Thursday, January 31, 2013

Open and Shut

or A Change in the Weather

Some winds close you down, slam!  A cold, hard gust smacks into you, and suddenly you're huddled around yourself and sprinting indoors, with the door banging shut behind you.  Other winds open you up—the warm, wild winds that smell of freshness, and maybe rain.  They lure you outdoors to stand tall and stretch and breathe deeply, as if you were a fish in water, and your whole body were gills. Those are the adventure winds, the ones that make you wish you could sweep out into the world on their tails, rushing away over the desert and straight up the sides of the Sandias—and from there, who knows.

We've had a little of both this week, the opening up and closing down, stretching out and huddling in.  The weekend gave us a warm wind and a rainstorm, and clouds that scudded low and fast across the sky and came just shy of thundering.  It could almost have been spring.

Spring is an opener, too.  Even the thought of it can set you to adventuring and make a world of possibilities open wide in your imagination.  When the thought coincides with warm, fragrant air and a wind that feels pleasant through layers of fleece, you find your senses quickening, your spirit stretching out in new ways to life. 

When that happens in January, you start to wonder if you might be forgetting something, like February. 

I believe there may even be a bud on that front crocus...

So I was doubly glad to see those crocuses coming along.  The leaves have been up for a while, but they're beginning to open out in the sunshine, rather than staying huddled in a tight sheaf.  It's good to know that if I am mistaking a fluke of the weather for a Sign that gardening season (which is not really the same as Spring, but close enough) is at hand, I am not alone.  The garden seems outright convinced of it.  It's unfurling new leaves, and not all of them belong to crocuses.

Those are genuine raindrops!  (Also golden columbine, Aquilegia chrysantha v. chaplinei 'Little Treasure')

As the work week began the weather changed, with cold, slamming winds and a sudden drop in temperature outdoors, and a duck-your-head-and-work-to-the-deadlines end of January indoors.  A friend blew into town in the midst of it—a long-lost kindred spirit and her father, on their way from Texas to Oregon and then to Taiwan.  We enjoyed a whirlwind dinner before they swept back out into the world on their trip across the desert.  I've found myself looking up in wonder since then, remembering in the midst of a shutting-you-down sort of week that breath of fresh air.  

Now the weather is changing again, with beautiful timing, just as the weekend is...if not knocking at the door, at least coming up the walk.  It should be warm and springlike, with a good breeze blowing, maybe even an adventure wind. 

You can never really ride the tails of those winds, you know.  They just open you up to possibility, and suggest wild vistas to your imagination.  They make you itch for the adventures that stand before you.

Another raindrop!

Let the gardening begin.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Lost in Translation

or As Cheap as Dirt

Find an old adobe home in New Mexico's pinyon-juniper country.  Junipers planted along the north side of the property might offer a windbreak.  An elm or so to the southwest, close to the house, will extend shading arms.  Otherwise not a single thing will be growing near the house—not a lilac bush, not a weed.  The house will be surrounded by bare earth, hard-packed by the tires of pickup trucks and booted feet and the paws of the lanky mutts who come running to greet you.  Walk on that bare ground, and you won't raise a cloud of dust.  Walk on it barefoot, and you'll feel the give of the land and its gently uneven texture.  It may not be soft like grass, but it's friendly underfoot, more yielding than concrete or flagstone or brick.

Once upon a time, not that many years ago, my garden had earthen paths. 

January, 2008, right before the sand cherries and their pals took over. 

I liked walking on them barefoot on a hot summer's day, but I didn't think living with them long-term was a good plan.  When I lived in Vermont or in western New York, where Precipitation Happens, dirt all too often turned into mud.  Luther was a great tracker of mud on clean floors.  He was good at escaping from towels, running through multiple rooms, and then leaping onto the sofa to give himself a zealous grooming on the upholstery.

Luther T. Dog, Champion Dirt Tracker

In damp kinds of places—the kinds of places where gardening books almost all seem to be written (perhaps because they're good places to garden?)—hard-surfaced garden paths are useful.  Gravel, brick, pavers, bluestone, flagstone:  they all keep mud from your door, and give you stable footing over soft, wet ground.

Deserts, if I may keep stating the obvious, don't often have damp conditions.  When I started my garden here in Albuquerque, Luther tracked wet dirt—you couldn't really call it mud—into the house a good three, four times a year.  Even after a rain, the ground just doesn't stay damp for long.  Now Luther's gone, and nobody has to track dirt in at all.  If my shoes are wet, I can just slip them off and take awestruck photos of them at the door.

