Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working Wonders

or Heavy Lifting

When I envision "workhorses" they're not usually pink and fluffy.  The other night I watched the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tends to a draft horse—a literal work horse, the real McCoy, with its bell-shaped hooves and gentle-giant demeanor.  A metaphorical workhorse ought to be like that, too:  sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with immense stamina, willing to do your heavy lifting in exchange for a little hay and a pat on the nose.

Not pink, with little frothy things sticking out all over.

Along the side of my townhouse is a long, skinny planting area where Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber) cuts quite a dash with the Russian sage.  I water it once, deeply, in spring; during our rare rainstorms it gets the runoff from the canales.  Other than that, it fends for itself.  It starts blooming in May and some years keeps going until Christmas or later.  In winter its foliage turns a beautiful red.

Plants that flower for months on end also tend to do lots of this, of course:

For the first time since early June (don't hate me—it's a tiny, heavily mulched, dry climate garden during a drought year) I have weeding to do, and almost all of it is Jupiter's beard.  I usually leave some of the seedlings where they are.  This one, for example, showed up last year just outside the kitchen door against the north side of the house and has been blooming enthusiastically all summer: 

I have never given it a lick of attention.  It has never once been watered, and our official rainfall total for the year so far is 1.91 inches.  Every morning I accidentally step on it in fuzzy slippers; early this summer the aphids played Dracula with it.  Now, with the sun moving farther south, the main stems are having to sprawl horizontally to get the blossoms into the sunlight.  The centranthus hasn't minded any of that.  It just blooms, blooms, blooms.  And a cheerful sight it is, greeting you the minute you step out the door, inviting you into its world of vibrant color.

You can mouse over the image to see the original photo.  Not that the original
is so different or interesting, but I've just learned how to do this little bit of
bloggy schtick and am kind of jumping up and down about it. 

I was thinking about a conversation a friend had with his father a few years ago.  The father had grown up on a farm during the Depression and didn't see the point of keeping pets if they weren't working animals.  A cat ought to be a mouser; a dog should hunt or guard.  Otherwise, they were a waste of food.  My friend, on the other hand, held that "companion animals" do different but no less important work.

Luther T. Dog was their case in point.  Luther was a beagle and coon hound mix, hard wired by both sets of ancestors to lie around on a sunny porch (or comfy sofa) all day and then, when something interesting-smelling came along, to chase it up a tree and bark at it.  (Surely this is the pinnacle of dogdom.)  His "work" was to nose out small game, and if only I had kept up my end of the bargain and hunted it down, he would have been happy to work all day.  I never did, but we enjoyed many an off-leash ramble through the woods in southwestern New York, Luther chasing things up trees and barking, me calling him back to what we thought of as heel.

Enjoyed.  I write that word and shake my head at its inadequacy.  Luther and joy went together coffee and mugs; it's hard to envision one without the other.  He was joy, joy in a fur coat, more than any dog I've ever known.  I can't think of anyone who liked dogs at all that wasn't touched—soothed, gladdened, even inspired—by his unclouded delight in each new moment, in each new experience (unless tile floors or houseflies were involved, of course).  Trust me, that dog helped with a lot of heavy lifting at need.

"You're useless," my friend's father told Luther, right before scratching him under the chin and giving his chest an affectionate rub and getting his own face licked and slipping a little food under the dinner table.  My friend winked at me and rested his case.


Some plants earn their keep in the garden by doing obvious work:  anchoring a bed, bearing fruit, balancing a color scheme, or any number of other practical tasks.  Others operate on more subtle levels—soothing, gladdening, inspiring.  They'll help you through a rough patch just by blooming, by growing in good, honest dirt.  They'll embody your joy in their translucent colors, they'll lift your spirits in wonder at each tiny, perfect detail.

It's as if the seeds bud and flower, too.

For me those "companion" plants change from day to day, mostly depending on which one I'm paying the most attention to at the time.  Today it happens to be Jupiter's beard, admirable on so many levels.  Sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with stamina, willing to help with all kinds of heavy lifting—that sounds like a pink and fluffy workhorse to me.

