Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Befores and Afters

or Transience

The cottonwoods are migrating—at least, that's how they struck me today.  I was driving through Albuquerque's North Valley, close to the cottonwood bosque along the Rio Grande.  Craggy old trees with 50, 70, 80' crowns were sending flock after flock of seeds adrift, a diaspora of cottony tufts chasing the breeze downwind in search of a place to root.

'Wild Thing' autumn sage
When I lived in Vermont, I was a total midsummer-to-frost kind of gal.  I loved the brown-eyed Susans, dogtooth daisies, and coneflowers that bloomed from mid-July to October.  They kicked into gear just as the dog days hit—when the cicadas started singing and the farm stands began overflowing with tomatoes and sweet corn, when jumping into Lake Champlain for a dip stopped being an act of bone-chilling idiocy and started being a Really Good Idea.  Those same flowers were still blooming in September, when the asters and goldenrods lit up the meadows; their last sparks ignited the brief, brilliant fire of autumn.

Out here, "midsummer-to-frost" means from the first week of June until (quite possibly) the end of November.  In other words, a midsummer-to-frost blooming garden can go strong for a good 5½ months.  Such a garden is certainly lovely, and easy, and—in a small, much lived-in space where you don't want a lot of blank spots—quite sensible.  But boy, is it dull.  For almost half the year, you know what is blooming on any given day (i.e., the same thing as yesterday)—half a year that glosses over the change from June's blistering heat to the afternoon thunderstorms of July and August, the cool mornings and hot afternoons of September, the golden loveliness of October, the autumnal chill of November.  The garden gives you no sense of the passage of time, of the rhythm of the seasons.

'Moonshine' yarrow

At some point I realized that one of the things I love about gardening is the way it puts change in the foreground, the way it makes you aware of motion and transience, of moments of emergence and passing, of buds and seed pods and dried leaves.  (That's one reason I love vegetable gardening—the action-movie pace [admittedly, a 1950's action movie] from seedling to harvest to done.) With that realization, my New Mexico self stopped being a midsummer-to-frost kind of person.

Mount Atlas daisies

Don't get me wrong—I do love actual flowers that bloom for weeks on end.  My eyes are happy looking at them for hours, my spirit eased and refreshed by their very presence.  But what intrigues me and tickles my interest is the sense of before and after, of process.  (After all, it's we who value the flowers above all else; to the plant, all stages of its life are equally important.  Genetically speaking, a cottonwood seed is every bit as much a cottonwood as a century-old tree.)  I love those moments in a garden's life that happen once a year, and briefly.  They're don't cover the distance of an actual migration, but they have, perhaps, the same sense of a rite of passage, of a sea change between one life phase and the next, of seasonal ritual.

Pineleaf penstemon with a lovely seed of some sort (to use the technical term)

Of a ceremony, that deserves its honor guard in us, its observers.


  1. We don't have cottonwoods, but yours is a more inviting spin on - great oaks from little acorns grow. And Rudolf Steiner saying we should eat the seed in the orange, not just the juice and the pulp, for the seed contains everything needed to be an orange. But modern fruit doesn't HAVE seeds ...

  2. Stacy, I find I have a very ambivalent relationship with the process of change in my garden. I love the sense of anticipation created by the seasonal changes, and I can glory in the moment of each special time in the garden; but I also find that I want to freeze those fleeting moments in time and make them last a bit longer. The peak of daylily season or the first bloom of the late-season siberian iris is always bittersweet as I both enjoy the moment and anticipate the coming loss. -Jean

  3. Stacy, what a lovely, thought-provoking post. The cottonwood seeds may only appear briefly, but they do it over a vast area of the northern hemisphere: just this weekend I was watching clouds of European poplar seeds (a near relative) flying off through the sunshine at Vaux le Vicomte. So it is a brief rite of passage for these trees, but one that many hundreds of thousands of us get to witness in many different countries, marking that particular point in the year for us all.

  4. Funny all the beautiful flowers and the thoughtful commentary on the changing (or lack there of ) of the seasons and my eye is keeps being drawn to the lovely seed of some sort.

    When I was a child, I thought these types of windblown seeds were fairies. How I would have loved to have seen a pink one.

  5. Diana, when I lived in the northeast and hiked a lot, I'd look at flower buds every spring and wonder, "What is this going to be?" before remembering that it already was whatever it was, just not in bloom... Steiner did not have navel oranges in mind. Thanks for the Wildlife West link--I actually haven't been there before, which is silly, as it's only about 45 minutes away. I'm coming to depend on you to point out cool things about New Mexico. :)

    Jean, I wonder how much our locale colors our perception of those changes. When I lived in VT and NY I often felt that kind of ambivalence, especially about fall. All those vivid maple leaves were wonderful, but the awareness of loss bit deeply at the same time. Out here, maybe the growing season unfolds at a leisurely enough pace that I'm always a little more ready to move on. Thanks for a lovely, thoughtful comment!

  6. Landscape Lover, it's really kind of awe-inspiring to think of the range of this tree and its kin--not to mention the amount of raking and tidying that will have to be done by others, once the rest of us have enjoyed watching the seeds streaming through the sunlight... It could make an interesting photo study--similar trees at a similar time of year, in different cultural/geographical contexts. I love the thought of the contrast between Vaux le Vicomte and New Mexico in general, with the same family of trees dispersing their seeds over each.

    Cheri, I'm so glad you enjoyed the photo of the lovely seed, of whatever sort! I more or less wrote the post around that one. I'm afraid the seed/fairy-in-disguise wasn't actually quite as pink as the photo turned out--it's just the way the afternoon light reflected off the terra cotta-colored walls. (I feel like I just told you there is no Santa Claus.)