Sunday, November 27, 2011

Watering Holes

or Birds of a Feather

When you turn on to New Mexico highway 247 in the little town of Corona, this is the sign that greets you:

U.S. Highway 285, 48 miles away.  The next event on this road isn't a town.  It's an intersection, and the next intersection—the very next time you see a cross-road—is 48 miles away.  (Bonus:  you can't get lost on NM 247.)  Not even a little county road meets you until then, nothing but the posts and crossbeams marking the dirt road entrance to a ranch here and there.  You might meet another vehicle somewhere along the road.  Then again, you might not.  You'll see small herds of black Angus lying in the blue grama grass and cholla or congregating around a stock tank; you'll probably come across some pronghorn antelope grazing.  Crows, hawks, yesterday even a badger (a badger!); toward evening maybe some mule deer.  But people?  Likely not.

The scenic route between Albuquerque and Dexter, in the southeastern corner of the state, zigzags along various roads through some 200 miles of low mountains, high plateaus, and scrub desert.  It reminds you what a large, empty place New Mexico is:  2 million people in an area larger than Poland—and half of them live in Albuquerque.  In the ranching areas heading south, there's a lot of open rangeland, and not much else.  When you do come to a town, the parking lot at the local watering hole is usually full.  Folks drive for miles to meet in company over a green chile cheeseburger and a drink, to enjoy being social animals for a while.

My sister and brother-in-law's house is a watering hole in its own way.  Their home near Dexter is the kind of place where strays drift in with the tumbleweeds and needlegrass:  cats, dogs, skunks, waifs in general, and the occasional sister looking for a Thanksgiving dinner.  You can be assured of a good meal and good company (human, feline, and canine), and hey—if you ever need de-worming, well, they probably have something for that, too.  A holiday done right is also an oasis of sorts, a pause in your journey through the year, a chance to flock together with others of your kind and be refreshed.

I've been thinking about watering holes because of the more-or-less traditional, day-after-Thanksgiving excursion that my sister, my nephew, and I made to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge along the Pecos River east of Roswell.  Like the Rio Grande's Bosque del Apache, the wetlands there are the winter home to snow geese and sandhill cranes—possibly record numbers of them this year, as the continuing drought in Texas sends waterbirds elsewhere.  During the day they go off to feast in cornfields, but when the sun begins to set they return to the shallow waters that keep them safe from night-time predators.  Only once have I seen a sandhill crane alone, and it was standing sentry (or had maybe been put in time-out).  They are highly social creatures, impressive in numbers and in their apparent singleness of thought and purpose.

When I returned home from the holiday and went out to the garden, I startled a trio of goldfinches, which had been perched forlornly on the empty birdbath making little "tsk"ing sounds.  They don't ever bathe in the birdbath, but they do drink from it; I'm not sure what other water sources they have in the neighborhood.  Cleaned and refilled, the birdbath now welcomes them to congregate on the rim of its garden-variety wetland once more. 

And here I am, playing on the World Wide Web, that watering hole extraordinaire, where we flock together to meet in company and enjoy being social animals (of a kind) for a while.

If nothing else, driving through the desert does fixate you on water...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rain in the Desert

or A Time for Thanksgiving

We haven't had much rain recently, at least not enough to measure.  A tease of a storm blew through town on Monday that left a trail of perfume and a lot of flustered leaves in its wake.  It flung a lacy, mocking shawl of snow across the Sandias' rugged shoulders and then swirled away into the night, ignoring the rain gauge altogether.  Albuquerque has only had 3.48 inches of moisture this year, so even a tease is...maybe not welcome, exactly, but better than nothing. 

Learning to be grateful for every drop of rain also reminds you to see cause for rejoicing in every simple gift and every good thing.  That seems like an especially fine thing to remember today.  To those of you who join me in celebrating Thanksgiving, best wishes for a wonderful holiday, with all the warmth and joy the day calls for!  To those of you around the globe, I hope you won't turn down a glass, cheerfully raised in your honor.

And by all means, please join me in another, in honor of small blessings.

(The "word art" was prompted by Noel Kingsbury's recent post at Gardening Gone Wild, which featured some of Alec Finlay's work.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bringing Out the Life

or Rejecting Neutral Gray

November 12

I don't know whether the sunsets are actually more glorious at this time of year or whether they just show up in more attractive places.  A little of both, probably.  The clouds (if any) in summer are usually thunderheads—impressive and sometimes beautifully colored, but fairly localized.  In late autumn and winter, on the other hand, the clouds (if any) tend more toward the altostratus or cirrus side, lighting up huge stretches of sky in the middle or upper atmosphere as soon as the sun skims the horizon.  At this time of year, too, with the sun setting farther to the south—at the end of a long, open street rather than tucked between roofs—I have a better view from the upstairs window of those vivid colors, if you can overlook a few telephone poles and wires.  And antenna towers and commercial buildings.  Sunsets are among the few real perks of the cold months.

