Thursday, January 26, 2012

Living Small

or Paying the Price

I shouldn't have taken the day trip, really, but with Martin Luther King Day off last week and a sky full of fast-moving clouds, the call of the road was too much.  I like my little townhouse and love my little garden, but oh, do I get tired of looking at walls.  I wanted to remember big things—skies that soar without hindrance and landscapes that stretch to the ends of the compass rose.  Instead of contorting over a macro of some tiny leaf or stem, I wanted to stand straight and tall while taking a photograph—a photo of something on the distant horizon, with the camera's focus set to infinity.

El Malpais National Monument

It was a great idea so far as it went, but January isn't a sensible month for day trips.  It's the busiest time at work, when my gentle, low-stress job suddenly turns into a free-for-all of legal forms and number crunching.  Every meager bit of energy I have is needed to outlast it.  The day off should have been spent on the sofa, recruiting my strength with sustaining broths and weak tea and toast.  And maybe a tincture of something.  Doesn't that sound sustaining?  Instead I went on a quest for the wild blue yonder and am paying the price,  remembering why living small is a...let's not say good, but a wise thing for someone with CFS. 

All to say, I probably won't be around much in blogland for a little while longer.  I have that every-cell-of-my-body-lugging-25-pounds-of-lead-weights feeling and am a cognitive mess to boot, and still have to finish the month at work with some semblance of adequacy.  If you can remember where I left my keys or my glasses—or the refrigerator, for that matter—kindly let me know.   (Was there a logical connection between those two sentences?  And if so, how?)

A snow squall blows through El Malpais
At least the trip was worth it...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Killing Thyme

or Dumbo's Feather

In Disney's 1941 animated film, Dumbo is a baby elephant with ridiculously oversized ears.  Both his own life and his mother's are made miserable by the other circus animals' cruel teasing, until some crows and a mouse convince him that he can use his ears to fly.  To shore up his confidence, they give him a "magic" feather to carry.  His belief in the feather encourages him to take the leap into flight when he doesn't quite believe in himself.

All to say, I can never get thyme to overwinter.  Culinary, ornamental, creeping, woody—it doesn't matter.  It grows beautifully all summer, looks great through fall and the first half of winter, and then sometime between about now and the middle of February, it dies.  I suspect water issues, but which ones?  Sometimes I give the garden a little water in February if we haven't had any moisture for a couple of months, and that's probably the culprit.  On the other hand, it could be the months of preceding drought.  Plagued by indecision, I solve the problem by growing speedwell instead.

Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)

Thyme-leaf speedwell is easy and reliable, and it's perfectly happy to stay alive all winter long and then keep growing come spring.  A tolerant plant, it doesn't seem to care one way or the other about water, soil, temperature, or light.  (I do think it cares about drainage, for what it's worth.)  It spreads a few inches a year and makes itself unobtrusively at home.  Then, somewhere around tulip time, it turns into a carpet of delicate, blue blooms.

April 2011

I was looking for more information about it online, though, and came across one site (which I can't find again) that said something to the effect of, "If you can grow thyme, you can grow this plant."

Augh!  No!  I can't grow thyme!  If I'd known the two had the same requirements, I'd never have planted speedwell!  Suddenly Dumbo's feather has been whisked out of my hands.  The last few years of growing V. oltensis successfully have obviously been a fluke, an accident, never to be repeated.  The poor little things are doomed.

What did I do last year to manage not to kill it?  I page frantically through my garden journal.  On February 9, 2011:  "Thinking about watering."  Then nothing.

Great.  What does nothing mean?  Did I do nothing?  Or did I do something and not write it down?  If an oncoming car doesn't have its turn signal on, does that mean it's going to go straight at the intersection?  Or is the driver being careless about turn signals?  Surely there's a better way of communicating "I have nothing to communicate" than just...not communicating.  Maybe something on the lines of "This page is intentionally left blank"?  Then again, if I have to start keeping track of every time I don't do something in the garden... No.  That's too much work.

