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November 17th, 2009

HURRICANES & DROUGHT: In Search of El Nino

Yesterday in Phoenix, Arizona, the late-afternoon temperature was 105 degrees with a humidity reading of 5 percent! One hundred and seventy miles to the south and 2,889 feet higher in elevation, our temperature hovered in the low 90’s with humidity in the low teens; thirteen percent to be precise.

This summer’s monsoonal rains became the “nonsoon,” as the long-awaited relief from heat and drought never arrived. I know no person who remembers such a dry summer, though I heard that Cassina’s grandmother, aged 92, remembers a summer such as this.

img930In an ordinary year, September is the beginning of the dry period, when soil surfaces begin to powder and eventually tesselate, as the clays in the soils dry and begin to fissure, leaving an interesting, uneven mosaic pattern. The lines of the pattern etch deep into soil, creating an effect of irregular black sketch lines against brown earth.

That this is no ordinary drying is registered in my own body: the tightness in my skin, how it feels stretching over sinew and muscle, its papery quality making more visible my years in the deeper etched lines of my face. And, in the ease of a sneeze, as pollens and dust bombard the drier passages to my sinuses. There is no satisfying this level of thirst, my own or the earth’s.

I have heard water stories this year and last:

Fifteen miles distant, a well runs dry. They have no stored water, no roof catchment, but are lucky to have a generous neighbor. They drill another well- two hundred feet, three, four hundred. No water!

Near Tucson: Last year, 4.5 inches of rain. This year, 2.5 inches of rain. As of a year ago their well was down sixty four feet over three years. The land around them has been developed: thousands more thirsty people, pets and lawns; this is when the well began to diminish.

These earlier residents have no lawns and the plants that they grow tolerate extreme dryness. They grow small crops of food in the winter but are mostly dependent on a grocery store for their basic supplies. Thick-walled earth houses with a small footprint were built, naturally insulated and solar oriented. Every structure directs rainwater into cisterns, grey water feeds crops and the eighteen-acre watershed has been worked to slow and catch much of the rain that does fall–very little leaves the site.

Nature's Way: to Catch & Hold. Small Desert Pools Hold Sway Over Life & Death

Nature's Way: to Catch & Hold. Small Desert Pools Hold Sway Over Life & Death

Though we are geographically close, we are fortunate here: we do not depend on our own rainfall and crops to sustain us, we can find what we need in the municipality: piped water and a grocery store. Is there wisdom in such dependence? I do not believe so, such a fragile system holds no strength, no resiliency. One solid smack and, like a three-legged stool with one leg missing, there is no standing it up again. It will no longer be able to support us.

This week I began to search for news of an El Nino event and found this interesting and hopeful piece from JPL:


The 1998 Rainfall (Thanks to El Nino) Brings to Life This Sonoran Desert Region of Northern Baja California

For this part of the globe, El Nino is a friend. Like the mythic Kokopelli who heralds fertility, this Pacific Ocean water pattern has global implications and often favors our land with much needed rain from fall through spring. This year the lack of summer rainfall underscores our need and the desire for the return of our water-bearer friend.

I am transported back in time to the El Nino effects that are forever etched in my mind. It was the fall of 1997 and then the winter of 1998. I was living and working in Mexico at the Southern end of Baja California Sur, a place where hurricanes are a consistent weather pattern, part of a boom and bust cycle that, like a venomous serpent,  can have devastating effect if it strikes too close. Hurricanes are directly linked to water temperatures and El Nino is a trigger.

Around the world at least 2100 people died from El Nino’s effects during that fall and winter and at least 33 billion dollars in property damage occurred. This was the biggest such event in one hundred years:

On the twelfth day of September 1997 I was living in a glorious and simple camp a few minutes’ walk to one of the numerous sandy beaches that embroider the edge of the Gulf of California. Surrounding the open-sided palapa was almost an acre of coastal dry-tropical vegetation, a dense privacy screen and stout windbreak almost fifteen feet high. I had chosen this site because of the protection it afforded from hurricanes: it sits below the coastal edge in an sheltered undulation of the earth.


Barely Visible In Upper Left Corner, the Palapa is Sheltered by an Undulation in the Earth Form and by Dense Vegetation; the Coastal Edges Receive the Brunt of Hurricane Forces.

Very costly coastal sites would be the first to receive blows from big weather. As wind strikes the earth mass, a blocking effect compresses and lifts the wind, which touches down beyond my camp.

These patterns of air movement are elegant, aerodynamic vortexes known as the Von Karman trail:

On this September day, von Karman was my hero; it was his discovery and my knowledge of it that allowed me to stay safe during one of the biggest storms ever recorded in the Pacific in the last two hundred years: Hurricane Linda.

So profound was Linda that she was featured on the front cover of the National Geographic the following June, a stunning satellite image of a powerhouse of energy. Sustained winds of one hundred and eighty-five miles per hour, a massive moisture-laden spiral that was tracking north toward the spit of land where I was encamped. Neighbors gathered and emergency plans were made.

I had experienced a hurricane before, one year ago to the day. That time I was encamped on nearby mountains, working to build a retreat center. That time, we had abandoned the mountain and came into town–we knew road access would be washed away, and in town we could regroup and direct repairs to the road.

It was a “small” hurricane that year, with winds at ninety-seven miles per hour. Seventeen inches of rain fell in that twenty-four hour period.  Sharp-razored  raindrops flung horizontally, stung our eyes as we screened them with slatted fingers so we walked backward, leaning into the wind to stand straight. The coastal waters turned brown with silt from mountain torrents, whole trees and vehicles bobbed in once dry drainages, now inundated a quarter of a mile wide, a brown frothing furor.