Go on, give it a pat on the nose.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Warm Welcomes

or A Foot in Two Worlds

Just having the curtains open is a pleasure.  All summer we do our best to block out the sun, and now to welcome it with open arms, to let it stream unhindered through the kitchen window, is sheer joy.

Out on the patio this morning, the sun's warmth felt good again:  good early on, over a cup of tea, while it took away the dawn chill; good later, over the crossword puzzle and decaf, and later still over a notepad and pencil, when those golden rays dispensed sleepy contentment with a generous hand.  And oh, what that sunlight did for the colors in the garden—instead of being washed out in a harsh overhead glare they were backlit and glowing with warmth, filled to the saturation point with light.  They aren't showing fall colors but summer's colors refreshed.

They're a reminder that this is still just September.  Morning may have leaped into autumn wholeheartedly, but afternoon is still clinging hard to summer.  Highs are in the mid-80's F, close to breaking records yet again this year.  For now, at any rate, we still have a foot in both worlds. 

It's time to replant the microgarden.  More than time, really—two or three weeks later than I'd have liked.  Some of the summer veggies are just picking up steam, though, having waited until the worst of the heat passed to start setting on.  Now they're in a race with frost, trying to ripen in a part-sun garden in ever-shrinking hours of sunlight.  The tomatillos and summer squash may yet make it.  Meanwhile the marigolds are blooming their hearts out, and the amaranth seeds are feeding the goldfinches while its stems and leaves provide a windbreak on the little garden's north side.

Even with the things that will remain in the microgarden, plenty of others are ready to be ousted and replaced by chard, arugula, radishes and carrots.  The soil is still warm enough that the seeds should sprout quickly.  Managing new seedlings' space and light requirements will be tricky in that 2' by 4' space with the summer plants so tall around them, but it ought to be do-able.  For a while the garden will just have a foot in two worlds.

I never find seed planting as compelling in fall as it is in spring.  In spring you're thrilled when the seeds come in the mail, aware of their potential and eager to see them grow, impatient with those last few frosts.  Planting seeds is an Essence of Spring Experience like no other.  The hope outweighs every other consideration.

In fall I'm more aware of lugging soil around and of the mess of emptying out the microgarden and refilling it.  Those things are fine—they're part of the overall pleasure of gardening—but they're not the same as that rush of hope in spring, and they don't quite radiate the golden glow of autumn like, say, pumpkins and apples and turning leaves do.  Composted cotton burrs and cow manure—I dunno, there's something kind of mundane about them.  When I think of what makes up the glow of autumn, and what goes into an Essence of Autumn Experience, composted cotton burrs and cow manure just aren't it.  They're a necessary first step, however, making more glowing, harvest-y parts possible.  I will be grateful for them in December when I pull up a handful of carrots and can relive a little of fall's golden warmth.

This is the one season I can wax endlessly rhapsodic about.  Spring is delightful when it behaves, summer is lovely but has to be coped with, winter—I'll just growl now and get that out of the way.  But's the light.  It's that beautiful, golden sunlight.  I could spend hours just soaking up the rich warmth of that light. In a sense being aware of the mundane, earthy stuff like (composted)  manure is a good counterweight for autumn's heady enjoyment.  It anchors you occasionally in practical, everyday reality instead of letting you stay immersed in a world of shining, living colors.  Sometimes you want to bask in wonder at the beauty around you, but sometimes you need to get things done.

It doesn't hurt to have a foot in both worlds.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blind Spots

or Getting Back to Nature

Some days just don't go according to plan.

"Closed:  For the purpose of minimizing the potential of a dangerous bear/human encounter.   Numerous bears are in the area feeding on the abundant acorn crop."

There's something compelling about bears.  With a little extra vacation time this year, I've been taking advantage of long weekends all summer to go rambling around in the Great (and sometimes Fair to Middling) Outdoors.  This week's destination was the Sulphur Canyon trail, a loop through what my books promised would be a "lushly forested" area of the Sandias.  The bears got there first, however, and arguing with bears, especially the hungry, grumpy ones with acorn fetishes, is something I mostly try to avoid.

Another trailhead a good, safe quarter mile up the road was still open.  I wasn't familiar with the trail and didn't know what to expect but decided at least to give it a shot.  I enjoyed it—loved it—although it wasn't an unmixed pleasure; but more about that in a minute.

