Sunday, July 31, 2011

Character Flaws

or A Small Problem

The trick with flaws is to get the right kinds in the right measure.  Sam Spade has a fair share of them and yet manages to be a more or less good(ish) guy; the grimy patina, one suspects, can still be polished away to a nice bright shine.  Hamlet, on the other hand—well, look what having the wrong flaw did to him.

Gila Wilderness Area, southern New Mexico, fall 2010

I've been thinking about "acceptable flaws" this week while planning ahead for September.  (Fall is the best season for gardening here, as new plantings take less water to establish.)  (It's also just the best season.)  The two side beds I'm quite happy with—they're young yet and need to grow into themselves, but their bones seem strong.  They have a couple of minor weak spots of the kind I can either live with or fix, depending.  The flaws are acceptable, the "eating too much dark chocolate" kind, not the "wandering around with poor Yorick's skull and having an existential crisis" kind. In the grand scale of gardening, they're not really even flaws.

The main garden is another matter.  In five years I have never yet been satisfied with it, to the extent that I have to wonder whether the flaw lies in my gardening or in my attitude.  This wouldn't be the first time I've found it difficult to be pleased with my own work.

Gila Wilderness Area, fall 2010

This time, however, I don't think that's the issue.  I've had a lot to learn since moving to New Mexico:  new plants, new growing conditions.  The insect pests ran amok for a couple of years, and getting them in balance took a while.  Townhouse micro-climates of shade and wind present their own challenges.  And so on.  All these things take time.

But more than anything, it has taken me a while to learn what I want from my garden.  In fact, I only realized it about a month ago, after a visit to one of our Open Space parks.  Walking around on a hillside surrounded by low grasses dotted with broom snakeweed and prickly pear, cholla and juniper, looking out over the Rio Grande valley to the horizon or upward toward the heights of the Sandias, with the sky leaping into the stratosphere all around me, my heart just sang.  Despite the drought, despite how parched everything was, that landscape made me feel like I could fly.

Elena Gallegos Open Space Park, June 2011

The Hamlet-sized flaw in my gardening became clear:

     What I love is open space.
     I have a walled garden.
     And I am mildly claustrophobic.

Ah.  Well.  Or perhaps, "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!"  Of course, small, walled spaces do not have to feel confining given the right approach.  But I've been trying to create a traditional, densely planted garden with "normal" sized plants, and I find myself always feeling a little...cramped, a little uncomfortable.  In a small garden the steps from lush to jungly to stifling are short ones indeed.

The bosque at the Rio Grande Nature Center, May 2011

So I'm working on (yet another) master plan, one that I'm really kind of excited about.  I hope to evoke the airiness and shimmery light that to me are the essence of a southwestern landscape.  The general structure of the garden—the shape and the anchoring desert olive trees and sand cherries—should be able to stay the same.  I'm using the photos above and below from various outings in the last year for inspiration, more for the general feel than for ideas of things to plant.  Just be warned:  I'll probably keep telling you all about it, whether you want to hear it or not, because I'm going to be obsessing for a while.

Call it a character flaw.


Feel free to ignore these—I 'm just trying to pull ideas together in one place for now, and this is pretty handy.

At Elena Gallegos OS Park—the rabbit gives a sense of scale among the grasses (and it's cute)
At Elena Gallegos OS Park
Gila Wilderness
Gila Wilderness

The bosque—February
The bosque—May

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Table Manners

or On/Off

Being human has so many lovely perks:  opposable thumbs, brains that can (sometimes) solve complex problems, the capacity to create and enjoy art.  Even better, even more exciting and convenient, we don't have to stand on our food and eat it out from under us.  I'd never really fully appreciated that last perk until this week, when I watched a juvenile angle-wing katydid going through contortions while it ate.  The leaf it was standing on kept getting smaller and smaller as the katydid devoured more and more of it.  About halfway through it either had to stop eating or fall off.  Without even the tiniest pause, it moved on to another floor-table-casserole (or "leaf") and started over again.  I have been fondly patting the kitchen chairs in passing ever since.

