Thursday, June 30, 2011

Conserving Energy

Is this really an Agastache 'Pstessene' 
CORONADO® Red?  We won't find out today.
or Thrills and Adventures, Postponed

I'm in the middle of an "energy crisis" this week and have been lying quietly on the sofa rather than (noisily?) reading, enjoying, and commenting on your blogs or adding my two cents to your Facebook witticisms.  I hope to be back in form visiting with you all again soon.

If everything goes well, by Sunday I should also be ready to offer you the nail-biting, suspenseful, cliff-hanging tale of an unexpected—well, not to spoil the end of the story or anything, but it turned out to be a primrose.  Things don't get much more exciting than that.  Or maybe we'll share a chuckle over that one goldfinch who talks to herself while she eats.  Then again, if we're up for the drama, we might witness a few days in the life of a Ratibida columnifera.  Thrills and adventures await!

But not until I'm functional again.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


A cottonwood in the bosque
or In Search of an Oasis

Whoever said, "Oh, but in the West it's a dry heat," as if heat in a dry place isn't actually hot, was obviously visiting in May when it wasn't actually hot.  Ovens also have a dry heat, may I point out, but we don't expect turkeys to come out of them looking refreshed.

Having just woken up from an accidental nap, I am groggy and a little grumpy.  The whole afternoon siesta thing as a way to escape summer heat—I don't get it, not if you're supposed to be functional afterward.  Not that I can complain, because the house is perfectly comfortable.  The swamp cooler is chugging merrily away, and from inside, the heat of the day is pretty much theoretical.  I pour a glass of herbal iced tea and fix a bowl of farm-fresh cherries and curl up on the bench by the kitchen window to eat, sleepily watching the play of light and wind across the sand cherry leaves in the garden.  Sir Marley is there, spread-eagled on the path where it's been mostly shady all day, limbs stretched out to maximize the surface area exposed to the cool ("cool") brick.  As I watch, he gives it up for a lost cause, stalks over to the water dish to drink, then out to the bird feeder in the side yard to bother the finches for a while.  He looks ready to spread some irritation around.

Ponderosa pine and gambel oak in Paliza Canyon

Afternoons have hit or neared the 100°F (38°C) mark for the last few days, with relative humidity below 5% and gusty late-day winds.  (Where my sister lives in the southeastern corner of the state, one day reached 117.)  Even the shade is hot, and that's saying something.

I'm remembering summers in the humid northeast, where my strategy for coping with the un-air-conditioned over-90° days was to imagine myself in a movie scene wearing a floating, white linen dress and broad-brimmed straw hat; the strains of a swing orchestra would be wafting over the manicured lawn from the veranda.  I figured that any time you could insert the word "veranda" into a mental sentence, you would automatically slow down and relax, and then you couldn't help but be cooler.  A student trudging up the hill in shorts, T-shirt, sneakers, and heavy book-bag to study at the library will be hurried and sweaty; someone in miraculously unwrinkled white linen, who expects a waiter to swan into view with a tray of mint juleps, will be cool and poised.  That was the theory.  No harm came of it, at any rate.  Jumping in a lake later on worked pretty well, too.

Turtles at the Rio Grande Nature Center, finding respite from all that cool, still water in some glaring hot sun.

Since the heat was inescapable, the idea was to embrace it, to turn it into something with entertainment value if nothing else.  I've thought about trying the same thing here, not with whatever imaginary movie the white linen dress/orchestra/mint julep combination came from, because it just doesn't "go," but maybe with something out of Carmen.  Not only is it my favorite opera, but it takes place in a similarly dusty location (and the film version with Julia Migenes-Johnson and Placido Domingo is out of this world)—surely one of the scenes would help me romance a hot, southwestern summer day.  But whenever I ask myself, "What would Carmen do on a scorcher like this?" the answer is, "Nothing legal," and that puts the kibosh on that.

Shelling peas for dinner, I am lulled by the steady, easy rhythm of the task.  Sir Marley stalks back into the garden and flops down in a new place on the path.  After a minute, he gets up, moves two feet farther on, and flops down again.  An indoor oasis isn't a bad thing.  In fact, I really love it.  Maybe it's because I'm in my 40's instead of my 20's.  Maybe it's because I have the option.