Pressured now to decide the late-winter water issue one way or the other, and with the suddenly keen awareness that lives hang in the balance, I'm opting in favor of dry roots.   To be perfectly clear, just so that my next year's self has no doubt:  I am not going to do anything.  I will not water the speedwell until spring.  At least if it dies no water will have been wasted. 

Does anyone have an extra magic feather they'd be willing to loan out for a few weeks...?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Revving Up the Engines

or Why Gardening Is Like Drag Racing.  And Cats.

Licorice mint (Agastache rupestris)

Just because you're not moving, that doesn't mean you're resting.  You might even be lying on a comfy sofa, but reclining isn't the same as relaxing.  Instead of feeling the tension melting out of your neck and shoulders, your muscles softening, jaw slackening, mind drifting, as you float one easy breath away from sleep, you could be gathering your resources for some course of action—planning a new project, nagging yourself about an old one, debating possibilities, thinking through ways and means.

Tulipa sylvestris

 I was watching Sir Marley a while ago.  He had designs on a mourning dove—a nice, fat one resting under the bird feeder in the vague stupor mourning doves do so well.  Sir Marley stayed perfectly still, but you could see him working the math problems in his head:  measuring distances, calculating trajectories, accounting for wind speed.  Once all the equations worked out, he began, in the mysterious, motionless way of cats, to gather himself together.  Energy at the ready, spine taut, he slowly shifted his weight.  Ever so slightly, his back paws began to twitch.  From stasis he went instantly for the POUNCE.

And missed.  (Vague stupors 1 - Math problems 0.)

Likewise, drag racers at the start line may just be sitting there, but they're not idling.  Their engines are revving up, roaring like Sir Marley only wishes he could.  When the starting signal flicks from amber to green, off they go like a shot, burning rubber all the way.  (And that's everything I know about drag racing.)

Blue flax (Linum lewisii)

At least where gardening is concerned (and in this climate, where the ground doesn't freeze), I've stopped thinking of winter as the dormant season—the gathering season is more like it.  Just because the garden isn't leafing and budding, that doesn't mean that it's at rest.  Winter is a time for plants to draw resources together, to build them up bit by bit, to rev up the power and get it humming, so that when spring comes, bam!  They can take off like a shot.

Those tiny leaves at the base of the licorice mint and the flax are the botanical equivalents of a cat's back feet.  They haven't begun twitching yet—the plants are still doing the math problems, measuring the angle of the sun and the hours of daylight, calculating chlorophyll-to-carbohydrate ratios, plotting their growth trajectories—but in another few weeks, they'll begin in their own motionless, mysterious way, to gather themselves together for the pounce.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here surrounded by gardening books, old catalogs, and internet printouts doing my own plotting and planning.  Don't think my feet aren't starting to twitch.

Mine aren't the only ones...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It Grows as It Goes

or No. 47

When the snow in New Mexico's northern mountains starts melting in late spring, the seasonal streams come back to life.   A few drops at first, then a trickle, and then the icy waters start gurgling and chuckling over the stones in their beds, growing as they go along.  Soon they're cascading over little falls on their way down the mountains, meeting with other brooks, gathering speed, rushing toward the larger rivers—the Rio Chama, the Pecos, the Rio Grande.  Various flood-control systems stem the tide; without them the power of those melting snows could be fearsome when it reached the plains.

The rest of the year, on the other hand, the Rio Grande is the longest mud puddle you ever will see.