Theoretically this katydid should be hanging out in a tree somewhere.  Instead it's settled into the amaranth patch in the microgarden for the last few days.  The amaranth is just a small patch, about two feet long by six inches wide, but intensively planted, with plenty of leaves for a hungry young katydid to stand and/or dine on.

And dine it does, with the relentless precision of a machine, its mandibles perforating a leaf and meshing together, drawing food up and in, up and in, without pause, without a change in rhythm.  It works its way from one side of a leaf to the other and then, like a typewriter carriage, swings back to the starting point.*  During a windstorm the other evening I watched it sheltering on the middle tier of leaves, clinging with its feet to the leaf below it and with its mandibles to the one above.  While the wind blew the katydid was anchored in two directions; when the wind paused it would take a bite.

To eat the shelter from over your head while you still need it—that's some hunger at work.  Watching the katydid this week, I've been aware of its instinct as an implacable, almost mechanistic force.  When that insect is ready to eat, nothing slows it down; it's on automatic pilot.  The sense of robotic drive is all the more striking as the only other thing I have seen this living creature do is sit.  Admittedly, it has a splendid physique, and when it sits it looks like the kind of intricate jade carving that ought to grace an emperor's palace, but still, all it does is sit.  It's as if the katydid is on a toggle switch:  when the switch is on it eats, when the switch flips off it comes to a dead halt.  There's no middle ground, no competing instinct to moderate the hunger, no secondary activity to occupy it.

Other insects, just as driven, still seem to acquire character as a species.  No one can tell me praying mantises aren't hungry, yet they're also curious and engaged.  The baby ones that used to live in the chard in the microgarden would pounce on me when I watered and then be startled at what they'd caught and run away.  No matter how driven ants may be, they still manage to find time to be irritable.  Waterbugs are gregarious—really surprisingly friendly (such a pity they're vermin); bumblebees can be flat-out hedonistic when they think no one is looking.  Character comes from movement, but stasis?  What does stasis produce?

What does a katydid do but alternately eat and look like a jade carving?  To have no one be "home" in a creature of that size—it's unnerving.

Maybe still waters run deep?

* Youngsters, ask your parents to tell you about typewriters.**
** Or better yet, just don't worry about it.

A postscript:  Look what the katydid accomplished today while I was gone!

All grown up
It isn't half-bad at camouflage...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

To the Hilt

or When More Is More

Sometimes restraint is a fine thing—in the use of cayenne pepper, say, or the wearing of day-glo paisley.  No doubt there is a time and place for going over the top with both, but the tricky part is knowing just when and where that might be.

I can't remember where I saw the advice to flower photographers not to "overdew it," but it has stuck in my mind as something to remember in case I ever see dew again.  (It doesn't feature much in desert life.)  With rain or dew, restraint is generally a photographer's friend.  Two or three drops of water to adorn a perfect bloom and evoke the freshness of morning, or perhaps one large, precariously balanced droplet to catch the sunlight, ting! and reflect the sky in a beautifully distorted, fish-eye lens kind of way—that usually says everything that needs saying, and says it eloquently.  In other words, less is more.

Water practically gushing from a canale during a thunderstorm

Yes, well, that advice went out the window when we had a second thunderstorm this week.*  The official measurement was "a trace," but my neighborhood had good, drenching rain for about half an hour and probably received at least a quarter of an inch.  As I was wandering around the garden afterward, camera in hand, looking at a world dripping with water, I thought, why on earth would I want to be restrained when we've just had rain?  Why capture one droplet when the whole excitement is that we've just been doused by hundreds and hundreds—no, thousands and thousands, or maybe (gasp) even more of them?  Why adorn a plant with restraint when it is glorying in saturation?

Admittedly, a quarter inch of rain isn't that much, but that's precisely why it deserves some over-the-top revelry.  It may not be a lot, but our alternative to "not much" isn't "plenty," it's none at all.  When an enjoyment—a necessity—is scarce, you live it to the hilt when it comes along and thumb your nose at good taste.  Restraint is for those with a better range of choices, who can minimize a pleasure and still have plenty left.

