Sunday, February 26, 2012

Of Crocuses and Cranes

or A Pang at Parting

They're leaving.  Last weekend as I sat on the patio the sandhill cranes were circling overhead, riding the thermals to gain altitude, one small flock after another joining the rising spiral in a sky streaked high with cirrus clouds.  All the while they were calling out, but their normal creaky purr sounded remote, as detached as an echo, as if their thoughts were already elsewhere.  Abruptly, the haphazard circles broke apart and stretched into the trailing limbs of a V.  The cranes locked on to magnetic North, and in a few minutes they were gone.  A little later a new flock appeared, circling, calling, distant, the hive mind already focused on summer nesting grounds.

The cranes are heading north a little early this year, I think.  I often hear them around the third week of February, but just a few, the early scouts rather than the main troops.  This wasn't the vanguard, though.  It was the full migration, a morning's worth of cranes, and not the only one.  They're leaving.  Last week I heard them go overhead by the hundreds; yesterday I heard a few flocks go by; today a few birds.  By now they may all be gone.

A mess of sandhill cranes, in the circling and mixing phase, February 2012, from my garden.  Not an inspired photo, I'm afraid, though if you're interested in sandhill cranes it might be worth clicking through to see the birds full screen.

Their departure is one of the few pangs of winter's passing for me.  I almost always take a trip down to the cranes' winter quarters at Bosque del Apache or thereabouts over Presidents' Day weekend to bid them farewell.  This year I wasn't able to manage it.  Instead I kept vigil from the patio, with crocuses for company.  It seemed fitting:  the fall-blooming crocuses had joined me in welcoming the cranes last November; how right, then, that the spring bloomers should be present to see them off again.

Funny.  In the last post I talked about crocuses nestling among the pebbles in the garden's settled beds.  The central bed, though, is still in the throes of re-planting and is largely empty and unmulched.  A small patch of crocuses there has come into bloom in the open space under a young Agastache rupestris—and it is actually blooming as a patch.*  With these flowers, blossoming on bare earth, I'm not so much aware of happy nestling and groundedness as of the way they reach skyward, stretching with all their might toward the sun.

It's as if they, too, want to travel with the cranes, as if roots and gravity are impediments, as if wanderlust burns hot inside them, and they ache with the desire to fly, to be away, to look over the garden walls to the next hill, and the one after, and the one after that, with the horizon always one siren song beyond.  It's as if they feel the pang of being left behind, the walls closing in behind them.

Bernardo Wildlife Area, NM, February 2011

The way that I do, too.

* If you want to join me in jumping up and down for joy, I won't stop you.

When you're tired of my exploring different ways of looking at a crocus, please do say so.  I don't have to reach thirteen (and won't, I promise).  In the meantime, don't miss Jean of Jean's Garden's post on different ways of viewing forsythia.  It's fascinating and delightful both, and strikes home for anyone who's ever experienced a dull, gray winter.  (Most likely, that would be you.)

Other not-to-be-missed participants are b-a-g at Experiments with Plants and HolleyGarden at Roses and Other Gardening Joys.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


or Wild

Artsy-craftsy little towns seem to breed in the Finger Lakes area of New York.  Walk into a shop along any Main Street, and you'll find yourself up to the eyebrows in artisan-made glass paper-weights and figurines, pottery mugs with iridescent glazes, hand-dyed silk scarves, and warmly glowing, inlaid woods.  In those stores you move slowly and keep your hand-bag close, lest you knock something breakable to the floor.

I lived in one of those little towns during my mid-20's.  Sometimes after a stressful day I would make a beeline for its row of boutiques, that hushed world where slowness and gentleness reigned, and beautiful things murmured from every shelf and corner.  I would pick up a delicate objet d'art and hold it nestled in the palm of my hand as if it were a wild bird until the stress subsided.

I'm not sure why it worked.  Perhaps it called up deep memories of wonder, of being six and standing rigid and breathless with awe as a ladybug or inchworm or roly poly tickled its way across my palm.  Or maybe the hush reminded me of childhood excursions in the mountains, and Dad whispering "Don't move" in my ear, his hand on my shoulder to still me, while a mule deer crossed the path in front of us.  For whatever reason, in treating things gingerly and holding still, my more grown-up self would remember that hush of wonder for a moment.  I'd walk back out of the store comforted to know that not all problems have to be conquered—some of them really can be tamed instead.

I've never been a huge fan of gravel mulch, which is a pity out here in The Land of Gravel Mulch.  It is an improvement over thirsty lawns and mowing, but still—in most situations gravel is hot and harsh and full of edges in a climate that can be all of those things on its own, without any help from the peanut gallery.  Plants don't care about my preferences, though.  Most of the things that thrive here prefer poor, rocky soils.  I've ended up mulching a couple of the beds in the garden with various sizes of flat, rounded river pebbles, the kind I dig out of the garden anyway.  In late winter, when I've trimmed back the autumn sage and gaura so that the crocuses beneath them can get some sunlight, the long bed beside the patio is very gravelly indeed, in the southwest's characteristic "dry riverbed" sort of way. 

