Thursday, April 26, 2012


or Relative

California poppies with 'Wisley Primrose' sun roses (Helianthemum nummularium)

My favorite forecast (in a twisted sort of way) when I lived in the northeast was for "brightening."  Not clearing, mind you.  Brightening.  On brightening days, the skies would stop being dark and dreary and turn plain old dreary, a change of degree rather than kind.  The light might not have been become strong, but at least it became stronger.  Sometimes you're grateful for small graces, like the sight of what might be considered shadows by those who have become inured to shade.

I've never heard a forecaster in New Mexico call for brightening, but I still think the term applies.  It's such a handy, relative word, a qualitative rather than a quantitative one.  It allows for growth and for nuances of strength.  With the tulip days of spring behind us and the poppy days upon us, the sky hasn't gotten sunnier, precisely, but it's certainly brightened. The light is ratcheting up a notch, strengthening from a glow to a blaze.  When the sun is overhead at noon, north of the trees in the garden now, and high, it's...well, it's bright.  The garden is brightening, too.  The pastels I love in the gentler days of spring are yielding to stronger, more saturated colors—colors that can hold their own in the sunlight and pitch it right back.

The petunias aren't really this color, but they are definitely bright.

When a bubble of hot-air balloons floated by the other day, my heart flew right along with them.  The sky was such a deep blue, and the balloons' envelopes so brightly colored, that somehow on a spring morning with a glorious day stretched out ahead I felt for a moment like I was 18 again.  Maybe you know the feeling I mean, of being young and strong and confident, like you have the world at your feet—for no particular reason, of course, except that you're young and confident, which at the time seems like plenty of reason and to spare.  You're beginning to flex your muscles and stretch yourself, to test your strength.  You're ready to ratchet life up a notch.  The brightest of adventures awaits, because...why wouldn't it?

Out the kitchen door

But of course, you can't take on the world singlehandedly; even good choices have flip sides of loss; life doesn't wait until you're looking before it starts throwing curveballs at you.  At some point you realize that the chance to soar isn't necessarily your special birthright.  Still, the feeling was gorgeous at the time.  It's a springtime feeling, and one we have the pleasure of reliving every year, as the sun begins to flex its muscles and stretch itself, and the garden begins its first, surging flush of growth.  The remembrance is a small grace, a brightening, a feeling of what might be considered flying, to those inured to going on foot. 

A relative term, brightening.  It means something different in middle-age than it did at 18.

Then again, so does strength.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Odd One Out

or Harmless Eccentrics

Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis)  has only the tiniest of leaves, useless little scales that you'd hardly recognize as leaves at all.  It keeps its chlorophyll in its stems instead, which is unusual behavior in a shrub but an ingenious response to the desert, as Ephedra has no broad surfaces to be robbed of moisture by the wind and sun.  Even in its first year after planting, it doesn't want much watering, and after that it's quite content with rainfall.  It seems to be a unique cross—or a link—between conifers and flowering plants and is a little odd-looking.  But then, the climate it's adapted to is an odd one, too.  In the hottest corner of the garden between the south and west-facing walls, I don't know what would do better.

Ephedra viridis

Years ago I was visiting with a friend at his house back in rural New York state.  He was a grad student in Renaissance literature, and we got ourselves lost in a discussion of Shakespeare.  We had come to a knotty point about Henry V when a squirrel in the garden made its way over the baffle that should have stopped it but mostly didn't, and scampered on up the bird feeder.  My friend excused himself mid-sentence, opened the living room window, picked up a BB gun lying on the sill, fired a few shots at the roof of the feeder, frightened off the squirrel, put down the gun, closed the window, and resumed discussing Henry as if nothing had happened.  "This," I thought, "is how eccentrics are born."*

For many people, I do think eccentricity proceeds that way:  You're off on your own somewhere, in circumstances that call for an intense kind of focus, and don't stop to wonder whether your actions are quirky or strange.  You just do what needs done with the resources you have, without looking up and around at the wider world, and the next thing you know, that focus, that set of responses, has turned into habit.  Shakespeare and BB guns have merged into one harmonious world in your head.  You've shed your leaves, the chlorophyll has moved into your stems, and the neighbors have started to look at you funny.  You may have adapted well to the circumstances, but that doesn't mean you're not a little...odd. 

The micro-garden, showing two colors of orach, along with pepper cress and garlic.

One of my current neighbors and I take turns peeking over our shared garden wall to see what the other is growing.  We have completely different approaches and interests, which is half the fun, of course.  He's particularly fascinated by the micro-garden, the divided, 2' x 4' raised bed where I grow vegetables.  "What's that on the end?" he'll ask, and we'll start working our way around the bed.  Orach, amaranth, arugula, sweet potato vine, pepper cress.  "Don't you ever just grow, you know, lettuce?"