A wildlife blind overlooking a natural spring at Elena Gallegos Open Space Park

But when did the idea become to escape from summer rather than to embrace it?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"What Good Is the Firefly"

or The Wonder and the Joy

We don't actually have fireflies in the western U.S.  My first encounter with them was at the age of 25, on a late summer trip to Ithaca, New York, driving at twilight over the back roads of the midwest.  After I had rhapsodized about them for a while to a friend from Ohio, she told me, "You're probably in more danger from them now then you would have been as a child."

Danger. I hadn't thought of them that way, but she was so right.  I was indeed in danger—of finding fireflies entrancing and magical, of losing sleep and getting mosquito-bitten for the pleasure of staying up late to enjoy the flickering lights, of being immersed in that ephemeral experience.  I suppose the alternative was to see fireflies as, well, insects, as normal summer pleasures/annoyances that—I don't know what for sure, never having seen them as normal—maybe keep you from sleeping well, or that make messes when they smash on your windshield.

All to say, a dear friend just sent me Ballistics, a book of Billy Collins' poetry (Gary, you are as ever a wonder and a joy), a lovely companion to summer evenings on the patio, with small thoughts that glimmer and spark before leaving you again in the half-light, aware of something else in the air beyond you.  In one of the poems, "No Things," Collins muses tongue in cheek on the martyr's impulse to pursue the big, dire questions in life rather than dive into small immediacies like the morning flower, the sparrow, the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table—things that in the right frame of mind give rise to wonder, maybe even joy.

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

At the risk of sounding self-serving, "No Things" gave voice to my approach in Microcosm, and I laughed aloud with delight when I read it, not because of the blog, but because it was such a pleasure to find a companion in thought.  Solemnly, dourly pursuing the "big questions" in the void of your own head—how can you know that any quest in such a closed world will lead you down the right road, or even a real one?  But if you stop to marvel at the small things that present themselves—really marvel—you might be surprised at how the "big" questions dissolve inside them.

So, more than most, this post is an ode to wonder, to small happenings, to oddities, to joy.  As Collins suggests in "Despair," the fraternal twin to "No Things," the "ancient Chinese poets" still have much to offer us, especially "Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things/could hardly be restrained,/and...his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,/Ye-Hah."

From the western provinces, amigos—yee-haw!

Do, do, do read Billy Collins.

I don't know if one of those disclaimer-y things is necessary here, but I'm really not officially reviewing these poems or anything—as I said, a friend sent them to me for my enjoyment, and I enjoyed them, and there you are.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hoodoos and Goblins

or A Good Day for Geometry

We're not exactly overrun with science fiction and fantasy writers here in New Mexico—you can go for days, even years without meeting one—but we do seem to attract more of them per capita than the national average.*  A recent article in the Albuquerque Journal featured interviews with several of the most prominent.  The upshot seemed to be that our cultural diversity and desert landscape make contemplating possibilities easier here, especially if you're already inclined that way.**

This is the place that gave birth to the atom bomb and to Microsoft—paradigm-shifting world-changers, science fiction turned real.  Yet as the article points out, even while scientists here continue to do cutting edge research, Catholic Hermanos Penitentes perform ritual self-flagellation on Good Friday to atone for their sins.  At Acoma Pueblo the people choose to live traditionally, without electricity, running water, or sewers.  In the southeastern plains, enthusiasts mount UFO observation decks on their roofs.  If you want to open your mind to different modes of reality, plenty of options are at hand. 

I was thinking about the landscape though—the open, wild, sometimes all-out weird landscape—as a prompt to fantasy while taking an easy hike up Paliza Canyon in the Jemez Mountains to see the goblin colony there.  "Goblin colony" isn't my phrase.  The oddly sculpted rock formations found all across the southwest are known as hoodoos or goblins.  The stones in this particular colony are made of compressed ash.  As rocks go, they are soft, lightweight, and crumbly, like giant meringues that have been rolled in the dirt.  They don't feel quite...real.

Wind and water have carved faces into them, or perhaps eroded faces that were already there.  Many of them are more or less shapeless masses that somehow still manage to come across as humanoid.

