Thursday, November 15, 2012

Deer and Geese

or A Pause

At Bosque del Apache:  In the dappled light on the verge of a thicket of cottonwoods, a mule deer was browsing.  It wasn't in any hurry, not bothered at all by the occasional vehicle passing by on the gravel road.  I paused and watched it for a while, leaning against my car and enjoying the quiet scene while the sun warmed my back.  It was one of those moments when light filters deep inside you.

That was at one end of the refuge.  When I reached the other end the snow geese were flocking—flocking, fighting, frighting.  Something had disturbed them.  The sun caught in their wings as they whirled and flapped, a blizzard come early.  Even when they're calm their numbers can take your breath away; you have to shade your eyes against the blaze of white where they blanket the fields.  The noise they make when something has spooked them is the next best thing to deafening.  They're sure beautiful, but boy, can they raise a ruckus. 

With the aim of having life be more deer-in-dappled-light quiet than snow-goose-flapping frantic for the next few weeks, I'm going to be taking a break from Microcosm for a while.  I'll visit with you all at your own blogs when I can, and if something extra-delightful comes up that I think you would enjoy, I'll pop in for a post of my own.  I really appreciate you all, my dear readers—I'm touched and pleased that you enjoy Microcosm, and that you stop by here to read and make comments and link your life in whatever small way with mine.  I'll see you again after the New Year (if not before).

In the meantime, I wish you many of those dappled-light moments of your own.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


or Everyday Ware

When Cousin Mary Frances broke up household in her later years, somehow I ended up with her dishes.  (I used to think Cousin Mary Frances' first name was Cousin.)  They were made by Frankoma, a pottery company in Oklahoma which took inspiration from nature, Native American arts, and the warm earth tones of the southwest.  Frankoma dishes feel good.  The cream pitcher fits so perfectly in the hollow of your hand that you want to hold it even after your coffee is swirling with white; the coffee cups have fun little ribs on the handles right where your thumb sits.  The serving dishes are full-bellied, satisfying things.  I love those dishes, and it's obvious that Cousin Mary Frances did, too.  Some of them are chipped or have flaws in the glaze.  The finish on the dinner plates is almost worn away in places.  But that's all right.  Many a good, southern meal of chicken and gravy with biscuits and greens and mashed potatoes was enjoyed on those plates.  They aren't pristine antiques or fine china, but good heirloom dishes—dishes that are meant to be used.

Pristine is a rare quality around here these days.  Untouched autumn scenes—at least in my garden—only exist at a distance.

The view all the way across the garden's long diagonal.

Close up, though, you see just how used everything looks.  The leaf-cutter bees have had a busy year.

They've been at the flowers, too.

Blackfoot daisies (Melampodium leucanthum)

That's all right and proper, though, just like the brown leaf edges left over from the heat of July, and all the little tears made by one wind storm or another, and the transparent skeletons carved by the leaf rollers.  No matter what gardeners prefer, leaves and flowers aren't meant by nature to be fine china, kept in the cupboard behind glass doors and looked at, except for when the right company comes over.  They're meant for everyday ware.  At the end of a long season, they look like many a good meal has been had from them.  They're crazed and chipped and cracked.  They're dinged up from weathering and wear and tear.  But that's all right. 

They were meant to be used.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Please Stay ff

or In Which We Think About Noise

The thing with living in an urban in-fill neighborhood, is that it keeps on getting filled in.  More or less across the street from me, in an area formerly graced by asters and weeds, a couple of new houses are being built.  The process hasn't been quiet, but at least the parts involving heavy machinery seem to be over with.  Now the walls are being raised, and the sounds of hammers, and cheerful voices shouting, "No, don't put that there!  Over there!", and music blaring over tinny speakers rule the daylight hours. 