Right now, we in the southwest are delighting in all the raindrops we can, because there's no knowing when we'll see them again.  This is our day-glo paisley moment, our time to relish a hair-raising, eye-watering, smoke-coming-out-the-ears mouthful of hot pepper intensity.  "Overdew" it?  You'd better believe it.  We've done "less."  It wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

The tasteful, restrained flowers of 'Wild Thing' autumn sage

Right now, more is more.

* I promise to stop talking about the weather soon.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Perfect Storm

or In Which We See a Puddle

I was leaning back in the Adirondack chair early yesterday evening, idly watching the clouds and daydreaming a little, not really noticing what I was seeing.  Eventually a slow bubble of awareness rose up through my thoughts and burst, and I realized that the cloud I was staring at, the one right overhead, hadn't moved in several minutes.  It hadn't moved.  It wasn't winging across the valley, spinning into shape after shape, or fading to nothing in the desert air.  It was just...still.  So were the clouds around it.

That's when hope leaped high.  I stayed outside watching the clouds growing, thickening, blocking the remnants of sky, until the first rumble of thunder chased me inside to close windows.  By the time I'd finished, the rain had begun, the kind of steady, soaking rain we've been dreaming of here for months.  A harder rainfall would have been almost useless, as it would just have run off the sun-baked brick we call the earth.  This one was slow enough, gentle enough, to soften the surface first.  It trickled into the soil to ease thirsty roots, it washed the patio and sidewalks clean, it set the leaves on the sand cherries and desert olives trembling and flickering in the fading light.  Occasionally a gust would send the rain slanting against the windows, but mostly the wind was quiet, and the rain fell straight.  Thunder growled but never roared; the goldfinches didn't even bother to leave the feeders.

For the hour that the storm lingered, I drifted from window to window, door to door, indoors and out, watching droplets splash on the sidewalks, puddles (puddles!) on the streets glint in car headlights, colors in the garden take on new depth and intensity, water run freely from the canales.  The moment when the rain barrel overflowed—that was a triumph.

From an objective standpoint, I don't know why a rainstorm, even in the desert, should be quite so exciting to us city folk.  Rain or no rain, the indoor and outdoor taps still flow with water on demand.  In immediate, practical terms, extra moisture doesn't really make much difference, and in the quest for long-term sustainability, one rainstorm is so small as to be meaningless.

Even so, everyone I met today was wearing an air of ease, as if something wrong had righted itself.  It has been 216 days since our last "significant rainfall event"—one that brought us more than a scant two or three hundredths of an inch.  Yesterday, different parts of town received anywhere from 1/10 to 9/10 of an inch; I'm guessing my neighborhood fell somewhere in the middle.  In one hour the storm more than doubled what we've received in the last seven months altogether.  It's as if a long, drawn-out dissonance has finally resolved, as if someone has been singing the first seven notes of the scale, "Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti—" over and over until we've grown used to the tension of incompleteness in a teeth-gritting sort of way.  Now, suddenly, sweetly, that last "Do" has been given a chance to resonate.  We are relieved.  We are beside ourselves with joy.

One half-inch of rain won't shake the foundations of the earth.  It won't end a drought or even adequately water a garden—it didn't really even cool things off.  When I raced outside at dawn this morning to take pictures of raindrops on flowers, and maybe a good wet puddle, they had all already dried up.

But for the hour that it lasted, it was a perfect storm.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


or The Many Faces of Arugula

I have been playing hide-and-seek with words for several hours now, and I finally have to admit that the words have won.  They are off in the brain-fog somewhere, and I have no idea where to find them. So here instead are some photos of bolting arugula, making its hey-presto! transformation from big hairy monster

to Tiffany-lamp wonder

to weed.

Don't think it isn't magic.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

So Close, and Yet...

or Monsoon Season, New Mexico Style

It was a dark and stormy ni—well, no, it's really been late afternoon when the clouds have moved in.  Come to think of it, it hasn't gotten all that dark, even with the cloud cover—if you wanted to, you could still wear sunglasses in the shade and see just fine.  Stormy?  Well, maybe in a way, if you're not picky about definitions:  a bit of a cooling breeze, enough humidity that you could actually feel the air (weird!), and the sight of a few thunderheads.  But nothing that qualified as an actual storm.  Not in the sense of actual weather.