I don't—it doesn't thrive, as my non-vegetable growing neighbor hasn't had to discover.  I find myself going farther afield from lettuce and spinach every year, not in the quest for something new and different, just for something that will get past its first set of true leaves before bolting.  The hunt for leafy vegetables that will do well in strong southern sun a mile above sea level, with single-digit relative humidity, 25-30°F differences between day and night-time temperatures, strong winds, and plagues of leafhoppers, is unending it seems.  The time between last frost and scorching heat, on the other hand, is short.  Lettuce is not adapted.  Anyone wanting greens would be smarter just to break off a twig of Mormon tea and start gnawing.

Failing that, however, I'm growing orach (Atriplex hortensis), as it bolts without turning bitter.  Orach wouldn't be an unusual garden plant if we were in France, say, and it's not an odd plant in itself at all—it's perfectly lovely, in fact, in entirely normal ways.  It keeps its chlorophyll in its leaves and everything.  Its only oddity lies in being rare in a world of grocery stores, where salad means lettuce.  I say all this to my neighbor.

He gives me the humoring look reserved for harmless eccentrics.

* Squirrels have a lot to answer for.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hearing Things

or Non-Verbal Communication

The sounds have come back.  Winter's quietness is lovely in its way (I suppose) but isolating, a mild, narrow-bandwidth version of the way I imagine deafness to be.  Maybe if you grow up without hearing you learn more thoroughly the forms of communication that don't depend on voice, and you master techniques that allow you to conquer isolation.  But to grow deaf later in life, to lose one's hearing—suddenly not to notice a loved one's step crossing the threshold, or to hear voices calling from across the room—would be a loss of connection hard to bear.  In a low-level, curable, seasonal way, that's what winter's quiet is to me.

Now, well into spring, it's as if that lost bandwidth has been restored.  The neighbor's aspen trees have begun pattering in the wind again (such a different sound than their dry, mid-summer clatter) while the sand cherries' new leaves rush like whitewater.  Say's phoebes whistle and blow raspberries from the roof; bees and wasps play the wash-tub bass amid the desert olives; yesterday I heard the first sonic boom after a hummingbird zipped past.  The ice cream truck has been playing "Red Wing," just like the ice cream truck of my childhood.

Forestiera neomexicana

With the wind whispering through the transparent young leaves and the bees diving in and out among the flowers, the largest of the three desert olives (Forestiera neomexicana), the male tree, has been extra-good company this week.  In the late afternoon warmth in the walled garden, the blossoms' fragrance—like mango with a hint of pineapple—has lured everything that buzzes and drones into its radius.  The tree has been talking, too.  Not in so many words (or in words at all) and not particularly to me, but I think that it has preferences to convey, opinions about strength and weakness and growth.

I've been thinking about that tree anyway.  It worries me a little:  like other things I planted in the garden's first year (the biggest sand cherry, the five foot tall agastache, the waist-high arugula), it grew too big too fast; I almost wonder whether the contractors "salted" the ground with fertilizer or something, as nothing has grown at that rate since.  The tree's fast initial growth seems to have weakened it.  By late spring every year even the main trunks start bending under the weight of new leaves.  Staking helps some, but pruning after the first flush of growth is over, just before summer heat sets in and the tree goes sleepy again, seems to work best.

So I've been studying the tree hard, marking water sprouts and weak Y's with string so that I can find them even once the leaves are fully grown, and trying to figure out where to balance the growth.  I've been trying to listen, too, to what the tree is saying through the blossoms.  Only certain branches on certain of the multiple trunks have flowers, you see.  The rest have plenty of leaves, but no blooms.  The flowering branches seem like the tree's language of approval, its vote of confidence in the strength of those trunks and branches and stems.  These are the ones entrusted to carry on their half of the species so that the female trees can set fruit.  The honeybees and bumblebees and carpenter bees and hoverflies and wasps in their relentless circling and settling have given the tree's approval a sonic form.  Their buzzing isn't just noise but a message, an endorsement, and a loud one at that.  At any rate, I'm letting those flowers guide me in which branches to keep, and which to prune away.

I just wish I could be sure that we are really speaking the same language.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Filling the Rain Barrel

or Resources

I remember the day when it rained last April.  We had a thundershower, the first one of the year.  It lasted for fifteen minutes or so and dried up just as quickly; its droplets clung to the 'Bright Gem' tulips until the sun came out.  The storm gave us 3/100 of an inch of moisture.

Tulipa batalinii 'Bright Gem'

It was also, if I recall correctly, the last rainstorm until the end of July.

With drought gnawing at the bones of the southwest and Texas last year, news channels were full of stories about sinking reservoirs and cracked river beds (and fires, and fires, and fires).  One story I read online had a comments section, and a commentator from somewhere back east wrote in about the virtues of rain barrels.  We should all get rain barrels, he said, and that would help reduce demand on the water supply.  Others chimed in, agreeing, full of ideals and good will.  Finally one Texan said laconically, "You have to have rain to fill a rain barrel."  And that pretty much ended the discussion.

When your experience of drought is "less rain than normal"—a shower every couple of weeks rather than every few days, a quarter of an inch rather than a whole one—it's hard to grasp the idea of no rain at all.  Eking out resources is only something you can do if you have resources to begin with, not if you have none. 