I've been taking some more vacation time, a day here and there, so I'm more aware of work-day sounds than I normally would be.  When the cement-mixers arrived and ground loudly away I hid inside, but now they're gone.  In the mornings I've been planting bulbs, a few at a time, and enjoying the feel of autumn sunshine across my back, and the house-finches' fussing.  While I'm working in the garden I like hearing the sounds of construction close by.  The tinny music is either sentimental '80's stuff—Kenny Rogers, Bob Seger—or sentimental New Mexican/Mexican stuff, melodic and cheerful.  It's good gardening music, and the workers' voices calling to each other, ribbing each other, across the street, have a camaraderie I enjoy from what we might as well call afar.  Finches, music, other people, sunshine, your own work—they all make you feel like part of the same grand project somehow.

Once you're ready to rest, though, sounds change.  What used to be a kind of company turns into an intrusion.  You become aware of volume rather than content.  And so you seek quiet wherever you can find it.  The closest and best quiet at hand is to be found in the bosque at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

I say that it was quiet there and realize anew what a strangely relative idea "quiet" is.  The wind can clatter through every leaf on every cottonwood in the bosque; it can roar among the treetops.  Every Canada goose that loiters in the wetland can grumble and honk all the live-long day; the sandhill cranes can creak and the ravens croak, and somehow all of that counts as quiet.  Is the difference between wild sound and urban noise about anything physical?  About the amplitude or frequency of sound waves acting on the ear?  Do the hammer, anvil, and stirrup resonate more comfortably to some sounds than others?  Or is the difference all in our minds?

I have no answers, of course, but it was lovely to ponder the questions in a lazy, meandering way while literally meandering among the cottonwood trees along the path.

The quiet of the bosque is partly a visual thing, I think.  The cottonwoods are so very tall, and the undergrowth so very small that the "forest" is airy and open.  You could (and some people do) actually ride a horse through it without getting tangled up in brambles or low-hanging branches.  The canopy is open, too.  Cottonwoods shed branches in time of drought, so even among the oldest trees the crowns are seldom thickly leaved.

You can stand directly under a tree in the middle of the bosque and still watch a Cooper's hawk (I think) soaring overhead, or see the outstretched necks of a flock of cranes heading for the wetlands.  Nothing in the bosque crowds you; nothing hems you in.  But those big trees do shelter you from the wind.

The river was quiet, even more so than usual.  After two years of extreme drought the waters are extra-sluggish and low.  They barely seem to move as they make their tired way south.  If rivers were mythical people, the Rio Grande would be a Lotus Eater.  It doesn't inspire you to do much but take a nap on the bench beside its banks in afternoon sun.  It certainly would, you just know it, if given half a chance.

In the still waters of the wetlands beside the river Canada geese were looking sleepy themselves, in an afternoonish sort of way; a little drowsy, a little peaceful.  No feeding or flying, just aimless floating.  Floating, sailing, drifting.  Occasionally some of the geese would take it into their heads (or wherever) to drift somewhere else.  And so, eventually, without really exerting themselves, they would.

In that atmosphere of sleepy quiet it made me laugh to see this sign:

"Please stay ff," is what I read:  fortissimo, the musical term for REALLY LOUD.

The bosque??  Loud?  REALLY LOUD?   I thought about the soothing, wild sounds I'd heard and about the spaciousness and ease and safety of this little nature preserve, and fortissimo became an impossibility.  The sign dwindled to State Park reality, with a typical bit of pointless vandalism:  "Please stay (o)ff."

Like quietness, though, loudness is about more than sound.  It's about vibrancy, about the vitality of small lives, the lizards and towhees and sparrows rustling through fallen leaves, the geese and wood ducks and coots dabbling their way through the wetlands, the cranes feeding in the corn fields beside the river, and the red-eared sliders still basking in the sun   It's about the cottonwoods, standing tall above them all and extending sheltering arms, leaves rattling in the wind, and glowing like small suns with October and the sun behind them.

I turned for home, toward the honest, urban sounds of staple guns and hammers and jovial shouts and tinny music, and the neighbor's dogs barking at it all.

