Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Study in Scarlet

or A Conundrum

(After a brief derailment last Wednesday, I am back on track today, ready to remember that when we struggle to find beauty in our circumstances, looking at them more closely often helps—as does counting our blessings.) 

In the very first of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, A Study in Scarlet, the great detective tells Watson, "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."  Then, in what one can't help but feel is an anti-climax, he adds, "And now for lunch..."

I'm afraid I don't have anything quite as racy as revenge or poison pills to offer with the toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato-cumin soup, but really, that's probably for the best.   We shall content ourselves with enjoying the more benign scarlet threads that run through the colorless skein of winter, savor our meal with perhaps a cup of tea afterward, and go on from there.  (And we will not wax rhapsodical about some violinist's transcription of a "little thing of Chopin's," chirping "Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay" and "caroling away like a lark," as Holmes apparently did, so you can all relax.)

Or are the scarlet threads benign?  I find myself tugging at a moral thread these days.  (You can all tense up again.)  It is tied to Nandina domestica or "Heavenly bamboo," an ornamental shrub introduced from east Asia.  I love this species for its winter color in many shades of red—a color that enlivens stems, leaves, and berries—as well as for its delicacy and for its translucent glow in sunshine.  But as with so many introduced species, it is invasive in the right circumstances.  While I don't think that the dry climate of Albuquerque counts as the right circumstance, I can't be sure.  It doesn't seem to invade in people's yards, but birds do eat the berries and spread the seeds elsewhere, where vigorously growing seedlings might disturb the balance of an already fragile ecosystem.  And yet those gorgeous scarlet stems and tangerine-orange leaves...I'm almost willing to be immoral and grow an invasive species for their sake.

Well, really, I am willing.  I do grow it.  I have it growing in a large container, which is one of those compromises that pleases no one, including the Nandina domestica.  On the one hand, in a pot its root system can't possibly spread out of bounds and invade; on the other, it requires extra water in order to thrive.  It hasn't flowered and produced berries yet, but surely it is only a matter of time until it does.  Once it does bear fruit and the birds find it, then the seeds will be dispersed far and wide.  And yet, without delving too deeply into the mysteries of birds' digestive systems, birds do seem to function in an, um, "easy in, easy out" sort of way.  "Far and wide" can be that far and wide:  I can't imagine that the birds will carry the seeds far enough to deposit them in any damper, more congenial climate.  Common sense and mildly deductive reasoning would indicate as much, but I don't know whether that's the case.

I'm not actually losing sleep over this (I expect I'll just trim any berries before they ripen—another compromise that pleases no one), but it does illustrate in a way that never fails to disconcert me how small choices can have broad effects—effects for which we are responsible.  It's a conundrum, but one, frankly, that I care about more in June than I do in January, when Nandina domestica casts a glow over the landscape.  During the dead season it's a pleasure to unravel the scarlet threads, isolate them, and expose every inch of them—a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. And now for dinner.

(It's still anti-climactic.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Momentary Rebellion

or I Would Like a Macrocosm, Please.

Even just for a while.

A few years ago I read a book by Patricia Loring on prayer in the manner of Friends (Quakers), called Listening Spirituality (Volume I).  Friends seek to "center down" into a listening quiet; the idea of prayer is always more to listen to God than to talk.  In any time of silence, though, distractions arise—thoughts that bubble up and start chattering.  Loring suggests regarding these thoughts as ideas that are clamoring for blessing.*

So when the word "stultify" bubbled up from nowhere on me today, no one was more surprised than I (has anyone ever used the word "stultify"?), but I decided to pay it some attention.  I associated it vaguely with the idea of a skill or personal quality withering from disuse, a kind of atrophy of the self, but thought I'd look it up to be sure.  From various dictionaries, these definitions emerged:
  • To cause to lose enthusiasm and initiative, especially as a result of a tedious or restrictive routine
  • To make useless, futile, or ineffectual, especially by routine
  • To render absurdly or wholly futile or ineffectual, especially by degrading or humiliating means
Synonyms: cripple, impede, frustrate, hinder, thwart.

It seems like an odd word to have come clamoring for a blessing.  But it knocked on the door asking for something.