Others are astonishingly geometrical, like pieces of a board game, or a child's match-the-shape set.  Somehow they also remind me of the simpler kinds of petroglyphs, as if a message had been left here and gotten jumbled over time.

When did geometry become the stuff of fantasy? I found myself wondering, remembering high school classes where logical proof loomed large, and fantasy was not encouraged.

But then, the less geometrical hoodoos are the stuff of fantasy, too.  I suppose that to people who do not get out enough (ahem), everything unfamiliar is alien and exciting.  Still, geometry suggests agency, someone out there somewhere making that nice, regular shape.  And the grotesque, misshapen rocks suggest that the someone is soooooo not like you.  Wandering around among the hoodoos and goblins for a while, you start contemplating possibilities.

The PBS man did it!
This is the way stories are born.

* A safe thing to say, since as far as I know no one has actually determined the average number of sci-fi/fantasy writers per capita.

**Matt Andazola, "Fantasy world," Albuquerque Journal, April 10, 2011, Lifestyles section.  Sorry to go all footnote-y.  Unfortunately, links get diverted to the subscription page, but if you're interested in reading the article a search for the author and title words should take you there.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Well Fed

or On Pink and Plenty

Vegetables—so wholesome, so useful, nourishing, and sensible.

No, no, no, no, no. What I meant to say is, Vegetables—so vibrant, so artsy, fanciful, and extravagant.

Yes, that's better. The “Flamingo” chard in the microgarden is going like gangbusters these days, and when the sun catches those neon stems early in the morning, you fall in love with sunglasses all over again. (I've cropped some of the photos but haven't altered the colors at all.)

I'm not actually a huge fan of pink, though I've come to terms with it over the years, but this hot pink is an exception. On paper or in a paint store it would mean an instant migraine, but in the natural world it tickles me no end. Still, where chard is concerned, it wouldn't matter if the stems were orange, blue, or purple—what I love about them is their vividness and intensity, that incredible saturation of color. They are a short step away from being pure light.

I looked up the word “saturate,” because—well, really, there is no because. I just wanted to see what would happen. (Living dangerously, Microcosm style.) I knew it was related to satisfy and satiate and so on but was delighted to see that the Latin root, satur, means “well-fed.”

Well fed. Oh, what a lovely phrase, occupying that happy middle-ground between hunger and gluttedness where you purr with the contentment of enough, where your needs are not only met but met pleasantly. If the Cosmic Serving Dish of Pinkness were passed again, the chard would say, “No thank you, I do not need any more pink just now. I am full up with pink. I am so wonderfully full of pink, I could not absorb any more if I tried.”

Looking at it, I find myself feeling well fed, too. It's about more than the color—it's also about the need for a certain intensity of experience, a particular kind of sensory feast. Tracing the stems and veins and rivers, trying to absorb them, to soak up their color...for that moment one lives fully in the wonder of the world.

And on top of all that, chard is a vegetable: an edible, tasty, nutritious vegetable, the stuff of which good dinners are made. (Or at least, it will be, if I stop writing and get busy cooking.)

It is a fine, fine thing to be so very well fed.


A P.S. that didn't fit anywhere else:
"The brave little mantis seeks its fortune in Beta Vulgaris, the giant forest of Chard."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Open Space

A curve-billed thrasher (I think) on cane (or tree) cholla overlooking Albuquerque

or Going Wild

A day for small wildnesses—whiptail lizards, chickadees, scrub jays, the kinds of things you find in the foothills on the outskirts of town in a park where mountain bikers race through and artists stand contemplatively at their easels.  The Elena Gallegos Open Space Park in northeast Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains isn't exactly wilderness, but it flirts with it enchantingly.  I spent a couple of hours moseying around there last Monday, surrounded by the drone of cicadas, and serenaded by the hiss of lizards passing through dried grasses, rustling through dead leaves:

A New Mexico whiptail lizard (I think)

It was a day for remembering what "high desert" really means.  Compared with the shady bosque along the Rio Grande, with its cottonwoods and willows, the piñon-and-juniper habitat in the foothills is exposed and inhospitable (though still enjoyable on a June morning).  And it's parched.  We're holding at 0.19 inches (5 mm) of moisture for the year so far, and up here you know it.  The grasses have "kindling" written all over them.  Where the cool greenery in the river valley offers an easy beauty, higher up, away from the lifeline of water, things are rougher around the edges.  But there's still beauty to be had in plenty.