And I thought, Yes, indeed, dear bosque—please stay ff.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

October Surprise

or Things to Remember

A lot can be forgotten in a year:  the names and terms of all the US presidents;* the capital of Mauritania;* what that one key in the utility drawer belongs to.  Some things are a relief to forget; some are more or less irrelevant (not meaning any offense, presidents and Mauritanians); some are kind of a nuisance (what does that key belong to?).  Some, though, end up being unexpected pleasures.  My favorite things to forget every year are the fall-blooming crocuses, because they have such charming ways of recalling themselves to your attention.

Well, really, just the one way.  They bloom.  But that's pretty charming.  It's a pity we can't do that ourselves when we need someone's attention—so much more appealing than "Ahem."

I've grown two kinds of FBC's before, Crocus speciosus and C. sativusC. sativus is the saffron crocus.  Its flowers aren't spectacular, really, but they're perfectly attractive, even more so since you can conjure up imaginary sauces while you look at them.  They have the pleasant habit of blooming in November, though they're fickle and may decide not to bloom at all.  They also have the unpleasant habit of sending up their leaves ahead of time and hanging on to them until April or later.  Six months of leaves outweigh the brief days of bloom, I find; since the sauces have so far all stayed imaginary, growing the flowers for a tiny amount of saffron doesn't seem all that exciting, either.  All the sativus I planted last fall, except for a few sly, eely ones that got away, were dug up in the spring.  They're hanging out in pots these days, putting up leaves, and later they will be whisked off into a corner with the black widows for the winter.

We're not talking about C. sativus, though.  They aren't much of a surprise, what with the leaves letting you know that they're coming and all.  The ones that do surprise me every year are the speciosus crocuses.  The flowers come out of nowhere, it seems, since the leaves don't appear until spring.  I returned from vacation a couple of weeks ago to find a small group basking merrily in the sunshine. 

I wasn't even waiting for them this year, not even in some tucked-away, undusted little alcove of my brain; I really had forgotten all about them.  The crocuses are looking a little lost there among the greenery, but the flowers do seem to stand up better with other plants' support.  I'm not just saying that as gardener's "spin"—a white-washing way of not admitting that I had forgotten about them and planted other things in their spot.  I did forget about them.  Completely.  They're just better off that way.

Since then other crocuses in various small patches have been blooming, with one or two new flowers opening a day.  The fall-bloomers have an idiosyncratic character and appeal, separate from their beauty, blossoming as they do out of sync with the season and with the rest of their kind. They're like little floral post-it notes with reminders written all over them, and the reminders are all of pleasant things—starting with the fact of their own existence.

They also remind you of ephemerality—a little bit of a jolt, when autumn is only slowly moving along, and the other things still in flower are the kinds that bloom for months on end and still have weeks ahead of them (Go, 'Wild Thing' autumn sage!).  In their own gentle way the crocuses suggest that you might want to pay attention to each day's changes as the year wanes.

They remind you of the joys to be found in bulbs and corms, which is handy, since a box of 500 ipheion, scilla, muscari, and sundry just arrived on the doorstep, and someone is going to have to plant them.  How nice to have a little inspiration blooming at the same time.

They remind you that bees have favorites, too, and that all those blackfoot daisies and marigolds and the licorice mint and basil and sage are fine in their way, but crocus pollen is Something Else Entirely. 

They remind you to keep an ear out for the sandhill cranes' return.   (Almost right on cue a creaky purr resounds, and you see outstretched wings glinting in the sun as a family of cranes rides the thermals down the Rio Grande valley.)

They remind you not to fuss too much about color combinations in your garden, because Mother Nature sure doesn't.

They remind you that short-term fragility and long-term toughness can go hand in hand.  The flowers will be gone in another few days.  I will forget about them soon after, and the bulbs won't get any water or fertilizer or special attention.

And they'll be back next year with an October surprise.
* I've never actually known this.**
** That I recall.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Clock Stopped Long Ago"

or Sandia Park, New Mexico

The sandstone glowed in late afternoon sun.  A raven called as it passed overhead, a deep, throaty croak that rang briefly before melting away.  Its wings beat with audible effort—not the quick flutter of the Oregon juncos and scrub jays darting between junipers, but a good, sturdy flap as it pulled against the air.  That, too, melted into nothing.