A dark and stormy night A perfectly lovely evening, gosh darn it.

Every afternoon for the past couple of weeks, the monsoon clouds have built up over Albuquerque.  We look forward to them all through the blistering heat of June, and early every July the newspaper sports a giant, front-page headline like:

Is Monsoon Season Here? 

According to those in the know, for 2011, it is.  For the next couple of months, the prevailing winds will change direction and start pulling moist air up from the Gulfs of Mexico and California.  As the moisture heats up over the warm earth it will rise; as it cools in the higher air it will condense to fall again as rain.  (It is hardly the awe-inspiring monsoon of the Indian subcontinent, but the wind pattern works the same way.)  Across the west and southwest, we rely on these two months for 40% of our annual moisture, which in Albuquerque should give us a little over three inches.  Since our total for the year so far is still 0.19" (5mm) of rain, we're ready for this.

We want some dark and stormy nights.

But clouds in the southwest don't come in massive storm fronts, even during monsoon season.  No giant "unicloud," as my oldest nephew calls it, stakes out the sky from one horizon to the other and sets up camp for the week, pouring out rain all the while.  Instead the clouds here are separate little puffballs with vague herding instincts.  If the cloud directly over you decides to drop its rain just at that moment, you will get rain.  Otherwise, maybe your neighbor three houses down will.  The next cloud will probably have different ideas.  So will the next one.

The herding instincts of clouds, illustrated.

Even without rain, of course, the season is a relief.  The higher humidity (sometimes soaring to 50%) has been a boon to weary firefighters around the state; the clouds have kept afternoon temperatures a few degrees cooler.  We can water gardens and landscaping a little less, because the water doesn't evaporate quite as quickly.  But still.  We want some rain.

Some parts of the state have received it—Santa Fe, Roswell, Socorro.  Even some parts of town have seen rainfall, especially closer to the foothills.  Here in the valley, though, we've had a couple of wickedly flirtatious showers, and that's been it.  They've been enough to give the air an almost desperate sweetness—a freshness so rare and intense that it hurts.  They've lasted long enough to make the patio furniture too wet to sit on for a few minutes, but not enough to send any water tumbling out of the canales into the rain barrel below, or to dampen more than the surface of the earth.  Not enough to measure.

In the last few days I've stood on the patio and watched the anvils on thunderheads fraying in the icy upper atmosphere.  I've seen the Sandias disappear behind a black sheet of rain.  I've gazed at mango- and raspberry-colored sunsets breaking through the (many) gaps in the clouds.  It's all been dramatic and beautiful, maybe even verging on the sublime. 

But what I'd really like to a puddle.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Primrose Path

or What Happens Next

"Barberry, the Three-Toed Elephant" is a tale about youth, difference, and acceptance—not to mention a wise, understanding Mama Elephant—created by my mother (hi, Mom!).  She told this story as a serial tale, unfolding it over several evenings, lo these many years ago when my sister and I were young.  Mom would start spinning the new day's installment, and my sister and I would listen eagerly.  At some point one of us would say something like, "But what about the lion, isn't there a lion?" or "Couldn't they have hot fudge sundaes for lunch instead?"  Mom would blink for a minute, not having expected lions or quite such a drastic change in the jungle lunch menu.  Then she'd say, in a mysterious voice that let you know she'd planned for this all along and had a real treat in store, "We'll get to that a little later."  And at some point within the next two sentences to 24 hours, a lion and some hot-fudge sundaes would show up.

It was interactive story-telling at its best—not like those so-called interactive novels where you choose alternate possibilities from a pre-set range of options that lead to already-written results.  Those are just entertaining multiple-choice tests.  Mom, on the other hand, was ready to swing at whatever curveball we threw her.  We were all agog to find out what happened next, because none of us, not even the teller of the tale, knew quite what to expect.

I've begun to conclude that that's really my approach to gardening—that gardening is an interactive story, and I am one of a co-op of story-tellers, agog to find out what happens.  It would be more satisfying in some ways to be a visual-artist type gardener, creating a series of shifting, seasonal tableaux; or an exterior decorator, coming up with a pleasing arrangement of living furniture.  I envy both of those, I really do—the results are so consistently beautiful, so worthy of photographing and sharing with the world.

