Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Dissonance Resolves

Japanese maple with Rio Grande cottonwood
or At the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, 
Part I

If gardeners ran the world, no one would worry about first impressions.  We would all be too aware that our initial acquaintance with a flower or tree or border or garden has little to do with our impressions once we've lived with that flower for a while and seen it blossom, set seed, and return another year, or once the tree has matured or the border has settled in or our abilities or interests have changed.  If we relied on snap judgments, we'd miss all the fun of seeing things pan out.

I've been thinking about first impressions this weekend after a visit to the Botanic Garden at the ABQ BioPark, and especially to the Sasebo Japanese Garden at the park's far end, almost on the edge of the Rio Grande.  The Japanese Garden is a relatively young one.  It opened in September of 2007, and I visited it for the first time a month later, when it had an air of shiny newness.  The ground cover plants were still in little plugs with large patches of mulch between them, the perennials looked mighty uncertain about their new digs, the twiggy trees were losing a few of their leaves.  In other words, it was a lovely first year garden that radiated hope and potential.

Rio Grande cottonwood (Populus wislizeni)

Something else that struck me that first year, though, was a sense of dissonance—not an unpleasant one, just a sense of things not quite matching.  The gardeners had (laudably, wisely, you-want-to-kiss-them wonderfully) incorporated the established cottonwoods that grow close to the river in their design, but the contrasts between the trees' craggy old growth and the infant plantings, their genuine wildness and the designed "wildness" of the garden, their hard-knock toughness with the delicacy of the weeping cherries—all those contrasts jangled.  Their starkness also made me very much aware that the entire design of the garden was foreign, that I don't know how Japanese gardens work.  I don't understand the principles behind the design, beyond the basic "stone and water are important" kinds of things, and reading about those wasn't enough to make the garden "click."

Which is funny, because if you asked me how a basic American (or other Western European-influenced) garden worked, I wouldn't really be able to tell you that either.  I know the design how-to's, like that planting in groups of three or five is best, and that curved lines are generally more pleasing than straight ones (except when they're not), but to articulate the values behind such a garden?  I'm not sure I could do it—it's just the way things are.  It's familiar, in a way the Japanese style of gardening isn't to me, and on my first visit I was very much aware of that.

I've seen the garden several times a year since then; yesterday was the first time since last September, an unusually long lapse.  I was delighted to see how much the garden has taken off this spring—how it's grown into itself, how the contrasts that used to be so stark have softened, how the sense of dissonance has sweetened if not resolved altogether.  The understory trees have grown into the canopy of the cottonwoods, which shelter the more delicate plantings from the noonday glare (with an air of grandfatherly benevolence, I might add).

High noon in the canopy, shade on the ground

I still don't know enough to appreciate (or comprehend) the underlying design, and since the Botanic Garden's approach to education seems to be very much that of my fifth grade teacher (i.e., "Go look it up yourself," a valuable skill in the long run but not very helpful when you want information right away in a classroom where all the reference books are stashed behind the teacher's desk) the learning process is a slow one.  But between repeated experiences in multiple seasons in multiple years, intermittent searches on the internet, and other gleanings from you, fellow bloggers, one does learn, and in a slow, leisurely, from-the-ground-up sort of way that's rather nice, since there's no test coming up on Friday.  The Japanese garden has begun not only to be lovely, which it has been all along, but also, piece by piece, to make sense.  At any rate, it is becoming familiar in such a way that I don't know any more where its foreignness breaks off and my own expectations begin.

We act as though a first impression is the real deal, but it isn't; it's just a seed. And we all know what resemblance a seed has to the mature plant—none.

It's how we nurture the seed to maturity that matters.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Good Vibrations

or Sympathetic Resonance

Sometimes you just wish you could have been Ella Fitzgerald.  If you could sing like that even for one song—if you could have a voice with that range and agility and athleticism, that mastery and confidence, the sheer exuberance, that joy—you'd feel like you were really living.  The longest I've ever managed to sound like Ella is for one note, and that with the aid of a certain shower stall, which happened to resonate nicely at a particular pitch where I did, too.  Whenever I hit that pitch just right the shower turned my voice from ho-hum sweet to Fitzgerald fantastic.  But only at that particular pitch, alas.

