Thursday, September 20, 2012

Staying Out of the Way

or Resting Lightly

Sometimes you're just not the one who matters, and so you just don't move.  When untamed lives that are not rabbits come to a tiny, urban garden, you do your best to efface yourself, and let them experience the garden as if without you.  Photos?  Forget them.  They're not important.  The slightest gesture toward your camera, even the subtlest tilt of the lens, is enough to spook a shy being.  It's better not to move.

Hummingbirds aren't particularly "shy beings," but they have their limits, too, the moments when they forget the roar of gargantuan hunger and remember vulnerability.  The black-chinned hummingbirds have been gorging on the agastache in the big urns this summer—the ones arm's length away from the Adirondack chair, with flowers that overhang the footrest.  The hummingbirds are often so close that the cool breath of their wings blows over my feet.   I try not to move when they're that near, but my idea of stillness is not theirs.  Some change of expression, some tiny change, will make them look up in startlement and vanish.

Perhaps to such small birds the line that seems delicately drawn to me, the fine hair between blithe unconcern and precipitate flight, is wide and nuanced.  The light speed change between feeding and fleeing may be a measured, thoughtful process to them.  The lift of a finger, such a small motion, spans the full length of their bodies.

A hummingbird's-eye view of hummingbird mint (or licorice mint, or sunset hyssop, Agastache rupestris)

At a distance details blur together.  When hummingbirds feed at the gaura in the central bed, it's hard to tell the young of either gender from the adult females.  They look remarkably alike in any case.  From inches away, though, you begin to wonder.  You see peculiarities of behavior—experiments, moments of clumsiness—that tell their own tale.  A bird will aim at a flower in a light wind and miss, several times running; it will try buds that haven't opened, insistently, perplexedly.  It will poke at the gap between a flower and its corolla, and then back off, and look, and look, through first one eye, then the other.  It will poke at the gap again, before finally finding the opening it seeks.  Its round belly will drag on the flowers below it, like a keel scraping on the shoals.  It will rest in the desert olive for minutes at a stretch, and not fight the next hummingbird that comes along.  It will feed briefly, and then find its perch to rest again.  A bird that does all those most likely a fledgling.

One was feeding at the agastache recently when my toes, a foot and a half away, twitched involuntarily.  The bird startled.  Hovering, it eyed my feet in a fascinated, speculative way.  Were they a danger?  Were they edible?  Its head tilted from one side to the other.  I don't know what conclusions it came to, except the one about inedibility; I don't believe it ever made a mental connection between my toes and the rest of me.  And how could it?  Five feet seven inches of human are a lot for a bird to grasp all at once, when it doesn't really need to.

Last week for the second time (that I know of) a flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers descended on my desert olives.  They're almost as tiny as hummingbirds, only round like a ball, with twitching tail feathers and a thin, sharp bill.  They speak to one another constantly, and they move constantly, like the gnats and small insects they eat, like fish darting in an aquarium.  Their colors are subtle variations on gray flannel, lighter on the belly, darker around the crown.

Flycatchers, too.  I've seen them a few times, half again the size of the gnatcatchers, with the same restlessness under less pressure.  Their tails twitch gently as they perch or flit from branch to branch, from tree to tree.

These new birds are all probably migrants, just passing through on their way south, but I'm (almost) as thrilled as if they were nesting here.  The garden is beginning to attract Birds-that-are-not-finches, truly wild birds, no matter how briefly.  The desert olives have grown taller, their crowns broader.  They offer more in the way of shelter and safety; they attract a better class of bug.  But I have no pictures to offer of these moments of presence.  I only have memories shaped vaguely into words of that instant when your breath catches and you freeze, while shining black eyes look brightly from every tree, less than your own body-length away.

Desert olives (or New Mexico privet, Forestiera neomexicana)

You are irrelevant to these small lives, and rightfully so.  You mean them no harm.  You aren't going to hunt them for food or throw stones at them for wickedness.  You wish them well, but any good you've done them is indirect.  You've planted and nurtured the trees; you've let the sand cherries grow like weeds; you've kept the bird bath filled and clean.  You've laid the groundwork—and then you've mostly gotten out of the way, and let life get on with it.  But birds don't know these things.  They don't have the luxury to weigh degrees of harm and good.  They can't risk trust, they can't take the long view.  You will never be able to tame them, or show them likelihood, or accustom them to human presence.  So you try not to be a noticeable presence at all.  You just don't move.

