Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One Step Ahead

or A Rake's Progress

The earnest, much-pierced young stock clerk at the natural foods co-op was doing his best to persuade me that spending $26 for the 32-oz. bottle of certified organic maple syrup was a good idea.  The ex-Vermonter in me, on the other hand, was doing her best to convince the clerk that all maple syrup is produced organically, and that spending an extra $10 for the label was just plain wrong.  The conversation went something like this:

Clerk:  Organic producers can't use pesticides.
Me:  Sugar maples grow in forests.  The trees aren't sprayed.
Clerk:  Then how do they keep the insects under control?
Me:  Well, the trees grow in forests, where there are natural predators.  Besides, the sap starts running in early spring, before the insects are out, and anyway, it comes from deep underground, where insects aren't a problem. 
Clerk (sceptically):  Sap?
Me:  Uh-huh.
Clerk (visibly debates calling security and changes his mind):  And the land has to have been chemical-free for three years.
Me:  The syrup comes from trees.  Trees take a lot longer than three years to grow.  And they're growing in a forest, not in an orchard or on farmland.
Clerk (confused):  How can they grow in a forest?
Me (confused):  They're trees.  Trees do that.
Clerk (sceptically):  What, on their own?
Me:  Well, you know, with ferns and brambles and birds and deer and stuff.
Clerk:  But that sounds like one of those Eastern forests.
Me (confused):  Yes.
Clerk:  How do they harvest a forest?
Me:  They go around and tap the trees.
Clerk (possibly suspecting a conspiracy):  "They?"  Who are "they?"
Me:  Guys.  Just, you know, guys.
Clerk:  You mean farmers.
Me:  No, just a bunch of guys in the woods.  They get permits to tap trees on state or national forest land, and maybe ask if they can tap their neighbors' trees.  You know, guys
Clerk (startled):  You make them sound like the guys around here who harvest piñon nuts.
Me (startled):  Yeah, I guess so.
Clerk:  But that's, just, like, some guys in the woods.
Me:  Yeah.
Clerk (desperately):  OK, but for maple syrup to be organic they have to use organic fertilizer, too.
Me (blank confusion):  It's a forest.
Clerk (blank confusion).

(Light dawns:  the clerk is young, maybe 20, and a local—he's probably never seen a deciduous forest.  He knows pine and juniper woods, with the occasional deciduous tree thrown in as make-weight, but nothing that would support large-scale commercial production.  The orchards he's encountered have been heavily managed apple or pecan orchards; his experience of "soil," if any, is mineral-rich, nutrient-poor "decomposed granite."  Deciduous forests occupy a theoretical place in his awareness, but he hasn't had a reason to think them through.)

Me:  When the leaves fall every year they just stay there on the ground and get covered by rain and snow.  They pretty well decompose by spring.  It's like the trees are self-mulching and self-composting.
Clerk (light also dawning):  Oh, like in an eco-system or something.
Me (beaming):  Exactly!

With that little misunderstanding cleared away, we both go about our business feeling pleased with each other, as if we are mutual converts to...well, we don't know what, but we're both pleased.

All to say, I'm not planning to rake the garden this winter.  The sand cherries and desert olives have never shed enough leaves for raking to be an issue before, so this is the first time I've actually faced the choice.  Whether to rake can actually be a rather heated issue in the gardening world—the impulse to tidy the garden for winter is deeply ingrained (and yes, some of us are just getting around to that now here in Albuquerque), and many of the reasons for doing so are good.  On the other hand, my garden doesn't exemplify any of the good reasons:  it doesn't have lawn or easily smotherable, delicate perennials; it's in the high desert where crown rot and slugs are ogres we frighten badly behaved children with, not things we ever expect to encounter in real life; and garden-magazine tidiness is not really an issue.

I did consider gathering all the leaves into a pile, putting them in a corner to compost, and then replacing them on the garden beds come March, but besides not having the energy to do any of that, something about the process struck me as...redundant.  The whole sense that raking is something I "ought" to do was making me feel like the serious young stock clerk, whose ideals were perhaps one step ahead of his information.  Like most of us when we're in a fundamentalist mode, he just wanted to do the right thing.  Yes, zeal and a pure heart do count for a lot, but weighing circumstances correctly is even better; the right choice doesn't always have to be the most difficult one.

The sand cherries and desert olives are native plants; somehow they manage just fine in the wild without having someone come along to rake the leaves and compost them specially before returning them to the soil.  A tiny, urban garden may create different growing conditions than, say, the vast expanse of the Gila Wilderness, but I don't see any reason why these plants shouldn't be as self-mulching and self-composting as they would be in the wild. 

Ooh—like in an eco-system or something!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


or Evoking Joy

I was thinking today about brevity, not as the soul or wit or anything, but as something potentially useful, and found my thoughts turning to the
haiku, with its few syllables and its shorthand ways of saying much with little.  Haiku encapsulate a place or mood or season in a word and evoke an ever-widening world:  "mist" opens the curtains on autumn; "clouds" suggest summer and all that summer brings.

Evergreens are surrounded by a rich symbolism in many cultures, mostly redolent of steadfastness, permanence, life, protectiveness, even joy.  My first winter in Albuquerque, I was struck by the number of broad-leafed evergreens that flourish here—pyracantha, photinia, euonymus, boxwood, nandina.  Winters are far greener than I thought they would be (but then, summers are browner, so it all evens out).  My favorite of the evergreens is Winter Gem boxwood, which has adapted readily to the narrow strip of ground outside the kitchen door.  It roasts in full sun all summer, freezes in full shade all winter, receives no care other than an occasional dousing in pasta cooking water and even more occasional rainfall, gets pillaged regularly for vase cuttings, and remains sturdily green and shiny come what may.  It is one of my role model plants—unassuming but reliable, and ready to stand forth cheerfully when the days darken around it.  It's one of the unsung heroes of the garden, a giver of quiet, steady joy, a maker of few demands.  I can see why evergreens have become symbols of so many good things.

