Thursday, September 15, 2011

Soft Focus

or A Missed Opportunity

If only I'd had an epiphany, then everything would have been perfect.  The thing with epiphanies, though, is that you have to be looking for something, following some metaphorical star in the East toward enlightenment, for enlightenment actually to happen.  (Which doesn't mean that the enlightenment you get will be the one you were looking for, of course.)  I wasn't looking for any enlightenment at all.  I was just out for a hike walk dawdle at the Elena Gallegos Open Space Park on a day off from work.

Seeing the same place in different seasons endears it to you like nothing else—it becomes a friend in a way, as you discover more and more about it.  You learn its moods and celebrate its accomplishments—the lone flower that's turned into a patch, the fledglings grown to independence—and shake your head at its foibles:

Galls on the leaves of scrub oak (Quercus turbinella) (I think)

This is the first time I've seen the park in late summer, and it is lovely indeed.  The day was a soft-focus one, with high "mare's-tail" clouds, some noncommittal thunderheads, and a breeze that wasn't quite all there.  In the brief, vital weeks between monsoon rains and frost, the grasses have begun to bloom, especially the blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and what I suspect is an escaped pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), as have the wildflowers—southwestern paintbrush, sand verbena, bahia, mounding peppergrass, globemallow, broom snakeweed, spiny asters, and the unfortunately named but beautiful clammyweed.

Red-whiskered clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra)

The spiky, tufty textures so characteristic of the southwest have softened and grown together, as if they've finally learned to write in cursive.  They blend, they blur, they marry.  I took one look at this scene and for the first time in my life wished that I were Piet Oudolf:

Mounding peppergrass, globemallow, pink muhly (?), and blue grama grass (and who knows what else)

Even in the haphazard breeze, the grasses were in full swing, sway, flutter, wave, dip, and bob.  I kept blinking my eyes, before realizing that they weren't out of focus—the grasses were.  That subtle, not-quite-constant motion made my camera's autofocus rebel altogether.  Almost every wildflower I saw was veiled in grass; unless you looked to the junipers in the middle distance, or to the mountains a step beyond, it was impossible to find anything with clear outlines.

So when I encountered this Say's phoebe, it held me enchanted.  Its muted colors against the impressionistic backdrop seemed to epitomize the day.  Even the cholla it rested on looked tamed, softened by a vicarious gentleness.

Yes, well.  Then the phoebe pounced.  It had seen—I don't know what.  A beetle? a cicada?  Something big enough to put up a tussle, at any rate, because a fast and furious battle amidst a pillow of asters ensued.  I think the phoebe won but wouldn't want to place any bets.  The gentle shadings of its exterior clearly hide a well-defined strength and hunger, just as those vague, out-of-focus grasses disguise the landscape beneath them.  The cholla may look tamed, but trust me, it isn't.  And just try wading into those impressionistic, blurry textures in your soft-sided sneakers:  in ten steps tops you will have encountered an all too well-defined prickly pear or yucca or anthill.

The sense of layered experience, of a vague exterior hiding something more clear-cut beneath, reminded me of the way that letting your focus on a quandary go soft, letting the winds of consciousness blow haphazardly, sometimes allows the solution to materialize like some craggy peak out of the fog, or a juniper from the grass—clear, definite against an open sky.  I always think of the conscious mind as being well-defined, and the subconscious as nebulous and hard to pin down, but now I wonder if it isn't the reverse:  the conscious mind is where all the vague, billowy stuff happens, whereas the subconscious holds hard, adamant truth.  At any rate, my walk through the park would have been a perfect occasion for an epiphany, if only I'd been looking for one at the time.

Globemallow, cholla, pink muhly (?), and blue grama

But I wasn't.


  1. Lovely writing and photos. It's easy to get romantic about the beauty of nature, then be surprised at the thorniness of its reality. Yet all is essential ....

  2. Now that is some pretty scenery in those soft shades. Love the textures too.

  3. Love that pink muhly! Well, since you have a question mark after it - I love that pink muhly (?)! :) Poor clammyweed - what a horrible name for such a pretty flower. Fall colors are gorgeous, aren't they? Every year I say I'm going to get some grasses, but I never do. I just don't know that much about them to take the leap. Maybe the epiphany was: which plants you might want to include in your new planting scheme!

  4. Stacy, you have a lovely way with words. Yours is a blog I read while others (don't tell them) I skim...
    Your walk is so different to any I do over here but I can relate to the feeling of attachment and of knowing the place through the seasons.
    Piet Oudolf is a wonderful designer but I think the The clammyweed is very exotic. Where does such a beautiful flower get such an unfortunate name?

  5. Sheila, once I was watching a goldfinch perched on a rudbeckia and thinking how lovely and sweet and color-coordinated it was, and then the goldfinch tore the rudbeckia to shreds looking for seeds. It's always a shock (and a thrill) to realize that nature just doesn't have Disney moments...

    Donna, I've never seen things look so soft out here before. The odd thing is that the individual flowers are brightly colored, but the overall effect is pastel.

    Holley, :D I've begun to think of the question mark as part of muhly(?)'s official name... Fall colors have such wonderful warmth to them--they're definitely my favorites. The key with grasses seems to be to put them in a place where they can move and where the seeds will be backlit. There's one small patch in the planting scheme where they'll be perfect...

    Janet, that's so kind of you--thank you.
    Apparently clammyweed foliage feels a little sticky and moist. I didn't realize that at the time or I would have tested it out (all for the sake of the blog, of course). Maybe that's just as well--the foliage is also supposed to smell bad when touched and leave an unpleasant scent on your hands! They're closely related to cleome, for whatever that's worth.

  6. You can certainly see the cleome connection and you've galvanized me to read Piet Oudolf - why I haven't before, goodness only knows. And a 'phoebe' (my niece's name) is just perfect for such a pretty little bird.

  7. Dave, I say this with embarrassment, but I haven't actually read any of Piet Oudolf's work, either. I've just seen the more famous photos around, and some general ideas. And phoebe...yes, I could see this bird getting a fit of giggles and having to leave the room. (It really is a lovely name.)

  8. I'm with Dave and Stacy, haven't read Piet Oudolf, but he has become a garden concept hasn't he?

    Have cleared half the backlog in my Google Reader. Getting to the blogs I savour ;~)

  9. It's good to have you back, Diana. :) Yes, you come across Piet Oudolf's name and a particular family of images comes to mind--that's quite a mark to have left on the gardening world!