Sunday, December 14, 2014

Green vs. white

For reasons I can’t fathom (which means they’re probably economical and political), someone decided that Rutland was going to be the Solar Capital of Vermont and a leader in solar power in New England, the United States, and who knows, probably the world.

I can’t fathom this because our region, of which Rutland is center of commerce, has so little sun. I can’t find firm statistics to support this, but compared to other regions we have cloudy skies well more than half the time. My own fifteen years of trying to garden here move me to claim that we don’t have sun most of the time.

(Even my physician supports this. When I asked how much vitamin D I should take along with my calcium, she said there was no upper limit because Vermont just doesn’t have enough sun to worry about it.)

So. For the past two years, we’ve been seeing solar farms popping up all over. The nearest one fills an old farm field on my way into Rutland to shop. Whoever used to own that land, or still does and is leasing it, is probably making way more money than they ever did farming. Same goes for people with bony hills that are now home to cell towers.

These things are ugly, but I’d sure rather see them than housing developments. Which is the last I thought about it until today.

In the past six days, we spent three of them with no power, thanks to a winter storm that knocked down lines throughout the state. Some areas were so damaged that they’ve spent all six days without juice. The entire period has been sunless. We are forecast for partly sunny for a day and a half starting tomorrow, then the next weather system moves in for two–three days. A fairly normal pattern.

Which is why I was thinking about it today. As I drove to the supermarket, along miles of road lined with bowed-over trees so saturated with white that it looked like they’d been blasted by a snow gun, gleaming against gunmetal-gray sky, I passed the solar farm. The arrays all had their backs to me, so I couldn’t see whether they were snow-pasted as well, though I did see some dump piles at their feet which suggested that they had shed their load.

Point is, what power were they collecting? What power were they making? Acres of field with nothing to do. To the best of my knowledge, these are grid-tie systems, so there’s no huge battery bank storing the power they create on nice days to help us out on the bleak ones. I was looking at a giant field of dormant, expensive hardware.

What good is solar power when the grid infrastructure is broken? If we’d had to rely on solar to keep us going during the outage, well, we’d be very cold and would have lost a lot of food and had to poop in the woods, not to mention been unable to do the work that enables us to pay the power bills. The biggest blessing of our outage experience was that the village store had power so we could get fuel to keep our generator going until it nigh melted down. Good-old evil fossil fuel, the same stuff the store was using to keep their generators going.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d get a propane generator because that fuel is more reliable than ethanol-blended gasoline, and doesn’t destroy small engines. Still, it’s a fossil fuel. Looking ahead in time to a “green” future, what’s going to keep us going when the grid is down? Tell me solar, and I will laugh in your face.

One can argue that the millions invested in solar arrays might be better invested in putting the grid underground so we don’t suffer days or weeks of economic upheaval every time Nature throws us a curveball. But that would still leave the macro problem of global depletion of fossil fuel, so green alternatives must be pursued.

Too bad they’re not worth a damn for year-round, all-climate reliability!

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Did/Didn’t list

Not living in the lake-effects part of the country, we dodged the early Big Snow bullet that just hit Buffalo. (Condolences to you folks.)

But living in the hilly northeast snow belt, we hear the clock ticking loudly as more days than not bring precipitation, with temps that more often than not fail to rise above freezing. Already we’ve had sleet, snow, freezing rain, and wet rain. The ground, though currently bare, is frozen solid. The pond has iced over. Any day now will be the last day we can do anything outside.

By “anything” I mean chores, which at this time of year means covering up and/or repositioning and/or putting away. It’s always a race against the calendar while frantically prioritizing a long list.

We did get twelve-plus cords of firewood stacked and covered, though owing to communication problems over the summer it all arrived late, and much is still so green we’ll be making more smoke than heat for months.

We didn’t buck, split, and stack the four big maples that came down on their own last year—they still lie where they fell—but did split and stack two-thirds of the massive white pine that a neighbor blocked and delivered, and got the rest of the chunks rolled onto pallets and de-barked. They will be great firewood next year.

We did get the garden and planters cleared, and the garlic planted and mulched; but didn’t keep up with the strawberry bed over the summer so it is hopelessly grassed over. We decided to disassemble it and restore lawn in its place, but didn’t get to that so have to wait until spring.

We did get the deck cleared (furniture, grill, rain barrels), which is necessary because those items are targets for the winter roof dump. We didn’t get the roof fixed, or the deck itself torn down, both of which are nearing critical condition and will rise to the top of next year’s priority list.

(But we did get the guys installing underground fiber-optic to pile, in a convenient spot, all the boulders they had to remove from the road in order to bury the cable. So when the deck does come down, we’ll have the raw materials on hand to replace it with a terrace.)

And while we did get the project and service vehicles secured where they need to be, we didn’t put away any ladders, so they may end up frozen in place until spring.

We did dig out half the out-of-control perennial bed, finding new homes for almost all the plants, but didn’t get the remaining soil relocated to where it needs to go for next year.

We didn’t get snow tires on my car yet, but did get them on the truck—just in time. Both vehicles need heavy service so it’s a coin toss as to what gets done first, on which, and when.

Et cetera.

It doesn’t help to be losing daylight at an accelerating rate. Which leads to another annual ritual: the countdown to solstice. Only 27 more days until the cycle reverses and days start getting longer.

Tick, tick, tick . . . meanwhile, the mad scramble to get hatches battened down, and everything tucked in.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The September door-slam

So far this year we’ve had a wintery winter, a springy spring, and a summery summer—nice change of pace after several years in a row with wild weather swings, scaring us all about climate change.