I dream of (and plant) swaths of crocuses in all the beds but get little dots of them instead.  From a distance the individual flowers are kind of disappointing (though up close they're as lovely as anyone could wish).  In the gravel beds, however, I've begun to find those dots of bloom enchanting.  They've nestled in among the larger pebbles, where they look fragile and shy and wild, as if they've blown in on the wind and are taking shelter.  Their translucent petals remind me of moth wings, and I almost expect them to flutter off if I startle them. They're so very ephemeral, especially next to the solidity of stone.  I find myself moving slowly, gently around them, as if they were birds to be coaxed to the palm of my hand, and touching them with feathery light fingers.

The crocuses are no more wild than the artisan-made figurines I used to cherish against inner storms.  But they, too, make me think of that sudden hush when something wild and beautiful crosses your path, of the child's wide-eyed wonder when some small, six-legged creature makes its way across the landscape of your hand.  Suddenly I'm less interested in conquering the garden beds to impose my vision of glorious drifts of color, and more content to have my desires tamed by those little dots of bloom. 

Perhaps I've been tamed and conquered both...


I'm continuing with the Thirteen (or Fewer) Ways of Looking at a Crocus (or Some Equivalent) Challenge I set myself a couple of posts ago.  Some of my favorite bloggers have responded to the invitation, too.  Please pop over to Experiments with Plants, where b-a-g revels in the color saffron and posts a tasty-looking recipe to boot.  And HolleyGarden at Roses and Other Gardening Joys writes beautifully about small things in A Bloom of Significance.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dearth and Plenty

or Relativity

C. chrysanthus 'Cream Beauty'

A number of years ago I found myself in Paris at the end of January and was delighted to see pansies blooming everywhere—in window boxes, public parks, tucked into private courtyards—cheerful splashes of color wherever you looked.  I commented on all the flowers to a French acquaintance, who looked at me in perplexity and said, "There are no flowers.  There are only winter flowers."  She never did quite believe me, that across huge stretches of North America "winter" and "flowers" don't go in the same sentence together.  And she never did seem particularly impressed with the pansies.

Vermont, of course, is one of those places where winter is not a flowering season.*  The snow generally arrives mid-December and doesn't melt again until mid-March.  On clear nights temperatures can drop to 25 below Fahrenheit, and some winters they don't warm above 0°F (or C, for that matter) for weeks on end.  Even the most reckless crocuses wait until spring is well advanced (in calendar terms) to make their appearance, and then only in protected spots against west- or south-facing walls.  They are truly spring flowers, blooming in early April, and mighty welcome they are.  They are loved not only for their beauty, but also because they Mean something:  winter may still have some fight left in it, but it's fading fast.  Soon the spring peepers will start calling from every pond and puddle, and from then on you're off and running.

C. chrysanthus 'Blue Pearl'

The little snow crocuses that I love are early bloomers.  In my garden they usually open at the end of February, but this year they started blooming on Groundhog Day, more than six weeks before the equinox, right smack dab in the middle of winter.  I'm wondering whether they can even properly be called spring flowers here in Albuquerque, or if they're really winter ones—not a herald of change on the horizon at all.

Thinking about the mental divide between winter and spring has set me to thinking about dearth and plenty, and how relative they can be.  In places where flowers bloom year-round, I suppose it's easy to think that even a park full of pansies makes a meager show.  Compared to the abundance of summer, winter leanness might be enough to leave you unsatisfied, wanting more.  Where flowers don't bloom for six months of the year, though, and the landscape is a blanket of white for three, any flower is a treasure.  The pinpoint of color from one little crocus can fill you with joy enough to share with the neighborhood.  Dearth—if there's hope at the end of it—teaches you the knack of turning a morsel into plenty.

Whether crocuses here belong to spring or winter is really pretty moot—they will bloom in February one way or the other.  I suppose the question is more one of attitude.  Are they "only winter flowers," not yet the real deal, or are they spring flowers that Mean something?  Do they belong to an attitude of dearth, or do they get to be the plenty at its end?

Today the weather came down on the side of winter, with snow this morning and again late this afternoon— large, sleepy flakes that kissed the flowers lightly before melting away.  The crocuses, with their colors of cream and pearl, were just as gentle with winter in their turn.  They accepted its kiss kindly, on the cheek, as between old friends.

And when the sun came out, they turned their faces toward the spring.

* My entry for Understatement of the Year.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thirteen (or Fewer) Ways of Looking at a Crocus

or Comparing Apples to Apples

The poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens, uses blackbirds as a kind of touchstone for different perspectives.  The birds are a recurring theme, sure, a point of departure, but also a way of testing moods and images against something constant.  When I was in grad school for music history, every year the composition students were each asked to write music for a stanza from the Thirteen Ways.  Their group concerts (called things like "Twelve Ways of Looking at Six Ways of Looking at a Blackbird") were always among my favorites—I loved seeing how such different perspectives, such powerful individuality, could spring from the same material.