Probably for my honesty. This has been one of those weeks when I've looked up and seen a wider world, the world I used to be part of.  It started off with a sunset and two vivid pink contrails jetting off invitingly into the Western sky, and continued with encounters with the world of ideas—with people engaged with their work and growing in it—that left me just as far behind. When I stop and let it, the loss just bites. 

I don't generally believe in stopping and letting loss bite.  I don't see the point in complaining or in harping on symptoms—I just don't think it helps, and it often makes things worse, besides making you forget that other people have their difficulties, too.  But not complaining can sometimes turn into denial or a kind of false front, and it can give others the impression that everything's fine—or worse, that CFS isn't that big a deal—when the opposite is true. 

So for today, I am aware of being stultified—and I'm passing that awareness on to you, you lucky people.  I am tired of a world of walls and restrictions, of being trapped by illness within narrow limits, of being daunted by stairs and parking lots, of having difficulty understanding non-fiction and being incapable of remembering it for more than a day, of having to control light and noise and stress and chemicals and food and thought and activity in order just to function.  After 15 years of this, I am aware of thoughts being shallower, of standards lower, of caring and accomplishing less, of slowly giving up bits and pieces of the fight.

I would like to go out for dinner, just once this year; to stay out after 7:00, to remember where the switch is for the headlights on my car; to go to a movie at the actual theater or a play or a concert or a lecture; to listen to music for more than five minutes before the noise gets too intense; to spend my birthday doing something other than lying on a sofa; to go for an easy walk in the bosque without spending the rest of the day in bed and taking a three-day weekend to recover; to travel in a plane and still be well enough to enjoy myself when I reach my destination.  I would like not to feel as if every cell of my body is lugging around 25 pounds of lead weights, to forget the meaning of the word malaise. 

And I am one of the lucky ones.  I'm still at about 60% of my former capacity—with that 60% I can go to my easy part-time job and maybe do one errand.**  Then I go home to rest. On weekends, even if I seldom feel able to leave the house, I can play a bit in the garden and do some cooking and cleaning.  Holidays are the break in the routine, the chance to "chase sunshine" and escape for a couple of hours, or at most two or three days.

I love my little garden.  I love it.  I am so grateful to you all for walking the circle path with me twice a week and letting me share its pleasures with you.  I keep thinking, "Surely they're all getting tired of hearing about 'Wild Thing' autumn sage yet again."  But this little garden is all I have.  It's all I have to offer.  It would just be nice if there were more. 

There.  I am done complaining.  Tomorrow I will remember gratitude and regain some contentment, because I do, after all, have a roof over my head, plenty of food on the table, and a loving family within calling distance.  The rest, I'm convinced, is (more or less) a matter of perspective.  And besides, the Lady Jane tulips—early-blooming wildflower tulips—are up.  They won't bloom until March, but the leaves are showing.

There's light at the end of this (very small) tunnel.

* It also sticks in my mind that she credited this idea to Hasidic Jewish teaching, but I can't recall for sure.
** Just as an exercise in CFS awareness, assuming that the waking day is 16 hours, and 60% of that is about 9.5 hours, if you had to throw away the remaining 6.5 hours of every day, which would you choose?  Now imagine if you were functioning at 25% of normal, like many people with CFS...  Keep in mind that you won't feel well for any of those hours.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


or Above and Beyond

Everyone knows that if you walk up to a cottonwood tree in January and ask it for dramatic color it will tell you, "No."  Complaining about the brownery in my last post was actually a little unreasonable of me.  I know full well what "dormancy" means and wholly sympathize with the impulse.  If anyone were to knock at my door at 2:00 in the morning looking for verve and enthusiasm they would be turned away just as disappointed.

So I'm taking extra pleasure in those garden plants that are offering a little color these days without being asked, so to speak.  They are islands of intensity in a sea of blah, and they are all the more lovely for the contrast.  Take rue, for example:

Rue in winter (click on the collage to enlarge for a better view)
In warm weather the stems and leaves are a cool blue-green, and they really kind of disappear unless you look for them—they're charming but not striking, and no competition for "Wild Thing" autumn sage.  As winter deepens, though, the stems darken and turn this vivid, ripe-grape purple.  You actually have to get surprisingly close to notice the color; once you do you can't believe it isn't visible from outer space.  (As I mentioned in one of my very first posts, rue's winter self is what made me love it in the first place.)

