I am not about to complain about the rain, especially having heard firsthand of the drought plaguing much of the Southwest this season. Along with the news stories of wildfires, a friend's account of the hot, relentless sun, dust-choked winds, and parched earth outside her door in southeastern Colorado make me accepting of what we have here in Indiana. In a word, rain, and lots of it over the past couple of months.
The little brick cottage we're restoring as a weekend retreat is just a couple of blocks from the Wabash River in historic New Harmony, Ind., and it was very nearly flooded in May. Arriving there one weekend, we found sections of the town sandbagged as river water filled the parking lot of the visitors' center and threatened the inn. Just in time, a few days of dry weather gave the Wabash time to simmer down. Basements had to be pumped out all over town, but it could have been far worse.
Our home base, a farmhouse in southern Indiana, occupies a ridge. Flood damage is not a worry, even in times like these. Still, the regular cycles of heavy rain have left their mark, washing away topsoil, scouring steep gullies to bedrock, and widening the channels of creek bottoms.
We have to negotiate a creek to visit our animals on the back summer pasture, which also occupies a ridge. We have 10 cows, three of them with young calves. They are the remnants of a dairy herd we've pared down over the past two years through relocations to other farms. We're not milking any longer, so these cows are pretty much at their leisure. They come up to the barn most days, usually in the morning or evening from old habit, but now and then they seem to forget. Checking on their welfare on such days is another old habit, and a good excuse for a walk.
Well, slog. After each heavy rain, the creek I mentioned labeled "intermittent" on topographic maps becomes a force to be reckoned with. Little wonder the cows stay put on their hilltop, waiting for a human to come to them with water-filled boots and two bedraggled dogs. (Our third, a portly Lab, refuses to plunge in when the creek runs riot.)
There have been dry years, when the parched pasture grass literally crunches beneath one's feet and the underlying clay hardpans shrink into classic polygonal patterns. In those years we've had to tap our winter supply of hay to feed the cows in August. But this year it is all we can do to wade through the thick carpets of clover and knee-high fescue. An early morning stroll in the dew means thoroughly soaked pant legs before even reaching the creek.
The luxuriant growth makes finding the cows a challenge: They are well-hidden once they fold down to rest. I sometimes stumble upon them almost by accident, first spying the beautifully curved horns of the three heifers swiveling about like surfacing periscopes. Suddenly, I'm in their midst, watching 10 slow, patient jaws at work on all the cud any bovine could ask for or handle.
I'll take a wet year over a drought anytime, even at the expense of some potentially fine hay soaked to mulch. Yesterday, we cut our first hayfield of the season, two weeks behind schedule. We'd hoped to work in the raking and baling between rains. The freshly mown orchard grass was tedded and curing when the thunder started up. A little monsoon arrived midafternoon, and soon beat the half-dry grass into damp mats.
As dusk fell, I turned from the disheartening site to visit the cows, which I found grazing leisurely along a back pasture hedgerow. They looked ready to hunker down into their green sea for the night, but they came to me first with their grass-flecked muzzles and sweet steaming breath. As always, they set things right with me, and I started back for the house in much better spirits.
What may be a peculiar signature of this wet year took over where the cows left off. Fireflies, a silent abundance of them, danced through the air everywhere I looked, spangling the tall grasses and flickering against the dark tapestry of trees and sky. Our small creekside pasture fairly shimmered with the lights of the winged beetles.
I can't say whether the damp weather and thick vegetation have anything to do with it, but I hadn't seen a biological light show that captivating in years. It called to mind an evening boat ride I'd taken in the 1960s on Puerto Rico's Phosphorescent Bay, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea renowned for its abundance of luminescent marine plankton.
Our creek has never flooded that little pasture, but it's come close this year. If one fine rainy day it happens, I think I'll call it Phosphorescent Bay.
That is not a complaint, but it really could stop raining any time now. Here's hoping the next line of storm clouds unburdens in Colorado, leaving us to dry out and make some hay while the (it's on the tip of my tongue) shines.