It is raining. It was raining. It rained. It will rain.
That’s the way we were conjugating the weather last week. Simply. Damply. Biblically.
I don’t know if they still use the poetry of Jacques Prévert in beginning French classes, but you couldn’t avoid it when I was in short pants. In short pants with a leather satchel and a black tie. A gray jumper. Black polished shoes. In Mr. Dibble’s third form class in Newquay. (If we had two hours of his class scheduled back-to-back, we called it Double Dibble. Excruciating.)
They used to teach Jacques Prévert in grammar school because his poems were simple but popular all the same, and with real French people. That was — probably still is — particularly true of Paroles, a collection published just after the war, which included in its spare, realist assortment a short piece called “Déjeuner du Matin”:
Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
Avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
Et il a reposé la tasse
Sans me parler…
In translation, “Breakfast”:
He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
Into the coffee and milk
With a small spoon
He stirred it
He drank the coffee
And he put down the cup
Without speaking to me…
Which either sounds like a blow-by-blow account of a mid-morning break in the employee lounge at Safeway or a really bad date. But it was perfect for monosyllabic thirteen-year-olds, and when I’d forgotten my homework I was always tempted to riff on Prévert for Mr. Dibble.
“And your homework, Mr. Couch? I don’t see it here…” A tone of infinite sadness, adjusting spectacles. “Mr. Couch?”
“Yes, sir!” Clears throat:
I put my homework
In my bag
I put the bag
By the door
Without looking at it
Without thinking about it
The dog would eat it…”
“En Français, Monsieur Couch!”
A neighbor has just sent the moisture report for the hill, and I’m tempted to see this, too, in Préverted terms. It was raining. It rained, certainly. It was hailing. We put the petunias in a trash bag. With a twist tie, we closed the bag. We put the trash bag in the trash. Without looking at the window box. Without looking at the hanging basket, where the geranium hung like the empty sleeve of a Civil War veteran.
But Bill’s careful reports make it clear just how much rain we got. Fort Collins, 700 feet or so below us to the east, averages about 1.8” of rain in June. They received just short of 2.5” this year, including 1.5” over the two days of June 21-22. By contrast, we got 3.5” inches, including 2.5” between June 16th and June 23rd. That doesn’t sound like a lot to someone from the Pacific Northwest, but the average annual rainfall in these semi-arid high plains is just 16 inches. We’re not equipped psychologically, nor geologically, for a downpour. Memories of the Floods of 2013. They’re still rebuilding some of the roads in the canyons to the north and south. Whole towns were cut off for days. For June 21, Bill has written, “rain rain rain!! almost one inch since June 20 rain gauge; now emptied again 8 AM on June 22.”
But two things. There were actual rainbows that blew the mind. Double rainbows. Rainbows with blue, violet, and indigo neon you only see on the Las Vegas strip. Rainbows you had to shut out to nap, drawing the curtains, if you hoped to sleep. And they were still there in the morning. But there was a metaphorical silver lining in those rain clouds as well: flowers. Nothing new. Just the usual late June flowers, but robust, muscular usual flowers:
Hairy false goldenaster [Heterotheca villosa]
Nuttall’s larkspur [Delphinium nuttallianum]
Chokecherry lupine/ Hairy bigleaf lupine [Lupinus prunophilus]
Canada thistle [Cirsium arvense]
Sulphur buckwheat [Eriogonum umbellatum]
And Linum lewisii var lewisii. Blue flax flower. It’s a common plant. It occurs across the whole of Canada and in a good part of this country, throughout the west and mountain west. In fact, it was named after Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame.
When we think of the leader of the Corps of Discovery in the years 1803-1806, we think of a kind of frontiersman (which of course he literally was), paddling a canoe up the Missouri with a surprisingly diverse crew of thirty-some folk who included a slave, a French-Canadian trader and his (common law?) wife, the Shoshone girl Sacagawea, who appears to have shared that distinction in Charbonneau’s household with another Shoshone woman. But Lewis was also an herbalist and one of the most important natural historians of the 19th century, certainly in the recorded history of North America. Giving Lewis responsibility for the expedition was among the several brilliant things that Thomas Jefferson did (there were others, but they escape me: we’re having guests over to watch fireworks on the 4th, and I’m run ragged buying cheese and crackers; mind’s gone missing; but they’ll come). Anyway. Jefferson. Lewis. Brilliant.
A Wednesday in July 1805 Lewis camped near where Willow Creek joins the Jefferson River in present-day Gallatin County, Montana. You can pull up Google Maps and see the spot today (and think, “Jeez, this would have saved those guys a lot of trouble if someone in the expedition had thought to download the app before they left St. Louis”). Lewis scribbled the following entry: “There is some pine on the hills on both sides of the river opposite to our encampment which is on the Lard. (larboard = port) side upon a small island just above a run. The bull rush & Cat-tail flag grow in great abundance in the moist parts of the bottoms; the dryer situations are covered with fine grass, tanzy, thistles, onions and flax, the bottom land fertile and of a black rich loam.” Lewis’s flax is blue flax, Linum perenne L. var. lewisii (Pursh). He collected it, and I have a warm, otherworldly sensation when I open the front door and see it in the southwest, on an east-facing slope of our little lot, doing exceptionally well after our historical rain.
Lewis’s journals also include rain. While marooned (there’s no other word for it) on the west coast near where Astoria, Oregon, sits today, he records the following in December 1805:
1st rained last night and Some this morning.
2nd rained all the last night and untill meridian cloudy the remainder of the day
3rd rained all the last night & today untill meridan and became fair
4th rained all day
5th rained all last night and today I return to Capt Clark
6th rained last night and all day today wind not violent in the after part of the day
You get the idea. For the 18th he has: “rained Snowed and hailed at intervales all the last night and today untill meridian.” Our neighbor Bill and Meriwether Lewis share an uncanny diligence and note-taking style. And in this era of climate change, it’s somehow heartening to think that some things haven’t changed.