May 28, 2017

Drought is a relative term.  A drought for lush, humid, subtropical Alabama would be a deluge out West.  Alabama averages about 55 inches of rain per year.  The worst Alabama drought of my recollection, back in 2007, we still had 30 inches of rain, about the same as the rainy Puget Sound region of Washington state averages each year.

Last year it quit raining in early August, and rainfall didn’t resume until November.  It was the driest stretch I’ve ever seen—2007 still had sporadic rainfall, even during its longest, hottest spell in the summertime.  For about three months, the sky was dry.  And hot.  September set a record for number of days above ninety degrees—as I recall, all of them.  But still, the rainfall total for the whole year was about average.  Fall (colloquially, September through November) is the driest period anyway, it was just extra dry last year.  Rainfall returned to a more normal pattern around the end of November and on through the winter.

Then came May.  Last Saturday, May 20, 2017, Montgomery got over 8 inches in a day; on the same day, Birmingham got about two and a half inches.  Everywhere got some rain.  Most got too much.

The “Farm”, some unimproved property I own on Lookout Mountain in Dekalb County—the far northeastern section of the state—got its share.  Once the rain finally departed on about Tuesday, I waited a couple of days, until Thursday, and trekked up there to see what things looked like.  I needed to check on the wife’s garden, and on the foundation trenches I’d just finished digging for the house I was building.

The wife decided she needed a hobby, so took up gardening.  Good for her that her hobby came with a hubby helper.  I had always planted a vegetable garden when the kids were small (to give them an idea of where food came from), when we lived in the suburbs with a yard for them to play in.  The wife would only rarely serve the vegetables I grew, preferring the store-bought variety.  Now at harvest time (i.e., when I pick “her” garden that I’ve weeded, watered, fertilized, etc., all season) she will no doubt take great pride in finding delicious ways to prepare and eat the food she’s grown.  And rave over how tasty are the results.  And share it all on Facebook!  What better, hipper thing is there nowadays than claiming to grow your own food?

The vegetable garden sits astride a gravel road I had put in for the farmhouse I finally got started building last year.  After two weeks of more or less solid rain, the plants weren’t doing so well.  They’d none of them grown, and most were a bit yellowed from the lack of sun.  It takes both rain and sun, and in the right proportion, to make a garden grow.  Too many cloudy, rainy days is as bad as too many scorching hot and dry days.  Maybe if the rains let up the plants will have a chance to flourish.

The trenches I’d dug for the foundation were filled to overflowing.  They are two feet wide and range in depth from about a foot and half to two feet and were pretty close to completely full of water.  My foundation looked a bit like a moat.  I could have dug out the interior and made a shallow pond.  Maybe if I ditch the house idea that’s what I’ll do.  Here’s the moat, that might one day be a foundation.IMG_0383

I had to go see what the Little River looked like after so much rain.  At the Little River Falls, which is now part of the Little River National Monument–a federal government protectorate–the water was so high the falls were quite short.  Water was gushing over the falls so much and so fast that the collecting pond below the falls couldn’t drain fast enough to keep up.  It wasn’t hard to imagine that in a flood of biblical proportions, the falls, about thirty feet high normally and maybe half as high that day, would completely disappear, becoming just another cataract on the river.  The drought-busted falls:

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The water rushing over the falls seemed harried, almost angry, for having to jostle and shove and push in such volume over the boulders and through the crevasses along its way to the sea.   It had the character of a hustling, bustling city street at the evening rush hour, all its little droplets rushing to relieve their terrible burden of gravity.

During the drought, the water was languid and carefree, drifting lazily along to the precipice of the falls until patiently dropping off the ledge as if resigned to its fate, not caring a whit of where and how far it was heading.  Though gravity had the same hold on it as it had on the raging torrent, the water just didn’t much seem to care.  It was a Rastafarian river then.

The Little River Canyon through which the Little River flows has a geological history somewhat resembling the Grand Canyon.  It was cut through an uplifted alpine plateau—the Appalachians being the pertinent mountain range that formed the plateau for the Little River; the Rocky Mountains for the Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon.  The Little River is a bit different in that the surrounding plateau appears to be a ridgeline (Lookout Mountain) for its sides having washed away in the regular deluge that is subtropical Alabama weather (most of the time), making it seem like an uplifted ridgeline, which it isn’t.