The view from a well-placed bench—juniper and cholla, with some prickly pear lurking in the grasses

One of those beauties, of course, is the sky—the grandest, most spectacular feature of open spaces in any western landscape.  I wonder sometimes if mountains seem wilder than plains simply because in the mountains you can't see as much of the sky at once.  A huge sky puts things in perspective:  a six-inch lizard (plus tail) would be exciting and wildlife-y in the mountains; its presence would hint of larger and more spectacular things out of sight behind the next tree.  Under the open sky it's a cute little lizard.  Cholla ("choy'-a") can get large enough to tower overhead, but they always look small under the sheer, horizon-spanning mass of sky. 

But even among the spines and barbs closer to the ground, beauty is not far away:  yucca seed pods, opening up like flowers; the perfect domes of cholla buds; the "swallowed coin" roundnesses in the living stems, and the wind-flute airiness of the dead ones; the way prickly-pears echo the tumbled rocks they thrive on, the twists and turns from one perfectly rounded pad to the next.

Yucca seed pods, cholla buds (the flowers are magenta), and living and dead cholla stems
Cholla "trunks"
Prickly pear dribbling down the side of an arroyo, shaded by scrub live oak (I think)

I've been thinking lately about a comment that Dave, the Anxious Gardener, made a couple of posts back, about how on the one hand New Mexico seems like an alien environment (especially to his own garden in Sussex), but then on the other hand we grow some of the same plants and fight the same pests.   Getting out in the open space and taking a good look around made me aware of just how domesticated the gardens here are.  I mean, for Pete's sake, in my last post I was rambling on about Easter lilies, and in this one I'm watching out so I don't step on a cactus.  We really have wrested gardens (and lawns and shade trees) out of a land where theoretically they don't belong.

You can see the green(er) Rio Grande valley near the horizon line, about 1,500' below the altitude of the park.

It's a little nerve-wracking to realize that quite so clearly.  Words like "unsustainable" and, well, "unsustainable" keep flashing on and off inside my head.  I'm reasonably responsible with water now, but am jolted into thinking about the next step—perhaps "undomesticating" a little bit and planting more really wild things.  It wouldn't have to be anything radical—just small wildnesses.

Let the Easter lilies beware...


Desert humor

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gilding the Lily

or A Sporting Chance

Naivety is such an endearing trait in other people and so exasperating in yourself.  That is, it's fine to begin with, before you realize that you're being naive, but afterward, when you're reaping the fruits of your ignorance, then it's exasperating.  Take Easter lilies, for example.  Last year I somehow ended up with three of them, and thought with pleasure that they would be just the things to fill a hole between the two youngest sand cherry bushes until they've grown in.

Unfortunately, I was naive in the ways of Easter lilies and didn't know that their fragrance—so enjoyable when the buds were just peeping open—would be overpowering once they opened all the way.  (I sure know it now.)  Nor was I aware that removing the anthers would tone down the scent.  Easter of 2010 was two weeks before our last frost date, and I sat with those lilies in my modest-sized townhome for fourteen long days as the blasted flowers got more and more and more odoriferous.  (Just to be clear, it's not the fragrance itself that I object to but the inescapably massive, overwhelming, larger-than-life, sledge-hammer brute force of it.  The fragrance itself is fine.)

Eventually I got grumpy and locked them in the guest bathroom until it was safe to plant them outside.  I was tempted to chuck them out altogether.  But when you open the door on them after they've been shut away in the dark for days with no care and they're still joyfully radiating "Ta da!", chucking them doesn't seem quite right.  (After all, once I had scrubbed down the walls with undiluted vinegar, washed the towels and hung them in direct sun for several days running, and replaced the old toilet paper roll with a new one fresh from the package, the bathroom was more or less bearable again.  Faintly exotic, but bearable.)