August, 2012

So why did I want brick-style pavers?  Probably because I was still in Soggy Northeastern Mode.  But also because pavers, or flagstone slabs or travertine tiles or whatever, stand for a kind of polish.  Their usefulness may not translate well to this climate, but they still have a certain social cachet.  Gardens in magazine photos do not have packed-dirt paths. 

It's a pity that I don't actually like the paved paths as much as I liked the bare earth.  Why, I'm not quite sure.  Maybe they add hardness in an urban environment where hardness already abounds.  Maybe they make the circle shape of the path too strong and obvious.  Maybe they seem a little too highfalutin for my low-key lifestyle (let alone this mostly very lowfalutin state).  Maybe not every hard surface in the garden has to be terra cotta-colored.

The pavers get hot underfoot in summer and shelter waterbugs under their cozy, sun-baked warmth in winter.  They glare in sunlight. 

(A not particularly xeric section of) the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, April 2012.
Even the crusher fines used here—a great choice for constant foot traffic—glare in the light.

It's that last bit that's pushing me to rebellion.  They glare in sunlight. 

Social cachet is such a silly thing.  It may have its genesis in usefulness, but once that usefulness has been sloughed off (by scorching desert winds), cachet does not get to trump comfort in my book.  And when that cachet is an idea you've imported from abroad, with no basis in the culture where you now (happily) reside, it's time to eat a bowl of green chile (or red, if you prefer) and get your perspective on straight.  So I'm about to throw polish to the winds.

Dirt paths are cheap.  No goods have been conspicuously consumed to create them.  No one will be impressed by their elegance.  But they go well with New Mexico's rough-and-tumble landscape and informal lifestyle, its long history of old adobes and haphazard coyote fencing, the rough shagginess of native plantings.  Sometimes you just have to observe, and think, and realize that people in old adobe homes did know what they were doing, and let social cachet and garden magazines be hanged.

An Albuquerque garden featured in the Native Plant Society's garden tour, August 2012.
To me the randomly placed flagstone shows how soft and comfortable the dirt paths really are.

I won't do anything radical yet—those pavers took six weekends of precious physical energy to put down, and I'm not in a hurry to pick them up again.  But they'd make a good sized raised bed on the patio by the kitchen door, just right for a cold frame of winter veggies.

Now that would be useful here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


or Finding Magic in Unlikely Places
     (All the phrases in italics—except for this one—are direct quotes.)

"Microcosm" is not a useful blog.  It's a pleasant one, I hope, but not one that offers detailed plant profiles or gardening how-to's.  So when a comment comes along that says, "I have been surfing the internet for hours and have never seen such a useful blog," I can pretty well tell that it's spam, even before it invites me to visit a website on refrigerators.

Lately the spam has been coming fast and furiously.  Most of it is nonsense paragraphs:  phrases that have been scraped from who knows where and jumbled together, with words like blackjack or casino or pay-day loans thrown in at random.  The scraped phrases are repeated a couple of times in different ways, as if they get run through a synonym generator.  The result is a cryptic, would-be communication, with oddly hypnotic rhythms that lead gently into the suggestion that you "feel free to surf my blog."

For the last month or so I've spent a fair amount of time weeding spam out of various posts and have become immersed in its surreal world.  Just like when you really stop to look at an actual weed and pay attention to its form and flowers and seed pods, the irritatingly flawless health of the leaves, and all the bees buzzing around it, and realize that it isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be—when I've really stopped to look at the spam...well, it has its good points.

I don't just mean the wisdom found in the depths of those random phrases:  the stern advice to Get rid of any unscrupulous mortal, or the good, plain truth that Marathons can exclusively be improved traveling frontward.  Nor the general rules for a happy life:  Don't utilize the essential vice licenses.  Do not demand a fully-fledged eating house.  Ne'er address any meat without perspiring.  Pay the sum required or else.  Also, visit my blog post.

I mean the poetry and whimsy that glimmer in unexpected places, the opening of imagination that happens when words get twisted out of kilter.  For the brief moment before common sense re-asserts itself, you live in a world with telecasting salamander machines, where good work gets rewarded with oak trees (Quercus marilandica bonuses), and people ingest in agreement.  You live in a world where magic can happen between one thought and the next. 

It's a healthy thing, good for the soul, that stretching of the imagination.

          Inwardly (no recreation).      Plainly that's not decent.
          Within (no communication).       Patently that's not decent. 

For those few seconds that you play along, it gives you a mental vacation, like a brief walk in the woods (one 60 minutes unimprisoned).