The trail is called "La Cienega," a "wet meadow" in New Mexican Spanish.  Seasonal springs dot this area of the mountains, and the extra moisture fosters some truly lush growth, including alpine forests full of cool, dappled shade that feels just wonderful on a late summer day.  When you spend most of your outdoor time in the unbroken shade of your afternoon patio, the unbroken sunshine of the foothills, or the—I don't know what, slightly grazed?—sunshine among the cottonwoods along the bosque, you forget what it's like in a mountain forest.  The light—oh, the light:  soft and glowing with a cathedral brightness against a rich backdrop of shade.

Fleabane (Erigeron)
A different kind of fleabane

I say "forest" and know that I walked through one but in a way couldn't actually swear to it.  Probably there were trees.  I'm almost certain that there were.  Something, after all, had to have been casting all that lovely, dappled shade, and trees are likely to have been it.*   I was too enrapt looking at the wildflowers, though, to pay much attention to anything else.

From top to bottom, starting in the upper left (add an "I think" after all of them but the yarrow):  Some sort of four o'clock (Mirabilis etcetera); common yarrow (Achillea millefolium); MacDougal's Verbena (V. macdougalii); yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius); pineywoods geranium (G. caespitosum); the same some sort of 4:00 as before; Canadian violet (Viola canadensis); towering Jacob's ladder (Polemonium foliosissimum) in blue and white versions; Whipple's penstemon (P. whippleanus); and cutleaf coneflower seeds and flowers (Rudbeckia laciniata)

Flowers had splashed everywhere, vibrant, lush, exhilarating.  Sunflowers, coneflowers, harebells, asters, geraniums—before I had even made it the few steps from the car to the trailhead, the camera was out and working.  Flowers, I pay attention to.  Trees, on the other hand... they're kind of a blind spot of mine.  I notice them in general but often don't pay much attention to them in particular.  If you asked me whether the forest trees were pines, aspens, or baobabs, I wouldn't know, not because I can't tell the difference, but because I really didn't see them. 

Not the live ones, that is.  The dead ones are a little different.  Only one jarring note sounded during this excursion:

but it sounded over

and over

and over.

Logging?  Forest management?  The internet mentioned logging in the 1950's, but I highly doubt these trees were felled as long ago as 60 years.  Still, it's been long enough for fungus to have grown on the logs, so "a number of years ago" would be my guess, but not many.

Back at home I looked in my books for information about the hiking trail but found no mention of the downed logs.  The blogs and other online resources—no mention.  Either it's such a normal feature of trails in the Sandias, or the path turns into pristine wilderness farther on, or the writers have focused only on guidepost-y landmarks, or they're so aware of all the good things—the raspy call of mountain chickadees, the shrieking of Steller's jays; the brisk, resiny smell of conifers and the sweet scent that only comes near fresh water; the trees (whatever they are) and abundant wildflowers—that the ugliness of waste is something they're blind to, at least in print.

That kind of blew me away—at first impression the detritus almost overwhelms the beauty of the flowers.  It's everywhere.  It looks like a mountainside of trees was clearcut and the unmillable logs abandoned.  But on my second visit, or third?  Maybe I'll learn to be blind to the wreckage, too.

I've found myself since then mulling over different kinds of blind spots:  "inattentional blindness"—the invisible gorilla that we overlook because our focus is elsewhere, as described by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons; blindness to things we haven't yet learned to notice and so don't have on our radar; and the clearcutting blindnesses we choose to suit our own purposes.

One day the land will recover from  and return to equilibrium.  But in the arid mountains, 7,000 feet above sea level, that will be a long, slow process.

La Cienega is getting back to nature—but it won't get there in my lifetime.

* Flocks of considerate hummingbirds are so hard to come by these days.
For the record, I know Dan Simons but am mentioning The Invisible Gorilla purely on its own merits; I haven't been paid—or even bribed with pizza (Dan's preferred medium of exchange).  (Do look at the experiment—it's fascinating.)

Editor's Note: Since publishing a more spluttery version of this post on the 22nd, I've come back and softened it a little.  Really, I don't know why I got so up in arms; the horse is long since out of the barn.

