In a land of sunshine, there’s no reason to fret about rain

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald May 08, 2009 02:11 pm

How peculiar this past week has been, bringing such a prolonged patter of rain to the roofs of Baker City.

This is at least a pleasant sound. The soothing rhythm reminds me, when I listen during that peacefully hazy period which precedes sleep, of the trilling of a small stream heard through an open window.

The deluge also has softened the soil so that the taproots of even the most stubborn weeds surrender to a good firm pull. I’m thinking in particular here of the prolific pest I call ground ivy but which is also known as dollar weed. When the soil is firm this plant resists the vigorous efforts of man and machine to extract its entire, intact root system. You can sever the taproot, but that’s no good because the thing regrows, in the manner of a lizard that casts off its tail, leaving the hawk with only that appendage and none of the tastier parts.

The rain sluiced down so incessantly on a couple of afternoons that I conjured a fantasy in which the ridge southwest of town was covered with a dense, dripping stand of Sitka spruce and red cedar rather than sagebrush and the occasional juniper.

Of course that sort of botanical transition is the work of a couple of soggy millennia, not days.

There is too the minor matter of the Cascade Mountains, whose ridges and glaciated peaks impede and emasculate the saturated Pacific storms which would be required to transform our arid land into the lush rainforest of my daydream.

(I prefer the steppe; it’s easier to get around in. Hiking off-trail in the Coast Range or the Cascades is drudgery, unless you enjoy being taken down and pinned by thickets of salal and vine maple.)

Besides which, flattening the Cascades, which are among the world’s formidable rain shadows, seems to me a task well beyond the realm of the shovel-ready project even in these times of unprecedented government largess.

Also, I suspect the conservationists who decry 10-acre clearcuts as ecological terrorism would look askance at any proposal to, say, lop off a few thousand feet of Mount Hood.

This week’s storms did defy climatological convention by sweeping in from the south, thus getting round the Cascades’ flank and soaking pretty much the whole of Oregon.

Even so, I refuse to concede that this lends so much as a smidgen of legitimacy to the frequently cited claim that our state is basically a moss-coated expanse of slug habitat.

The lone flaw in this notion, which has been spread, virus-like, by otherwise trustworthy publications and commentators, is that it’s wrong.

And not just a little bit wrong.

In reality, the climate in the larger part of Oregon — the two-thirds which lies east of the Cascades — qualifies as quite dry compared to what’s typical for the Earth in general.

This fallacy that Oregon’s climate is universally damp, that Oregonians are forever wringing out their clothes and impaling each other with umbrella tips, annoys me considerably.

Its persistence, though, is hardly a mystery.

Most of the rain that douses the state comes down where most of the people live, which is west of the Cascades.

But I don’t see how that excuses people who insist on libeling all of Oregon with their mold and rust jokes.

Most Californians live in the Los Angeles basin or the San Francisco Bay area, but I know there’s more to the state than smog and fog.

To bolster my point with the some numbers, consider that Baker City’s yearly average precipitation, including rain and melted snow, amounts to 10.4 inches. This is much closer to desert than to jungle.

It also puts Baker City much nearer, rain-wise, to Phoenix (yearly average, 7.8 inches) than to Portland (36.3 inches).

Baker City, incidentally, is drier than several cities which are as renowned for their sunshine as Oregon is infamous for its alleged abundance of clouds. The list includes Santa Barbara (yearly average, 16 inches), Honolulu (22 inches) San Antonio (31 inches), Miami (56 inches) and, perhaps most surprising, Tucson (12 inches).

To put into perspective how abnormal this week was, the 1.35 inches of rain that fell at the Baker City airport during the first six days of May represents 13 percent of the average total for the whole year.

On the other hand, we’re more apt to get drenched this way in May than in any other month. With an average total of 1.41 inches, it is the wettest month at the airport.

People around here grumble about the weather, in all its moods, but of course this is a perennially favorite pastime everywhere. I suppose we are so rarely satisfied with the weather because nature, unlike our homes and offices and cars, has neither a thermostat nor water-tight gaskets.

But I have felt no urge to lament this latest spell of showers — and not only because I had laid down fertilizer and grass seed the day before the heavy rain commenced.

I have tried, rather, to celebrate the moisture for the sheer rarity of its abundance.

In the long run of days we will certainly have more fair ones than foul. It’s hard to be melancholy, it seems to me, when nature sings you a lullaby and helps you pull weeds besides.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.