Last summer, the monsoons came early in the Colorado Rockies and lasted until the third week of August. I may never see another summer like it. Not in my lifetime. I’m 72.
The warming temperatures of climate change will keep rising. The droughts will return. So will the rain — too much rain at times, as the weather flip-flops between extremes.
The wildfire season began ominously in April with smoke-filled vistas from fires in New Mexico and Arizona, and with irritated eyes and a persistent cough. My trepidation spiked. Any illusions about the security of my home had evaporated after the Marshall wildfire in December 2021 that leveled a community south of Boulder. The same conditions prevail in my small town at 10,000 feet: tall grass, wood fences and propane tanks in adjacent yards.
By mid-June, the afternoon showers started rolling in from the mountains, as predictable and reassuring as the storms of my 20s and 30s when I lived on the Front Range. Rain fell nearly every day. By early July parched grass had greened. The shrubby cinquefoil in my front yard produced yellow blossoms for the first time in years. Hummingbirds hovered above my wild rose bush, dipping their needle-like beaks into its pink blossoms. Leaves sprouted on the bare branches of aspens planted four years earlier. Harebells appeared along the disused irrigation ditch paralleling the street. Sagebrush and foxtail barley filled in bald patches, while the western wheatgrass grew so tall, the dog disappeared when I let her out to play in the backyard.
Several times a week I hiked up into the tundra to witness its miraculous capacity for renewal. The same pattern I witnessed in previous summers held. The cinquefoils were still expanding their range at the expense of white phlox, moss campion and alpine forget-me-nots. But where they didn’t dominate, my favorite alpine flowers managed a comeback, though not in the numbers and size of the late 1970s and the ’80s, when I climbed most weekends. In nearly every alpine basin I reached last summer, I heard an occasional whistle of a marmot and a ptarmigan clucking, their numbers also diminished in comparison to decades ago, but hanging on. Tarns that usually dried up within weeks during drought years if they filled up at all, retained their water into late August.
Two summers before, thousands of birds had fallen out of the sky in Colorado and other western states. California’s 10,000 wildfires, the Complex fire alone torching more than one million acres, forced them into a premature migration over territory as drought-stricken as the coastal state they fled. Warblers, swallows, flycatchers: their carcasses piled up in yards and the backcountry as their smoke-damaged lungs gave out or they starved to death, often in mid-flight.
Despite last summer’s respite, I expect to bear witness to such carnage again. Meanwhile, I’m adapting as much as my modest retirement income will allow, just as the alpine bumblebees in the nearby Mosquito Range are already adapting with shortened tongues, enabling them to feed on a wider variety of flowers. Other species may go extinct—the ptarmigan, pika and snowshoe hare among them. Someday the tundra where I have spent so much time, nourishing my body and soul, may fall silent. Perhaps my house will burn down with the entire town, casualties of indifference and an anemic response to what scientists have warned about for years.
I can only do so much on my own. If my neighbors don’t trim their grass, especially along their wood fences, and switch from propane to natural gas, which can be turned off by the energy company as a wildfire approaches, my house will blow up, too. A smoking crater will mark the spot where my neighborhood used to be.
Even as the birds were dying, they congregated in groups on the ground, their behavioral instincts serving them until the very end. I like to think we share that instinct for community and cooperation. There is safety — and comfort — in numbers.
When we cooperate, we can tackle collectively, and thus more effectively, the unprecedented challenge posed by climate change to most life forms on Earth. We need each other more than ever as the consequences of our fossil fuel dependency accumulate and worsen.
Jane Parnell, of Fairplay, is the author of “Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies,” published by University of Oklahoma Press.
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