The afternoon leaned against a vast backdrop of silence.  Small sounds leapt out, like grasshoppers from a meadow, without disturbing the silence at all.

Away from Albuquerque's urban junkyard of a soundscape, on still days in the piñon and juniper deserts of the lower Sandias, white noise disappears.  Not just from cars and airplanes and swamp coolers and power tools, but from nature, too.  No constant, companionable sounds fill the space around you:  no mountain brooks gurgling and splashing, no clattering leaves in aspen trees or big-tooth maples, no grasses thick enough to rustle.  Silence surrounds you like sandstone, shaped only by the sweeping wind.  The coyotes, howling at sunset or in the chill dark before dawn, make little pinpricks of sound, like stars glimmering one at a time in the enormity of space.

Doesn't the rock look like a coyote?

I found myself pondering the middle layer of experience between the very small and the very large—the shady-tree-and-gurgling-brook level of experience—during a few days' stay at a casita in Sandia Park last week.  Ansel Adams said of New Mexico,
"It is all very beautiful and magical here, a quality which cannot be described.  You have to live it and breathe it, let the sun bake you into it.  The skies and the land are so enormous, and the details so precise and exquisite that wherever you go you are isolated in the world between the micro and the macro, where everything segues under you and over you and the clock stopped long ago."*
The micro and the macro.


The view from that particular bit of sandstone

To say that New Mexico is a place of extremes is certainly true, but maybe not quite enough.  It's more that the stuff that ordinarily lies between extremes, the broad stretch of middle ground where humans tend to look for ease and comfort, is absent.  I can think of many places of spectacular grandeur—the Colorado Rockies, the Grand Tetons, Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains—where you are dwarfed and awed by the magnificence around you.  You have companions in dwarfishness, though.  The forest trees may tower over you, the lakes may be deep and cold, the elk may bugle hauntingly out of a chilly late-summer night; but they are all still somehow on a human scale, comprehensible, embraceable.

Here, though, you feel like the odd one out.  You may be dwarfed by the whole of the landscape, but you are taller than most of the things that grow on it—when anything grows on it at all.

You are like Alice in Wonderland, if she'd been caught between the Eat Me and Drink Me phases, a little too large, or much too small for your surroundings.  You're isolated between the enormous

and the exquisite,

 in awe of both, but not belonging to either.  You feel vulnerable

in an exhilarating way,

and after a long, glorious day of vulnerable exhilaration you are grateful to the junipers, with their soft, shaggy bark,

and to the piñons, with their fair to middling size, for bringing things back (somewhat) to scale.

You know it isn't really a timeless place.  The clock keeps ticking; the modern world does intrude.

Poised as you are, though, between pointillistic details

and wide expanses,

in that deep quiet, you find balance, and a peace that does seem timeless.

And you wish with all your heart, that for a few more days, time really could just stand still.

*Quoted in New Mexico. A Guide for the Eyes, by Elisa Parhad.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Staying Out of the Way

or Resting Lightly

Sometimes you're just not the one who matters, and so you just don't move.  When untamed lives that are not rabbits come to a tiny, urban garden, you do your best to efface yourself, and let them experience the garden as if without you.  Photos?  Forget them.  They're not important.  The slightest gesture toward your camera, even the subtlest tilt of the lens, is enough to spook a shy being.  It's better not to move.

Hummingbirds aren't particularly "shy beings," but they have their limits, too, the moments when they forget the roar of gargantuan hunger and remember vulnerability.  The black-chinned hummingbirds have been gorging on the agastache in the big urns this summer—the ones arm's length away from the Adirondack chair, with flowers that overhang the footrest.  The hummingbirds are often so close that the cool breath of their wings blows over my feet.   I try not to move when they're that near, but my idea of stillness is not theirs.  Some change of expression, some tiny change, will make them look up in startlement and vanish.