My family has just left after a truly joyful Christmas celebration, a model of love and of giving on many levels.

a Christmas feast
candles gleam on laughter,

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Turning the Corner

or Celebrating Light

Every winter solstice, one of my dearest friends in Vermont happily points out that "We've turned the corner!"  Her blitheness used to drive me crazy when I lived there.  The sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures of January and February were still ahead of us, and even worse, the cruel tease known as "March," not to mention the disgusting weeks of mud season, when knee-high boots are sucked off your feet to disappear forever in the muck and mire.  To be rejoicing that the days are each growing one minute (oh, wow, one whole minute!) longer seemed to be missing the point of the three months of winter and their 129,600 minutes yet to come.

And yet, truth be told, we have turned a corner, away from darkness toward ever-increasing light.  Spring is, in fact, if we are to be completely technical about it and ignore such incidental phenomena as snow, ice, and frigid temperatures, on its way.  Here in New Mexico, as in much of the West, the coldest months of the year are December and January; the solstice really does mark "midwinter."  We're at the nadir of this very shallow valley and beginning to saunter out again.  Now that I'm here and not dreading any actual, you know, weather, I can appreciate my friend's point of view a little better.

I was thinking about that yesterday morning, the first day of winter, as the combination of sunrise, unseasonable warmth, and a hot cup of tea beckoned me outside.   I was taking photograph after photograph of the painterly clouds and thinking of the view as a sunrise (which it was), all the while wondering what distinguished it from a sunset, other than the whole obvious east/west factor.  Visually? perhaps nothing.  Experientially? almost everything:  the sense of vibrancy rather than of sleep, the pull toward action, the glad shout of life—

And rather than being intrinsic to the sunrise, almost all of that experiential difference comes from inside our own heads. 

When I first became ill, I slept between 12 and 14 hours a day, at the minimum. I would sleep through two alarms, and wake feeling as though I had never slept at all. After several months of that, I realized how much hope comes from the idea that "it will all look better in the morning"—how deep the belief in dawn, in the solstice, in turning points, in improvement, runs. When you wake in the morning feeling worse than you did the night before, and realize that that's just the way things are going to be from this time forward, it's not only physically wrong, it's counter to everything you know in your gut about the way the world "should" work.

At some point you realize that turning points don't just happen.  Solstice isn't meaningful all by itself; the days may grow longer, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will become any better.  A sunrise may suggest an awakening to life, but that doesn't mean the awakening will occur.  You have to make those moments pivotal.  You choose to see the dawn as a time of possibility, to celebrate the growth of light rather than to bemoan the cold of winter, to live your values rather than to harp on your losses.  Hope is something you decide on, not something that automatically waltzes your way with the sunrise or the solstice.

This is the time of year for celebrations of light. As a more-or-less Friend, a Quaker, with deep Protestant roots, I celebrate the birth of the Christ child—the Light come among us.  To those of you who also celebrate Christmas, I offer best wishes for a very merry one!  To those who do not, I warmly extend my hands in a wish for peace on earth and good will toward all.

May God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


or Letting the Dust Settle

The two least restful words in the English language are "should" and "ought."  They nag at you, they poke you in the conscience, they tug at the sleeves of your awareness, they rake fingernails of unease down the chalkboard of your soul.  They are little linguistic chihuahuas, yapping and yapping and yapping for your attention.  (I'm having fun with this one.)  Even when you take a well-earned breather, they whine in the background of your rest, preventing you from gathering the refreshment you need.

This past week, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang [sorry, I don't know the past tense of gang] aft agley."   Because of a CFS flare, my beautifully planned,  gently paced schedule of Christmas preparations—the one that was designed to manage my illness while getting things fully ready for the holiday—still looks a little too pristine, with no satisfying "X"s next to most items on the list.  The shoulds and oughts are piling up, and I don't see how I can fulfill them all without sending my health into a nosedive.

One of the hardest and most valuable lessons illness teaches is that at some point, if you want any of the healing rest your body demands, you have to shut the door on those two words.  Unfortunately, for me, at least, it seems to be one of those lessons that has to be relearned every time a new "should" comes up.

We had rain and snow in Albuquerque this week—about an inch of rain, and a couple of inches of good, wet snow.  We were parched for it, and even though the snow has melted again, the earth is moist, and everything looks fresh.  Some winters we don't get much moisture at all, and then the grit blows in the streets, and the evergreens are dusty and dirty and drab.  For now, however, the dust is settled, the streets and leaves rinsed clean.  With the sun diffused through a thin scrim of clouds today, the catmint, yarrow, and oregano leaves in the garden look spring-green; the boxwoods gleam in the soft light.

An inch of winter rain can be a mixed blessing out here, as roots that like to fight for their moisture resent having to take long baths in it instead—we'll see how happy the rosemary is come spring.  But for now, the garden is wearing an air of ease, as if it is enjoying a moment's respite from the constant struggle with drought.  As I sit on the patio this morning, soaking up the atmosphere of freshness, a tension that I wasn't even aware had been riding my spine begins to let up.