I decided to give them a sporting chance, if you can call sticking them in bad dirt against a heat-radiating wall without hardening them off or giving them any particular nurture, growling at them all the while, a sporting chance.  They did OK, but I was happy—yes, happy—to see them wither away in July.

But of course, in the way of bulbs, they came back again in the spring.  I was a little harrumph-y about that, too—if I had known lilies would do so well here, I would have planted some gorgeous Asiatics, with deep, velvety colors, and not white, smelly Easter lilies.

Now that they're blooming, though, I'm not harrumphing.  I'm not quite ready to celebrate them wholeheartedly, as Ginny at Ginny's Garden does so beautifully, but I'm not still cross.   Not really.

No, not really cross at all.  I rather like them with the yarrow and daisies, even though yarrow seems a little too rough-and-tumble to associate with lilies.  The gold and white enhance each other; together they speak of joy and sunlight and fresh, dewy mornings.  Since we seldom have dewy mornings here, it's extra-nice to be able to evoke them.

Even the fragrance is barely noticeable, unless you're up close taking macro shots, and eventually I ought to be able to avoid that.  From the scattering of pollen on the trumpets, the pollinators have been enjoying themselves, and that is always a good thing.  (The flowers also have a light coat of ash from the Wallow Fire, but if it wasn't ash, it would be dust, trust me.)  I may even give them a little extra water and some fertilizer this year.

They might as well have a sporting chance.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Long Reach

or Dispersed on the Wind


The smell raised hackles on the back of your neck you didn't even know were there.  Fire—fire—powerful, immediate.  Smoke pooled on the roads and dimmed streetlights; its acridity caught in your throat and stung your eyes. The city's emergency lines were flooded with calls, and officials must have had a sleepless night before ascertaining that no fire was burning in town.  The smoke, so fresh that you could taste the pine in it, had blown in from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, more than 200 miles away.

Since Thursday, the night when we first encountered its smoke here in Albuquerque, Arizona's Wallow Fire has burned more than 180,000 acres and is still zero percent contained.  What it must be like closer to its source I shudder to think.  Yet even though the fire has grown, for us the effect has dimmed.  We've had haze and ash, but not that powerful sense of presence.  It was only the first night that wind conditions were right to give the smoke such a long reach.

Sunrise through smoke (and an upstairs window screen—sorry about that...)


I'm always amazed at how deeply into an ecosystem a single plant can reach.  Take Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), for example.  It's a native shrub of the rose family that grows on mesas and gravelly slopes from Texas to California, a range of maybe 500 by 800 miles, spanning a stretch of country that does not molly-coddle its plants with such luxuries as, say, water.

Apache plume with color-coordinated spider

Apache plume can endure just about anything, including cold, heat, drought, salt, excessive calcium, malnutrition, alkalinity—anything except for wet feet in winter (and really, who can blame it).  It blooms with varying degrees of enthusiasm from April until Octoberish, its flowers and seed plumes gracing the plant at the same time.  The seeds generally cling tightly but eventually disperse on the wind (especially if you run your fingers through them as you walk past).

This little shrub stabilizes slopes, prevents erosion, provides forage for deer and other browsers, offers nectar to insects, and gives shelter to small birds.  At a conservative guess, a good score of species depend on it for their survival.  A couple of winters ago I saw a small flock of ruby-crowned kinglets taking cover and lunching on some incidental insects in an Apache plume here in town; they barely moved the leaves as they worked out their complicated seating arrangements.  They had such bright, interested eyes.


I've been thinking about things that have a greater reach than you expect as I've been writing this, my 100th post, on the eve of my blog's one-year anniversary.  When I started writing I wanted Microcosm to be three things:  a creative outlet, a reason to look more closely at everyday beauty, and a way to connect with people with similar loves and interests.  On all three counts it has more than met my expectations.  I have loved the whole process of looking, thinking, photographing, writing, crafting.  Having ("having") to look closely and see things afresh for an admittedly self-imposed but still twice-a-week deadline has given me a passion for looking closely that, if anything, has grown beyond its starting point.

Somehow all of these thoughts, dispersed on the winds of cyberspace, have found readers.  And you, my dears—you have opened up your lives and gardens in turn and offered a camaraderie that is beautiful and precious.  Bless you.  After all, you've been with me as I've mused about the nature of weeds, gone dreamy-eyed about hot-air balloons, fretted about the coming of winter, and waxed rhapsodic about spring migration.  What reward can I give you? 

