The Flood Comes In

Spring always comes rolling in with buckets of rain to dump, but this year it hasn’t slowed down for summer. It’s relentless, coming down three or four days a week. It has ruined plans, raining straight through the peak of wedding season. Raining out all the Whitaker concerts and most of the Tuesday night Tower Grove Farmers’ Markets. Raining every time you hang something outside to dry. We’ve hardly had to even water our gardens.

And the flooding, of course, is the real worry. The river hasn’t crested this high since the infamous 1993 flood, when it hit 49.58 feet. That was a once-in-every-hundred-years flood like no one alive today had ever seen before. It’s become part of our local history, coming up at family get-togethers and popping up in commemorative TV spots.

Now, just 26 years later, the river creeps close to that record again. It now stands at 45.4 feet. Again, basements are flooded. Businesses are shut down. Property destroyed. We look at the rain differently these days. It’s more than just a bad-mood maker; now it makes us uneasy. We know that the water is rising.

There’s more rain coming later this week, but the river is predicted to stop rising now. Even so, this flood has been a warning. For years, climate scientists have foretold an increase in flood-bearing weather like this. It’s tempting to hope that it’s just another anomaly, but in all likelihood it is the beginning of a pattern. We have not been kind to our home. The earth warms, the storms whip up, the rivers rise. We are reminded at once of the destructive power of nature, and of our own power to destroy it.

The Tease

What a relief it was this weekend to recall what a warm day feels like. The wet smell of a living, thawing earth had everyone acting like it’s early May. Every sidewalk had its runners. Cyclists wore short sleeves. Daydreams of springtime took shape at the seed stand at Home Depot, where a miniature crowd had gathered to size up the vegetable options. Even the birds, perhaps smelling that same thaw, sang with optimism.

Every winter we get a a sensational pop of warmth out of nowhere. Every winter, no matter how many years it’s turned out to be dead-wrong in the past, people catch that glimpse of sunshine and start predicting an early spring. And when you’re outside in a single layer of clothes for the first time in months, warm and sunny and light as a feather, you’re convinced. The warmth is on its way. It must be.

It’s a dream that rarely comes true. Anyone who got out and tried to get some yard work done this weekend can tell you that the ground is still frozen totally solid at just an inch or so deep. There are dip-downs to the teens and twenties on their way, and chances of snow pepper the forecast.

But there’s no reason to be depressed about winter continuing. After all, January has hardly even been put to bed. A winter that ended this early would disturb the animals who are still trying to get some rest. It would call out too early to the seeds brewing underground, waiting for the sign to push their way up. No, for now we just have to be patient, and to understand that winter is not opposed to life, but part of the cycle of life itself.

The Last Gift of Christmas

A Christmas tree has adorned the White House practically every year in American history. As far as we know, there have been just four years that the White House didn’t have a tree, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for three out of the four. They say that the nature-loving president saw deforestation happening in the name of the tradition and refused to get behind it.

These days our Christmas trees come from farms, not from wild forests. From time to time, somebody who’s thinking along the same lines as T.R. will say that they like to reuse an artificial tree  instead of cutting down and killing live trees year after year. But all things considered, nowadays a live Christmas tree is more environmentally friendly than an artificial one by a long shot. An artificial tree is usually used for about 10 years. Once it’s discarded, its plastic branches will shine unscathed in a landfill for a hundreds of years to come. Your live tree will decompose naturally, and it’s doing good for the earth long before you’re cutting it down. Trees take 7-10 years to grow to marketable size, and they spend their lives putting out oxygen into our atmosphere and soaking up carbon through the soil that surrounds them. They improve the landscape for wildlife, too–your Christmas tree might’ve been home to birds who spent their summer at the farm. The demand for live Christmas trees increases the number of trees planted. Every year in the United States, 100 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted and 40 million are cut in winter. 

It’s hard work to grow marketable trees successfully. Farmers spend a lot of time carefully trimming the trees to get that ideal cone shape. In spring and summer, common pests like wasps and worms have to be removed. On a pesticide-free farm, this means picking off bugs and fungi by hand. The changing climate is making farmers’ job even harder. Dry conditions are bad for tree growth because evergreens need a lot of water to thrive, and some farms’ crops have suffered. Pea Ridge Forest, located in Hermann, Missouri, is a popular destination for St. Louis families who want to choose and cut their tree on-site at a farm. At Pea Ridge, the dry summers and mild winters of recent years have made it increasingly difficult to grow successful crops of Christmas trees. This year, the farm bolstered their own crop with trees shipped from Michigan and the Carolinas.

In colder climates like those, it’s much easier to grow fir trees. Growing firs here in Missouri takes lots of extra water, sometimes even the installation of irrigation systems. It’s much easier to grow pine trees here, so the Scotch pine in particular is a popular choice for Missouri farmers and their customers. Pine trees are the most resistant to warmth and dryness, which also means they’ll hold their needles the longest after they’re cut. Our homes are way too hot and dry for an evergreen’s liking, so it’s good to take this into consideration when you’re thinking about what kind of tree you want and how long you want to have it displayed. Firs will hold their needles second-longest after the pines, and the spruces come in last.

Inevitably every year comes the twinge of sadness when you must take down the Christmas decorations, and the tree along with them. Most of our decorations are packed away safely for the next year. It’s only our live Christmas trees to which we must say a permanent goodbye. But while the ornaments and ceramic Santa Claus sleep packed away and useless til next winter, the Christmas tree makes itself useful in a new way. It can be turned to mulch for next year’s garden. It can be burned as firewood. If you want to provide winter shelter for birds and rabbits, you can lay it down in your backyard and leave the strings of popcorn for them to eat. You can also donate your tree to be recycled by one of the city parks. 

Even if you don’t make practical use of your tree, the last Christmas gift you give each year is to return a real tree to the earth from which you cut it. No matter where the tree ends up, it will rot away and give back to the earth the gift of the nutrients it borrowed while it was living. And this period of decomposing and giving back will last long past its fleeting moment of glory in your bright front window.