If I were an Aristotelean philosopher, but from Alabama, I would probably have determined that the earth’s elements consisted of only two—water and gravity—instead of the Philosopher’s four: earth, air, water and fire.  Though, given the propensity of tornadoes in Alabama, I might have had to include wind, or at least acknowledge it as a force.  Dekalb County, with a population of about sixty thousand, lost over thirty souls in the April 2011 tornadic outbreak that took about the same number in Jefferson County, which has a population ten times as much.  All that, but the power of the battling air masses that causes tornadoes pales in comparison to the power of water and gravity, even as air is the medium through which the water is stocked with its erosive gravitational potential and delivered to the earth.

The next day I traveled a couple of miles north of the Farm to Desoto State Park for a hike along the West Fork of the Little River, the main tributary feeding the Little River.  Its water droplets were just as angrily harried as those further downstream.  Gravity and water, coconspirator gods, were vividly on display, shaping the world as it suits them.  The water dashed headlong, a cohesively bound train of droplets overcoming all frictional pretenses to plunge ever downward in a mad rush to dissipate the gravity infused by the sun.

The next day, a Saturday, the wife and I took off to explore another Appalachian Mountain remnant, the rocky, craggy mountains and valleys of the Bankhead National Forest, and the jewel nestled within it, the Sipsey River National Wilderness Area.  The Forest and Wilderness Area are about seventy-five miles northeast of Birmingham, mostly in Winston County, which was the one county in Alabama that seceded from the state when the state seceded from the Union (mostly without effect, but still).  It’s not hard to see why.  There’s nothing economically useful about the land except the trees and the coal, and in the mountainous subtropical jungle terrain of the area, the economics of plantation agriculture did not apply to compel the use of slaves, so by and large there were none.  The first settlers in this eastern-most remnant of the Appalachians had to be hardy souls, capable of clearing a few acres here and there where yeoman farming and husbandry were feasible.  The agriculture wasn’t of a scale to require slaves, and it wasn’t slaves that were needed to exploit the coal and timber later.  It was steam shovels, and they hadn’t been invented by the time of the Civil War.  The land had much the same economy as did West Virginia, which for much the same reasons as Winston County seceded from Alabama, split off from Virginia during the Civil War to join the Union as its own state.  That the land would now be federally managed and protected speaks to its natural beauty, yes, but also to its impracticability for anything other than a nature preserve, especially now that most of the near-surface coal has been stripped away, and almost all the virgin forest has been cut.  Bankhead received its designation as a National Forest in 1918, so the forests and hills have had ample time to recover.  The Sipsey River, almost completely enclosed by the National Forest, was designated a Wilderness Area in 1975, long after the area had been mostly abandoned by industrial interests.

The Sipsey, with a fairly small drainage area, is more like a storm ditch than a proper river, at least so far as its water levels are concerned.  The levels increase rapidly during periods of heavy rain, but quickly recede, to barely a few trickling inches, afterwards.  The latter was its state during our visit.  We noticed a few optimistic souls at the Highway 33 bridge (where the Forest Service provides a parking lot and some picnic tables), launching canoes and kayaks for a float downstream, but imagined theirs wouldn’t be any lazy float.  More like a long portage interspersed with the occasional lazy downstream drift.

Hiking south from the bridge takes you to a wonderland like none other in Alabama.  On the left, about twenty to thirty feet below and beyond the trail, the River, about ten to fifteen feet wide, flows gently past, hardly any faster than a brisk walking pace.  On the right, limestone cliffs rise thirty to forty feet above the trail, keeping the water at flood stage moving downstream.  It could be said the trail traverses the flood plain of the River, which it does, but that would be misleading.  It is not a plain.  The trail traverses the flood valley, whose sides range from vertical, along the various limestone cliffs, to variably sloping along the path the trail takes.  The flood valley is about a hundred feet wide and forty or fifty feet deep.  What a marvelous sight it would be to see it filled with angry, churning flood waters.  So long as it could be viewed from a safe distance.  Here’s a view of one of the canyon walls:

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Several tributary streams have cut deep gorges in the sides of the flood valley, which in some cases the trail follows around to cross the stream at a higher point.  Inside these gorges is where the magical feeling of being someplace other than Alabama really hits.  Ferns hang from the cliffsides.  Towering Eastern Hemlock (found only in Bankhead and Dekalb County in Alabama), their dull-brown, deeply-fissured trunks as big as a dinner table, reach to the sky.  Deep green moss carpets the rocks and boulders anywhere the sun won’t shine, which on the flood valley floor beneath the canopy of trees and skyscraping cliffsides, is most everywhere.  It has the look and feel of New Zealand, or less exotically, of the Great Smokey Mountains, were the temperature increased by a few degrees.  I half-expected to encounter Frodo and Bilbo journeying to find the lost ring.  My pictures didn’t do it justice.  You just need to go see for yourself.