None, except that of appreciation, and my companionship in return.

Sometimes I wonder how much more interpretation a scant 400 square feet of garden (including patio space) can sustain.  I've begun to wonder that with every single post—what can I say new about flowers or leaves or stems or fruit?  What does the patio have to offer today that I haven't already shared with you?  Somehow, Mother Nature always comes through.

You'd be surprised what a long reach she has.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


or At the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, Part II

The placement of public benches is an art form, and apparently, a tricky one to master.  I know a lovely roadside park in Vermont on a hilltop with panoramic vistas of Lake Champlain, the Champlain valley, and the Adirondacks beyond, where every bench in the park is angled to face the parking lot.  (I am not kidding.)  More than one hiking trail in New York's Finger Lakes area has a rustic seat myopically close to a wall of massive tree trunks, when a view of an open glade lies ten feet further on.  The picnic benches in my own neighborhood park here in Albuquerque roast in open, glaring sun, 20 feet from the closest shade tree.

CFS gives you a sharp eye for certain things, and resting places are high on the list.  I've become rather a judge of public benches over the last 15 years, based on their frequency, comfort, shadiness, and offered views.  They are my litmus tests of how much a park system cares about its visitors, of how well its designers understood how the park would be experienced.

Sometimes you find a place that gets it just right.  In this post I don't have any particular words of wit or wisdom to offer—it's just a pictorial "Ode on Sitting (with Explanatory Notes)", from a botanic garden that I love, where the benches do and say all the right things.

The bench in the title photo, with its comfortable, easy curves that defy you to sit up straight, nests in a southwestern take on an English country garden:  the design is relaxed but has formal-ish underpinnings and sports an armillary sphere, a traditional sculpture or two, and a rose arbor.  Its beds feature drought-tolerant but not completely xeric plants, the kinds a home gardener looking for "comfort plantings" might be inclined to try.  Most of the garden receives full sun, but the bench is tucked away under a shade tree.  No one yet has brought me iced tea in a pretty pitcher while I've sat there, but the feeling remains that they might.

Chamomile, columbine, roses, and yarrow.

Farther out, the gardens turn more "wild," with naturalistic plantings of big sage (Artemisia tridentata), yucca, and prickly pear.  Bridging the space between the desert garden and a conservatory, a ramada offers much-appreciated shelter from the sun.  Its roof is made of ocotillo stems—the shadows they cast on the bentwood chairs change with every season.  Feeders and flowers draw hummingbirds and other songbirds; roadrunners visit regularly, looking terminally worried.

I am always surprised at how much shade the ocotillo stems give.  In contrast, here is the view from the ramada out toward the sunshine:

(For the record, the chairs are uncomfortable but worth it.)

A winding path leads to the Camino de Colores, a series of concept gardens representing the four seasons.  One of the more successful is the winter garden (offered here for Diana at Elephant's Eye, with her own garden's Winter Chill).  It has the only bench that is almost never shaded—not too pleasant in late spring, but in winter, with the sun warming that red stone in the quasi-canyon, very pleasant indeed.

In a little cul-de-sac just prior to the Camino de Colores lies the curandera garden, which honors Spanish New Mexican traditions of folk healing.  At first I didn't care much for this garden, as nothing seemed to "happen" in it; then I came to love it for the same reason.  It is a tranquil, domestic place, with no particular sense of order, but offering a generous welcome in its open patio.  The comfortably worn arms and seat on the bench and the tile squares echo the sense of "hearth and home" that predominates throughout.

(Some winter damage from our February cold snap is still apparent here.)

This is a quiet enough backwater that I have sometimes seen a covey of Gambel's quail brave the patio, chasing their own topknots across it; a homey enough spot that dandelions are allowed to set seed:

And the bench invites you to sit in the quiet, in the dappled shade of its giant cottonwood—just to sit, and enjoy the garden.


As a P.S.:  All right, the tricycle isn't exactly public seating, but how can you not love a place that gives its gardeners such stylish transportation?