Sunday, August 14, 2011

Depth Perception

or In Praise of (Dry) Grass

Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, Albuquerque, August 2011

When I lived in Vermont, May and June confused me. They came along in between the first flush of spring and the onset of summer flowers, and they were green, green, green. The meadows were a uniform, deep green. The Green Mountains were, of all things, a uniform, deep green. The cornfields were that same U.D.G. Nothing but lush, healthy greenery met the eye for miles.  (It was really, really green.)

I grew up in Colorado with parents who taught their children to look for beauty in the arid plains by tracing the contours of the landscape, the subtle changes of color as one kind of grass yielded to another, the stippling of the different textures, the play of light and shadow. You had to be willing to engage with what you were seeing; it wasn't the kind of easy beauty that you could passively let wash over you. Bringing the same approach to the U.D.G. in Vermont, though, to that untextured, late-spring landscape, I felt as if I'd entered a two-dimensional world or been deprived of one of my senses. How can you orient yourself in scenery that's monochromatic, where everything is the same, easy-on-the-eyes green? What entry point can you find? How can you perceive depth or distance or difference?  It was only when the grasses began to flower and set seed and the Queen Anne's lace and chicory began to bloom that I found my bearings again.

Let's fast-forward now to this summer.  Two months ago I sat on a well-placed bench at an open space park in the foothills and looked out at this scene:

At the time we'd had no significant rainfall in six months, and while the junipers and cholla were plugging along fine, the grasses were brittle and dry, dead to all outward appearance. Since then, however, the foothills have had an inch, maybe (if we don't mind a little hyperbole) an inch and a half of rain, a few millimeters at a time. An inch (and a half) of rain doesn't last long, not with afternoon highs still in the upper 90's. Even so, yesterday, from the same well-placed bench, the scene looked like this:

(With a bonus, which totally made my day):

Southwestern paintbrush (I think) (Castilleja integra)

The grass isn't exactly rainforest green, but then, it never will be, no matter how much moisture we get. It's mostly blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), a native to the western half of North America, and like most western plants, it is generally trying not to photosynthesize any more than it absolutely must; it doesn't have much chlorophyll to begin with. What you see in the photos is pretty much its deepest color, more of a spring or golden green than emerald or kelly. But it's still green, on an inch (and a half) of rain in eight months.

Just because the grass is greening up, though, doesn't mean that the brown has all gone away.  No one is running around the foothills de-thatching them.  Since we don't have heavy winter snows or rains to flatten the past seasons' growth, it's still standing tall, blue grama's hallmark "eyelash" seedheads still fluttering in the wind.

Those seedheads, waving above the new growth, also catch every ray of light and gleam with it.  The "floor" of the landscape really has two layers:  a green "substance"  layer and a floating, golden "shimmer" layer.  In the top photo, you can almost determine the contours of the land, every little dip and rabbit hole, by tracing the light on the grasses alone.  The distance is marked, tuft by tuft.  In the photo below, even the weight and solidity of the stone in front and the juniper's shadow behind can't overwhelm the shimmer layer's delicate airiness. 

In case you hadn't noticed, I am a westerner through and through.  I am in love with that year-round, gleaming light like nobody's business, and with textures and contours and subtle contrasts.  I enjoy a landscape that doesn't give up its secrets easily, that asks you to invest yourself in it first, and then rewards you with dramatic mountains when you need some easier beauty for a while.  (I do appreciate green, lush, gentle landscapes, of course; they're just not my native language.)  Every time I get to spend time outside—really outside, not "around town" outside—all those things I love hit home again.

They live in the shimmer layer of memory.


  1. When I lived in AZ, I longed for the lush deep green in NY but still admired the beauty of the desert. The western landscape is some of the most beautiful from CO, to the red soil of OK to the blue green of NM. Lovely post.

  2. Beautiful. I love the southwest and always felt the beauty was there for the taking (if one would just look). You wrote about it so well. I enjoy all your posts.

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. Stacy,
    It's lovely to have time (and a computer and an internet connection) again to be able to read your posts, after our move half way round the world. Your focus on the little things that mean so much always makes me pause and think. I will now spend the day musing on the light and colours that define different places.

  4. I love your last line Stacy. Thoughtful post and I can see why you might feel there is not as much texture in our lush landscape . . . yet I do see many layers and textures especially with the changing light. Yours is a more exciting and dramatic landscape to be sure. I so enjoy your sensual descriptive text and accompanying photos.

  5. Pollinators in that park must think they've died and gone to heaven when they come across the paintbrush flower amongst the tufts of dried grass.

  6. with parents who taught their children to look for beauty in the arid plains - and so your readers can sigh with appreciation!

  7. I had the opposite reaction when, as a 21-year-old, I moved from my native New England to southern California. I really found all those brown hills disturbing, and it was a great relief to me when the winter rains came and the hills greened up for a few weeks. I needed someone like your parents (or you) to show me how to see the colors and the beauty in what looked to me like U.D.B. (uniform dirt brown). -Jean

  8. Donna, no matter how much you love and enjoy other landscapes, it seems there's only one that you have a visceral connection to. The west really is amazing and it's definitely home, but I did love the rolling, fertile farmland in your general area of NY when I was there, especially from about now through October—the big ripening season. Eat a crunchy Empire apple for me...

    Elaine, thank you. A big, warm hug to you, just on general principles.

    Jill, oh, dear—I feel like I've added to your to-do list... You certainly will have some amazing light and color to enjoy in your new home.

  9. Carol, during the rest of the year I found textures aplenty in your beautiful New England landscape—it was only for a few weeks in late spring that I didn't. In mid-spring, when the maples and oaks still have tiny, red-green new leaves, the textures and shadings are breathtaking, and the same in summer, about the time when the haying begins. In between, though, I felt that a lot of the texture was overcome by sheer chlorophyll... I think our landscape out here is more extreme at all times—either more dramatic or more dull, with very little of the gentle middle ground of the northeast.

    b-a-g, I kind of thought I had, too... I only saw two of these, and they were welcome bright splashes, but there were quite a few other flowers to keep the pollinators busy—mostly little yellow aster-y things. (I throw up my hands when it comes to identifying little yellow flowers.)

    Diana, thank you. I (more or less) appreciated my parents at the time, but didn't realize then how unusual they were in taking time to stop and look and enjoy and share those things with us.

    Jean, the adjustment you made is definitely the harder of the two. It's much easier to get used to sudden abundance than to sudden dearth like that. I recently heard an acquaintance from Connecticut on the phone to someone back east, saying acerbically, “Oh, sure, New Mexico's beautiful. You can find any shade of brown you want.” She's been out here for 30 years or so now and really likes it, but she still misses that greenery.

  10. So when are you going to publish your lovely photographs and gorgeous prose?

  11. Baffled, you're so kind! But that sounds an awful lot like work...

  12. That last paragraph was pure poetry. I moved from the east to the west 30 years ago, and have never looked back. Thank you for articulating so beautifully why!

  13. T.L.C., thank you! I'm glad the west has been kind to you.