Our hotel leaked everywhere, the swimming pool overflowed, the power went out, and sandwiches were served with beer and tequila before that too was gone. A party grew out of the chaos, strangers became friends and the emergency became an adventure.

For others, those whose lives were lived in marginal shelter, perhaps in vulnerable places, this event was likely a frightening and devastating experience. Life threatening. For me it was an experience of the great power of Nature and of my own insignificance: how little I mattered; how control meant nothing and surrender everything.

Now, a year on and Hurricane Linda was headed our way. We sat transfixed before a satellite television in a hotel bar, nine miles away. If she landed here, as the lesser one did a year ago, it would devastate this place just as the smaller hurricane did in Kauaii in the 1980’s. It was prayer time for all of the residents here–in particular for those who would not escape. We were in this together and we hoped for the best possible outcome: no death, no mud slides, no one person or animal washed away. We hoped she would track west and into the Pacific Ocean. She did, though not without leaving her mark. How much rain fell I do not know.

That night, as wind and rain slashed through everything, I covered my bed with a waterproof tarp, tied the outer-edge side to the foot end frame of my bed and climbed under the sheet and tarp. I hoped for some sleep though I was alive with the energy of the moment. Wind and rain cooled the typically muggy night, howling through and around every obstacle, its voracious force not restrained by anything more than an undulation in the earth and walls of vegetation.

By morning, it was clear that we had been lucky this time. We later learned that Linda had tracked 300 miles to the west. I can only imagine how it would have been if we had met face to face.

The rain had stopped and the sun shone as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Everything in the palapa had gotten drenched. Today, in my library, there are books that wear the memory of mold from this time, an odiferous reminder of my place in things.

I had a flight to catch and several drainages to cross on the way to the airport. Nine miles of graded dirt roads promised to be a challenge as I would navigate through washed out sections and deeply incised banks. The biggest crossing was several hundred yards wide, a main outlet into the Gulf for water draining off the huge catchment of mountains and surrounding lands.


A Single Stream Becomes a Wide Braided Drainage as it Leaves the Steeper Confines that Birth It.

With others, similarly wanting to cross the full, fast-moving river, I parked along its banks, my truck already in four wheel drive.

In Mexico I had been witness to a great deal of bravado, inventiveness and courage by those who live less sheltered lives than ours. Like a duckling watching its mother, I waited to see if anyone was daring enough to cross and if so, would they succeed?

People, holding onto each other, prodded long sticks into the channel bed, looking for danger: deep spots that would float a vehicle, washing it and its occupants out to the Gulf and then the Pacific.

There was an air of nervous anticipation as the first vehicle geared up and moved to the edge, nosing carefully into the water. Neighbors and relatives stood thigh deep in the brown current prepared to help push a vehicle ashore or even across the channel if need be.

I remained unconvinced until the fifth vehicle, an old brown sedan, moved slowly toward the edge. The driver gripping the steering wheel and his family of six perched on the edge of their seats, young children peering from the windows, faces drawn and fingers tightly grasping the edge of window and seat, pale in the late morning light. Chatter ceased and everyone was focused. I held my breath.

The car nosed into the current and began to turn downstream, a dozen people pounced, and pushing, turned it away from the current. Water lapped high, brown against brown, a slurry of earth and water surrounding metal and glass, threatening to overwhelm, to kill the engine, to snatch this family away. The people were having none of it, it was their will, their strength in pulling together that would overcome the odds.  By now I was out of my truck and on the sidelines with everyone else; we shouted support, cheered them on, women young and old fingered rosaries and prayed, crossing themselves. We were a community together, strangers who were no longer strange to each other, connected by common purpose–the safe passage of each of us, and in this moment, of one particular family.  There were moments when it seemed as if the current would win and then more men and youth leapt into the water to lend strength and will.

They did it. As the dripping sedan slowly pulled out of the channel, easing its way past me, I saw palpable relief on all of their faces, open grateful glances broken into wide and toothy smiles.

On the banks we cheered and shouted at the helpers, and at the family in the water-shedding sedan laughed and beamed at each other, nodding knowingly that we knew that they would make it, there was no real doubt, was there?

I crossed the channel two vehicles later, with newly fortified bravery and an array of sodden men and youth ready to help this Gringa out of a pickle, should it be needed.

The crossing successful and now on board a flight north, I gazed at drainages far below, wondering about the changes wrought by the storm.

It would be almost five months later as I drove north through once dry and desolate lands that I would witness the magic of Kokopelli in the El Nino effects on the desert.

Now, the tessellated soils, open in their thirst, are as receptive as I am. The autumnal equinox marks another turning and a lessening need for water though in deep recesses of the earth roots seek moisture that may not be there, seeking winter resilience. Without rainfall soon, I expect more oaks will fall to the drought in the months ahead, reducing valuable habitat for those that forage for a living.

Little by little I shape the land, mostly by hand, with soil and rocks and branches. The effort may seen miniscule given the scale of things but I have been witness to the power of one person and the capacity we hold in our hands.


Materials From the Site Are Used to Build Simple Basket-Like Catchment to Slow Water & Store Silt

One day it will rain again- perhaps a winter El Nino- and that which I have created will catch and hold water, effectively increasing the rainfall. It is Nature’s way to catch and hold and there are examples everywhere.


Stepped Earthworks Form Shallow Ponds That Soak Rainwater Into The Soil

There will be time for water to be absorbed into the ground, for the small structures to gather soil, organic matter and seeds; for life to flourish. I dream that others will be so inspired and that each piece of the mosaic pattern will grow into dynamic, interconnected parts of a resilient and whole ecosystem–habitat for all, including people.

Will you join me?

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