Sympathetic resonance has such an amazing power to turn the ordinary extraordinary, at least while the moment of resonance lasts.  I've been thinking about that this week while enjoying the patio after work.  Most of the season's chores in the garden are done, ahead of the summer heat, and for now I am free to relax in the Adirondack chair, feet up, the neighbors' intermittent cat in my lap.  The afternoons have been golden ones, with easy breezes and wonderful skies; they have unfolded in slow, shining spans, with time to enjoy iced spearmint tea, to linger over Dylan Thomas' poetry (thanks for the suggestion, Girl Sprout!), to wave honeybees gently on their way.

The sun has moved far enough north by now that some parts of the "dry riverbed"-ish sort of bed beside the patio are sunlit in the late afternoon.  Even the areas that don't receive direct light have an extra glow, reflected off the terra-cotta colored walls.  Just beyond the reach of direct sun but well within that ambient glow is a patch of 'Mersea Yellow' pineleaf penstemon.

A cheerful mess of flowers

It's not an altogether pleasing patch—the plants have a haphazard untidiness that bothers me, although they might be less untidy if they didn't have to wrestle quite so often with the neighbors' kiddie pool, which blows over the wall during serious windstorms—but I do love their soft, evergreen leaves and the Art nouveau curves to the bud stems.

Generally speaking the flowers are a fine but unremarkable yellow; when that afternoon glow sets in, however, they turn radiant.  They catch onto the diffuse terra-cotta orange and sun-gold, and the sympathetic resonance between them all brings the flowers to life.  They're not "lit from within," but they gleam with the light around them.  Looking at that living color, those vibrant golden tongues, I find myself craving fresh mangoes, and I wouldn't say no to a peach.

My photos don't do the color justice; the flowers just look everyday yellow.  I shall have to learn how to adjust the light balance in my camera beyond "cloudy" and "sunny," so that it doesn't wrest the colors back to its own idea of normal.  But I know that half the reason these afternoons have seemed so golden is that the penstemon beside the Adirondack chair, while picking up the light around it, has also resonated with my own mood of enjoyment.  I'm not entirely sure which has produced which.

I just know that both are more intense for the resonance.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good Deeds

or Virtue:  Its Own Reward

No one ever regrets being virtuous in a folk tale.  Well, almost no one—a few stories do harp on ingratitude (and denial)—but in general compassion, generosity, hard work, and cleverness of the right sort are amply repaid, often with half a kingdom thrown in for a bonus.

As a child I loved the stories where the heroine was sent on a perilous journey toward what threatened to be an evil end.  On the way she'd feed hungry animals, comfort the unhappy, and generally mend what needed mending, and when she was most in need, all the creatures she had helped would come to her rescue.  When I first encountered these stories I went through a phase of releasing flies from webs and then waiting for magic to happen.  (It never did, so I grew out of that phase pretty quickly.)

Perhaps flies were the wrong targets for my self-serving efforts. Crows might have been better, as they seem to remember the faces of those have done bad (and possibly good) deeds to them.  Dogs, too, understand fair play.  On purely anecdotal evidence, I'd say that wasps have a good sense of cause and effect—when the bug bath is empty they hover in front of me in worrying ways; when I've refilled it with water they leave me alone.  (That good deed, at any rate, has its reward—once the wasps show up, at least half my problems with pests are over; watching a wasp carry off a Japanese beetle grub certainly makes my day.)  This year, the wasps have begun perching on my knee now and then; it's unnerving to have it made clear just how harmless they find me.  (Also for more obvious reasons.)

I've been thinking about cause and effect and the oddness of morality the last couple of weeks as I've come across insects in a helpless state.  One was (I think) some sort of a leaf or planthopper, though I'd sure welcome your help with an ID.  It had just molted and was completely vulnerable—it didn't even budge while I photographed it close up at leisure. 

The other was a cabbage moth, lying stunned after one of our worst wind storms.  It moved its antennae feebly as I leaned in for the photograph; I suspect that it was too exhausted and battered to do more.