Crocus chrysanthus 'Cream Beauty'

A friend of mine who teaches English starts his writing class every year by asking students to describe an apple.  Sometimes they get stuck:  how many ways can you say "roundish" and "red"?  Then he offers suggestions:  the role of apples in family traditions (Mom teaching me how to crimp a pie crust,  and telling me about dinners of apple dumplings during the Great Depression); in seasonal rites (apple picking on a crisp, New England autumn day, fresh-pressed cider from a roadside stand); in the garden (showers of apple blossom petals, their scent filling the air; espaliers stretched against a wall; underplantings of daffodils); in the ecosystem (the soothing drone of bees, the gnawings of codling moth larvae, the barely bitten apple discarded by squirrels); in legend (forbidden fruit, apples of gold, dwarfs and evil step-mothers); in the economy (the complex journey from orchard to table).

His point is that even something as simple as an apple isn't self-contained or shut off from the world.  It exists in a web of interactions.  Suddenly my friend's students don't know how to stop describing an apple.

C. chrysanthus 'Blue Pearl'

In some ways, gardens are full of endless variety and wonder.  In other ways, the same things tend to happen pretty much every year.  (Not that that isn't also a source of wonder.)  After my first year of blogging I found (and still find) myself stuck every so often—in a tiny garden, how much really changes from one spring to the next?  What remains to be said?  The bulbs come up, and I take photo after enthusiastic photo of the crocuses...which look remarkably similar to the photos upon photos of crocuses I took last year, which look an awful lot like the ones from the year before that. 

Because the crocuses haven't changed.  They just keep blooming in the same way (even if they are three weeks early) and in the same places as they always do.* 

So far, my primary way of looking at a crocus is a gleeful one:  "The crocuses are blooming!  The crocuses are blooming!"  It's a lot of fun, actually, but I wonder what would happen if I set myself the challenge of finding some new ways, too?  Probably not thirteen of them—that seems a little excessive—but more than one.  If your crocuses or some equivalent are up and running and you feel like taking part in the More than One but Fewer than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crocus (or Some Equivalent) Challenge, please do, and please let me know about it.  Don't consider it anything as formal as a meme.

It would just be nice to wonder how to stop describing a crocus.
* This is not a complaint.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


or Window Dressing

Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi)

Simon was not happy, and as the boxes, furniture, and odd lots gradually disappeared into the back of the moving van, his unhappiness grew.  Change can be a worrisome thing at the best of times.  When you're blind, and elderly, and the change is not one of your choosing, and you've been shunted aside into the back yard for the duration, out of harm's way but also away from the reassuring presence of your family, worry can explode into panic.  Simon responded in the only way he could, really.  He barked.  And barked, and barked—piercing cries of desperation.  His miniature poodle soprano would have done even a wolf proud as he gave voice to the bone-deep fear of his species, the fear of abandonment and aloneness.  Poodle, pointer, or pit bull—all of those shapes and sizes are just different ways of housing the need to belong.

(The last I saw of Simon, he was sitting in the cab of the van in the arms of one of my former neighbors, eagerly sniffing the air through the open window as they all drove out of view.)

Rio Grande cottonwood (Populus wislizeni)

For me, at least, blogging is basically a way of dressing up the word "Wow" for company.  Whether a tiny event in the garden or a magnificent scene in the wild, something awe-inspiring or beautiful or intriguing or comical, that moment of Wow is what prompts me to pick up camera, paper and pencil, and to look for ways to share the essence of that moment with you all.  I may have published 161 posts so far, but at heart they're almost all the same—I've just written the same post in 161 different ways.

Gaura lindheimeri

It's been a while since I've waxed rhapsodic about stems.  As winter moseys along, though, and the flowers stay away, stems and branches and trunks grab your attention—and then you remember just how fascinating they are.

French marigold (Tagetes patula)

I was looking up some information on stems the other day, as one does, and was astonished to find out how alike their innards are, no matter what their surface differences, at least across large classes of plants.  The striping along a sand cherry branch, the rugged crags of an old cottonwood, the lithe wands of gaura, the nubs on marigold stems in their tidy rows, and the Kool-aid purple of rue in winter—all that variety is just so much window dressing for one essential process:  moving nutrients around.  The outer portions of the stem or trunk protect the interior, vascular tissue—the xylem, which carries water and minerals upward from the soil, and the phloem, which carries carbohydrates downward from the leaves.  The outsides of plants may have scads of different strategies to cope with their environment, to prevent dessication and protect from disease, but at heart they're all remarkably akin.  The same processes are at work in the 80-foot tree as in the tender annual.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

All to say—wow.

Thanks, everyone, for the kind and supportive comments and e-mails over the last couple of weeks!