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Red Willow Spirit: Summer Reds Amid the Green

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It feels like summer here today at Red Willow: bright clear skies, highs near eighty, gentle winds, and the first hints of thunderheads assembling to the west. Most of our small patch of earth is green, and the air feels as lush as a lover’s embrace.

Not all of the trees have leafed yet, though; a few of the aspens continue to dally with winter, not yet ready, apparently, to let go of her cool skeletal grasp. But most have surrendered to the spirit of summer, and from panoramic perspective, the land looks newly born.

The spirits of armer winds have begun to arrive, too, here and there. The small butterflies, the ubiquitous sulphurs and whites, have been here for weeks; the mourning cloaks, their own cloaks blood-red edged with ivory and indigo, are more recent, but they seem now to have committed to this year’s residency. I’ve seen only one dragonfly thus far, a crimson red rock skimmer, but when next the pond refills, his clan will begin to emerge in numbers. There are three hummingbirds competing for time at the feeders, one broad-winged with a black chin, one ruby throat, and one tiny rufous.

And then there are the tiniest of the summer reds amid the green: the ladybugs.

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They tend, here, toward neither ubiquity nor scarcity; a few join us every summer for a time, and their modest numbers are enough.

This year, though, is different.

The land here has been in a prolonged drought for some two decades now, one that remains unalleviated, in the long view, by the few seasons of heavy monsoons and deep snows that we have been granted. About fifteen years ago, scientists had already labeled it a 500-year drought — i.e., the worst protracted drought conditions this broader region had seen in half a millennium. This was not speculation; geologists, botanists, and meteorologists collectively based their conclusions on the Earth’s own testimony: tree rings, soil layers, other proof of pain, historical and contemporary alike. The label applied not merely to the lands here at and around Red Willow, but this whole area, encompassing what is now known as northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, the so-called Four Corners and spaces now identified as “belonging” to Utah and Arizona.

But there is drought, and there is drought.

Since last year, we have been in the throes of the latter form. The winter just past has been both the warmest and the driest that anyone  can remember. Our snows, usually measured in feet even over the last two decades, could muster only a few collective inches between autumn and now. In midwinter, a time more normally relegated to lows below zero and highs unable to reach the freezing mark, we had a few days where the mercury hit the seventies. March and April seemed colder by virtue of their chill relative to such unseasonal winter days (and nights). And now that May is here, warmer winds and the monsoonal cloud patterns to go with them, there is still no rain.

Under such circumstances, it’s a wonder there is any green at all.

But we are fortunate here — blessed, even. Much of our green is indigenous to this land, which means that it can survive well with very little water. We are also granted a profusion of wildflowers that have begun to bloom, as well as the bright red and pink blossoms of local cacti. And, of course, there is the ultimate red of this place: the red willows for which land and people alike are named, whose stalks, soon to be robed in summery green fringe, have left the blues of winter behind and emerged in the warmth, body and spirit, of their fiery red selves once again.

And then there are those ladybugs.

They have arrived in numbers this year: early and often, and accompanied by members of their extended clan. Part the blades in the thickest bunches of grass, and their busy presence becomes apparent. Walk through the blue grama, the low grass hay, the alfalfa blooms, and they will join you atop foot or ankle when you stop to rest. Put out a hand, and one will climb upon it, content to be elevated for a bit, with more than the insect’s-eye view of its relatives. Fill the horse trough with water, and one will trek up the green steel posts and lighter green ProPanel, the gray bungee cords and rusty braided bailing wire, to investigate the water and such wind as travels through the strands upon which it sits.

They are friendly creatures, these small wingéd spirits the color of crimson flame. Inquisitive, adventurous, and yet decidedly dedicated to their own business, they manage to be both industrious and gentle at once. They walk upon the earth here, summer reds amid the green, in a way we large and clumsy and ungentle mortals can only hope to emulate.

In a drought, the earth needs our gentleness in new ways. Perhaps the ladybugs hold an answer.

~ Aji








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