Both of these insects are pests, and if I were a sensible gardener instead of a nature-loving tree-hugger with misdirected sympathies, I would have dispatched them both then and there.  Instead, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  I wasn't looking for a reward out of it—not clouds of cabbage moths fluttering in halos around my head or anything.  It just didn't seem right is all.

And it's a good thing I wasn't looking for a reward, because do you think these little insects are going to be grateful?  Will the planthopper suck the juices only out of other people's plants, imparting nasty viruses elsewhere, while leaving mine alone?  Will the cabbage moth teach its larvae to stay out of my arugula?  Of course not.  This is not the "winning half a kingdom" kind of situation but the ingratitude-and-denial kind.  Nature does not have a code of honor; it does not step back and refuse to take advantage of a helpless state.  It is about survival, not chivalry.  The planthopper and cabbage moth will act according to their natures, and that will be that.  If I were in a folk tale, a wise toad would come along some day long hence as I was looking at my dying tomatoes, stricken with curly top virus, or at the arugula skeletons, and say, "What did you think would happen?"

Well, really, I thought I'd get a couple of photos and a blog post out of it and deal with the damage later...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Worm Turns

or A Slimy Success

For some reason, I always thought it was a bad thing when "the worm turned"—I vaguely associated the phrase with treachery, and from there took but a short step to envisioning treachery committed in shadowy rooms by people with white Persian cats, more generalized acts of dungeony skulduggery, and deeds of cloak-and-dagger derring-do of the darkest, direst, dourest sorts.

Turns out, it's no such thing.  It just means that even small, lowly creatures will defend themselves if pushed. 

Which makes much more sense, of course, because, as every gardener knows, worms are never the villains.  Worms are our heroes.  More than that, Worms Are Our Friends.

And joy of joys, I now have friends in the garden!  Worms!  Plural!  More than one!  Two that I know of, for sure!  Those of you with loam-rich soils, kindly do not sneer.  If you have yawned rolled your eyes sat enthralled through my occasional descriptions of the local dirt, you will recall that New Mexico does not have "soil."  Here in the former flood-plain of the Rio Grande, at any rate, we have a fair amount of sand mixed with a fair amount of clay (a fine recipe for brick), a good dollop of decomposed granite, no (NO) loam or organic matter, and plenty of minerals, most of which cannot be metabolized by plants because of an overabundance of calcium—altogether a mixture so alkaline that, as I like to point out, it bubbles if you pour vinegar on it (yes, I have tried this at home).  We might as well post a sign at the state line saying, "Worms need not apply."

I hope you will understand, then, why I danced a happy jig and squealed out loud when I unearthed a couple of worms the other day.  I was planting a Carolina jessamine against the wall between the two largest sand cherries, in a patch where all the cedar mulch from three beds has drifted after four years' worth of wind storms and begun to decompose—a small area that's shaded, relatively moist, and rich middle class not entirely poor in organic matter. 

And there were worms.  Their dark meanderings disturbed, they writhed around at the surface looking discommoded (no doubt getting ready to turn). They are probably red wrigglers left over from an abortive attempt at vermicomposting, which I cast out last year to fend for themselves on the abortive attempt at a compost pile.  Apparently they have found a happy home, somehow managing not to be abraded to death by our "soil" in the process.

I would have taken a photo, only since the worms were brownish against brown soil in full shade, I was afraid it would turn out looking something like this:

Remember the old days, when we used to leave lens caps on?
so I didn't.

Since then I've learned all sorts of interesting things about earthworms—did you know they have a crop and gizzard?  Just like chickens, only without the feathers and clucking.  Since they don't have teeth, they depend on ingested sand and small rocks in their gizzards to do the "chewing" for them.  Considered like that, far from being a detriment, the New Mexico soil may even help them—these worms could well produce some of the best-chewed, well-digested castings in all of North America.

And boy, do I

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Befores and Afters

or Transience

The cottonwoods are migrating—at least, that's how they struck me today.  I was driving through Albuquerque's North Valley, close to the cottonwood bosque along the Rio Grande.  Craggy old trees with 50, 70, 80' crowns were sending flock after flock of seeds adrift, a diaspora of cottony tufts chasing the breeze downwind in search of a place to root.