Walking along the path, I notice that some of the newly planted ipheion bulbs have started sending up their fall foliage—one (1) spindly, grassy leaf apiece.  (Next year they will be a thicket.)  I kneel to look more closely and catch a sudden whiff of tarragon from the neighboring bed.  The tarragon leaves themselves are nothing but a wet, soggy mess of compost that still has the misfortune to be attached to the stem, but the moisture and mild sunshine are enough to bring out the herb's clean, anise-y fragrance.  It is a moment of pure loveliness, and I rest in it, free of shoulds and oughts.  The dust settles.  In that moment of ease, I remember what is important.

My family is coming for Christmas, and I am blessed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Out of Commission

But Not Quite Down for the Count

Most of you probably remember pre-cable television days.  Every so often in the middle of a program the screen would go blank or snowy for a minute or two, and then a blocky, rainbow-striped backdrop would appear, with the phrase "Technical Difficulties.  Please stand by."

I'm having technical difficulties myself today—not with actual technology, more with my brain.  Another head-cold has brought on a big fibromyalgia and CFS flare, and suddenly trying to combine words into sentences has become very, very complicated, and resting seems like a very, very wise alternativve.

I promise that when I get back to writing a real post, I won't do what they did in pre-cable television days and "resume the regularly scheduled program in progress," skipping over all the important, juicy bits and cuing back in just in time for the commercial break and end credits. 

[Open to ideas for clinching one-liner here...]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Dubious Moral

or Better Late Than—

Never let it be said that I am a bad influence.  Far, far be it from me to lead the innocent down the primrose path to vice, profligacy, and unhelpfulness, let alone to traipse down that path myself.  And yet...

First, however, let me apologize.  The world is a wide and varied place, and some of you are reading this from the balmy coast of southern California, the warm mesas of Arizona, or even the summery Swartland of South Africa.  You won't be remotely impressed by what follows, but please be patient—there's always the moral.

Meanwhile, others of you are struggling against blizzard winds, blinding snowstorms, and sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, and, if you have the same reaction as one of my Vermonter friends this week, you are likely to be really, really irritated.  As I was drafting this post today (in the sunshine on the patio, while a finch murmured sweet nothings to the world) I threw down my pen and literally said out loud, "I can't show this to anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line."  Then the immortal words of Jerome K. Jerome came to me, from the Preface to Three Men in a Boat:
The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style, or in the extent and usefulness of the information it conveys, as in its simple truthfulness. ...This, more than all its other charms, will, it is felt, make the volume precious in the eye of the earnest reader; and will lend additional weight to the lesson that the story teaches.

Truthfulness, yes!  One of the great virtues.  With that reminder, emboldened to continue on in the pursuit of "hopeless and incurable veracity," and without even a hint of southwestern smugness, I offer this current photo from my garden:

The fall-blooming crocuses keep on coming.  I'm pretty sure that the ones blooming now are the batch I planted late this fall—too late, really, or so it seemed at the time.  The pickings at the local garden center were slim, and I took the last few bulbs out of a "grab bag" bin.  But the timing has worked out surprisingly well.  Whereas the bulbs I put in last year flowered this October, the ones that didn't get planted until November are just beginning to make themselves at home.  One at a time they're coming into bloom, and each blossom is its own little explosion of joy.  Even compared to the flurry of blossoms in spring, this little scattering in December makes a pretty impressive emotional impact.  The bare fact that there are flowers in December—how much more exciting does it get than that?

Had I planted the bulbs in September, when they're supposed to be planted, they would long since be a thing of memory.  Instead, by deciding to plant more at the last minute, I am enjoying zing after zing of late-blossoming excitement.  To me this seems to be a clear instance of the virtues of procrastination.  I don't know how else to interpret such plain facts, or what more obvious moral can be drawn from them.   It may not be the kind of moral you want to teach your children, and yet, the facts remain. 

Vice.  Profligacy.  Unhelpfulness.  I do apologize.

At least it's all true.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


or Putting the Shine Back On

You never realize just how cluttered an urban landscape is until you try to photograph a sunset, and then you become all too aware of the busy-ness you have been mentally photoshopping out of your vision.  Cameras aren't nearly as adaptable as the human psyche.  The lens will show you exactly which objects are in front of it with painful clarity; it's up to you to get the camera to lie about the ones you don't like as best you can.

Thinking with mild annoyance about rooftops and poles and wires and such has reminded me of one of the poems in Paul Verlaine's La Bonne Chanson (The Good Song).  The poem's narrator is riding in a noisy, coal-burning train and looking out at the landscape,
where thin telegraph poles sag, their wires having the strange allure of a flourish of the pen.

I can see the mysterious appeal of a bit of swirling calligraphy—a line of Spencerian script with curls and sweeps tailing the capital letters, the kind of thing that makes you aware of appearance rather than meaning, of the process of writing rather than what the writing says.  It makes you see penmanship with new eyes, at least for a while. 

Verlaine published La Bonne Chanson in 1870, several decades after the invention of the telegraph, but not long after the laying of the transatlantic cable.  Telegraphic technology was not so old as to have acquired a patina, but the shine, perhaps, had worn off.  In this poem Verlaine doesn't focus at all on the marvels of long-distance communication.  Instead he looks at the apparatus that makes it possible and weighs it purely in terms of its visual effect.  The poem's narrator, looking through the lens of the train car window, seems to be newly aware of the poles' rhythmic spacing, the black curve of wire between them.

Add an extra 140 years, and I think we can safely say that the shine has faded altogether from poles-and-wires technology.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't even know whether these are power or telephone lines; they're just a part of the landscape that I take for granted and ignore, except when they interfere with a sunset.   The lines in the newer part of the neighborhood are buried, but for the most part, these older lines are just as invisible to awareness as if they were.