Perhaps to such small birds the line that seems delicately drawn to me, the fine hair between blithe unconcern and precipitate flight, is wide and nuanced.  The light speed change between feeding and fleeing may be a measured, thoughtful process to them.  The lift of a finger, such a small motion, spans the full length of their bodies.

A hummingbird's-eye view of hummingbird mint (or licorice mint, or sunset hyssop, Agastache rupestris)

At a distance details blur together.  When hummingbirds feed at the gaura in the central bed, it's hard to tell the young of either gender from the adult females.  They look remarkably alike in any case.  From inches away, though, you begin to wonder.  You see peculiarities of behavior—experiments, moments of clumsiness—that tell their own tale.  A bird will aim at a flower in a light wind and miss, several times running; it will try buds that haven't opened, insistently, perplexedly.  It will poke at the gap between a flower and its corolla, and then back off, and look, and look, through first one eye, then the other.  It will poke at the gap again, before finally finding the opening it seeks.  Its round belly will drag on the flowers below it, like a keel scraping on the shoals.  It will rest in the desert olive for minutes at a stretch, and not fight the next hummingbird that comes along.  It will feed briefly, and then find its perch to rest again.  A bird that does all those most likely a fledgling.

One was feeding at the agastache recently when my toes, a foot and a half away, twitched involuntarily.  The bird startled.  Hovering, it eyed my feet in a fascinated, speculative way.  Were they a danger?  Were they edible?  Its head tilted from one side to the other.  I don't know what conclusions it came to, except the one about inedibility; I don't believe it ever made a mental connection between my toes and the rest of me.  And how could it?  Five feet seven inches of human are a lot for a bird to grasp all at once, when it doesn't really need to.

Last week for the second time (that I know of) a flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers descended on my desert olives.  They're almost as tiny as hummingbirds, only round like a ball, with twitching tail feathers and a thin, sharp bill.  They speak to one another constantly, and they move constantly, like the gnats and small insects they eat, like fish darting in an aquarium.  Their colors are subtle variations on gray flannel, lighter on the belly, darker around the crown.

Flycatchers, too.  I've seen them a few times, half again the size of the gnatcatchers, with the same restlessness under less pressure.  Their tails twitch gently as they perch or flit from branch to branch, from tree to tree.

These new birds are all probably migrants, just passing through on their way south, but I'm (almost) as thrilled as if they were nesting here.  The garden is beginning to attract Birds-that-are-not-finches, truly wild birds, no matter how briefly.  The desert olives have grown taller, their crowns broader.  They offer more in the way of shelter and safety; they attract a better class of bug.  But I have no pictures to offer of these moments of presence.  I only have memories shaped vaguely into words of that instant when your breath catches and you freeze, while shining black eyes look brightly from every tree, less than your own body-length away.

Desert olives (or New Mexico privet, Forestiera neomexicana)

You are irrelevant to these small lives, and rightfully so.  You mean them no harm.  You aren't going to hunt them for food or throw stones at them for wickedness.  You wish them well, but any good you've done them is indirect.  You've planted and nurtured the trees; you've let the sand cherries grow like weeds; you've kept the bird bath filled and clean.  You've laid the groundwork—and then you've mostly gotten out of the way, and let life get on with it.  But birds don't know these things.  They don't have the luxury to weigh degrees of harm and good.  They can't risk trust, they can't take the long view.  You will never be able to tame them, or show them likelihood, or accustom them to human presence.  So you try not to be a noticeable presence at all.  You just don't move.

A hummingbird had come to the agastache fresh from another part of the garden.  A white petal of gaura had fallen on her head and rested there as she hovered and fed.  She flew from one flower to another and another, wings moving faster than vision, that wrinkled white petal perched on her head like a lace cap.  The sight could have been comical, but it wasn't.  The petal sat too lightly on the feather-light bird as she fenced just as lightly with gravity.  She was graceful and deft; the long tubes of hummingbird mint barely moved as she tapped them for nectar.  An adult, not a fledgling.  She had mastered the art of lightness.