Editor's Note 2:  Baffled made a comment that has me rethinking my impressions.  I may have jumped to conclusions and have done some editing accordingly.  The upshot is, "I don't know what happened there but would sure like to find out."  

Sunday, September 18, 2011


or In Which We Are Surprised Once Again

Bulbs, all  in a swath

At this point I'm pretty well used to being surprised by the fall-blooming crocuses.  They'll still be a surprise when they bloom, but an expected one, if that makes sense, an "Oh, yeah, that surprise" kind of thing.  Lately, however, they've outdone themselves.  They've already startled me, and they haven't even put up buds yet—in fact, they probably won't for another month or so.  But I have them on the brain, as this is the perfect time to plant them (although later works too), and apparently that's all it takes.

With the vague memory of thinking last fall, "I must plant a larger swath of fall-blooming crocuses next year," I headed out to one of my favorite nurseries yesterday to purchase bulbs.  I came away with two bags each of C. speciosus and sativus, 40 bulbs in all—not enough for a huge swath, but enough to make a showing in my small garden.

Then I got them home, and surprise! I don't know where I'm going to put them, because surprise! the fall garden doesn't really have room for anything as large as a swath.  Besides, on the garden map with all the bulbs' locations pencilled in, I never marked the fall bloomers, and surprise! I don't remember where they're already planted.  Since they don't put out leaves until after flowering, there's really no way to find out where they are until surprise! they start to bloom.  Probably at some point last year, leaving the crocuses' location as an enjoyable surprise for this year seemed like a good idea.  (Hey, thanks a lot, last year's self!)  Either that, or I just forgot.

So now I'm left with a lot of questions (and 40 bulbs):  I wonder why I didn't figure out where to put them before going to the nursery?  I wonder where to find room for 40 bulbs, or for anything, all in a swath?  I wonder where they could possibly get enough sunshine, where a sun-loving plant isn't already growing?  I wonder whether I should put them in the most sensible place, or if I should assume that that's where I planted last year's batch?  I wonder how this is going to pan out?  I wonder what I was thinking?

Oh, the satisfaction.  Because this is what we all love so much about gardening, really.

The wonderment.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Soft Focus

or A Missed Opportunity

If only I'd had an epiphany, then everything would have been perfect.  The thing with epiphanies, though, is that you have to be looking for something, following some metaphorical star in the East toward enlightenment, for enlightenment actually to happen.  (Which doesn't mean that the enlightenment you get will be the one you were looking for, of course.)  I wasn't looking for any enlightenment at all.  I was just out for a hike walk dawdle at the Elena Gallegos Open Space Park on a day off from work.

Seeing the same place in different seasons endears it to you like nothing else—it becomes a friend in a way, as you discover more and more about it.  You learn its moods and celebrate its accomplishments—the lone flower that's turned into a patch, the fledglings grown to independence—and shake your head at its foibles:

Galls on the leaves of scrub oak (Quercus turbinella) (I think)

This is the first time I've seen the park in late summer, and it is lovely indeed.  The day was a soft-focus one, with high "mare's-tail" clouds, some noncommittal thunderheads, and a breeze that wasn't quite all there.  In the brief, vital weeks between monsoon rains and frost, the grasses have begun to bloom, especially the blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and what I suspect is an escaped pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris), as have the wildflowers—southwestern paintbrush, sand verbena, bahia, mounding peppergrass, globemallow, broom snakeweed, spiny asters, and the unfortunately named but beautiful clammyweed.

Red-whiskered clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra)

The spiky, tufty textures so characteristic of the southwest have softened and grown together, as if they've finally learned to write in cursive.  They blend, they blur, they marry.  I took one look at this scene and for the first time in my life wished that I were Piet Oudolf:

Mounding peppergrass, globemallow, pink muhly (?), and blue grama grass (and who knows what else)

Even in the haphazard breeze, the grasses were in full swing, sway, flutter, wave, dip, and bob.  I kept blinking my eyes, before realizing that they weren't out of focus—the grasses were.  That subtle, not-quite-constant motion made my camera's autofocus rebel altogether.  Almost every wildflower I saw was veiled in grass; unless you looked to the junipers in the middle distance, or to the mountains a step beyond, it was impossible to find anything with clear outlines.