That's kind of disconcerting.   I mean, they're big.  And kind of important.   And yet, they're so ubiquitous that they fade out of the line of sight altogether until some kind of focal lens lets them be seen afresh.  That's one reason I enjoy cameras so much—they are like Verlaine's train window, putting you at a distance from the familiar and making you see it in a new way.  They put some of the shine back on the things you've taken for granted for a lifetime.

Which doesn't mean I still won't do my best to get the camera to lie about the bits I don't like.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Tiny Slice of Pie

or Seizing the Moment

If summer were pie (bear with me here) it would be a large one, made with the season's abundance, and served by a generous hand.  You would fill your plate and enjoy every bite, but by the time you'd reached the end of the slice you might not be paying quite as much attention as you did for that first glorious taste.  When the same generous hand offered you another overflowing serving, you would keep eating gamely, because it's so delicious, and you really do like pie.  But once you had emptied your plate again, you might just be ready to be done with pie for a while.

If winter were pie, it would be a small one, made with rare and expensive ingredients.  It would be served by someone counting both cost and calories, a tiny sliver of pie dwarfed by a landscape of a plate.  You would take small bites of the enjoyment offered you and pause between each bite, drinking a sip of coffee perhaps, or admiring the table setting, so that you could stretch out the enjoyment as long as possible.  Each bite would be its own memory.

I  know that technically winter hasn't arrived yet, but last week's cold snap finally discouraged the Wild Thing autumn sage from blooming any more, and in my book, that makes it winter.  In the mornings the cold drives me inside before I've finished my coffee on the patio (besides which, it's darkish out), and since my garden is shaded in the afternoon, it's too chilly to spend much time there after work (besides which, it's darkish out).   So instead of the leisurely hours of reading or moseying or crossword-puzzle solving or writing or observing or photographing, there are only tiny slivers of time to enjoy outside and try to make the most of.   (As, indeed, is the case for most of us in the northern hemisphere about now.)

Weekends are another matter, and on sunny mornings, the garden is still a fine place to drink a cup of tea and meander around the circle path to see what's changed during the week.  As I was admiring the rumpled-fabric texture of the dried sand cherries and thinking how glad I was not to have to iron them, I was reminded that December's beauty is fragile and evanescent in any case—that no matter how much time is available for its enjoyment, the enjoyments themselves are short-lived and precious.  As my camera hand neared the cherries, it brushed one of the ragged leaves, which went tumbling; it nudged a branch and sent a whole flock of leaves fluttering to the ground.  I cupped a cherry in my hand, and its flesh crumbled, leaving only the bare seed dangling from the stem.   The whole experience had a certain "oops" factor to it; I didn't really mean to hasten the process of winter.  On the other hand, each of those moments had its own tiny, individual piquancy that has caught, separately, in memory.  I am grateful to have been out at the right time to see (er, make) those leaves fall.

That's the real problem I have with winter:  opportunity.   In summer, with all those outdoor hours stretching ahead, the odds of experiencing something amazing or intriguing or entertaining or breath-taking are fairly high.  In winter, if you're not there when they're handing out the pie, you're just not going to get any.  So you hold your plate out hopefully every chance you get, and presumably, at some point, it will be filled.

With a tiny slice of wonder that you had better savor, one intense bite at a time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


or Cleansing the Palate

This is the snowstorm that closed both interstate highways in town for several hours on Thanksgiving morning.  To be fair, black ice was the real culprit, and to be even more fair, the 25-car pile-ups caused by the black ice are what really got in the way.  The native Coloradoan/transplanted Vermonter in me snorted a bit at all the drama, but then, I wasn't out on the roads until well after the sun came out.

I don't recall snow even being in the forecast for Thanksgiving, so waking up to a little dusting of it—not to mention the overcast skies and the sight of the Sandias blanketed in clouds (clouds!)—was a lovely surprise.  Normally the color palette here leans toward the warm side; I think of it as the visual equivalent of local flavors, whether the earthy spiciness of red chile or the smoky pungency of green.  The cool colors of snowfall are like a lemon ice—refreshing, cleansing to the palate, and deeply appreciated in small servings.

Wandering the garden on Sunday morning after the holiday away, I encountered more fall-blooming crocuses, this time in bud.  Apparently, not only the leaves but also the stems show up late in the growing process—the buds arise almost directly from the ground. (Aha! I will know what to look for next year.)

In spring, I would probably interpret this shade of lavender as a harbinger of warmth; in late fall, hard on the heels of what we might as well call a snowstorm, it strikes me instead as cool bordering on icy, as a refreshing "verge of winter" purple (destined someday to become a Crayola color, mark my words). The color venations in the bud seem as precisely etched as the edges of a snowflake.

As one of my friends is fond of saying, "We create our own realities." I might not go quite that far, but I would say that our interpretation of reality depends a lot on context: a storm that wouldn't even be a blip on the radar in Colorado brings life to a halt in New Mexico; clouds that would be oppressive elsewhere are a pleasant change of pace in the desert; colors that sing of warmth in February murmur of cold in November.

A palate cleanser only works in context; you don't start a meal with the lemon ice. I've never known anyone who really stopped to think about it who didn't find it eerie how little of their perception is based on unshakable truth and how much is based on circumstance; maybe that's why I have an odd liking for ex-pat communities, who encounter that truth every day and are willing to be thrown off stride by it.  In a way, living with chronic illness is like living in a foreign country, because things you used to take for granted no longer work in familiar ways:  flights of stairs that never used to phase you suddenly become epic obstacles; accomplishments that used to come easily—like writing a simple sentence—become Herculean labors.  Everything takes more effort than it "should," if a state of health is your context.  In the context of illness the moments of refreshment are exquisite, like a holiday visit with family, or a crocus in November.