I'm sure that you, voluntary kinspersons, all join me in loving a brief walk in the woods.   
          One can be rather well-chosen there.  One can be elated.
When your soul is feeling a cent threadbare, you can meander around beneath a pristine sky and gently waving tree-branches and recall What You Ought To Be.  It is good to escape from hard urban surfaces into nature's beauty.

          Why should I see Car piles?  
          Why Should I muse on Car heaps?  
                    That is an inconvenience.

The thing with nature's beauty, though, is that it's full of weeds.  Weeds have an impressive diligence to bounce up in the land.  In the right context, they're not actually weedy, just charming, admirable wild flowers and grasses.  When they're dormant their textures enrich the landscape.

O Sunflower, how eternal your druthers to exist!

You can shape the effect of the prevailing wind.

During the growing season these eager weeds, as healthy and as symptomless as your boat, give nourishment to countless wild things.  If they do run into difficulties or die off, we worry and mourn and do our best to help them.

The parcel of land does not suffer a laugh activity.

Some of them we love so well that we bring them into our own gardens.  Even now blue grama grass is blinking its "eyelash" seed heads at the breeze from my central garden bed; the angelita daisies are waiting for just the tiniest bit of warmth to burst into bloom again.  The sand cherries—weedy shrubs across western North America—are among my garden favorites.

You, a mere edible fruit.  And rightly so.
You, a specific point in time.  And rightly so.

(You can swear on this finicky treat.)

One weed—maybe scarlet hedgenettle? I never did identify it for sure—was such a spectacular performer in the summer garden and had such vibrant autumn color that I'm not convinced you could even call it a weed.

We probably aren't amply homely.

All to say, if I were interested in online gambling or hedge funds or a tireless man from OH, I would doubtless be thrilled at all the spam.  It's a pity that I'm not.  (Meaning no offense, Ohioans.)  Still, just as you can ooh and aah over an attractive weed right before you yank it mercilessly from the ground, I have enjoyed trawling the spam for little gems right before hitting the delete button.  I highly recommend it, if you don't otherwise have sufficient activity to de-mental strain yourselfIt is a peachy vice.

Also, have a look at my web log.


All quotes were found in spam comments this month.  I've deleted the obviously spammy words, tidied up the grammar, and put the paired phrases together.  Other than that, they are quoted as they appeared.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Snow Day

or Usefulness

The old year faded out in snow.

Not much snow, but enough to yield 3/100 of an inch of moisture, raising our grand total for 2012 to 5.46 inches.  I find it hard to believe that even a native plant finds a dusting of snow worthwhile, but what do I know?  Maybe having its toes tickled occasionally is icing on the cake to Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis)—an enrichment activity that makes its life in the desert all worthwhile.

Now, Colorado, that was another story.  Flying to Denver for Christmas along the front range of the Rockies, looking out the scratched airplane window and away beyond the wing, you could really see snow.  The fourteeners sparkled in the sun.  Even their vertical crags were caked with powder not yet scoured away by arctic winds.  Colorado doesn't have nearly as much snow as it should—snowpack is only about 60% of average—but some places have 30 or 40 inches so far.  Even if that isn't really enough, it's still useful snow.  Come spring, when it starts to melt, the streams and rivers will rise, and the reservoirs that give life to the west will fill with water.  (At least, that's the idea.) 

Half an inch of snow is not so useful.  It doesn't replenish the aquifer, deep inside the earth; it doesn't even water the garden.  It settles the dust; it enriches life a little, it offers a moment of refreshment, maybe even excitement, for those of us who are easily entertained—and then it goes away.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  I don't much like snow any more, and half an inch is plenty to give my soul all the cold, watery refreshment it needs. 

We have the luxury to enjoy "snow as enrichment" in Albuquerque because the useful stuff happens elsewhere.  For the most part, our water doesn't come from around here.  It comes from the Colorado River basin, way up yonder.  We cheer on the cold, deep, lingering, powdery, useful snows that happen in the high country.  They keep that basin flowing with life-giving water.  And we revel in the pleasant change of pace offered by our half-inch storm that goes away as soon as the sun comes out.

From the patio.  (With the zoom lens...)

I've been thinking some about usefulness and enrichment lately—about the pipes and pumps and tunnels and other marvels of engineering that let clean water flow from a tap in the desert; and about those less tangible, less obviously necessary things that offer pleasure and refreshment, that tickle your mental toes and then melt away.  The contrast between those ideas might be kind of a theme here off and on for a while.

If it isn't a useful exercise, it might (if we're lucky) at least be an interesting one...