I've been browsing this week through bits and pieces of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things looking for the context of the words "Crescit eundo" (it grows as it goes).   Lucretius seems to have liked his weather fierce: grievously,
As gathers thus the storm-clouds' gruesome might,
Do faces of black horror hang on high-
When tempest begins its thunderbolts to forge.
Besides, full often also out at sea
A blackest thunderhead, like cataract
Of pitch hurled down from heaven, and far away
Bulging with murkiness, down on the waves
Falls with vast uproar, and draws on amain
The darkling tempests big with thunderbolts
And hurricanes, itself the while so crammed
Tremendously with fires and winds, that even
Back on the lands the people shudder round
And seek for cover.
When the clouds bulge with murkiness, get out the umbrellas.  A little later in the passage, Lucretius describes a thunderbolt gathering speed and power on its journey through the heavens.  "It grows as it goes" and strikes with ever greater vigor, so that it "shivers all that blocks its path."

And that, apparently, was what Territorial Secretary William Ritch had in mind when he added "Crescit eundo" to New Mexico's territorial seal in 1882, and why it was kept as the official motto when New Mexico became the 47th state in the Union 100 years ago this week, on January 6, 1912.  Those who guided the passage to statehood saw New Mexico as being full of dynamic growth and energy and wanted it to keep gathering momentum.  (And perhaps they liked the idea of "shivering" those who had blocked the path to the Union for so long, when New Mexico had been a territory since 1848.)

Long before Spanish-speaking, Catholic New Mexico was deemed "American" enough to achieve statehood, though, and long before Europeans arrived, rich cultures thrived here, from the Anasazi cities in the north to the Mogollon communities in the south.

Gila Cliff Dwellings, October 2010

Later the various Pueblo Indians, Navajos, and Apaches made this region their home.

Red Rocks, Jemez Pueblo, May 2010

And while New Mexico may be one of the youngest states, it was one of the oldest colonies.  Coronado and his men arrived in 1540; Juan de Oñate established the first settlement in 1598; Santa Fe became the capital in 1610.

San Jose de los Jemez mission church, est. 1610-ish, Jemez State Monument, May 2010

The centuries rolled by.  After a few wars, a couple of national handoffs, and a heavy dose of politics, New Mexico elbowed its way into the United States of America, and its new leaders expected it to steamroll right into prosperity.  In many ways it did, as the thriving artists' coteries and the new science labs made New Mexico a force to be reckoned with on the national stage.  In other ways, it didn't.  A hundred years later, we're still near the wrong end of too many state ranking lists (number of teen pregnancies, percentage of children living in poverty, academic nonproficiency) for that to ring true.

Despite its important centers of activity, I think New Mexico is a fairly sleepy place.  The whole thunderbolt thing—that sounds more like New York, not like us.  Zapping the obstacles in our path isn't really our style.  (Except in the Whole Foods parking lot.)  Like the cultures that preceded ours, modern New Mexico seems to flower and fade, flower and fade.  I think we're less like a thunderbolt and more like the Rio Grande, moving placidly along for the most part, with the occasional overflow of energy.  We hope that tomorrow will be a little better than today, that our lives will grow as they go.

Candelaria Wetlands, Rio Grande Nature Center, January 2012

Maybe I've just been watching the river too long.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


or Alternate Realities

The story of Echo has always struck me as a sad one.  She made her mistakes, and plenty of them:  she distracted Juno while Jupiter amused himself elsewhere and then got found out; she fell for Narcissus because of his looks, despite his reputation for being conceited and heartless; then, instead of going for a brisk walk and getting over him, she pined away with unrequited love.  Really, she seems not to have done much but make mistakes.

What a price to pay, though, to be cursed by Juno only to repeat what others say.  Echo lost her own voice and the power of originality; she turned into a shadow of a person.  She may have learned to be resourceful, finding ways to lure Narcissus to her with his own words, and kind, giving him himself in his self-absorbed grief.  And yet she faded away to nothing, to an aura of sorrow and regret, and the endless awareness of what once-was/might-have-been.

I've been thinking about echoes lately in the garden, looking at seed pods and dried leaves and stems.  The marigolds have turned into scarecrow versions of their glowing, summer selves, and the sense of once-was resonates from every papery husk and bract.

And yet, they haven't faded away to nothing, not by a long shot.  Those husks have the power to call out in their own voices, a different power than they had when they were green.