Like a snowstorm in the desert.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Sticky Subject

or Cowboys: They Knew What They Were Doing

The desert will make you appreciate Western wear like nothing else.  The dust will have you yearning for a bandana, the sun for a 10-gallon hat, the rattlesnakes for sturdy, knee-high boots (and a horse), the cholla for waist-to-ankle leather chaps.  After visiting the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico, with my sister's family over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have a new respect for cowboys and their ilk—for anyone, in fact, who traversed this landscape in anything softer than a tank.

If you lack an armored vehicle or traditional Western garb for protection, of course, paved trails and a nature center with drinking fountains are the next best thing.  On a mild November day perfect for picnicking on sunny benches with views, you don't actually even need a hat—just cheese sandwiches, homemade dill pickles, and good company.  I'd only seen the Chihuahuan desert before from the shelter and distance of a car, but my experience of the high desert area around Albuquerque is that it doesn't yield its best from a distance.  It's only when you see it from as close as its spines, thorns, barbs, and teeth will allow that you glimpse how delicately beautiful it really is.

The Chihuahuan desert is the same. Take the ocotillo, for example, one of  the signature plants of the area.  Seen in the far distance, it looks like an upside down rag mop in a fit.  From the middle distance, it looks more like what it is:  a bunch of sticks with really big thorns.  Close up, however, the branches and thorns take on lovely colors, making exquisite play with gentle shades of plum.  They remind me of some of the stronger, tougher people I know—the kinds of stoics who can take anything on the chin and who could dish out serious damage if they chose; their gentleness melts your heart.

I have yet to see an ocotillo in leaf or bloom, but I suspect that if I did, I would fall in love outright.   

That's the thing with the desert:  all the good things in it are just so hard to get to.  It demands that you look closer but also that you keep your distance.  It can dazzle you with its strength, adaptability, and beauty, but it puts up barriers to knowledge that stop you in your tracks.  It is vibrant and alive, but it gives you every reason to leave it alone.  And it richly rewards you for your faith in it, for giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Wait—are we talking about people again?


A P.S. to my last post:  Vegemite with cranberry salsa—it's not as bad as you'd think.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On the Edge of Utopia

or E Pluribus Unum

The only bow I'm taking in the direction of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, this Thanksgiving:  dried cranberries.  The other ingredients for the salsa—oranges from California, pecans from Georgia, red chile powder from here in New Mexico—come from parts of the country that never really had a share in the narrow slice of history behind Thanksgiving Day.  While the locavore in me—the part that believes in eating foods grown as locally as possible, with the emphatic exception of coffee—is appalled at the distance these foods have traveled to be prepared in my kitchen, the American quite likes the "melting pot" aspect to this side dish.  It is sweet and savory, tart and spicy.  It goes amazingly well with everything.*

Since moving to New Mexico, I've looked at Thanksgiving with new eyes.  Several of my acquaintances have ancestors who came over with the Conquistadors, who weren't exactly proponents of religious freedom.  They were here to find wealth and make converts, both by force.  They were soldiers or priests, with the power of the Crown and the Pope behind them, and they were here decades before the Puritans established the Plymouth colony.  Yet, 450 plus years later, their descendants serve turkey and cranberries (and probably posole) with enthusiasm.

Other acquaintances are Navajo or Pueblo Indians.  They are twice separated from the Thanksgiving story:  their experience of Europeans was Spanish, not British, and in any case, they see little cause to be thankful for the invasion of their lands and the decimation of their peoples.  They may observe Thanksgiving with caveats—with an awareness of loss that cuts to the bone—yet many of them observe it.  Like the Spaniards' descendants, they, too, might serve posole, a native food.  Their thanks-givings foreground a joyful recognition of harvest, and they acknowledge centuries' worth of pain without closing the door to hope.  They balance the need for change with keeping the faith, with taking the steps so that harmony can prevail.

I asked an acquaintance—a descendant of Coronado—why he embraced Thanksgiving so heartily, when it wasn't the history of his ancestors.  He said, "Because I'm American, so it is my story, and it's such a great story to boot."

And it is a great story, the way it was taught to us in childhood.  At its core, Thanksgiving is all about a belief in Utopia—a Utopia that we ourselves can bring into being.  We absorb that myth of Thanksgiving in our first years of school.  We learn about the Pilgrims fleeing persecution because of their beliefs, and about their first horrible winter of privation, illness, and death in the New World; about the kindness of Tisquantum (Squanto) and the Wampanoag peoples in sharing their know-how, which helped create a glorious harvest the next year; and about how all sat down together to enjoy the blessings of friendship and plenty, knowing that the coming winter would be a better one.  And beyond that, who could say?  It was a whole New World out there, and anything could happen—with a little hard work, a little friendship, and by the grace of God, Utopia was theirs to create.

Of course, as we grow older, we discover that the myth is, in fact, mythical.  The meal was not a meeting of equals and, though relations between the initial colony and the Wampanoag were relatively  peaceful for 50 years, it hardly presaged harmony among nations; the persecution of the Puritans in England was as much political as it was religious, and the Puritans were happy (in a dour sort of way) to persecute others in their turn; the New World had a horrible dark side of slavery and genocide; and Utopia turned out to be a pipe-dream, in part because it was envisaged by Puritans, who wouldn't have recognized Utopia if it had bitten them in...some place that they probably wouldn't have approved of.

But we still grew up believing in that story, no matter what part of the country we grew up in, or what our personal history; just as we embrace all kinds of stories, not only the ones that pertain directly to us.  For a day, even if only deep-down, we imagine what it must be like to sit on the edge of a continent, purposefully putting the past behind us, knowing that none of the former rules need apply; knowing also that while the risks of death and disaster are great, the possibilities are just as endless; that we can create a world that reflects our deepest values, and not just the history we've inherited; that while that future might sink before our limitations, it also might rise beyond our grandest dreams.  (And the dreams in such a situation can be grand indeed.)  Underlying every Thanksgiving dinner, no matter how deeply, and if only for a day, the heart of that myth endures:  a respect for past sacrifice, a joy in current plenty, and a belief that the future is still a whole New World—that anything can happen.

My favorite Thanksgiving happened while I was a graduate student, when I was one of only two or three Americans at a long table of celebrants.  World accents as rich and savory as the American turkey, the Israeli lamb and couscous, the Welshman's mushy peas, the Italians' handmade pasta, enlivened the meal.  It was every bit as American a Thanksgiving as the ones I had experienced in my parents' home—as American as cranberry salsa, as we like to say—because of the spirit of adventure and discovery and camaraderie we all shared.

Because of our belief that tomorrow could well be a whole new world, and that anything might happen.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

* My sister (in whose home I'll be spending Thanksgiving) has Vegemite on hand, and I admit to some serious doubts about how well cranberry salsa will go with Vegemite.  If the results are not too graphic, I will report on them in a footnote sometime next week.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Give Me Shelter

or A Nook in the Middle of Nowhere

The wind chimes are jangling frantically, chaotically.   In a gentle breeze, their tones ring true, but not in a blast like this one.   The wind is back in force after a few days' lull, this time heralding a cold(ish) front on the horizon.  From the kitchen, I can hear it battering at the windows.  The damper on the vent above the stove "chk"s constantly, like the hi-hat on a drum set.  The glass in the porch light rattles.  The slight gap between the front door and its frame (which for reasons I won't bore you with can't be properly weather-stripped) whistles, anticipating the tea kettle, which is just coming to a boil.

I'm curled up on the bench by the kitchen window, watching the wind scything through the garden, and am intrigued by how irregular its pattern is.  One tree is quivering along its full length, its upper branches whipping wildly.  Eight feet away, the tree closer to the house is almost still.  The autumn sage and rue along the east wall are all but flattened; the sand cherry beside them dances frenziedly.  Right next to it, in the corner, another sand cherry waves a bit in rhythm but otherwise seems unaffected, while the oregano seed heads in the bed across the path swirl in fits and starts.  I am always realizing anew just how tiny the "micro" in micro-climate can be.  The garden has all the dead corners, active spaces, open sweeps, channels, and funnels of a pinball machine.

Still intrigued, I pick up my mug of tea and walk out into the garden.  After righting a footstool and rescuing a seat cushion from the autumn sage (or alternatively, rescuing the autumn sage from a seat cushion), I start around the circle path.  My hair whooshes into an Einsteinian mop; my eyes are half-shut against blowing dust, and one hand covers the mouth of my mug.  I approach the south wall and kneel down, wanting to inspect the tarragon in the central bed for frost damage.  (None yet.)  As soon as my head drops below the height of the wall—it's quiet.

It's so quiet.

For whatever reason, this is one of those spots that the wind—or at least, this wind—can't reach.  In the middle of a windstorm, in the middle of a garden path, it is warm and calm and sheltered.  If I stretch out my hands in any direction, my fingertips will brush blowing leaves.  Above the wall, tree tops reel drunkenly.  But right here, in this little two-foot area out in the open, the wind doesn't come.

Astonished, I sit cross-legged on the path and try a sip of tea.  Sir Marley, who has been curled up under the sand cherry (the blasé one, not the frenziedly dancing one), uncurls and stretches laconically before moseying over to rub his head against my hand.  (The one holding the hot mug of tea, of course.)  I begin to understand his smugness—the extra smugness that doesn't just come from his being a cat.  Even though none of this is my doing, I still feel rather pleased with myself, like a child building a fort out of a blanket and a chair and hiding gleefully in plain sight.

Tea finished, I brave the wind again to return to the house, while Sir Marley takes over my spot.  I right the footstool again and rescue the cushion, this time weighting it down with a rock.  I duck into the kitchen, lock the door, and settle back into the nook by the window.  The door frame whistles, the glass rattles, the vent "chk"s, the wind chimes jangle.

On the path in the garden, Sir Marley curls back up to sleep.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wind Blows Where It Will

or Mapmaking for Beginners

Suddenly, today, Renaissance cartography all makes sense.  You're probably familiar with the kinds of maps I'm thinking of—beautiful woodcuts from the early days of European empire, shortly after the discovery of the New World.  Blobs with randomly scalloped edges depict the continents.  Waves and the occasional sea-monster disturb the oceans, emphasizing the terrors of the deep.  Grumpy, bodiless, messy-haired gods personify the winds.  They puff out their cheeks and blow strongly and visibly in the directions of the compass rose.

All to say, it's been windy lately, and I'm ready to do some personifying.  The wind the last few days has been a capricious one, with whims and moods and changes of heart, possibly even ADHD.  It's the kind that picks up loose drifts of leaves, whirls them into mid-air and sends them spinning across the street, and just as suddenly loses heart and lets the leaves lapse into drifts again.  It grabs hold of a flock of blackbirds and tosses them into an updraft, where they swirl helplessly until the eddy falters, freeing them to huddle in the closest tree.  It plays with skirt hems and old newspapers, seed pods and dusty roads, tree branches and telephone lines, fingering everything with an insatiable curiosity (while it lasts), teasing, questing. It isn't a storm wind, but still one that would make setting out to sea in search of a new world seem like a Very Bad Idea.