One of the things I love about plants that offer winter color is the sense that they have gone above and beyond—that not only have they filled our world with beauty for the growing season, cleaned our air, and fed and sheltered the wildlife, but now they will hand us this pleasant surprise as well.  It's like when you opened your sack lunch at school as a child and found a cheerful note from your Mom, or when a friend sideswipes you out of nowhere with a quick hug, or someone does a small, unexpected kindness that sees you through a rough patch.  It's a bonus, a grace.

The kind that may well keep you from demanding unreasonable things of trees.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


or A Theme and Variations

Truth be told, by this time of year we are growing weary of the color brown.  Our native landscape has enough fluff, tufts, stalks, and bristles that its textures are wonderfully rich, but the palette is all but monochrome.  It is a theme (brown) and variations (golden brown, bronze, buff, khaki, sepia, fawn, ecru, camel, tan, chestnut, cinnamon, tawny, beige...), and the problem with a theme and variations is that it tends to get predictable after a while.

I was thinking about that while looking through some photographs I took at the Rio Grande Nature Center here in town over the Martin Luther King holiday.  The photos struck me as drab and uninspired, as if I had left the salt out of them.  Except for the gorgeous New Mexico sky, all the colors are—not to put too fine a point on it—brown.  Shades of brown, sure; variations of brown, yes; but when all is said and done, they are the same old brown, repeated from the top one more time.

When I was actually standing at the wetlands' edge, though, or meandering through the bosque, or kneeling at the river bank to dangle a stick in the water, the experience was anything but drab and uninspired.  The colors were just as brown, but they weren't flat and two-dimensional.  Admittedly, I have a bad habit of taking pictures in the middle of the day, rather than at sunrise or sunset when the light is kinder, and a photograph can't possibly capture the purr of the sandhill cranes from the cornfield, or the irritated exclamations of ducks, or the clatter of wind in the dried cottonwood leaves—all the things that make an experience a feast.  But I think what's really missing is the shimmer.

Light is another kind of theme and variations here—so many things reflect or refract it.  It shimmers, gleams, glows, flashes, sparkles, glints, glitters, glares, dances, flickers, twinkles, scintillates... In winter it plays a counterpoint with the variations on brown in ways that make all those tawny colors come alive.  The undersides of the cottonwood leaves twinkle in the sunshine on a windy day, the fallen ones gleam on the path through the bosque.  The faint whiff of dust in the air shimmers like mist; blowing sand sparkles in a gust of wind.  Dried seed heads and grasses glow from the bosque floor, their tips haloed with light.  It's that shimmer that I don't know how to capture.

The photo of the bench comes close, and maybe the one of the dried grasses among the cottonwoods—the sense of an ambient glow as well as directional sunlight.  But the look of wintery deadness, the brown in them, still predominates in a way I don't remember  it doing.

Of course, the problem may well be that sometimes a beautiful day shimmers even more in memory than it did in reality...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Which We Take Our Time

And Find Ourselves Craving Italian Food

He was an older man on the scruffy side.  Gray hair leaked out from under a dark, woollen watch cap, a beard spilled over layered sweatshirts.  He sat on a retaining wall that girded one of the large office buildings downtown, across from the apartment where I lived at the time; even from a distance his nose and fingers showed red with cold.  Despite the frost, he was working slowly, carefully in the early sunlight, trimming back the catmint that in summer billowed over the retaining walls from the raised beds behind.  As Luther and I approached, he didn't bother to look up, but Luther—never one to pass a living being without comment—began wagging and squirming, making the little contralto trill in the back of his throat that meant he was trying hard not to bark.  The man raised washed-out blue eyes, nodded to me, peaceably held out his hand to Luther, and returned to his work, slowly, carefully trimming one stem at a time, aligning the trimmings in neat rows on the wall beside him, the first step toward bundling them into the bulging canvas sack at his feet.

