I sit on the edge, feet dangling over layers of extinction.
The air smells of ozone and pine. The clouds boil up from the lowlands, pregnant with rain and lightning. Lobo sits alertly five feet off, head cocked — his damp nose furiously working the wind that streamed across the Mogollon Rim.
“Rain, rain, come today,” I whisper, “then come again every day.”
Lobo gives me a look, trying to decide if I am talking to him or just mumbling crazy human stuff. “Just mumbling,” I explain.
He goes back to sniffing the wind, testing the intent of the storm.
I silently intone a monsoon prayer: Let the fire season end. Let the rains come. Forgive us, for we know not what we do.
The monsoon defines Rim Country — creation and destruction made manifest by this uplifted barrier of cliffs stretching for 200 miles along the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.
I grew up in California’s Mohave Desert — all creosote and sand and sun-blasted rock. It has no such barrier to force the heedless clouds to yield up their treasure. Then I moved to the Sonoran Desert — with yellow flowering mesquite and sculpted saguaros. That’s the difference a monsoon makes.
Then I moved up into Rim Country, in the wet, electric heart of the monsoon, which draws moisture from the flat, glittering surface of the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California and casts it against the ramparts of the Mogollon Rim.
The layers of the Rim are piled 1,200 feet deep beneath my dangling legs, layer on layer of limestone and sandstone — with a dash of magma and basalt to recall the cataclysms. Two different limestone layers in that sequence record mass extinctions, when 80 or 90 percent of the world’s species vanished in a geological eyeblink. Maybe the climate simply shifted. Maybe some spasm of the earth filled the sky with ash. Maybe an asteroid threw a shroud over the planet. We don’t really know, although the implications of those thin layers of stone haunts us.
Those rocks have seen the ebb and flow of frail life, so woefully dependent on a certain amount of rain in July.
Without the monsoon, the Sonoran Desert would be despairing and unrelenting.
Without the monsoon, the pinyons and junipers would recoil to higher elevation.
Without the monsoon, the great vanilla-scented forest of ponderosa would fade away — driven to a last stand on the mountaintops.
Without the monsoon, the firefighter’s nightmare of May and June would stretch on into July and August — until we’d all burned down to chimneys.
So I wait for the rain, counting the days until what the weatherman calls the “subtropical ridge” of high pressure shifts to the north. This will allow the wet air massing above Mexico’s Sierra Madre to come thundering into the state.
We pay a price for the blessing of the monsoon — weeks when the storms broil up like this one, full of lightning but stingy with their rain. Curiously enough, we don’t really understand lightning save in the most rudimentary way. The friction of the roiling clouds causes differences in electrical charge between one cloud and the next — or between the mass of clouds and the ground. The lightning strikes try furiously to equalize the charges. They send out cascading “leaders” of ionized air, which can draw upward from the ground great flashes of electricity. This fury of the storm can start a fire or strike dead a firefighter — but in those early, deadly weeks, they withhold the rain.
And so the brave young firefighters face the endless procession of Yarnell Hill Fires, trying to hold back the flames with their lives — and praying like me for the monsoon.
Once established, the monsoon delivers about half of our rainfall — lavished on the thirsty earth in July, August and September.
Most years, the monsoon delivers.
Some years, it fails — for reasons that remain mysterious. I’ve read about some truly frightening climate models that predict that if average global temperatures rise another 5 or 10 degrees as forecast in coming decades, the monsoon pattern that delivers our summer rains could fade away.
I read that the Hopi believe they came into this, the Fifth World, through a hole in the ground in the Grand Canyon after the Creator drowned the Fourth World. The Hopi clans fanned out across the world, looking for an easier place to live. They found many such places. But the ease of those places made them neglect the gods, making them irreverent and foolish. So they returned to this place, where life must sit carefully on this edge — its feet dangling.
The Hopi resumed their prayers. They say that if they ever grow weary, lose faith and fall silent — then the Creator will end it all again, leaving another layer of limestone with its loss and mystery.
I don’t know about that. But Lobo and I have come to sniff the rain, in hope and expectation. One drop strikes my forearm. A second darkens the 280-million-year-old remnant of a sea bottom on which I sit. Nothing more. No. Wait: A rumble of thunder.
I turn my face hopefully to the clouds. Lobo studies me a moment, looking grave and wise — like a sphinx who nonetheless tried to catch bees in his mouth.
“Let us pray,” I say to him.
Pray for those we have lost.
Pray for those who protect us still.
And pray for the rains, the rains, the rains.
Lobo says nothing, but sniffs the wind and I figure, prayers come in many forms.