My birthday was 11 days ago and it began snowing. It snowed for several days, winds howling and covering the landscape in a white blanket. Sagebrush was buried, and some of it is 3-4 feet high but looking out from the house I only saw white. The snow drifted into tall (or should I say deep) expanses so that I dared not try to walk on the front walkway and made a slender trail of sorts to get myself from the house to the chicken coop. The chickens didn’t leave their coop for the better part of a week and I resorted to bringing them “room service” and water to keep them going. The daytime temps were usually freezing or below, mostly below, and the nighttime was often single digits. I worried about the chickens.
When looking out at the snow drifted high and deep, burying almost every sagebrush shrub as well as our propane tank, I noted how the wind swept it. It was beautiful. Finally, earlier this week, the chickens felt safe enough to come out. I shoveled snow so that they could traverse their path from the coop to the underside of the porch deck where they usually forage for bugs and hide out. Had any of them jumped or fluttered into the snow, I suspect they would have frozen in place, unable to get out. Their coop is a mess and the winds have swept into every crevice and crack, scattering pine shavings that I had recently placed while cleaning their coop, before the storms.
We have been in the path of many storms for weeks now; it’s getting old. Yesterday, a warmer storm arrived with rain and then ice rain. The rain and warmer temps melted a lot of the snow and then the icy rain froze everything so that this morning it was immensely treacherous trying to get from the house to the coop. Not even my special Vibram soles that are supposed to give traction on ice were immune to slipping and sliding. I used a shovel as a walking stick. Then we had a little bit of blue sky and sunlight as much more of the snow melted. But the winds suddenly grew fierce again, as they do whenever a front comes in, and now i wait to see what kind of storm we get tonight. The road we live on has been close to impassable and equally treacherous with first, mud that slicked everything, and then hard packed snow that covered the ruts but did not prevent cars from sliding into snow piled alongside the road by plows. Last Saturday I had to be pulled out by a neighbor, using their Jeep and a winch. I am beginning to go a little stir crazy, to tell the truth.
I have marveled at the depth of snow covering the sagebrush so that most of it disappeared from sight. Sometimes I imagined I was looking out on a snow-covered tundra. Making my way to the propane tank, to check levels, found me in snow halfway up my thigh. But, after yesterday’s peculiar storm, the propane tank emerged again as did one very tall, wide sagebrush shrub near it. Here it is:
I live in the Great Basin, a landscape called “basin and range” for the numerous transverse mountain ranges and valleys between. This landscape is harsh, arid, and vastly open. It is a landscape I am drawn to again and again, despite its difficulty. In the northern part of Nevada, the predominant plant has been sagebrush for centuries. Below a certain line in approximately the center of that state moving southward the sagebrush disappears and creosote is the predominant plant. There are others, of course, but the land of sagebrush here is also known as the “Sagebrush Ocean.” Sagebrush has many redeeming qualities and yet the ranchers and developers have cleared much of it away as a nuisance. It is fire resistant, something we need during those months when fires rage, often fed by the invasive cheatgrass that has replaced the sagebrush. The sagebrush was a vital plant for the indigenous people here, with many uses. It is also feeds the mule deer, is a good shelter for nesting (and rattlesnakes!) and has been a beneficial plant. In the winter, when it is grey, its color is a camouflage for deer. Driving the highway, I am always on the lookout for deer who come down from the higher altitudes in fall and winter. Their coats are the same shades of grey, it seems, and often one is surprised to find one or two or several more standing beside the road in a stand of sagebrush, ready to leap across the roadway. Once, in the early fall, I saw a coyote trotting through the sagebrush forest off the side of the road, almost invisible during a time when the sagebrush was changing color.
My other love of sagebrush, besides its resilience, is the scent. It is a scent I have known since childhood when I was growing up in Reno. After the rains or on very hot summer days, the oils of sagebrush waft on the breeze and make me happy. I am happy to be here most times because I love the landscape and mountains. But, at the moment, after weeks of very cold and wet, snowy weather, the glow is wearing off. As I am older now I seem to not tolerate the cold as well and that bothers me because I always loved winter and the cold. So, as we huddle before the fireplace, our store of firewood dwindling and the house kept closer to the low 60s in temp, to spare propane, I ask: “Whither the weather?” until the storms pass. Do we get a break or is Spring a distant illusion? There will be many small wildflowers, though, after so much snow, and that is something to look forward to as I do.