I don't know that I have ever seen anyone quite so engaged in his work, so taken with a simple task.  Where most people—including myself—would be inclined to whack away and finish the job in a hurry, he lingered, he enjoyed, he sculpted.  He inspected each stem once he'd trimmed it with the same mild look he'd given Luther and me; he laid each one gently in its row.  When he was done, every catmint around the entire city-block of a building was a work of art, a perfectly shaped little hemisphere.  Finishing the whole thing took him weeks.

I was thinking about this leisurely gardener as I started doing some winter clean-up this weekend.  I had whacked my way through the catmint before realizing in a "hit-by-a-ton-of-bricks" (well, maybe not a ton, but a good handful) sort of way, "Wait a second—what's the hurry?"

What was the hurry?  I have a small garden and a light schedule, i.e., not much to do and plenty of time to do it in, and it was a mild, sunny day—why rush through a rather pleasant task?  If I didn't finish it this weekend, there would always be next weekend, and still quite a few more weekends before spring.  Why hurry enjoyment along?  And why be business-like and utilitarian about it?  I resolved to linger, enjoy, and sculpt my way through the central bed of oregano, yarrow, and tarragon.  

It took forever.

Not very artistic trimmings, gently laid in rows.
And it's no work of art.  Even so, after a few minutes of slowly, carefully trimming stems, of inspecting them with mild glances, of gently laying them in rows, I found myself in a dreamy state, the kind where a cloud of loosely related thoughts and memories interweave themselves with your work.  I fondly remembered an old friend (the sun warm on my shoulders), thought about an e-mail from a friend in Canada (the chipper call of a housefinch), recalled images from a vacation to Newfoundland (the tickle of dust in my throat) and a recent National Geographic photograph of cotton grass in Iceland (the tinkle of hollow stems hitting the path), thought of islands in the Mediterranean (the nubs of new tarragon peeking through the dirt), tomatoes (the scent of oregano in the sun), a couple of cloves of garlic (the scent of oregano in the sun), an onion (the scent of oregano in the sun), some ricotta cheese and perhaps a touch of rosemary...

By the time I had finished trimming the oregano, I had completely revised my dinner menu—not that I had one to start with, but still... It turned out to be a very good dinner, with lots of oregano.  It took a while to make.

But after all, what's the hurry?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

In Essence

or The Revery Alone Will Do
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
—Emily Dickinson

A small, not particularly interesting glass bottle nestles among the fallen leaves in my garden—one of the "interactive features" I wrote about some time ago.   It is filled with dried foliage and flowers from the summer garden—the musty, honey-scented leaves of catmint and creeping germander, the mild apple of chamomile blossoms, and the clean bite of spearmint.  As I was meandering around outside over the weekend I paused to open the bottle, and like a genie released from confinement, the essence of summer drifted out to greet me.  It spoke dreamily of warm, leisurely afternoons, the feel of a breeze on bare skin, the hum of honeybees in sage blossoms.

I suppose it was the way the dried leaves acted as an aide-mémoire—and possibly the thought of bees—that called Emily Dickinson's recipe for a prairie to mind and set it spinning the last few days.  In her poem a whiff of fragrance, a sound, and inner resource come together to create a vast, fertile expanse of a world, a world as large as the Great Plains with their skies and their meadowlarks, a world of small, secret lives and endless growing grasses.  (Dickinson does not seem to be interested in making a January sort of prairie.)  I love her confidence in the power of reverie—and not only her own but her readers', too.  She fully expects you to be able to create a world from within; she offers you the prompts of clover and bee, but knows that you don't really need them.  She distills prairie life to its essence and then tells you that even that is superfluous.

To create a summer, on the other hand, a little bottle of leaves and the occasional photograph are quite helpful.  Perhaps the process of buying seeds and looking ahead to the growing season is to blame, or maybe the way the dried leaves and seed pods in the garden (the "four-season interest" ones) are starting to get weathered and misshapen, but suddenly things look more than brown here—they look dreary.  The old is ready to give way to the new, or rather, I am ready for it to do so, but patience is still in order.  In the meantime, I suppose reverie will do.


