how to lay lines just above the surface of the wetlands and electricity was restored.

But this was only the last of several stories told during this most stormy winter in twenty-five years in northern Montana.