So when I encountered this Say's phoebe, it held me enchanted.  Its muted colors against the impressionistic backdrop seemed to epitomize the day.  Even the cholla it rested on looked tamed, softened by a vicarious gentleness.

Yes, well.  Then the phoebe pounced.  It had seen—I don't know what.  A beetle? a cicada?  Something big enough to put up a tussle, at any rate, because a fast and furious battle amidst a pillow of asters ensued.  I think the phoebe won but wouldn't want to place any bets.  The gentle shadings of its exterior clearly hide a well-defined strength and hunger, just as those vague, out-of-focus grasses disguise the landscape beneath them.  The cholla may look tamed, but trust me, it isn't.  And just try wading into those impressionistic, blurry textures in your soft-sided sneakers:  in ten steps tops you will have encountered an all too well-defined prickly pear or yucca or anthill.

The sense of layered experience, of a vague exterior hiding something more clear-cut beneath, reminded me of the way that letting your focus on a quandary go soft, letting the winds of consciousness blow haphazardly, sometimes allows the solution to materialize like some craggy peak out of the fog, or a juniper from the grass—clear, definite against an open sky.  I always think of the conscious mind as being well-defined, and the subconscious as nebulous and hard to pin down, but now I wonder if it isn't the reverse:  the conscious mind is where all the vague, billowy stuff happens, whereas the subconscious holds hard, adamant truth.  At any rate, my walk through the park would have been a perfect occasion for an epiphany, if only I'd been looking for one at the time.

Globemallow, cholla, pink muhly (?), and blue grama

But I wasn't.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lux Aeterna

or In Memoriam

September 11, 2011

Frankly, I wish today weren't a posting day.  Light-hearted wordplay doesn't seem appropriate, any more than a blithe glance at a flower or two, but tackling 9/11 seems impossible.  Everything I've tried to write has either been soppily emotional or party-line political; the former is self-indulgent ten years later, and the latter inadequate to the horror of that day and the unknowns that followed it. 

But it is a posting day.  In the midst of relentless—and moving—media coverage, I've found myself thinking not so much about September 11 as about September 12, 2001.  The 12th was the third day of a new semester, and I didn't know how, or why, in the aftermath of that devastation I was going to walk into a 9:00 class and teach a music history lesson on Gregorian chant.  The whole thing seemed irrelevant to the point of being grotesque.  The day before students had been weeping (oh, what an inadequate word for their grief and fear) on the main quad:  many had friends, brothers, parents working in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, some of whom had lost their lives.  And I was going to be talking about 1,000 year old music in Latin, with no harmony, no particular rhythms, and tunes you couldn't hum in scales you didn't know.  How could that possibly matter to anyone post-9/11?  For those first days, priorities had been reduced to their bare bones.  Life.  Death.  Safety.  Solace.  Not "enrichments" like long-dead musical styles.

What I eventually came up with, what allowed me to meet my own eyes in the mirror that day, was the knowledge that discussion is the life's blood of a civilized society.  The study of music, painting, literature, is only about three parts fact to seven parts opinion.  No matter what you present in class, you are always bumping up against differences in taste.  Somewhere between the cowardly white-washing of "everyone's entitled to her own opinion" (end of conversation) and the arrogance of "your ideas are stupid, because they're not mine" (end of conversation), lies the middle ground of engagement, where evidence is weighed, reasoning tested, ideas traded, minds stretched.  The arts, I thought, teach us to have those conversations, to respect well-grounded differences.  They teach us to be civilized.  They teach us how to live with one another in peace.

The last ten years have not borne out that bit of wishful thinking; the long-term reaction to a trauma can be as damaging as the original crisis.  "Help me to understand your reasoning" is a phrase that seems to have disappeared from this polarized, entrenched society, along with reasoning—the common-sense, open-minded weighing of evidence—in general.  Still, the idea of 9/11 as "A Day of Service and Remembrance" seems to be gaining ground.  Perhaps that means we're beginning to get out of the trenches, to reach out.  Perhaps we're beginning to heal not only from the vicious wounds inflicted by terrorists but from the subtler ones we've visited on ourselves.