Because bees are few.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Delusions of Grandeur

or In Which We Refuse to Believe That Less Is More

Small dogs have their own burdens to bear.  It can't be easy to have the instincts of a guardian, a large and noble beast, a lion-hearted predator, and then to have the body of, essentially, prey.  One of my neighbors has a toy poodle—a little dust mop of a dog who barks maniacally every time you walk past.  She sounds like she means business until the moment you turn and look at her, at which point you can see her doing some quick math problems in her little head, calculating relative sizes, force vectors, speeds, distances, and levels of irritation.  After a rather painful moment of "ah," she turns tail and runs around the corner, from which point of safety she can resume barking.  But she knows, and you know, and she knows you know, that from then on it's all show, pure bravado with no substance behind it.

When I'm working in the garden, the poodle seems more curious than territorial.  Our houses are separated by a five-foot high concrete wall, which she obviously can't see over, but she can hear me moving around.  She comes over to the wall, puts her nose to the half-inch wide gap between two of the blocks, and sniffs large, purposeful sniffs.  The gap works like an echo-chamber—it magnifies the noise and makes her sound more like a Rottweiler than like a six-pound bundle of fluff and nerves.  It is a sound that does her heart justice; she must find it incredibly satisfying.

I've been taking advantage of mild weather this weekend to wander around the garden and make plans for winter cleanup and spring planting.  In particular I was pondering the microgarden, which is a blank slate at this point.  Normally it would have some cold-weather greens overwintering in it, along with maybe a last carrot or two that I'm saving to brighten a dreary day, and some perennials like chives and bunching onions.  The aphids ran so far amok last fall, though, that I ended up emptying the bed completely and now have the pleasure of refilling the whole thing at once.  I'm contemplating soil mixtures, compost, pest control, organic fertilizers, and other things of that ilk.  Oh, and seeds.

Lots of seeds.

Keep in mind that the microgarden is a two foot by four foot raised bed, divided into about 30 growing cells of different sizes.  It is not a large space; its growing potential may be impressive for its size, but it is hardly what we would call unlimited.  And into these eight square feet, according to my current seed list, I am planning to put twelve varieties of greens; two kinds each of carrots,  radishes, and onions; peppers, squash, garlic, cucumbers, Chinese long beans, tomatillos, basil, marigolds...

I was sitting on the blue bench in the garden being serenaded by the ferocious sniffing of poodles while I looked over the seed list, when suddenly the absurdity of it hit me and I burst out laughing.  (Maniacal barking from across the wall.)  Apparently miniature dogs aren't the only ones with delusions of grandeur.  Are three varieties of chard and four of amaranth really necessary to my health and happiness?  Chinese long beans may be a good idea for a small space in principle, but is a ten-foot tall vine (starting from three feet off the ground) really going to be all that easy to harvest?  Will all of these tall plants really be able to grow in such a small area without shading each other?  Do I really expect this to be the year that squash vine borers and cucumber beetles leave my squash and cucumbers alone? 

Well, really, the answer to all of those questions is, "No."  But what does reality have to do with gardening?  Okay, with results, sure, maybe a lot, but with the hopes and dreams of seed buying?  With winter plans? With the visions of bounty that tide us through the colder months, of vine leaves spilling prolifically over the sides of the garden, of the earthy sweetness of baby carrots, of the scent of basil as you accidentally brush against a leaf, of the gleam of marigolds against the greenery?  Reality has just enough to do with those visions to keep me dreaming big dreams—Rottweiler dreams, wolf dreams.

But it's still just a miniature poodle garden.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Hearing a Who

or From Microcosm to Nanocosm

In Horton Hears a Who, the 1954 children's book by Dr. Seuss, Horton the elephant hears a cry for help coming from a speck of dust.  It's made by a Who, one of the many Whos in Whoville, a tiny city on the tiny bit of fluff that is in danger of drifting into the cool of the pool in the jungle of Nool.  Horton saves it and, after many difficulties, he and the Whos convince the harder-of-hearing animals in the jungle that the Whos really do exist.  At long last, the other animals agree to help protect the tiny world.  It sticks in my mind (though I may be mistaken) that the 1970 TV special ends with a Who, on its just-rescued dust mote planet, hearing a cry for help from an even tinier atom of a world, starting the process all over again.