But this week, right on time, the season went ka-thud as if someone had slammed a door or thrown a switch. We’ve been creeping toward fall for a few weeks, but temperatures and overall weather have stayed clement enough for shorts and open windows, with the gardens a-burgeoning and birds a-twittering. Meanwhile, a little more light has been disappearing every day.

Then, overnight, it turned cold, dark, and soggy—penetratingly raw. Foliage that had been hinting at color flared into autumn hues. We’ve had to shut all windows and dig out jeans and sweatshirts. Booted up the boiler to start heating our mass-storage water tank for winter.

The cats stopped resisting coming in at night and resumed sleeping together in piles. The birds are either stuffing themselves at the feeder and gathering into noisy flocks, or else just disappearing—with the winter regulars returning to take their place.

Blossoms suddenly turned into seed heads. Dew is changing to frost, and daily highs have dropped 10–20 degrees no matter how sunny. We had a super-moon and almost an aurora borealis back to back for excitement, but those seemed to just augur the change now upon us. Equinox is only days away; snow, only weeks.

It’s funny, though. The same thing happens every year . . . but something about summer seduces you into forgetting. It works in reverse, too: Winter ka-thuds into spring. But spring and summer just kind of meld in a dynamic blur, an expansion vs. the fall–winter contraction. In these parts, really, what we have is Warm Season and Cold Season.

The shift between them just happened, making it time to button up and batten down.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The tarnishment


It happens every year around this time.

From May through July, we watch the world turn green, green, and greener. Then, abruptly, it not only stops turning but turns back around. You step outside one day, usually first week of August, and notice that the foliage looks . . . stale. Tarnished. Even though it is still, technically, green.

Once that’s caught your attention, you look more closely and realize there’s a lot of yellowing and browning going on among the wildflowers and gardens. As the season advances, different species come into bloom in vivid colors that last well into autumn; but around and between lies evidence of passing that it’s easy to deny.

Around the second week of August, you spot the first spear of red through the greenery backdrop. And that’s when you notice that it’s dark by 9:00 p.m. and no sunrise yet at 5:00 a.m. A full hour of daylight has disappeared!—and continues to do so at an accelerating rate.

Oh no!

Time to start preparing for winter!

But the snow only went away a few weeks ago!

This is the bummer of living in a northern climate. Summer is so wonderful—and so short. A wise neighbor once pointed out that our latitude in Vermont is the best place in the world to live because we get eight months of fabulous weather. Technically true, if you enjoy the outdoors. With the exception of a few sweaty days per year, we get unbroken weeks of temperatures ideal for physical activities. Temps in the 40s through 70s with mixed skies and precipitation are most comfortable for moving around.

For folks who like it hot and dry and bright—well, this is not the place to reside.

Liking a temperate climate three seasons a year does not mean we like that fourth one of cold and darkness. Winter is something to be endured unless you adore skiing, snowmobiling, ice climbing, showshoeing, sledding, ice fishing, skating, or ice racing. Even if that’s the case, you’re still limited in how many days the conditions cooperate.

For those of us who enjoy yard and garden work, and sports like camping/fishing/cycling/horse riding/hiking/cruising/boating—or just having all the windows open or sitting on the deck with a drink—the season is never long enough, and we’re always sad to see it close.

The tarnishment is our first sign that the clement days are numbered. And cue to make sure the firewood is laid in, the chimney cleaned, the winter tires still have tread, and anything that Absolutely Must Be Done before snow is taken care of.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Pocket gardens

Last year, after 14 seasons of gardening and heavy yard projects, I stopped dead and let it all fall apart.

This year, I’m coming back at it sideways, returning to a vegetable garden and flower planters, doing more work outside . . . but still limited, doing only what I have to. It’s a by-product of age and fatigue, having less time and inclination.

What’s come of this is a delightful mix of cultivated and wild. The yard is now a potpourri of intention and surprise. When mowing, for instance, I’m concentrating on just the areas of lawn and field we need to use, veering around clusters of wildflowers attractive to bees—especially clover—and unexpected clumps of anything blooming, such as daisies, black-eyed Susans, yarrow, violets, heal-all, dandelions, hawkweed, vervain, wild strawberry, etc., etc.

While this has resulted in areas impassably overgrown with grasses, it has also allowed a low red grass to form a big patch that’s as lovely as an on-purpose planting, especially in the morning when covered with dew in slanted light.

I’m preserving bigger stands of milkweed for the monarch butterflies. And letting things grow up between each other, like daylilies through the middle of a hydrangea, ferns through the strawberries; and weeding with less vigor, so that johnny-jump-ups and cinquefoil and various things I don’t know the name of are flowering between the vegetables.

I’m also taking down a large perennial bed that got choked out with pernicious spreaders—phlox, bee-balm, an unknown sunflower-like thing (coryopsis variant?), evening primrose—plus grass-grass-grass, some nonflowering rampant weed, and horseradish. This brought opportunity to work with friends and neighbors, who came by to augment their own gardens with my cast-offs. While at it, I transplanted some favorites elsewhere in the yard, making them easier to manage (or ignore).

The front steps and terrace, which last year were taken over by daisies and black-eyed Susans, this year have the daisies again but also campanula (bellflower) and a single pink columbine right in the middle of the stoop. Not a black-eyed Susan to be seen. Where did they go?

Oh, over there. And there. Next year, they’ll be somewhere else, and I’ll have to mow a different pattern in the lawn.

The net effect is everywhere I go, everywhere I look, something interesting and pretty is happening in little pockets. I really like the effect and will do it with more focus next year, as the perfect balance between doing too much and too little.