Instead...well, let's just say that there's a reason I usually only show close-ups of my garden—i.e., the larger picture often looks kind of silly.*  The reason the larger picture looks silly is that I often swing at curveballs and miss.  But sometimes the garden throws tempting things your way, and you can't just stand back and let the umpire call the pitch.  Gosh darn it, you're here to play ball!

So there is a bare patch under one of the bird feeders, because I wanted to know what all those madly sprouting millet and sunflower seeds would do if given a chance.  (Now I know:  they will grow enthusiastically until the June heat hits and then fizzle completely.)  Random sandcherry seedlings are sprouting under the bushes, because I wondered what would happen if I let last year's cherries lie.  (They grow.  And grow!  Will they become a thicket in time?  Let's find out!)  I have pots and pots of feverfew, because I wondered what would happen if I let last year's flowers set seed.  (They grow beautifully, but in inconvenient places, which can fortunately be changed.)  The pineleaf penstemon patch is currently a sprangly mess, because I want to know what will happen if I let the flower spikes do their thing, whatever that is.  (I will let you know when I find out.)  (If it's interesting.)  (And how can it not be??)

Really, there are only two options in this story line:  the plants live, or they die.  Both stories are incredibly compelling.  Wondering which will happen is the first step down the primrose path to chaos, to haphazard untidiness—or, in its own small way, to adventure, to the great (or even lesser, if there is such a thing) unknown.

When an unidentified plant began forming a lovely basal rosette at the trunk of one of my desert olives last year, I left it, on the theory that if it thrives out here (and isn't a goathead [a hateful plant whose Latin name I love:  Tribulus terrestris] or a tumbleweed), it deserves some encouragement, if not outright applause.  The rosette survived our freak winter cold and, come April, began to spring up, snaking its way alongside the tree trunk(s) until it is now taller than I am.  For the last few weeks it has been poking stems beyond the tree branches into the sunshine, and apparently blooming its heart out—overnight.  When I go inside for the evening at bedtime it is still in bud; by 6:00 in the morning the flowers are already beginning to close.

Sadly, I can't get a much broader perspective without climbing
over the wall into my neighbor's garden...

I suspect that it's a Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), but it sure isn't common around here.  I've never seen one before and have no idea where this one might have come from.  Frankly, it looks kind of goose-ish, stretching out long stalks from inside the tree.  But as it begins to set seed, I'm planning to let things run their course.   I'm walking that primrose path into the unknown.

Because I just can't stand not knowing:  what happens next?**

* To use the word "larger" about a 14' x 14' primary planting area is a little ridiculous to begin with, but you get the general idea.
** Of course, I could ask the question, "What would happen next if I did everything by the book and didn't take a lot of fools' risks?"  But I won't.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dog Days

or The Livin' Is Easy

To be honest, I wouldn't recognize Sirius if it bit me—or, more likely, it being the Dog Star and all, if it smeared a happy, slobbery greeting all over my face.*  As more observant people have noted, however, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky; its name derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning "glowing" or "scorcher."  But as the earth and stars move in their elaborate dance, toward the end of July in most northern latitudes, Sirius edges out of nighttime and turns into a day star.  It begins to rise and set with the sun, its brilliant glow dissolved into our own star's light, its scorching heat joined (in ancient thought) to the sun's heat.

The weeks on either side of that conjunction are known as the dog days of summer, lasting "officially" from July 3 to August 11.  (I used to think the dog days were when dogs decided that lying on a porch, panting, was even more fun than going for a w-a-l-k, but it turns out that's just a coincidence.)  These days are hot, uncomfortable, and unpleasant.

And they are my very favorite days of summer.

Western sandcherries, July

Why, I don't know.  Maybe it's because, despite the heat, they're feasts for the senses, when cicadas drone from every tree and crickets serenade you to sleep, when lemony pilafs and icy mint teas offer refreshment, when the slightest touch of a breeze makes you sigh with pleasure.  Maybe it's because they're slow, sleepy days (I have never been a speedy person, and I love it when the world slows down to my pace).  Maybe it's because the heat finally sinks so deeply into your bones that the last chilly fingers of winter are forced to let go of you for good (or until December, whichever comes first).