Appleblossom grass (Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies')

A lot of gardening is about heavy lifting—the bags of mulch and potting soil, the shovels full of dirt and sand and amendments.  A lot of it is about labor.  No more than to maintain a mown lawn, but still, labor:  weeding and dividing, pruning and transplanting.  Paradoxically, the goal of all the hard work is to rest lightly on whatever earth we have.  To make a big impact, perhaps; to concentrate nature with an intensity even she might not manage on her own, and create safe conditions for wild things that compensate for losses elsewhere.  But then to step out of the way whenever possible, and let life get on with it.  We work for the sake of those moments of held breath and awed stillness, when we try to be patio furniture while a new bird perches inquisitively in a young tree.  We want to enjoy the nectar while not disturbing the flower.  We want to master the art of lightness, to our own scale.

The lightness of a fallen petal on the head of a hummingbird.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Giving Grass

or Generosity

One day you're talking about baseball, summer, the slow growth of grasses, and all things leisurely, and the next (or so it seems) the UNM Lobos are winning (winning!) their first football game of the season, the grasses are exploding into bloom, and you're frantically shouting, "Slow down!  Everybody just slow down!"

Licorice mint (Agastache rupestris) in the upper foreground; in the central bed, blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis); across the path, sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes).

Well, honestly, not quite that last bit.  While I've basked in summer, I am ready to be done with 95°F temperatures and looking forward to the sleepy, satisfied warmth of a New Mexico autumn; I'm eager to move on and enjoy sunshine again.  But the grasses have definitely exploded (and the Lobos have definitely won!).*  The grasses may even have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

They've been an experiment this year:  an attempt to create less of a traditional "layered" look in my small garden and to aim for something more airy, open, western, and outdoors-y; a look that focuses on texture as much as color and that plays enthusiastically with light.  Overall I'm beginning to be pleased, though the rule of planting in threes should probably be broken for sand lovegrass. 

I actually find myself looking forward to winter because of that grass.  Winter is my least favorite season—the remnant of too much time in Vermont spent aching in every cold, damp joint for every single one of those eleven frigid months a year.  Even in milder New Mexico, hedging myself against winter is still a chore.  The garden is one of my biggest safeguards, intended to be a place of light and enjoyment in the dormant season.

Light is the key.

The patio and the Adirondack chair sit on the north side of the garden, looking south.  As the sun begins to lower again it is starting to side-light the grasses; when winter comes it will light them from behind and within.

The angelitas could bloom into December.

I can't tell you how happy I am about that.  It's ridiculous how happy I am about that.  Because of grass.  Not even specially hybridized ornamental grass, but the same kinds of plain ol' grasses that grow wild in just about every open space in the state.  Most grasses are generous, I think.  They make lovely, gracious vehicles for other things:  like the way that silky thread grass gives shape to the wind so beautifully, or a bluegrass lawn invites cool, barefoot walking on sultry evenings.  The blue grama and sand lovegrass will magnify limited winter sunlight exuberantly.  They will make it sparkle as it scatters off every tiny seed; they will burnish it until it glows golden as it passes through their dry wintry leaves. 

I've brought some lovegrass bloom stalks inside the house as a "bouquet" and have been surprised at how fragrant they are.  Outside I'm not even aware of it, but inside, the sharp, sunny smell of green hay is unmistakable.  Maybe that's what's drawn more small butterflies to my garden this summer, even in another year of drought.

A fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber)

While the adults need nectar, the larvae of many skippers eat grass leaves.  For lawn owners they can be a pest, as the caterpillars' feasts can leave brown, dead patches.  Looking at the bank of sand lovegrass, I say, "Chow down, guys. Help me out."

A little generosity seems to be in order.

* But then, the Lobos have won one game in each of the last three years, too. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Matters of Degree and Kind

or Small Fires

Outdoor thermometers—the old-fashioned kind, not the digital kind—may be accurate as to temperature, but they're misleading about experience.  That line of red creeping bit by bit up the scale, filling the space slowly from bottom to top, gives you the idea that temperatures ease gradually into one another.  Since the hot temperature marks are right next to the warm ones only higher, surely a hot day should feel like a warm one, only more so.

