This spring, even with the recent storms, we are behind. Behind, what people from the Northwest say instead of drought. In a place as wet as this, where average rainfall can be more than 80 inches a year, talk of drought seems like hyperbole. In these years the rains still come, the crops still grow, and we enjoy a long and lingering camping season. It is easy, in this land of abundant water, to forget the desert lands to the east and their fragile dependence on our leftover precipitation. Easy to forget the ranchers to the south that wait in vain for our rains to work their way through the subsurface and into the wells and channels that feed their herds. Easy too to forget the salmon runs and the dams that power our homes. We may stand and marvel at the exposed under bellies of our reservoirs, speckled with drowned trees or lament a bad ski year, but we are slow to raise an alarm over being a year or two behind. The Pacific Northwest as a land of water is so deeply knit into our understanding of the world that we are unable to grasp the consequences of being behind for another year. There is always time to catch up, we think. There will always be another rain.
In early morning I stand at the kitchen window and watch the fog lift out of the trees. The early spring storm had rolled through the night carrying great gray thunderheads that filled to overflowing the soils already soaked from winter rains. The winds shook free the last of the season’s loose limbs. I woke first, before you; as always, though today roused early by the sound of the rain pounding on the roof, the gurgle of water overflowing from a clogged gutter and a deep, aching pain across my low back.
I run the water in the sink until it warms and start to do the dishes from last night’s dinner. My mind travels across a list of things to do. I am running behind on things this year as well, I think; late. In these early days of spring the air still bites with cold and the rain often falls as hail, having frozen at higher elevations or lands as ice, freezing to the chilled ground. Last night’s storm ripped through the fragile early cherry blossoms, littering the ground with pink and white petals like festive confetti. Just as quickly as it began the rain eases and then disappears altogether. The clouds pass away into the hills and everything is illuminated in a wash of bright white light. The world holds its breath as the water continues to fall off trees and eaves. Then the birds begin to sing in uneven harmony, songbird twitter percussed with the harsh calls of ravens and the five-beat rhythm of a solitary crow.
I look down to discover my hands have turned red under the facet. I have been so tired, unable to sleep well and waking early to drink peppermint tea, the only thing my stomach seems happy with these days. My low back aches with a dull and constant pressure. It worries me. It was on a morning just like this that I lost the baby. On that morning you woke before me, and in more of a launching of sorts, hurtled into your day in a flurry of shower and food and activity. I had lingered in bed after a bad nights sleep. My back had ached all night. I finally followed the trail of you, pants, keys, wallet, up the stairs to send you off. You stopped, halfway out the door, pausing to read my face. “What’s wrong?” You asked. “ I don’t know.” I said. “I’m bleeding.”
I make my self a cup of tea and look out at the rain-soaked trees and try to shake away the twinge I feel across my stomach. I remember how afraid we were that day, the way you held my hand, helpless, for hours. The months it took to recover, return to normal. I think about my mother. Australian born, she has still lived so many of her years in the Northwest as to have a genuine claim on native status. She raised three girls here, though only I, her youngest, remain; my sister’s long ago having fled to warmer roosts. It was my mother that taught me most of what I know about the rain. Or at least those things it could not teach me itself. My mother is a crafter and a poetess, a weaver of things and words. She makes baskets and pies and quilts. She writes deliberate and considered poems. In one, she attends a mass that is interrupted by a homeless man. She describes his struggle to express himself at the podium, the silence of the congregation, his urgency, the way his hands fluttered around his face, like the wings of a moth beating against the glass. Watching the rain steak down the windows I feel that way myself, struggling to emerge, my wings beating against the glass.
I remember her as I am now, wrapped in a caftan, sitting with a cup of tea in front of the picture window, contemplating the morning rain. I see her hands, delicate and sinuous, one with a simple gold band, the other with a bright green stone, resting quietly in her lap. In this memory she is telling me the story of myself, of how I came to be in the world. She explains that I arrived late to the family, years after my older sister. “You were not supposed to be able to be.” She says. “But boy did you show them. The doctors had told us that your sister would be the last, and besides, so much time had passed, I didn’t seem to be age for making babies anymore.”
I consider the age for making babies. I am the age my mother was when she had me. I wonder how we decide that we are able to be. I do not remember deciding to be, though it seems I must have. Outside, the rain has changed to mist. Like the Eskimos who have 30 words for snow, the people of the Northwest have at least as many words for rain. Functional words that acknowledge its subtleties and temperaments and poetic words that describe the gentleness of coastal mists and morning drizzles as they stand in contrast to fierce fall downpours and winter’s freezing sleet. My mother taught me most of my words for rain. She also taught me to use the rain as good reason for the making of home, a thick soup or loaf of bread or to tuck into a good book, or play a game of cards. She taught me that the rain can reflect the edges of your soul, that we too, can shift in temperament and time. That the clouds can invite you to sit and have a good cry right along with them, and that, at times, it is important to do so. She knew how to live alongside the rain, not in spite of it like so many of the rest of us.
One gray fall day when I was a child, we were on our way home from school and my mother and I pulled up outside the house just as the skies opened in a heavy and drenching downpour. It was late November and already fiercely cold with the east wind out of the Gorge. The rain thundered against the roof of the car. The street lights were already on though it was scarcely half past five. My mother looked at me, in just a turtle neck and jumper in spite of her reminder to bring my coat, then turned and contemplated the bags of groceries crowding the back seat.
“Maybe we should just sit here and listen to the radio for a few minutes while it passes.” She said. In this she was not being entirely hopeful, the weather in Portland moves fast, and often a fifteen minute wait will turn a storm to sun, or at least a rain to drizzle. I considered the sky, blanketed in woolen gray and weighed the odds of it clearing against the sogging trek up the stairs to the front porch. Steam was still rising up from the heated hood and Patsy Cline was playing on the car’s tape deck. “Okay.” I said. She smiled at me, and settled back against the car door, humming quietly along.
Two minutes later, it was as though the gates of heaven themselves had opened and all the waters of eternity had been loosed upon us. Great blasts of wind-driven sheets of rain splashed across the dashboard like buckets of water being tossed on us. The car shook slightly with the impact. It was not clearing up. “Well.” She said at last with a sigh. “I suppose we shall have to take what the rain gives us. Are you ready?”
“I do not know.” I think. I hear the shower start from downstairs. You are awake at last. I get up to finish the dishes and put the water on for coffee then stand at the window and cross my hands over my swollen only to me belly. Inside, the dull ache has turned into a sharp pain. I wonder if we decide not to be as well. This time, I am not so fearful. Outside the wind has picked up, bringing in a fresh storm. Fat drops begin to slap across the window. At least, I think, there will always be another rain.
Siobhan “Ruby” McConnell is a geologist, environmentalist, and adventuress who writes about the intersection of the environment and human experience. Her published works include professional geologic papers, personal essays and articles, her blog, Girl Gone Wild, and her recently released her first book, A Woman’s Guide to the Wild. Find her @Rubygonewild and www.rubymcconnell.com
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