It's a wind that keeps us all busy.  As I walk back from the mailboxes, I'm trying to keep my skirt at bay with one hand while clenching the mail with the other and holding the keys in my teeth.  The neighbor's miniature dachshund is perched on a patio table, her nose working frantically to process all the wind-borne information; she is clearly ready to explode with excitement.*  The blackbirds make occasional attempts to go wherever it is that blackbirds want to go, flapping with all their might to no purpose before subsiding into their tree again.  The inanimate world looks perilously close to being animated.

One knows that it is just wind, a product of high and low pressure systems coming to grips, or something of that meteorological sort.  Isobars might come into play (N.B.:  a handy NY Times crossword puzzle word to remember, even if we don't really know how to use it correctly), but probably not grumpy demi-gods.  Yet the wind is so willful that it seems like the product of some sentient being.

This is where I draw the line between myself and Renaissance cartographers.  (The Cartographers' Motto:  You have to draw the line somewhere.)  If I were planning to risk my life crossing the Atlantic in some wooden planks with a sail or two on top, or to send my ship/collection of wooden planks on such a voyage, or to fund it, I'd probably portray the wind as being pretty irascible, with god-like powers (and ferociously messy hair) myself.  As it is, I'll be hanging out inside a nice warm house in a fuzzy bathrobe this evening.  I can afford to see it more generously, not as an inimical, superhuman being, but as, say, a golden retriever puppy of a wind—one that doesn't know its own strength yet and that has no fine (or even large) motor control, allowed out off the leash after a long, cooped-up day.  One moment it slams into you, robbing you of breath; the next it comes and whuffles enthusiastically in your hair.  It flings itself headlong after a scent and then suddenly can't remember what it was doing and so flings itself headlong just for joy.  It wreaks havoc with your garden, your patio furniture, your outfit, and your sanity, but it doesn't actually mean any harm.  Good luck calling it to heel—when it comes, you will be bowled over, laughing.

I've been fascinated this week by the way early modern maps combine fantasy, experience and geography:  they actually show weather conditions, risk, and adventure in more detail than they show the land.  A plan of Albuquerque drawn in the same spirit might show, instead of leviathans, signs saying "Here Be Scary Drivers;" instead of waves, seas of potholes and undulating orange construction flags.  The actual streets wouldn't be labeled—but then, so few of them are.  Golden retrievers would sit, panting, on the outskirts of the map.  Or, if we were to stay with demigods, possibly the ambivalent, boundary-pushing trickster, Coyote...

Now there's an adventure waiting to happen.

* But then, she is always ready to explode with excitement.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Laying the Groundwork

or Hangin' Out with Some Buds

The leaves are such a rust-red that I almost expect them to creak on little hinges.   Instead they teeter silently, precariously.   At a breath, one of them falls, making just the slightest hiss as it strikes home.   Autumn has taken hold in earnest now, and the sand cherry's rich russet warms its niche in the garden.   The color is an arresting testimony to the season on its own, but it also lets the deeper chestnut of the stems speak more clearly.  As I approach to enjoy their resonance, I am struck unexpectedly by the tangential suggestion of spring.  Even as the leaves die, the buds are swelling.  For some reason I find these preparations for the coming year, this faith in growth, oddly touching.


Ipheion, or starflower, is a spring-blooming bulb with pale blue flowers atop grassy stems.  (The flower in Microcosm's header is an ipheion.)  Its leaves come up early in September and linger throughout the winter months.  They look more like grass than the actual grass in this neck of the desert—they are kelly green rather than sage, and they grow in thick, spreading tufts.  When bruised, they give off a slightly fetid smell, like chives that have gone over to the dark side, but they are pleasant to look at all winter.  In spring the leaves have the decency to wither soon after the flowers do, since they will gather all the nutrients they need the following fall.


 I still have Alison Krauss's Steel Rails running through my head:
Steel rails, chasin' sunshine 'round the bend,
Winding through the trees like a ribbon in the wind.
I don't mind not knowin' what lies down the track,
'Cause I'm lookin' out ahead to keep my mind from turnin' back.

That phrase "lookin' out ahead" has stayed with me all week.  I've been thinking about the contrast between my little road trip last weekend, with its own take on looking ahead—a mixture of adventure, the chase, and escapism—and the garden's preparations for spring.  Generally when I think about plants heading for the shady side of autumn, I think of them as battening down the hatches—hauling in all the paraphernalia of growth and hunkering down in their roots to ride out the storm.  Since my garden is too small for generalities, however, we are left with particulars, and they don't always bear that image out.  Instead we find plants actively preparing for spring, laying in stores, and looking beyond the fallow period to the next season of growth and bloom.  They are not only caulking the windows; they're also plowing the ground. 

This expectation of goodness to come is not "chasing sunshine's" elusive dream—a quest for that better world always just around the bend—but solid, reliable optimism based on the gene-deep knowledge that seasons turn; on the certainty that spring will, in fact, come again.

I have often thought of gardeners' forward-looking tendencies as a kind of denial of winter deadness.  As I've been slowly getting bulbs planted this fall, I've come to see that tendency instead as a way of laying the groundwork for spring; ensuring that dearth will give way to abundance, to crocuses, Siberian squill, starflowers, lady tulips.  It's about knowing yourself, about looking ahead to your longings for growth, and taking the steps to meet those longings while you can.  It's yet another of gardening's lessons in hope, but also a lesson in realism, in preparation.

