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Down on the Ground with Cold

By George Sibley

Last month most of us wrote about snow here; maybe this month I’ll write about snow’s dark partner, cold. It’s been so cold over here in Gunnison that when I stepped outside yesterday with a cup of coffee, it froze so fast that it was still hot …. I’d like to be able to say that it’s been so cold that the politicians all had their hands in their own pockets, but early reports on the middle-class consequences of the alleged tax cut indicate that the politicians who passed it still have their hands in most of our pockets.

Have you noticed how much colder a “polar vortex” feels than what we used to call a “cold snap”? One might also observe how much colder cold weather gets in the memory of it. Anyone who has lived in Gunnison more than a decade remembers the “old days” when for whole weeks, months even, the lows were unbroken strings of minus 20s and 30s or worse, and it never got warmer than minus 10 all week. Or maybe all month.

Bruce Bartleson, a retired Western geology professor turned weatherman, tries his best to correct our memory with the historical record on both the depth and duration of those low temperatures, but to no avail. We just stop talking to him about the polar vortexes – vortices? – we remember, that he wants to turn into mere cold snaps, on the strength of nothing more than the historical record.

Until I moved to the mountains, I tended to believe that cold was just the absence of hot. Heat. Now I’ve come to the deeper understanding that cold is a force – even by the rigorous definition of force in physics, a mass being accelerated, by gravity if nothing else. I saw it with my own eyes, out skiing early one still cold morning in the mountains above Crested Butte. Sitting in the snow after bailing out when I decided the trees were coming along too fast, I felt a light draft even though there was no wind at all. Getting down to where my cheek was almost on the snow, and looking across the blue-white surface, I could see dense cold air flowing in ripples down the mountainside. The cold air was flowing down like a sheet of water.

Gunnison, where I live now, sits at the hub of several big mountain valleys which funnel whole rivers of that flowing cold down to us, and there is only the narrow Gunnison River canyon for it to squeeze through on its way downstream. So it pools up over Gunnison, just like the water does behind Blue Mesa Dam. A lake of cold air that the sun penetrates weakly, a classic inversion: A big body of heavy cold air with little bubbles of warm air at the bottom where we are burning large quantities of fossil fuels to survive. Eventually a weather change brings enough of a breeze to lever under that cold lake and move it along, but even Dr. Bartleson would agree that it’s miserable when it’s squatting on us.

Walking home evenings at the bottom of that lake, I think about the First People who lived in this valley long before there were thermometers to measure the cold. I owe these thoughts to Mark Stiger, the Western anthropologist who first collected evidence in a disciplined way to prove the hypothesis that early prehistoric inhabitants of the Upper Gunnison River valley lived here year-round, which most anthropologists thought was impossible. (Had they never heard of Eskimos? Inuits?)

Stiger also observed that they did not live down on the floodplain like most of us foolish humans today, but up on the side of W Mountain. A recording thermometer put up where they had lived consistently showed temperatures up to 10 degrees warmer than the valley floor, even though the elevation difference is only a few dozen feet. The lake of cold isn’t real deep.

We tend to think of those early inhabitants of the valley as “primitive” people; and we probably think, when we aren’t really thinking, how superior we are today – and indeed much about our world would probably mystify, maybe even terrify those “Archaics.” But the First People survived here for around 7,000 years, according to the anthropologists, strictly on their own wits with whatever standard of living they could cobble together from their immediate environment.

We, on the other hand, haven’t even made it to 150 years here, and if the trucks and pipelines and wires stopped bringing into the valley from the distant cities everything we need to continue living here, most of us would be gone in two weeks. The Archaics, the First People, didn’t have anything like a rifle or a bathtub or computer – but they knew how to make all the tools, and produce all the goods and services they needed to survive here. I can maintain and repair a few of the things I depend on here, if the hardware store stocks the right tools and parts. But I am completely vulnerable on some of the things I depend on most. Like my computer: If it goes down, a lot of my mind, memory and livelihood goes down with it. If shutting down and restarting it doesn’t work, I don’t have the foggiest idea how to fix it. And here in one of the sunniest, most “solar” places on the planet, I haven’t yet invested in the technology to give it home-grown power; I lazily depend on coal-burning power plants somewhere else to power it and the rest of my expensive middle-class life.

But here’s another, more ominous, fact about the First People: Around 3,000 years ago, after 7,000 years of living in this valley, they had to leave. Why they left, the anthropologists studying the light footprint of their seven millennia here don’t know for sure; but they do know that around the same time they left, the piñon pine, whose nuts were a staple in their diet, also disappeared from the valley, presumably due to  a change in the climate.

But back to the present, it has been cold. Like our president, we make stupid jokes: “Where’s that global warming when we need it?” But unlike our president, we do start milling around a bit here, trying to figure out what we can do about the situation before it deteriorates to the point where we have to leave the valley, well short of 7,000 years. In the past week, I’ve been to two new meetings, one to “Solarize Gunnison County,” and the other about the Green New Deal idea that has suddenly emerged on the national scene. That doesn’t include the regular meetings and pre- and post-meetings for the Upper Gunnison River District, where we are deep in the process of beginning to commence to proceed to start to plan how to keep our valley green and our economy firing on at least three cylinders by mid-century, when global climate changes will result in at least 20 percent less water in our river system than we enjoyed through the 20th century – not to mention increased pressure from the megacities on our cultural horizon (Denver to Los Angeles) to send them some of our agricultural water for the additional millions of people who will be living in the arid West by then.

The Upper Gunnison River District board did decide this year – on a very narrow 6-5 vote – to begin solarizing our office building with panels on the roof, to let our constituents know that we are well aware of the relationships between energy production, the atmosphere and the water supply. That vote was like a microcosm of the way America votes today: The six of us who voted for the solar panels – costing less than one percent of our annual budget – are all inhabitants of the little blue islands in the mountain West; the five opposed are inhabitants of the rural red sea. And if, like the national Electoral College, our River District gave more power to, say, the representatives from the less populated areas who control much more water, the red sea would win such votes hands down. We “townies” would each count for even less than the three-fifths personhood granted to blacks in the original Constitution.

But I do realize, writing this before the Ides of February, that by the time you are reading it, the northern hemisphere will be warming up and this year’s polar vortex will be a fading memory (with its remembered temperatures growing in direct proportion to lapsed time).

In March we begin to think ahead to the garden and the long slow process of relearning how to at least partially feed ourselves. Maybe this summer I will actually consult with a “solarizer” about how to tap the sun for some power that won’t depend on wires from distant places and the peckerheaded policies of a president who still believes that coal is no problem.

George Sibley lives and writes in Gunnison at the bottom of a cold lake: