Thursday, June 28, 2012


or Salvage

Or gleaning:  making use of what others have left behind.  As a child I once read a Christmas story in which a family goes into the woods to cut a tree for the holiday.  When they get it home they realize that it's too tall to fit in their house, so they chop off the top and discard it outside in the snow. A family of bears wanders by, finds the tree top, and is overjoyed, because it will make a perfect Christmas tree.  They take it back to their cave, but once there they find that it's too tall. They cut off the top and throw it out into the snow, where it's found by a badger. And so the story continues, with smaller and smaller animals finding the tree top, taking it home, and cutting off the top again until just a tiny piece is left to be found by some mice. That little tip is just the right size to be a Christmas tree in their little mouse-hole, and there the story ends.

'Kerala Red' amaranth, 'Blackie' sweet potato vine, and a lonely carrot

I've been reminded of that story this week as I've been moseying around the garden, stopping at one sand cherry bush or another to see if the fruit has ripened, picking a handful of cherries to eat, tossing the pits idly away.  The recent heat has been hard on many of the plants, but others, like the cherries, have really begun to come into their own.  The warm season grasses are stretching luxuriously, and the vegetables in the micro-garden have put on a spurt of growth and bloom.  The sweet potato vine is suddenly a vine and not a collection of sad leaves; the tomatillos are a good six inches taller than they were last week.  The amaranth, heat-lover that it is, has exploded into blossom and begun to set seed.

These are amaranth plants that self-seeded last year, so they had an early start in the spring.  I'm glad to see them going to seed this soon; they've been useful to the birds.  I've been filling the finch feeders less assiduously this year—enough that the Lesser Goldfinches keep me on their route and stop in now and then, but not so much that they come to rely on the feeders like they did last year, or to expect valet parking.  They've been browsing a little more around the rest of the garden, and have lighted with particular enthusiasm on the amaranth.  Each inflorescence produces hundreds of tiny seeds, and as the birds grab at the flower spikes, many of the seeds scatter on the patio in front of the raised garden.

'Orange Giant' and 'Kerala Red' amaranth

Those seeds have been a windfall for the large ants, who swarm around them, gather them up and hurry back to their nest in the big urn of agastache.  They have have also been a windfall for the small ants, which come along later to glean whatever the bigger ones have left behind; they carry these odds and ends back to their own nests beneath the pavers in the path.  It's as if the food chain is operating in reverse, with the larger animals providing food for the smaller ones; it's certainly an example of nature's efficiency at work, letting nothing go to waste.  In any case, the ants are keeping the patio nice and tidy.

I was enjoying watching this process of gathering and salvaging among ever-smaller forms of life when I was startled by a sight that made me laugh:  a stream of sand cherry pits proceeding up the side of the urn, the large ants working in pairs to haul them into their nest.  There really is no such thing as garbage in a garden, so I may as well stop feeling lazy for tossing the pits back into the garden when I snack instead of throwing them properly away.  I'm glad to know that, even without the finch feeders, and however accidentally, I'm still doing my share to feed the wildlife.

I wonder if the ants don't have the tiny tip of a Christmas tree somewhere inside that urn.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Quenching and Slaking

or A Dry Heat

Not All of N.M. Burning 

Or so said the headline of a recent article in the Albuquerque Journal.  The governor had issued a message encouraging tourists to visit, pointing out that the wildfires raging in the southern part of the state really cover only a small part of the whole, and that most places are still open for business as usual.  But the headline made it sound as if the fires are so bad that saying what isn't burning is easier than saying what is.

The largest fire, the Whitewater-Baldy fire in the Gila Wilderness, has seared almost 300,000 acres, or 464 square miles.  It's 87% contained, but in the most rugged, inaccessible terrain, "islands" of fire are still burning.  The Gila will have to wait for the monsoon rains in July to quench the blaze, to extinguish it completely.

Quench is such a wonderful word, wet but with a snap to it:  as if squelch and crunch are in cahoots. It's a word that's crossed my mind often this week, the first of summer, with the sun at its zenith and temperatures in Albuquerque mounting to 99°F/37C while humidity levels sink to 4 or 5%.  This is the one time of year when walls around a small garden, trapping and concentrating heat, do not help.  The garden is thirsty.  The spring plantings are struggling.  While the established things can take the heat, I'm doing a lot of hand-watering to keep the new ones alive.  Every so often I forget one—or two, or three—or don't judge its needs quite right.  (Prairie smoke/Geum triflorum:  who knew it would be so fussy?)  After two or three days the survivors among the younglings, despite thick mulch and deep watering, are already thirsty again.

I know how they feel.  I don't think I've stopped being thirsty since moving to New Mexico, and summer is something else again.  Summer is thirsty with exclamation points.  With ashes from the latest fire in the bosque blowing on a hot wind, stinging your eyes and catching in your throat, a drink of cool, clear water is a precious thing.  One glass follows another, all day long.

Thirst isn't really something you can quench.  Slake, yes—another wonderfully wet word; a slurp in league with a lake.  Slake comes from slacken, to let up, to ease.  You can slacken thirst, offer it a little more play on the line.  But you can't extinguish it.  You can't put it out.  You may think you have, but in a little while you, like the garden plants, will be thirsty all over again.  The only way to quench thirst for good and all is to stop being alive.

I've always seen thirst, whether my own or the garden's, as kind of a nuisance.  It's a need, a neediness, when there are more interesting things to do than to stop for a drink of water.  In a way, though, needs like thirst are really signs of life.  If we stop needing, we'll have stopped living.  As the old saying goes, where there's life there's hope—and what is hope but another kind of thirst?  You certainly don't want to quench it as if it were a wildfire, something dangerous and out of control.  Instead you rejoice when it's slaked by even a trickle of whatever is water to your spirit.   That trickle satisfies like a long, tall drink of water in a dry heat.

Trickle:  a drip befriending a tickle.

At least for a while.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Weed By Any Other Name

or Happy Accidents

No one likes goats heads.  I don't mean the heads of actual goats.  Most people don't get worked up about those one way or the other (unless they've lived with actual goats, and then they might have some pungent words to say).  No, I'm talking about that scourge of bare feet, that bane of bicycle tires, that painful thorn in the flesh, Tribulus terrestris, aka puncture vine, aka caltrop, aka goats head.  It is a weed.  It is a menace.  It is a trouble and a vexation, come to torment us.
Photo credit Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

When my parents were newlyweds and had started their first vegetable garden, they found an unknown but charming plant coming up in it, and cherished it like a wildflower.  (It wasn't goats heads.  They knew better than that!)  They made space around it, watered it, mulched it, and let it grow, until my grandpa, who'd grown up a farmer, came to visit and said, "Why on earth are you growing wild lettuce?"

Not wild lettuce.

The thing with wisdom passed on from previous generations, is that mostly it's reactive rather than proactive.  If Grandpa had said, "Beware the wild lettuce, my children.  It looks like thus-and-so," my parents would never have grown it.  But you can't anticipate everything, so Grandpa never thought to warn my parents and instead waited until they already had grown wild lettuce, and then said, "Why did you do that?"  I think he assumed that genetic osmosis worked, and that my parents must already know what he knew.  He was mighty entertained when they didn't.

My parents told me how silly they felt to have grown wild lettuce, but they've never told me what it looks like.  So I know not to grow it, if only I knew what it was, which I don't.

All to say, weeds are an adventure around here.  I don't actually have many, thanks to our dry climate (and a lot of mulch).  Even if we have enough moisture in spring to encourage weeds to sprout, the seedlings don't usually make it past early June, when the sun gets to Smiting strength.  With the survivors, I like to tempt fate and see what happens.  (Unless they're goats heads.  I know better than that!)   It's my own way of living dangerously.  What wild lettuce equivalent will I cherish and then be embarrassed about?  Last year's Weed of Note was a common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).  This year's seems to be...

even more attractive.  It's certainly a member of the mint family, with that square, chiseled stem, like a cowboy's jawline, only longer.  (And greener.)  My guess is scarlet hedgenettle (Stachys coccinea), but I don't know for sure.  I sure did enjoy wondering about it as it grew taller and those tantalizing buds started to form, and I sure enjoy it now, when dusk turns it to embers beside gaura's bright sparks.

Nothing teaches you how to set priorities, to see what's important and what isn't, like weeds.  They're not all the same, you know.  Some are goats heads—noxious irritants, with few redeeming features.  They are the kinds of things grandfathers warn children about, and that no one makes the mistake of growing twice (or even once, because they've been warned).   You rip them up as soon as you see them, because otherwise you'll be ripping up a lot—painfully.

Then again, some weeds are wild lettuces—harmless enough, but not worth wasting resources on.  You don't need to rush to pull them, but you sure don't need to bother mulching them, either.  The only price you'll pay for them is a little embarrassment, so why stress about the wild lettuces in your life?  (Unless Grandpa's coming over, of course.)  And some... Well, some are happy accidents, aren't they?  Scarlet hedgenettles that you would never discover if you didn't let a few weeds grow now and then, if you didn't allow a little room for surprise.  As long as the weeds you let grow aren't goats heads.

We all know better than that!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Coming Around Again

or Circles and Lines

Butterflies never really seem to have a plan.  The monarchs and other migratory species must have one, deep down, to be able to make it between points A and B every year.  Generally, though, linear progress and butterflies don't seem to go together.  At first glance it's all flutter and drift with them, even when they're feeding, sometimes even when they've come to rest.  I was surprised the other day, then, to see a cabbage white flying in circles around the garden—purposeful circles, even if they were a little ruffly.  Normally they flutter in over the wall, flutter back out on a puff of wind, flutter in, lay eggs on the arugula, drift for a few seconds, flutter back over the wall.  This one, though, made six or seven strong (if ruffly) laps before alighting somewhere near the rue and disappearing in the foliage.  I still have no idea what that was all about.

Later that day, a hummingbird made the rounds from one desert olive to the others, circling each tree before moving on to the next.  No ruffles or drifting for him, no sirree:  this was all aggressive reconnoitering, as if he were looking for rivals; he came close to assaulting a goldfinch before remembering himself.  (Hummers:  not easy neighbors for the small fry.)  He, too, made several laps, but then kicked into warp drive and winked out.

Cotula 'Tiffindell Gold'

We've probably all sung rounds at some point in our lives:  "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Hey, Ho, Nobody Home."  Singing them is a kind of sport, like kicking a ball around with a group of friends.

Only usually without lives hanging in the balance.

Rounds can be artistically satisfying, too.  I love the sense of growth as one voice "waterfalls" into another, and the liquid seamlessness once all the voices are engaged.  I also love the sense of sharing, as you exchange parts of the melody and hear how the same tune sounds from another voice.  Rounds don't really go anywhere, of course, except back to the beginning over and over, but you can stop whenever you like, and in the meantime the harmonies that result are sweet.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Time in the garden moves in circles and lines.  We look forward to the seasons' turning and the return of old friends among the flora, and enjoy the ritual quality of seasonal chores:  trimming back dead growth at the end of winter, tidying away the faded tulip leaves in spring.  But we also want to see signs of progress:  to see gaps fill in and trees mature, to have our gardens bear fruit and ripen.

Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi)

I've been thinking about cycles and progress, rounds and growth, as I embark on my third year of blogging this week.  Tomorrow Microcosm will turn two.  The passage of another year astonishes me.  The first felt like a gigantic milestone; this one hardly feels like a marker at all.  Maybe having written about the garden twice through the cycle of seasons, I'm not keeping each one as straight in my mind.  Or maybe, having shared ideas and gardens and comments with readers and with fellow bloggers, it's harder to remember where one voice leaves off and another begins.  All of those actions blend seamlessly together.

Individual posts of Microcosm remind me more of ruffly butterfly circles than they do of obsessive, no-frills, take-no-prisoners (except for maybe an accidental goldfinch) hummingbird flights.  Garden blogging as a whole, though, reminds me of singing rounds—complex ones, like "Sumer is icumen in", with its multiple canons sounding at the same time.  In both forms ideas come around again as the seasons or the phrases turn; they share a sense of exchange, and of unexpected harmony resulting from separate melodies.  They also share a sense of community that is a little apart from "real" life but that still reaches out to it.

'Mesa Verde' iceplant (Delosperma 'Kelaidis' aka 'Mesa Verde')

Garden blogging follows the cycles of the garden, of course.  As with the garden, though, I'm also finding myself hungry for growth.  Not in viewing numbers—I am so happy with you, my community of friends!—but in style, perhaps.  Do any other bloggers feel that way?  (And if so, does it pass?)  I don't have any particular plan in mind; things are all flutter and drift here.  Maybe I'll try a joint venture or two, or some exploration of plant biology or the history of my little plot of earth, or some New Mexico ecology.  Or maybe a fictional account from the perspective of a cabbage moth making ruffly circles around a very small garden.  (What was that all about?)  Something to fill in the gaps, to grow and bear fruit and ripen.  In the meantime, sumer is icumen in.

And what a pleasure it is, as the days stretch out and the garden beckons, to engage my voice with yours.