'Wild Thing' autumn sage
When I lived in Vermont, I was a total midsummer-to-frost kind of gal.  I loved the brown-eyed Susans, dogtooth daisies, and coneflowers that bloomed from mid-July to October.  They kicked into gear just as the dog days hit—when the cicadas started singing and the farm stands began overflowing with tomatoes and sweet corn, when jumping into Lake Champlain for a dip stopped being an act of bone-chilling idiocy and started being a Really Good Idea.  Those same flowers were still blooming in September, when the asters and goldenrods lit up the meadows; their last sparks ignited the brief, brilliant fire of autumn.

Out here, "midsummer-to-frost" means from the first week of June until (quite possibly) the end of November.  In other words, a midsummer-to-frost blooming garden can go strong for a good 5½ months.  Such a garden is certainly lovely, and easy, and—in a small, much lived-in space where you don't want a lot of blank spots—quite sensible.  But boy, is it dull.  For almost half the year, you know what is blooming on any given day (i.e., the same thing as yesterday)—half a year that glosses over the change from June's blistering heat to the afternoon thunderstorms of July and August, the cool mornings and hot afternoons of September, the golden loveliness of October, the autumnal chill of November.  The garden gives you no sense of the passage of time, of the rhythm of the seasons.

'Moonshine' yarrow

At some point I realized that one of the things I love about gardening is the way it puts change in the foreground, the way it makes you aware of motion and transience, of moments of emergence and passing, of buds and seed pods and dried leaves.  (That's one reason I love vegetable gardening—the action-movie pace [admittedly, a 1950's action movie] from seedling to harvest to done.) With that realization, my New Mexico self stopped being a midsummer-to-frost kind of person.

Mount Atlas daisies

Don't get me wrong—I do love actual flowers that bloom for weeks on end.  My eyes are happy looking at them for hours, my spirit eased and refreshed by their very presence.  But what intrigues me and tickles my interest is the sense of before and after, of process.  (After all, it's we who value the flowers above all else; to the plant, all stages of its life are equally important.  Genetically speaking, a cottonwood seed is every bit as much a cottonwood as a century-old tree.)  I love those moments in a garden's life that happen once a year, and briefly.  They're don't cover the distance of an actual migration, but they have, perhaps, the same sense of a rite of passage, of a sea change between one life phase and the next, of seasonal ritual.

Pineleaf penstemon with a lovely seed of some sort (to use the technical term)

Of a ceremony, that deserves its honor guard in us, its observers.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Work Week's Worth of Winds

or In Which We Wallow in Weather

Today.  Such a light breeze, one of the rare, perfect kinds—not too hot or cold or strong, and faintly scented of honeysuckle.  A wind to rest—no, to revel in.

Thursday.  Comparative calm. A cool breeze from the northwest at 15 mph, the sky a vast arc of unbroken blue. Even for New Mexico, the sun is radiant. As I sit on the patio writing, a hummingbird lights in one of the desert olive trees.  Today, we are all catching our breaths.

Wednesday. Fitful winds from the west, north, northwest; a fretful sky. The radio blathers excitedly about snow in the East Mountains, but here in town we only get a tight-fisted sprinkling of raindrops, like pennies flung resentfully at a beggar. Late in the afternoon the clouds begin to break apart, and the wisps at their edges go tumbling end over end. From their midst, suddenly, the moon takes shape.

Tuesday. Strong winds, holding steady at 25 mph, with gusts up to 50. They blow from the south, the garden's least protected side. By late afternoon even the sand cherries look beaten down. The desert olives bend from their waists, their upper branches sweeping in circles and figure eights.

The sky isn't any calmer. The cumulus clouds have shredded around their edges, the winds dragging them out of shape. I keep blinking, trying to bring them into focus, before realizing that the clouds themselves are blurry, like the vaguer sort of watercolor.

A glancing blow to the head—my 5'7” self has been hit by one of the topmost branches of the 12' tree. It is time to acknowledge that today, the patio is not a pleasant place to be.