When you're standing in blazing sunshine on the west side of a building on a summer afternoon, though, heat is not at all like warmth.  It is a whole other animal, one that snarls at warmth and sends it scampering to cower under the covers.  It does not fill you with a cozy glow as if from within.  It beats at you from without.  It is an alien, different from warmth not only in degree (ahaha) but also in kind.  It lives by its own rules.

I was thinking about that quantum leap from warmth to heat while wandering around at Plants of the Southwest a while ago.  The parking lot at the nursery has a long mixed border filled in an easy-breezy way with dry-climate plants.  On a hot, hazy afternoon, the silvery blues and grays of their leaves shimmered like heat waves rising from the gravel.  Scattered yellow daisies radiated light like miniature suns.  The lavender looked dusty and faded.  All but one of the plantings spoke the inarticulate, panting language of heat.  The lone exception, the Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera), gave voice to a poetry of warmth.  The flowers' rich mahogany invited heat back into the fold.  They reduced it to a human scale and did what they could to tame it.  They tethered it to something comfortable and comforting.

A few Ratibida came home with me, where they've taken up residence in the small, central "I Wish I Were a Shortgrass Prairie (But I'm Not)" bed.  I trimmed the blossoms off to help the plants settle in, and they are slowly beginning to flower again.

Two tiny Mexican hats in the left foreground, with blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis); across the path is a much larger patch of sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) than I expected.

I love watching them bloom.  First the cones form, in a pale green that echoes the blue grama grass.

For some reason this just makes my heart sing.

A few days later the sterile ray flowers begin to reach out, their petals lined with gold.

Soon the disc flowers come to life.

They mosey slowly on up the cone.  Once the whole cone is alight, the ray flowers fade and fall.

Watching them bloom is like watching a fire start.  Not a conflagration—not one of the wildfires that have devoured so much of the west this year—but a small fire, a campfire, a cozy warmth rather than the wildfires' white heat.  The kindling catches, and flames slowly lick around the smaller twigs and then the larger logs.  They sashay on up through the whole stack of fuel until everything is dancing merrily with light and color, and then die back down again to the embers. 

Seeing these flowers, you remember that, like fire, heat colored with warmth can be a domestic thing, and a good one.  You remember firelit evenings in the mountains when you would watch the shadows playing, and the light shining redly on faces gathered in a circle, where you held out your hands to the flames.

Overhead, almost close enough to touch, the stars would kindle, until the night sky was gently, quietly ablaze.

Ratibida columnifera is one of my favorite garden perennials, so I'll sing its praises in a practical way, too.  I've grown Mexican hats before and will only warn against treating them kindly.  Given little luxuries like water and compost, they get waist high, and are not welcome in the front of the border.  Otherwise, they're 18" tall or so and not quite as wide.  In Albuquerque they bloom from roughly the end of May until mid-August or September.  Like most long-blooming members of the aster family, they are short-lived, but they self-seed in an easy-going way, so that stands of them can live for a long time.  The mahogany-with-yellow form (R. columnifera var. pulcherrima) also has a sister form that is golden yellow (R. columnifera).  They grow naturally from Mexico to British Columbia and so can take just about any garden conditions, including cracks in the sidewalk, except extremes of pH and heavy clay.  (And kindness.)  They like heat and sun, but they're hardy at least to zone 4 if not colder and will still bloom well in light shade.  In my morning-sun conditions, these tap-rooted plants need some but not much supplemental water once established; they would no doubt want more in all-day sun in a dry climate (10" moisture or less per year).  They're fine in wetter climates where they will probably grow larger.  Leaves are finely cut and a good blue-grama-grass green.  They grow mostly around the base, not along the stems, so the overall effect is fairly airy.  The plants have a winter form that I could take or leave, but the basal leaves stay green.  Goldfinches will eat the seeds, if they can get to them before the ants do.