We had our lunch there, in one of God’s most magnificent cathedrals.  Is there any more powerful and poignant blessing He’s afforded us, than the opportunity to marvel at His majestic power and beauty in such a manner?  I mean that, and beer, of course.  Though I didn’t have any beer—hiking and drinking beer are not complementary activities.  But the water I drank tasted, in the premises, almost as good.

The rock cliffs and boulders strewn along the trail were patterned with pock marks and swirls that could only have been created by their having spent long stretches completely underwater.  The Appalachians were under a shallow sea many millions of years ago.  Was this evidence of their ancient history?  Or was it evidence that water in the flood valley itself had been much deeper at some point in the nearer past?  Or did the rocks get the characteristic swirls and pocks and exposed striations of aquatic submersion during the time before the river had scoured its channel so deep?   Probably the latter, as the relief in the area was caused more by erosion of the alpine Appalachian plateau and less by the uplift of the mountains themselves.  The Appalachian mountain range proper, though having a few of its peaks pushing up in northeast and central Alabama, mainly lies further northeast, starting around Chattanooga.  The mountains in Alabama are mostly the remnants of its eroded alpine plateau.  Water and gravity again, shaping the world under God’s watchful eye.

After hiking along the River and having our lunch, we drove a few miles to the Borden Creek trailhead for an afternoon hike.  Along the drive, we passed a rattlesnake coiled up alongside the road.  I drove past but had to turn around and get a picture.  By the time I got there, he/she was already halfway across the road.  No snake would ordinarily expose itself so dangerously as did this rattler.  Never mind the cars traveling past, there are predators overhead (hawks, mainly) and ground dwellers (coyotes, etc.) that might happen to spot it.  The only explanation for the behavior?  Love.  It’s rattlesnake mating season.  Wild animals act loopy, almost as loopy as human animals, when it comes time to procreate.  The only time a deer in the woods is dangerous to a human being is when the rut is on, late January and early February in Alabama.

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We decided on traveling north from the Borden Creek trailhead, along a trail that sort of bisected the area between Borden Creek and the main River.  It was a slog uphill for about a mile, through dense vegetation, often growing into the trail.  I regretted not having brought my machete.  Before our roughly five-mile hike was through, I must have picked a dozen ticks off my exposed legs. Ever heard the expression, “Jump on you as quick as a June tick?”  It’s April and May that ticks jump on you in Alabama—by June they’ve settled down a good bit–but the principle’s the same.  The wife didn’t get any on her legs, but then, she hasn’t any hair on her legs for them to cling to.  It’s utterly laughable that weekend triathletes/cyclists go to the trouble of shaving their legs for the minimal gain in performance it provides.  But for a hiker who wants to hike in shorts, i.e., the preferred attire in places like Alabama, shaving the legs would help tremendously as a tick deterrent, as the wife’s experience attests.  Though they couldn’t get her legs, upon our return, she found a couple that had latched on to her shoes and managed to climb inside her socks.

Insect spray (Deep Woods Off, etc.) seems to have no repellant effect on ticks whatsoever.  It does help with chiggers, and anywhere there are ticks, there also are chiggers.  So, I put the stuff on to keep the chiggers at bay, and count on vigilant observation to keep the ticks from gaining purchase and biting.  It takes a tick a long time to latch on and start sucking blood, so simply paying attention, and wearing light clothing so they can be seen, seems the best strategy.

Or, just staying off less-frequented trails.  For whatever reason, I rarely have a problem with ticks in campgrounds, or on heavily-traveled trails.  Perhaps because humans can so easily thwart their blood-sucking ways—our opposable thumbs being key—ticks keep to places that more accommodating mammals—the ones with fur and no opposable thumbs, like deer and squirrel and rabbit—frequent.

The drive home provided a familiar Alabama sight.  A huge Confederate flag fluttering in the breeze along Interstate 22 just east of Jasper.  I wondered, did any of the idiots flying that flag realize that in their part of Alabama most of the people like them opposed the South’s secession from the Union, so many that in the next county over, they actually voted to secede from the Confederacy?  The present rarely gets how ironically mocking it is of its past.

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