Monday. Dust storms. Winds from the northwest at 35 mph, gusting up to 70. Even my lungs feel dusty. I pour a glass of water in the kitchen and look out at the chard and carrots in the micro-garden, buffeted by this dry wind all day, and decide to water them again.  While I'm at it, I refill the dish I've begun to leave out for every cat in the neighborhood (apparently), to keep them from pawing the pebbles out of the bugbath to reach the water at the bottom. (A voice in my head whispers, “This is how cat ladies are born.”) As if on cue, Sir Marley comes out from under one of the sand cherries and moseys over for a drink.

When the wind blows from just the right direction, the patio has a “sweet spot” that is more or less sheltered. For now, the wind is blowing just right, and I move the Adirondack chair into its lee. As soon as I sit down, Sir Marley jumps into my lap—the first time he's done that. I sputter at him a bit, things like, “Why don't you go back to your own home and sit on your owner's lap?” and “I am not a cat person!” and “Oh, go away!” At the sound of my voice, Sir Marley makes a questioning little "Whhhrr?" and settles himself more comfortably.

Together, we sink into our haven of quietness and watch the wind.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


or Aliens in Our Midst

It's one thing to be willing to suspend disbelief when you're enjoying a work of fiction in whatever genre—to accept that opera characters are going to sing all their conversations, say, or that Scotty really can beam people aboard the Enterprise.  It's another thing in real life.  It's not easy to be confronted by something that up-ends what you think of as normal and to be willing to accept a new, disconcerting truth.*

Scientists, at least the kinds that make paradigm-changing discoveries, are good at suspending disbelief until a theory has worked itself out.  Take Copernicus and Galileo, examining the heavens with new, telescopic technology.  They observed anomalies that didn't fit an earth-centered cosmology; the anomalies disappeared when they stopped thinking of the earth as the universe's focal point.  The naysayers were willing to dismiss the anomalies as acts of God or as plain untruths (thus suspending disbelief in a different direction), but Copernicus and Galileo pursued the evidence to its radical (and troublesome) conclusion.

Or take Einstein, setting his mind to the vexing question of the longitude of North America at the turn of the twentieth century.**  Where other scientists wrote off inconsistent measurements as weaknesses in the tools they used for measuring, Einstein questioned the anomalous readings, figured out a system in which they made sense, fixed the longitude of North America, and developed the theory of relativity in the process (a truth that, on The List of Disconcerting Truths, has to rank rather high).

It's just human nature, I suppose, to assume that any anomaly, anything beyond our experience, arises not because our experience is at fault—i.e., because we are not broadminded or imaginative or informed enough to understand it—but because the anomaly itself is somehow problematic.  Either it doesn't exist at all (a lie, false readings, hysteria, misperception), or it is supernatural somehow—an act of God or of magic.

Or maybe space aliens.

Which brings us to the rue blooming in my garden.  As many of you know, I love this plant.  If there were room in my garden for a swath of anything, I would be happy to plant a swath of rue, somewhere that I wanted to create an impression of cool mystery.  I mean, look at those leaves and the way they play with light and shadow, the sense of layers, of multiple dimensions.  Maybe even a fourth dimension.

Or (cue eerie music) a fifth.

The leaves look like ordinary (but extraordinarily lovely) greenery.  And (except for the fact that you don't dare touch them with bare skin when the sun has been shining on them without risking a poison ivy-like rash and blisters), they are.  It's the blossoms that give rue away as something...not quite...earthly.  Notice how the petals don't unfold or unfurl; oh, no—rue's petals hinge open from the base.  Like a space pod.

And in the flower's center—OK, maybe I've succumbed to the influence of New Mexico, what with the Roswell incident and the Very Large Array

 and all, but does this or does it not look like a communication device?

And, as if my own idiosyncratic impressions weren't proof enough that this plant doesn't come from the planet earth, the neighbors' cats avoid it.

See what I mean?  Spooky.

Admittedly, I'm not a scientist, just an ex-musicologist.  And yet, in the face of the evidence, I am willing to accept a disconcerting truth, such as that rue is a space alien.  The alternative is that some flowers hinge open from the base.

