|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.
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.