I found myself thinking about ever-decreasing, nesting worlds as I was looking at frost patterns on leaves in the garden, especially on the salad burnet, Susanna Mitchell marguerite daisies, and oregano.  The frost had been so particular, so choosy about where it settled:  on the ruffled edges of the salad burnet, with only a light tracery elsewhere on the leaves, and on the very tips of the hairs on the daisy and oregano leaves—hairs I wasn't really even aware of until the frost caught them.

Here I've just been learning to recognize the microclimates in the garden—to trace the patterns of light and wind and cold from one square foot to the next—and along come the nanoclimates, clamoring for attention, showing that the conditions from one millimeter to the next on a leaf can be just as varied.  I wonder, if we were to descend one level of awareness further, whether we would find that each micrometer has its own set of climatic conditions, too.  And so on, and so on, and so on.

Sometimes, the smaller a world gets, the larger it gets.  Those delicate patterns of ice were so precise and so intriguing (not to mention beautiful) that I found myself (in a mild sort of way) researching frost, nanoclimates, broadleafed evergreens, botanical protections against climatic conditions, and several interesting dead ends and charming byways en route.  I've never done that for mere "leaves"... Sometimes, when a world becomes small, it can expand exponentially.

Does anyone hear a Who?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Visiting Cards

or Dropping In

I was sitting on the bench by the kitchen window, staring out the glass door, stumped by a clue in the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle.  While part of my brain was churning over words and growling at them when they weren't seven letters long with a third letter of M (which didn't exactly encourage other words to show up), another part in the background was absentmindedly tracing the angles of an oak leaf caught between the stepping stones in the walkway, enjoying the contrast with the softer rosettes of dragon's blood sedum, wondering whether the sedum would fill in enough next summer to make it worth while to keep, savoring the combination of earth-brown and rust-red.  At some point, for no particular reason, background shifted to foreground.  I suddenly registered what I was looking at and thought, "But I don't have an oak tree."

It wasn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation—I mean, I've known for a while now that I don't have an oak tree; they're not the kinds of things that just sneak up on you.  But it started my mind on a new puzzle, trying to figure out where this particular leaf had dropped in from.  After taking a mental walk around the neighborhood, I'm pretty sure it came from some new landscaping in the commercial building across the street to the southwest—puzzle solved.

A sycamore leaf amid marguerite daisies
Curious about who else in the arboreal world might have come to call, I started prowling the garden in earnest.  I spotted fallen aspen leaves from the neighbor to the north; cottonwoods from the plaza a little farther away; Siberian elms from just about anywhere (if trees were e-mail, Siberian elms would be the spammers); sycamores from the west; seedpods from the golden rain tree to the northeast; ornamental pear leaves (I think, but I'm not very good with trees) from the neighbor on the east; desert willows from the south.

A couple of ideas struck me:
  1. "Prevailing winds," my foot.
  2. Enjoyment of the whole—"fallen leaves"—takes on an even richer flavor when you're aware of the individual leaves that comprise it, too.
A golden raintree seed pod with more daisy leaves

I'm keenly enjoying these "calling cards" the trees have left in my garden—the soft interplay of colors on the sycamore leaves, like the sheen of oil on water; the living brown and crisp lines of the rain tree's seed pods; the spare, ruffled edging on what we are calling the pear; the contrasts between tree and herb, evergreen and brown, seed and leaf and pebble.

This could very well be an ornamental pear leaf.

I've been blogging for a little over six months now.  Looking back as the New Year begins, I can't quite believe that it's been that long—that this is my 58th post, that I've bypassed 42,000 words.  Those aren't exactly milestones, but still, I didn't believe any of this would happen when I began.  You, my readers, have blown in from all ends of the globe—from Russia, Denmark, Slovenia, China, South Africa, South Korea, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and of course, my own beloved USA.  Amid the swirling winds of cyberspace, you have touched down briefly in my garden and left your visiting cards.  It has been my honor and pleasure to have you here.   Thank you for reading, for commenting, and for sharing in my microcosm.  You have added immeasurably to my enjoyment.

A cottonwood leaf with yarrow and oregano

Happy New Year to you all—may you find joy under every leaf and stone.