Sorry, but that's just plain weird.

* For the record, this is a total "mountain out of a molehill" post.  But please do come along for the ride.
** For more details, see Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, by Peter Galison.  I'm reducing its wealth of information to an embarrassing degree.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lit from Within

or Coping with Sunshine

Ephedra viridis
It's all about sunlight out here.  Sometimes I may ramble on for a few hundred words or so about wind and aridity, but really, New Mexico's climate is all about sunlight.  For the most part that's a gorgeous thing—don't think that I'm complaining—but as the sun starts getting serious and rolling up its sleeves for summer, it becomes something to cope with, not just something to enjoy.

The range of strategies plants have to cope with sunlight is truly impressive, of course, from reflective leaves to oily ones to hairy or fleshy or silvery or tiny ones, or even, as in the case of Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis), to having (essentially) no leaves at all.  But when so many plants are making you aware of their ingenuity in protecting themselves from the sun, it's kind of a pleasure to find some that are happy to, well, shine in it.

In the troublesome/full sun and/or full shade/bad soil/construction rubbly/narrow/surrounded by extreme heat and/or cold-reflecting walls/wind funnel bed* by the kitchen door, I've tried a couple of solutions for the 8" wide strips between the concrete stepping "stones," but so far nothing's really worked.  This year I'm trying hens and chicks, whose Latin name (Sempervivum) we will hope bodes well for them.  I chose them for both practical and sentimental reasons.  In practical terms, they seem to be able to withstand nasty conditions, and these are nasty conditions.  It's almost destiny that they should go together.  More sentimentally, they remind me of my grandpa, who had a rock garden that was his pride and joy.  He grew hens and chicks in it, and if ever plants were designed to delight small children holding a beloved grandfather's hand, hens and chicks have to be them.  I am happy to have them be the first thing I see now as I walk out my own door.

What I didn't expect was to find myself lying quite so often on my stomach on the (concrete) (hard) (unyielding) patio staring at them.  I didn't know that they would catch the late afternoon sunlight and go up in flame,

that the hairs on the leaf tips would take on a halo glow, that the leaves would turn translucent like old glass,

that even the stolons would seem lit from within.

They are bowls full of light, like votive offerings to the sun.

And out here, it's all about the sun.
* Must think of different name.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

From the Patio

or Days of Rest

Yesterday the clouds were big and little dots, paw-prints racing ahead of today's cold front.  The wind set the aspen leaves next door to rattling; if your eyes were closed, they sounded almost like a mountain stream chuckling over pebbles.  The desert olive trees hissed softly.  Big and little bees that for some reason reminded me of the clouds scudding overhead buzzed around the catmint.  I watched one bee struggling against a sudden gust to reach its flower—any flower—and then bury itself in a world of pollen once it had succeeded.

It has been another weary week—a week where the tiredness is so strong it hurts—and thus also a week of being grateful for Adirondack chairs, footstools, patios, and spring weather.  And cameras with zoom lenses.

It's not the way I would have chosen to spend these afternoons, but I have enjoyed the hours of tracing the wind's passage through my neighbors' differently tuned sets of wind chimes; of hearing the trill of hummingbird wings rushing by (the birds are apparently still sneering at the autumn sage, since they go right past).  I have enjoyed the small tableaux that appear unexpectedly when you limit your field of vision; the scent of a neighbor's honeysuckle wafting over the wall; a lunch-time nibble on a bit of garlic leaf; the splashes of color here and there—the first of the wine cups in what seems to have become a "dry riverbed" sort of bed without my quite intending it to,

Callirhoe involucrata
and the autumn sage beginning to get serious;

Salvia greggii 'Wild Thing'

the breath-takingly gentle contrast between silver betony's calyx and corolla;

Stachys inflata

the slow opening of daisies.

Anthemis tinctoria 'Susanna Mitchell'

Generally in Microcosm I am looking for some connection between my garden and the wider world, but sometimes there is no obvious or necessary connection—just an experience to be enjoyed on its own, a moment—or an hour, or an afternoon—to be lived, without meaning anything beyond its own beauty.

I'm beginning to realize that that is the essence of rest.