6:46 a.m. Mountain Time, 8:46 a.m.  Eastern Time, September 11, 2011

In memory of those who died on September 11, 2001 and in its aftermath:
  • 2,977 in the attacks, representing more than 90 countries and all major faith traditions, 403 of whom were first responders
  • 7,503 American and coalition forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • an estimated 13,375-33,000  Afghan civilians (conflict-related deaths)
  • an estimated 100,000-650,000 Iraqi civilians (conflict-related deaths)

From the Gregorian Mass for the Dead:
Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine,May eternal light shine on them, O Lord,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,with Thy saints for ever,
quia pius es.because Thou art merciful.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord,
et lux perpetua luceat eis,and may perpetual light shine on them,
cum sanctis tuis in aeternum,with Thy saints for ever,
quia pius es.because Thou art merciful.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

True Blue

or Reality Check

The dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) isn't really this color:

It should be more purplish, less of a sky blue.  My camera seems to prefer this color, though, no matter how I fiddle with the white balance, and I like it fine myself; it just isn't true to life.

The sky isn't actually this vivid a blue, either:

If you don't want to over-expose a sunlit building, however, you have to shut some light out of the photo, and that gives the sky a depth of color it doesn't really have.  As if by magic, voilà—you have a perfect September morning.  (Actually, it was a perfect September morning.  But the sky wasn't quite that shade of blue.)

Even without help from the camera, all on its own, the sky was perfectly wonderful that day.  Yet somehow the photo's vibrant color has mixed itself into my real memories of the real sky; it's one of the layers of that memory.  I think back to the weekend with a glow of pleasure:  "What a gorgeous morning that was!  The sky was such a deep blue!"  And it was—just not the blue I have in mind.  Or at least, not one of the blues.

The plumbago, too:  its own, real-life blue-violet is lovely, and a delight to see in late summer.  In the dappled shade under the desert olive it looks cool and refreshing.  I love it for many reasons, and now one of them is the fault of the photograph.  Its gorgeous color (which isn't real) is a mirror of the sky's (which isn't real) on September mornings (which are).

As one of my most quotable friends likes to say (and as I often quote her saying), we create our own realities.  We mix the present up together with memory, expectation, imagination, and who knows what else, as we go bumping around trying to make sense of the world.  The act of creating a photograph (or perhaps of creating anything), the process of thinking through viewpoint and composition, aperture and shutter speed, of looking closely and wonderingly at your subject and then seeing the finished project—all that interaction becomes part of your reality.

Blue-violet/sky-blue:  they're both now part of my (not particularly vast) experience of plumbago.  One of those colors is based on what I actually see; the other on a foible of my camera—or, more generously, on using the camera, on engaging with what is out there to be seen.

Which is the truer blue?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Solo, a capella

or Immediacy

Never underestimate the power of a voice.  That's the biggest lesson I carried away from a handful of years as a late-night radio announcer.  You'd "pot down" the mic, and right away the phone would light up.  People you'd never met would call in and begin one-sided conversations, telling you startlingly personal details about their lives—tales of heartache old and new, confessions of character flaws, catalogues of romantic conquests and failures (and once a yarn about a haunted house*). When I mentioned the calls to a friend, she said, "Can you wonder at it?  You're a presence in their home, a voice in their living room, speaking to them.  Radio is a lot more immediate than TV, where the news announcers are contained in a box.  Just a voice by itself is a lot more intimate."

Just a voice by itself.  I found myself thinking about that this week as I was looking at the little-leaf garden sage, Salvia officinalis 'Minimus'.  Like most of my kitchen herbs, this one is growing in a container, where it can be moved as the season changes either to chase or to avoid the sun.  Right now it's standing more or less alone against the big urn, where its sueded leaves show beautifully.  Their gentle green has been an oasis of cool through the last days of the hottest August on record.

The sage took a while this year to recover from last winter's damage.  It hasn't had blooms or pizzazz to offer, just the texture and color of its leaves, as distinctive as the timbre of a voice.  It's like listening to someone singing a capella—a lullaby, perhaps, or a Christmas carol, maybe a song to make a task go faster.  Or perhaps a child soprano in a chapel with magnificent stained glass windows and soaring rafters, where despite the grandeur of the surroundings, those clear, simple tones reach out and draw you into them.  Their immediacy, the intimacy of the sound, is hard to account for.  It's just a voice, by itself.  I have not yet reached the point of telling the salvia startlingly personal details of my life, but those days may not be far distant.