People sometimes ask me whether I fiddle with the colors of sunset photos before posting them.  I don't.  They usually turn out more orange than I expected and less pink, but that's just the whim of the camera.  I do, however, always take them ⅓-⅔ of a stop (do we still call them stops?) darker than what my camera's light meter suggests, which brings out the life, the wonderful depth and vibrancy, in the colors.

As I understand it, in its default mode, a camera's light meter is the Goldilocks of the photographic world, wanting a visual porridge that's neither too hot nor too cold.  "Just right" to a camera is "18% gray" (or 12%, depending on who's talking):  a neutral shade halfway between the light that reflects off black objects and off white ones.  When the meter tells you that a photo is correctly exposed, it's telling you that with the current settings you'll get a picture where the overall balance is at that 18%-gray middle point between dark and light.

You have to feel for the poor light meter, trying to make the best of situations when it has no way of knowing what the parameters really are; at one time or another we have all been in that boat.  Faced with a sunset, no matter how dramatic the darkening upper atmosphere or how brilliantly glowing the clouds, the camera will do its living best to neutralize the whole scene, to find the intensity that is equivalent to that medium gray.  It means well.  Unfortunately, if you heed its advice it will also give you a sunset that's pale, drab, and washed out—a fair-to-middling sunset, when the one you saw was spectacular.

November 20

I was thinking about all of that, looking at sunsets this week, and looking beyond into winter.  I still dread this time of year, even here where the season is sunny and relatively mild.  The problem isn't the weather or the shorter days.  It's the isolation—the way closed windows shut you away from the sounds connecting you to the world:  the ambient noise of neighborhood life that in warmer weather, at least to those of us who spend most of our free time alone, resting, is a kind of company.  Without those connections, the world can look a little pale and drab.

So the goal this winter is to override the norm of neutral gray, to live ⅓ of a stop more intensely than average—maybe even ⅔, if I really want to kick up my heels.  I don't know quite how I'll do that in a way that's quiet, low-energy, and has me home on a sofa by 6.  If cameras are a good role model for life, though, and I don't see why they can't be, ⅓ of a stop is all it takes to go from fair-to-middling to spectacular.  One-third of a stop:  nothing radical, nothing extreme.

Just one little flick of the dial, to bring things into warm, vibrant life.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


or Avenues In

The thing with roads is, they go all sorts of places.  When you're out for a day's adventure and decide to find out where a quirky little back street takes you, that plunge into possibility can be a lot of fun.  Addictive, too—curiosity to find out what comes next can keep you going farther and farther and farther.  When you have a particular destination in mind, though, and a deadline to meet, and you accidentally end up on a byroad that goes who knows where...well, really, that can still be fun.  But you probably won't reach your destination on time.  You're just as likely to end up nowhere in particular, hoping you can retrace your route, or wandering around lost for a while, because roads go all sorts of places, and who knows where those places are?

I was sitting on the patio a while ago enjoying the little vignette below—the gentle arcs of the grasses and the way the sun tickled their edges, the peekaboo effect of the farther grass behind the trunks of the desert olive tree, the warmth and roundness of the terra cotta pot (still home to a black widow spider, alas), and the irrepressible blooms of 'Wild Thing' autumn sage in the corner.

It made me aware of the garden more generally as a series of vignettes in the late-autumn light.   The sun has settled in the south, and now when it moseys on up toward noon in its stiff, arthritic, cool-season way, instead of illuminating the whole garden from above, its low angle creates a succession of spotlit moments.

A vignette can be a self-contained scene, or it can be an avenue into something bigger.  Take vignettes in a book:  the fancy lettering or scrollwork or small illustrations at the beginning of a chapter are charming on their own, but they also lead you into the writing. They entice you to read further, to find out what comes next—to follow a road that might go all sorts of places, possibly a long way from your starting point.

In that sense, a garden vignette is a bit of theater, suggesting some action happening just out of sight off-stage.  Maybe it leads you to wonder what's on the far side of the grasses, or what the rest of the tree looks like, or how this little patch fits into the whole. As a piece of mental theater, this post led me down even more distant avenues:  the outdoors seen only in the bits and pieces of time that the shorter days allow; the Grand Canyon under partly cloudy skies, where one vignette after another appears as the sun spotlights one "temple" or throne or monument among the others.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, October 2009
I. M. Pei's ultra-modern, mountain-shaped hyperbolic parabaloid in 1970's Denver, just down the road from historic Second Empire-style architecture—glimpses of bygone or futuristic worlds seen through double-decker bus windows.  The Christmas window vignettes at Neusteter's department store when I was little, where mechanical figures in winter scenes caroled or threw snowballs or made toys over and over and over.  The distance between the worlds outside and inside the windows, bridged only by imagination.  Bloggers, giving their readers a window onto their worlds; blog posts as vignettes—a brightly colored succession of spotlit moments. 