A hummingbird had come to the agastache fresh from another part of the garden.  A white petal of gaura had fallen on her head and rested there as she hovered and fed.  She flew from one flower to another and another, wings moving faster than vision, that wrinkled white petal perched on her head like a lace cap.  The sight could have been comical, but it wasn't.  The petal sat too lightly on the feather-light bird as she fenced just as lightly with gravity.  She was graceful and deft; the long tubes of hummingbird mint barely moved as she tapped them for nectar.  An adult, not a fledgling.  She had mastered the art of lightness.

Appleblossom grass (Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies')

A lot of gardening is about heavy lifting—the bags of mulch and potting soil, the shovels full of dirt and sand and amendments.  A lot of it is about labor.  No more than to maintain a mown lawn, but still, labor:  weeding and dividing, pruning and transplanting.  Paradoxically, the goal of all the hard work is to rest lightly on whatever earth we have.  To make a big impact, perhaps; to concentrate nature with an intensity even she might not manage on her own, and create safe conditions for wild things that compensate for losses elsewhere.  But then to step out of the way whenever possible, and let life get on with it.  We work for the sake of those moments of held breath and awed stillness, when we try to be patio furniture while a new bird perches inquisitively in a young tree.  We want to enjoy the nectar while not disturbing the flower.  We want to master the art of lightness, to our own scale.

The lightness of a fallen petal on the head of a hummingbird.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Giving Grass

or Generosity

One day you're talking about baseball, summer, the slow growth of grasses, and all things leisurely, and the next (or so it seems) the UNM Lobos are winning (winning!) their first football game of the season, the grasses are exploding into bloom, and you're frantically shouting, "Slow down!  Everybody just slow down!"

Licorice mint (Agastache rupestris) in the upper foreground; in the central bed, blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis); across the path, sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes).

Well, honestly, not quite that last bit.  While I've basked in summer, I am ready to be done with 95°F temperatures and looking forward to the sleepy, satisfied warmth of a New Mexico autumn; I'm eager to move on and enjoy sunshine again.  But the grasses have definitely exploded (and the Lobos have definitely won!).*  The grasses may even have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

They've been an experiment this year:  an attempt to create less of a traditional "layered" look in my small garden and to aim for something more airy, open, western, and outdoors-y; a look that focuses on texture as much as color and that plays enthusiastically with light.  Overall I'm beginning to be pleased, though the rule of planting in threes should probably be broken for sand lovegrass. 

I actually find myself looking forward to winter because of that grass.  Winter is my least favorite season—the remnant of too much time in Vermont spent aching in every cold, damp joint for every single one of those eleven frigid months a year.  Even in milder New Mexico, hedging myself against winter is still a chore.  The garden is one of my biggest safeguards, intended to be a place of light and enjoyment in the dormant season.

Light is the key.

The patio and the Adirondack chair sit on the north side of the garden, looking south.  As the sun begins to lower again it is starting to side-light the grasses; when winter comes it will light them from behind and within.

The angelitas could bloom into December.

I can't tell you how happy I am about that.  It's ridiculous how happy I am about that.  Because of grass.  Not even specially hybridized ornamental grass, but the same kinds of plain ol' grasses that grow wild in just about every open space in the state.  Most grasses are generous, I think.  They make lovely, gracious vehicles for other things:  like the way that silky thread grass gives shape to the wind so beautifully, or a bluegrass lawn invites cool, barefoot walking on sultry evenings.  The blue grama and sand lovegrass will magnify limited winter sunlight exuberantly.  They will make it sparkle as it scatters off every tiny seed; they will burnish it until it glows golden as it passes through their dry wintry leaves. 

I've brought some lovegrass bloom stalks inside the house as a "bouquet" and have been surprised at how fragrant they are.  Outside I'm not even aware of it, but inside, the sharp, sunny smell of green hay is unmistakable.  Maybe that's what's drawn more small butterflies to my garden this summer, even in another year of drought.

A fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber)

While the adults need nectar, the larvae of many skippers eat grass leaves.  For lawn owners they can be a pest, as the caterpillars' feasts can leave brown, dead patches.  Looking at the bank of sand lovegrass, I say, "Chow down, guys. Help me out."

A little generosity seems to be in order.

* But then, the Lobos have won one game in each of the last three years, too.