Spring: Act II, The Melt

Announcing "Spring: Act II, The Melt". This new miniseries is the second part of the grand drama that is Spring, at least the way I'm interpreting things. Around here, high mountains ensure we get a healthy snowpack every year. Long after the low country has put on its wildflower show, snow fields still rule up high. But the spring sun shines powerfully upon them--even stronger up there than down in the valleys because there's less atmosphere up high. For those of you who've suffered a mountain sunburn, you probably realize UV intensity increases by 4% for every 1,000 feet you go up in elevation. The bottom line is deep snow, brilliant light, warm air, and a surround-sound of quiet, ceaseless trickling.

Part 2 in Act 2, The Melt. Even though it's late May and still snowing, the cold just can't keep up with the compounded warmth of longer days. Big, wet, sloppy puddles in every swale and depression. And when the landscape isn't pure white any more, the melt picks up speed, warming the dark things that absorb its rays. Every bit of warm mud, stick or plant then radiates the heat, melting everything around it. That's not even counting the warming earth beneath the snow. Under attack from all sides, winter is departing.

Part 3 in Act II: The Melt. All that melting snow in the high country has to go somewhere, so it answers the call of gravity. Drips trickle down into the soil, and when that fills up, puddles form, They spill, and rivulets begin. These join forces with neighboring rivulets, and in a few short yards, you have a merry little stream on your hands. Add in the runoff from a number of snowbanks in the drainage, and it's more than a stream: there's a small flood starting--the kind that whips and jumps along, packing a lot of power. The kind that can take out a small dam. This phenomenon of drainages, watersheds, tributaries, hydrology sounds sort of dry when it's put in those terms. Just the opposite. I think it's mesmerizing, spellbinding, and has a kind of siren call to it. Plus, it's happening in a drainage near you!

Part 4; Spring, a Play in 3 Acts, Act II The Melt. With the Midwest undergoing unbelievable floods right now, this looks kind of scary. Don't worry, the flood in this picture is a natural part of spring--something the system is adapted to. These plants like being inundated. The alders and willows appreciate the cleanse: it weeds out the unwelcome evergreens. The sedges savor the extra soaking--it keeps them going through the dry months of early summer. The whole stream architecture is built around snowmelt floods, with a channel of just the right width, and a lower floodplain of the perfect extent to accommodate the runoff from the average year plus some. Bigger snow years like this one just brush back the upland plants a bit, like an aggressive pitcher does with a batter leaning too far in. The whole stream system waits to show off its skills this time of year. And with the snow in the midst of its melt, it's time to play ball!

Part 5: The Melt. All that floodwater has to go somewhere. When it's on flat terrain, it spreads out over floodplains and fields, dropping its load of silt as it slows. Which, by the way, is great for floodplains and fields and their soil fertility. But when the flood is in steep terrain, it piles up in drainages. Fast and forceful, it picks up rocks and moves them along. Even boulders get nudged downstream. A sawblade of rushing water, rocks and grit can cut through the land...at least it does over the long run. When it happens century upon century, you have a canyon.

And into the lake. Part 6 in Act II: The Melt. This act is the dramatic one in the play that is spring, with lots of motion and danger. It's more riveting than the subtle character study that was Act I- The Annuals--to all but the most dedicated plant lovers.

After the buildup of snowmelt to rivulet to flood to cascade, the lake finally receives its gifts from spring. Water that was frozen all winter starts to arrive, in volume. It brings the particles of Utah dust that landed on it back when it was a snowfield. The dissolved nutrients steeped from winter's dead plants that lay under the snow come along with. Mud and sediments picked up along drainage bottoms. Dissolved oxygen and other gases from all that splashing and churning along the way. Then there's the floodplain detritus the water collected where it rose over the streambank. That's a big part of the food web's foundation--the web that feeds all the lake's creatures. Far more than just water, the snowmelt brings the flavor of the watershed along with it.

Alas, all good things must pass. And so too with lakes: they are just a short blip on the landscape. The painful irony of this act is that these gifts--which are so important to the lake's function and existence, also hasten its death. For sooner or later, every lake fills up with sediments and muck, brought on by its watershed, its fecundity, and the annual snowmelt. Very sad!

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