But I think it's really because these are the days of fruition.  The enthusiastic flush of late-spring flowers may be over, the summer-bloomers looking tired and drab, the leaves of all kinds burned brown around the edges and bug-eaten, but the sand cherries are ripening, the daisies setting seed, the goldfinches feeding as families and not just in pairs.  This is when the point of all those frothy, lovely spring flowers becomes clear.

Western sandcherries, March

Every afternoon this week, I've gone out to the garden to pick a bowlful of cherries from the sandcherry bushes.  My books all say that the fruit of the native Western sandcherry (Prunus besseyi) is tart, but I suspect the writers didn't wait for harvest until the fruit was ripe.  Unripe, it is admittedly pretty pucker-making, but ripe, it's...well, bland and almost flavorless (but not tart!).  These are definitely "wild" rather than "cultivated" cherries.

But when you wait until the sun has just passed over into afternoon shadow to pick them still warm from the branch, when the brick path comes close (but not too close) to burning the soles of your bare feet, when two feet away bees are wading happily through clouds of oregano blossom, when the wasps are playing the washtub bass in the jug (or possibly jazz ) band of summer (heavy on buzz, light on tone), when all those things line up—

Western sandcherries, lunch

Boy, do those cherries taste good.

* Note:  I don't actually think that either one is likely to happen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Talking Points

or Unending Melody

Songbirds are a talkative lot.  They're always so busy communicating that you wonder how they ever manage to find time for nesting (warble) and feeding (tee-yee, tee-yee) and mating (warble, warble) and egg-laying (tseep) not to mention (arpeggio) raising (trill, trill, trill) young (tee-yee).*

Take Lesser Goldfinches, for example.  They're summer residents in this part of New Mexico, and I always hear them long before I see them in spring.  Their voices have a distinctive timbre, the tones less pure than the American goldfinch, a little more raspy, a little more plaintive.  They are the smallest of the finches, and the meek sigh in their two-note call suggests that they know it.  Two pairs (at least) visit the Nyjer feeders I've set out, enlivening the garden with their singing.  One of the males in particular likes to go through his whole repertory twice before he dines;  the others settle for calling frequently to one another—checking in, perhaps, with a re-assuring tseep to say, "I'm over here, still no cats in sight."

Although goldfinches chatter a lot, for the most part it doesn't seem to be empty chatter (though we could debate about that show-off male).  Last week, though, as I was lying on the sofa by the living room window, I heard a quiet running monologue going on—so quiet that I wouldn't have heard it if the window hadn't been open.  I looked out to see a female goldfinch alone at the feeder two feet away, eating with abandon and twittering softly about it to herself the whole time.  She did enjoy those seeds.  She stayed for quite a while, munching and murmuring, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, "the appetite of a bird." 

I've seen and heard her a few times since then.  She'll arrive at the feeder with her mate, who soon gets spooked by something and darts off.  Our heroine doesn't go in for "flock think," though.  Instead of startling she pauses, looks around, assesses the situation (her judgment seems to be rock solid), and then happily settles in for the long haul.  The commentary begins:  "Oh, this is good.  Mmm, yes, that was a tasty seed.  So is this.  I wonder if this next one will be—yes, yes, very nice.  Oh, and there's another one.  Delicious!"  And on and on, seed after seed.

She is very round.

I like to think that she's the same finch I wrote about last year who had an unusual encounter with a hummingbird.  There's no reason that she should be, but then, there's no reason that she shouldn't.  Really, how many plump lesser goldfinches with minds of their own and a knack for getting the feeder all to themselves can there be in one small neighborhood?

Well, not being that much of a bird watcher, I can't say for sure.  But I like to think it's just one, and that she really knows how to have a good time, one joyfully celebrated seed after another.

And another and another...

*It's like a Wagner opera, only more cheerful.  The first (and only) time I watched Tristan and Isolde I wondered how the lovers ever did anything worth getting in trouble over when they were so busy squawking at each other the whole time.