In a small garden you'd think that everything would be intimate, that the whole experience would touch you directly.  It doesn't, though.  The garden is still basically a "public" space writ small—a personal space, yes, maybe an idiosyncratic one, with all its elements hand chosen by the gardener, but it's still designed with broader principles in mind.  Jill at Landscape Lover writes about theatricality in large gardens, and to a much lesser extent a smaller garden tries to be theatrical as well.  It's crafted to look a certain way, to create a certain type of experience.

Small doesn't equal intimate.  Intimacy needs something that speaks directly to you, that reaches you with a kind of immediacy and draws you gently in.

It needs something like a voice—a voice, by itself.

* Apparently—and why should I doubt my source?—the University of Colorado's parapsychology team drinks a lot of beer.**
** Did you know that the University of Colorado had a parapsychology team? Neither did I.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Room to Roam

or The Poetry of Sedums

I was admiring a container of dragon's blood sedum (Sedum spurium) the other day over a cup of coffee, when it set me to thinking about limericks.  Actually, it set me thinking about growing things in pots v. in the ground, which brought me to the occasional usefulness of limitations, which led tangentially to a recent New York Times article on decision fatigue, and then to the ways typical art forms can prevent creative "option paralysis," and then onward to painted still lifes and from there to Mozart's operas to sonnets to limericks, which sounded like fun, and so here we are.  (Coffee:  yes.)

In a way a limerick is an incredibly constrained little poem.  It has a teeny-tiny, hedged-about form, with its five lines and two rhyme schemes and rollicking, anapestic rhythms.  That can be a pain (or half the fun), as you're constantly bumping against the need for a particular pattern of accents.  On the other hand, once you've chosen to write a limerick, you've freed yourself from all sorts of other choices.  You know how long the lines will be, you know the general tone.  Meanwhile, you still have creative room to roam inside those parameters.  Like squeezing a water balloon on one end, the pressure from the limerick's rhythms and rhymes just forces your creativity to pop up somewhere else.* 

I laughed at these two limericks for all kinds of reasons today:

     There was a small boy of Quebec
     Who was buried in snow to his neck.
     When they said, "Are you friz?"
     He replied, "Yes, I is—
     But we don't call this cold in Quebec."
                                   —Rudyard Kipling

     T. S. Eliot is quite at a loss
     When clubwomen bustle across
     At literary teas
     Crying, “What, if you please,
     Did you mean by The Mill On the Floss?”
                                 —W. H. Auden

They say such completely different things in such different styles.  The limerick's constraints don't prevent individual voices from popping up through them.

In an odd way they remind me of a friend who moved to New York City.  When he first arrived he had a serious case of option paralysis.  With such a vast array of choices in restaurants, for example—Ethiopian, Lithuanian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Brazilian, Cuban, Tex-Mex, diner—all within walking distance, he found himself choosing the path of least resistance:  to stay home.  Artificially narrowing his options to restaurants within one block on the right-hand side of the street freed him to make choices, and from there he was off and running.

All to say, the sedum is doing unexpectedly well in its little pot.  It's growing much, much better than it did in the ground, when its roots had all the room they wanted.  Then, the most you could say about it was that it wasn't dead.  Now it's a happy little thing with all kinds of new growth and good color.  The improvement could possibly owe a little something to the daily water and good soil all the container plants get (ahem).  But the impression it gives—at least for the purposes of this post—is that now that its roots are constrained the growth is popping up someplace else, that instead of forging root systems underground,  the life in the sedum is fountaining up over the top of the pot.  Before, it had option paralysis.  "Roots or leaves? Roots or leaves?"  Now it doesn't—it has limited choices, and that energy has to go someplace. 

It just needs some room to roam.

* What other art form would have me hunting for words that rhyme with Albuquerque?  So far the most promising are murky, perky, quirky, and tofurkey.  The next step—and this will take some creativity—is to come up with a rational way to put them together.