Last year my empty rain barrel kept blowing over in the wind and damaging things, so I just set it on its side, out of the way, for most of the summer.  Black widows took shelter undisturbed in the shade beneath it.  When I stood it upright in July, a cloud of dust slid off.

This year, however, the rain barrel is not going to blow over.  On Monday night raindrops began doing a slow tango on the roof; Tuesday morning the dance was still carrying on.  By the time I'd finished my tea before breakfast the rain had turned into a swandive of fat, heavy snowflakes that splashed and rippled in the birdbath.   In the damper climates where I've lived the day would have been all too ordinary, a dreary disappointment strong on umbrellas and weak on cheer.  Here the umbrella stayed home, because getting wet was pure pleasure.  The gray skies and slushy streets had the magic of possibility to them.  Surely anything out of the ordinary can happen, you feel, in a spring when it rains and snows, and the streets are wet.

The snow lasted through the morning, all but an inch of it melting on contact, and then the clouds drifted off on their own.  The storm gave us .81 inches of moisture:  27 times the yield of our storm last April.  We have resources to eke out.  The rain barrel is full, and nothing needs watering.  The ground is wet, deep down among the roots.

The next day as I was tidying some blown twigs out of the garden, I noticed that one of the big sand cherry's branches had gotten caught between the boards of the bench.  I bent down to release it and set free a shower of white petals and fragrance.  As I stood up clouds of blossom slid off me, brushing my fingertips as they floated down.  The ground was already covered with the petals that had fallen during the rain.

Spring is never quite so beautiful, I think, as in those showers of petals as the blossoming ends, the snow-white storms of them drifting past and glinting in the light.  Such short-lived abundance, so full of possibility.  Tiny green cherries are already beginning to form on some of the branches. 

Our 81/100 of an inch of moisture may be just as short-lived as the blossoms and wither away just as surely in the spring sunshine.  Still, even a few resources can open the door to all kinds of possibilities.  It's early to be looking ahead, but after all, the sand cherries are.

This summer—maybe this summer will be one of abundance.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


or A Moment of 'Meh'

A fever that lasts for a day—that's what ephemeral used to mean.  In the 14th century it was a medical term to describe illnesses of short duration.  Only later, over the course of several hundred years, did the meaning of something gone in a flash extend to flowers and insects and experiences.  (I do like a word with a past.)

When we talk about "spring ephemerals" I wonder idly sometimes whether we're really referring to the season's colorful, short-lived flowers, or whether we're back to human fevers that last for a day.  Such heady, dizzy excitement for this flash-in-the-pan experience—like gold fever, only without the prospectors and picks and mules and claim-jumpers and boom towns.  (But other than that, just the same.)  We work ourselves up to fever pitch when those first leaves appear and savor every minute of growth and bud and bloom.  We know that a few too many weeks of yellowing leaves will follow, but they will have been worth it for the short-lived, intense enjoyment of those flowers.  What we don't want is to work ourselves into a state of hopeful excitement for something that turns out to be—

But let's start with the enjoyment.  Take the Lady Jane tulips (again).  (Apparently, they are not really Tulipa clusiana, in case that matters.*)  As buds and half-open flowers, they exude delicious elegance.

When they open fully, though, their secret life as wildflowers is divulged, and they have a kind of carefree rough-and-tumble to them that I love.

The weeks of anticipation are worth the few days of pleasure—Lady Janes are beautiful for every minute until they pass their prime.

The 'Persian Pearls' (T. humilis) only last for four or five days and then efface themselves quickly, leaves and all.  If none of their blooming days falls on a weekend, I don't get to see them open in the sunshine, but never mind.  Just knowing that they can outshine stained glass and that I might see them doing so makes up for a disappointing year now and then.  You live them up when you can.

But now we come to the Tulipa tardas.  I had such high hopes for these small flowers (they only get two to four inches high).  The buds were promising, with a complex array of glowing colors.

But then the flowers turned out to be a bit of a mess.

Granted, they are luminous in the sun, and anyone lying flat on the concrete patio can certainly enjoy that effect to the full.

When they open—at high noon, for half an hour or so— (what more do they want than a full morning of high desert sunshine?), they're mighty cheerful, as you can tell if you're standing directly over them and looking straight down. 

From the Adirondack chair on the patio, though, you mostly just see mess.  I feel a bit disillusioned.  Spring flowers are not supposed to leave you with a feeling of...well, for lack of a better word, meh.

I don't usually adopt the latest words of the moment.  Not out of principle or anything; they're just ephemeral enough that by the time I figure out what they mean they've begun to fade from popularity anyway.  But a flash (in the pan) of insight today suggested that "meh" was just made for unimpressive tulips.  Both of them are here and then gone, without anyone getting too worked up either way.  I can handle that tepid, evanescent nothingness in a word—not all words can have the longevity of "ephemeral," after all.

But I don't see the point of it in a tulip.

* The long stems of Darwin and other hybrid tulips often break in the spring winds around here, so regional growers recommend wildflower or species tulips instead.   (For what it's worth.)