The scenery along these byroads was great, but eventually I'd find myself at a loss, wondering, "Now where do I go?"  Because once you've wandered into a vignette, once you've decided that it isn't a self-contained tableau but an avenue into something else, once you've plunged into the world of imagination behind the window scenes or started reading the chapter, there are so many roads to choose from.  They can take you all sorts of places, most of them delightful, but that doesn't mean that you know where you are when you've arrived, or how to get back to your starting point—that small scene of sunlight and grass and late-autumn warmth, and the single word vignette.

You certainly won't be able to sum up the journey in a tidy, one-sentence clincher...

Thursday, November 10, 2011


or In Which We Celebrate Individuality, Whether We Want To or Not

The furnace really was more important than the Western sand cherry bush (Prunus besseyii).  I thought so last February when the temperature dropped to -7°F (a 40-year low) and the furnace broke down, and still think so now.  The repairman did a wonderful, careful job despite vicious wind and sub-zero temperatures and was cheerful the whole time.  Even so, the part of me that likes to ponder the general cussedness of things wondered what law of nature decrees that with three feet of clear space and a brick path to stand on, a workman must nevertheless step on the plants.  The Sad Sand Cherry, poor thing, was apparently in the way, and after its little adventure with big boots, it took a while to recover.  Three seasons later it's still missing half the branches on one side and looks pretty lopsided.  It didn't grow much over the summer, but it lived, and that's saying something, in an Eeyore-ish sort of way.  Now, autumn has come to it in spots.

Autumn or chicken pox?  It can be so hard to tell.

Meanwhile, across the path closer to the patio is another cherry planted at the same time two years ago.  It gets quite a bit of shade from one of the desert olives (Forestiera neomexicana) and isn't growing quickly, but it's thickly leaved and branched and looks strong and healthy.  It is now officially taller than the salad burnet, and it produced one (1) cherry this year.  I was so proud.  The Slow Sand Cherry is fixin' to enjoy some autumn, but maybe not all at once.  It's getting there, though, one easy-going, leisurely leaf at a time.

The other cherry near the patio is what I expected all of them to be—about three and a half feet tall and wide, more or less nicely shaped, thickly leaved, full of cherries, and generally well-behaved.  It's been in the ground for four years and has officially graduated to drought tolerance.  (Now there I am proud.)  The Teacher's Pet Sand Cherry is still mostly green, but it's beginning to change colors ever so delicately and attractively.  With impeccable timing, it should be at its reddest precisely when its neighboring olive tree is at its most golden-green.*

And then there's the Big Hairy Monster in the far corner.  I love that cherry.  It's about six feet tall and wide, way too large to be convenient, half again the size I thought it would be.  I end up whacking it back hard twice a year, and it still blocks the path.  But boy, is it gorgeous.  If I remember correctly, it was one of the first things I planted in the garden, if not the first.  Back then I nurtured things properly, rather than just plopping them in the ground and wishing them luck.  I watered regularly and fertilized carefully and worried and fussed, and as a reward I have a healthy, happy monster on my hands that's really way too big.  Two weeks ago it looked like this:

But now it looks like this:

For the record—because you certainly can't tell from looking—the point of planting four bushes all alike in the four quadrants of the garden was to enjoy a little symmetry.  Not uptight symmetry, not super-pruned rigid sameness or anything, just a general sense of kinship between one part of the garden and another.  The idea was to create a single, overall effect, especially in the fall, when I had hoped for a garden full of rust-red leaves.  All at once.  That is to say, all at the same time.

I don't really expect the two youngest bushes to be the same size yet as the older ones.  I understand that the Sad Sand Cherry has had a hard time.  And boy howdy—micro-climates, are they everywhere or what?  Not one of the bushes has the same growing conditions as the others, even though they're only a few feet apart.  Genes can sure be different from one plant to the next; colors do vary from year to year.  As personal problems go, having your shrubbery out of sync ranks so low that it doesn't even make the list.  And yet— 

I'm just going to mutter "Vive la différence" for a while until I believe it.