I have a sudden craving for tamales.

The petals sing their own tune in the mild winter sun.

Each one has its own inimitable shape.

I tend to think of plants' flowering form as their "real" one.  I'll wonder what a seedling will become and forget that it already is a marigold, just not one in bloom; I'll look at a faded blossom and think, "That used to be a marigold," forgetting the seeds that lie within, turning the blossom into dozens of marigolds, even if they're not marigolds in flower.  Marigolds in seed don't resound with once-was or might-have-been, but with what-will-be (Lord willin' and the crick don't rise).  They have the power of originality like nothing else.

In these enlightened times we're less likely to think of echoes as the voice of a hubristic nymph who irritated the wrong people, than as sound waves reflecting off a hard surface—nothing faded about them, just the original sounds heard another way.  A marigold's genetic identity reflects differently off the warmth of summer than it does off the hard surface of winter.

And it's hard to find anything sad about it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


or Doing the Work

Posole has become one of my favorite foods of all time.  A hominy stew thick with New Mexico red chiles, it will warm you up when nothing else can.  Posole is a traditional food here during the darkest, coldest time of year (though this week the weather has been sunny and unseasonably warm, but I can't help that), and it's served at New Year's to bring good luck through the coming months.

The Sasebo Japanese Garden at the Albuquerque BioPark

I was thinking about luck at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden the other day.  I'd been admiring the red stems of the dogwood in the Japanese garden when my eye was caught by a sudden movement:  a roadrunner hunting among the rocks.  (It's almost in the exact center of the photo above.)  (Also the one below.)

It had found some snails and was enjoying quite a feast, breaking the shells open against the pebbles so that it could get to the meat inside.

Roadrunners are fast enough to kill rattlesnakes and hummingbirds.  And snails.

Roadrunners aren't rare around here, but they aren't exactly common, either, not like sparrows or pigeons.  Usually when I see them they're in a hurry, running (believe it or not) across the road.  It felt like a bit of luck to be able to watch this one at its leisurely meal.  (It also felt a bit like cheating, since the roadrunner wasn't really in the wild, even though it certainly wasn't tame.)

When they feel cold, they turn their backs to the sun...

Speaking of luck, how lucky did this bird get, to have hatched at the Botanic Garden in the first place?   Acres of naturalistic plantings providing habitat for its natural prey; acres of lusciously watered, less xeric plantings, giving snails and other delicacies a niche; shelter that is protected from the worst ravages of weather by a staff that keeps the gardens in good trim; an absolute lack of predators, except perhaps for the Biopark's train, which putters along slowly enough that even I can get out of its way; handy landscaping pebbles on which to break open the occasional escargot... Really, how much luckier could a roadrunner be?

...and fluff up their feathers.  Their skin is black and soaks up the sun's heat. 
(Some dignity may be lost in the process.)

Well, to the roadrunner it's luck.  To the garden staff, not so much.  They've done the labor to put in the acres of naturalistic plantings and to water the thirsty ones; they've pruned and nurtured even the prickly pears, run the trainlet (it's such a little train) at slow speeds, and spread all those pebbles around...and lo and behold, there are roadrunners.  The gardeners have created the situation from which this particular roadrunner's good luck could emerge.

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions.  If I were to make a gardener's resolution, though, a lifelong one, it would be to do the work that makes some goldfinch's or lizard's or toad's lucky day possible—to create the garden that lets them hit the jackpot and thrive.  (Note:  rabbits, squirrels, voles, moles, and leaf-rollers need not apply.)

When you think about it, even posole, amazing as it is, doesn't rely on luck alone to get you through the new year in style.  It has vitamin C and iron, and the kick in the pants the chiles give you, to galvanize you into action and make luck a little more likely to happen.  All those robust nutrients and warming spices help you buckle down and do the work so that you, too, can make the most of good fortune when it comes along.

I'd better have another bowl...