* As a fine example of cussedness, this exemplary sand cherry is the one of which I am least fond, for no apparent reason.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


or Making an Impression

The rock crumbled beneath my hand.  I had leaned on it for balance to take an odd-angled photo, expecting it without thinking to be solid.  Instead it was ash, pumice, tuff—I'm not sure which, but one of the softer volcanic layers comprising the white cliffs of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  The cliffs and hoodoos there look strong and imposing, but at a touch the edges wear away, filling your regretful hand with dust, the six million year old relic of a cataclysm.  You let it fall, and it leaves delicate, white traces on your palm, as if you've just set free a moth.

On the last of my vacation outings a couple of weeks ago, I spent the afternoon wandering the short trails at the monument.  I think of Kasha-Katuwe (White Cliffs, in the Keresan language of neighboring Cochiti Pueblo) as a "heart of New Mexico" place—it embodies many of the most distinctive features of the region, all in one exciting area.  The rock formations, where wind and water have worn away the softer layers beneath hard capstones, are certainly fascinating.

I apologize for my bad habit of photographing light-colored rocks in the desert at noon on sunny days.  In the center left, though, you can see more of the hoodoos with capstones; another clearish one is at the lower right.
When the hoodoos lose their capstones, erosion takes place more quickly (and maybe even more dramatically).

The contrast between extremes is strong:   one minute you're driving through sleepy settlements in hardscrabble land, aware of boarded-up windows and dust in the little village of Peña Blanca, and the next you're walking through wonders in Kasha-Katuwe's Peralta Canyon while crows hint of darker mysteries in the sky just out of view.

You are conscious of the elements not in the gentle, domesticated way we play with them in gardens—a pool of water, a set of wind chimes—but as untamable dynamos with weight and strength and power and relentlessness behind them, as mindless forces before which you are soft and small.  You see how the wind chisels away layer upon layer of crumbling stone.

You walk through a slot canyon formed by flash floods and (always) more wind.

I'm 5 foot 7 and don't recall bending under that huge stone in the left-hand picture to go into the slot canyon.

Even in the mild days of autumn, you're aware of the fiery strength of the sun and grateful to the trees and hills that shade you from it.

You see life—stubborn, insistent, resilient life—in all its creativity and passion for continuity:

The people in the first two photos give a sense of scale to the roots on the ponderosas.

and you are aware of it hanging in the balance, walking the razor edge with oblivion:

In many of the earth's other extreme places you can be aware of existence both reduced and exalted to its bare bones.  This is the corner I'm walking in now.

Sometimes all you can do is wander in awe.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Late Arrivals

or The Last Hurrah

When the hummingbirds leave around the first of October, the party goes kind of flat.  Your favorite guests have gone—not that you don't care for the others, too, of course.  But the goldfinches, housefinches, sparrows, and mourning doves are the mixed nuts of the party, while the hummingbirds are the champagne.  You can count on them to add zest and a touch of magic to anything they do.  And with their explosive tempers, you never know when sparks will fly, or when a high-speed chase will ensue.  You wouldn't enjoy the party nearly as much without the other birds, but when the hummingbirds leave, they take a lot of the fizz with them.

When the sandhill cranes return near the end of the month, then, they are doubly welcome.  You hear their creaky purr sounding long before you see them, and when you first catch sight of them gliding down the Rio Grande valley,  the sun glinting off their silvery, upturned wings against an azure sky... Oh, they do know how to make an entrance.  Late arrivals though they are, they breathe new, dramatic life back into the party.  They bring a new character to it, too, a touch of elegance and dignity.

The cranes arrive about when the first of the fall-blooming crocuses opens.  In the garden, 'Wild Thing' autumn sage (Salvia greggii) may still be partying hard—if anything, blooming even more raucously than usual—but everything else is getting sleepy and quiet.  The agastache is winding down, the gaura looking tired, the West Texas grass sage ready to call it a day.  When the crocuses suddenly appear from nowhere, you welcome them with delight.  They bring a bright presence with them as they sound the last hurrah of the growing season.

Over by the patio, 'Wild Thing' is getting to the "wearing a lampshade and dancing on the table" stage—although really, it arrived in that condition and has kept up the rumpus ever since.  When the crocuses call you away from the action, inviting you over to their corner for some intense conversation, you're happy to go.  You appreciate 'Wild Thing,' you really do.  Its high-spirited loudness gives it a special place in your heart.  It's been blooming enthusiastically since April and is just as ready to spread a good time around now.  It will even still be cheerful tomorrow morning, with no (apparent) regrets. 

The crocuses, though—they'll be gone before you know it.  (Actually, last year one crocus or another bloomed through to December.  But each particular crocus is only around for a short while.)  For all their glowing color, they are fragile, ephemeral.  They remind you to make the most of every shining moment, and to enjoy their company while you can.

But don't get despondent about the passing of autumn or the fleeting nature of time or anything.

'Wild Thing' will still be partying hard tomorrow.