On the other hand, marking off the days on the calendar until the seed catalogs arrive in about six weeks—that's denial.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Change in Perspective

or From Inside Out

I celebrated fall this week by cleaning the kitchen window.   The screen has been surgically extracted and stored in the garage, the panes have been rinsed and shined inside and out, and the cushions on the bench next to the kitchen window have been plumped and poofed.  We are ready for cold weather to set in.

The kitchen window is the only one in my little townhouse that offers a view of the garden, or of anything besides urban hardscape.  Elsewhere on the ground floor, the view is mostly of concrete sidewalks, gravel drives, cinder block yard walls, and stucco house walls.  The postage-stamp front and side landscape beds are tiny, tiny, tiny.  Small shrubs and perennials do well in them, but they are too small to be visible from the interior.  And once it gets cold, we're all about interiors.

So the kitchen bench and kitchen window have officially been prepped to be sat on and looked out of, respectively.*  In a mild sort of way, it's nice to see things from a new angle—and a definite pleasure to see them cleanly and clearly.  Without a scrim of dust and water spots, suddenly I am aware of the patio table looking more ornamental than functional; of the colors in the micro-garden, backlit by the morning sun;  of the trees, seen obliquely to the patio's "queen's eye view."  The process has set me to thinking in a mild sort of way about angles, viewpoints, perspectives:  the difference in looking out at the garden from shelter rather than experiencing it directly; the perception of the garden—the outdoors—as the storm rather than the haven; the sense almost of alienation—that now, officially, the indoor and outdoor worlds are separate from one another, with stern partitions between them, rather than the open screens that allow interior and exterior to blend, minus the wasps.

Vision is such a distancing sense.  All the others—hearing, touch, taste, smell—bring sensation to your body; only vision sets things apart from you.  My writing, my inspiration for the last few months, has relied on direct experience:  the idiosyncrasies of fall-blooming crocuses, the hot air balloons drifting overhead, the flight of the sandhill cranes.  Much of the experience has been visual, yes, but vision rested in a rich context and was rendered all the more savory by the other senses—the perhaps sub-conscious awareness of a warm breeze, the background music of finches and bumblebees, the random exclamation points provided by hummingbirds.  Soon, vision will be standing on its own most of the time.

As someone whose blog is not about the garden per se, but whose writing is largely drawn from experiences in the garden, and as someone who has committed to posting twice a week, I'm curious how the next few months will pan out.  Mind you, we just had our first frost last night and still have several weeks before the real "dead of winter" strikes.  Wild Thing autumn sage will probably bloom until Christmas, winter will last long enough for me to get the pruning done, and at that point the crocuses will be coming up.  This isn't exactly Alaska.  But still—if you find me yakking for the sake of yakking (that is, more than is required by the very idea of blogging), or just writing to fulfill my quota, even if I have nothing particular to say, feel free to let me know.

In a mild sort of way.  : )


* If anyone can think of a way to turn those phrases so that they don't end in a preposition or two, I would love to hear it.  On a side note, E. B. White once offered an example of a perfectly clear sentence that ended in five prepositions.  Picture a little boy going upstairs to bed whose father wants to read him a bedtime story that the boy doesn't like.  The boy says, "What did you bring that book I don't want to be read to out of up for?"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Thrill of the Chase

or The Leaves Are Always Yellower on the Other Side of the Bosque

Yesterday I found myself singing Steel Rails, one of my favorite Alison Krauss songs:  "Steel rails, chasin' sunshine 'round the bend, winding through the trees like a ribbon in the wind."  I love that image of chasing sunshine—the gleam of sunlight on the railroad tracks always just ahead of you, the endless promise of brightness just ahead.  Yesterday was a sunshine-chasing kind of day.  The weather was so gorgeously warm and fine and the cottonwoods so deeply golden, that a certain itchy-footedness set in.  I ended up heading down to Bosque del Apache, a nature preserve about 85 miles south of Albuquerque, following the ribbon of cottonwoods along the Rio Grande all the way down I-25.

When I've been to the preserve before, it's been in the dead of winter, usually on a vacation day in the middle of the week, and the place has been quiet and empty.  On a beautiful Saturday shortly after the arrival of the sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migrating birds, it was busy with life of all sorts:  serious birdwatchers, including a pair with binoculars bigger than their sunhats; serious photographers with tripods and lens hoods, including one whose setup was practically bigger than his car (and who probably found me, with my little point-and-shoot, equally entertaining); serious bicyclists bravely eating road dust and looking happy about it; not-so-serious families entranced by shimmering dragonflies; totally unserious teen-agers riding in the back of a pickup truck; serious joggers looking uncomfortably warm but virtuous.  Ostensibly, they were all there for a particular purpose, but at heart I suspect that, like me, they were really out there chasing sunshine.  (The joggers may even have caught up to it.)

Chasing sunshine:  tracking down the perfect day that's just beyond the next hill, the perfect photograph with exactly the right light, the ideal turn of phrase that's on the tip of your tongue, the cottonwood tree that's so golden it takes your breath away, the ducks (there is no elegant word for a duck) that might, perhaps, just on the offchance, for a few seconds, have their heads out of water.

Of course, the whole process can also be pretty pointless—an exercise in dream-chasing when reality is perfectly satisfactory.  As one of our "sorbet-colored sunsets" (as a local writer likes to call them) poured through the driver's side window on the way home, I found myself wondering what I had accomplished, other than to tire myself out when I could have enjoyed totally adequate—nay, the exact same—sunshine in Albuquerque, where we also have a plentiful supply of cottonwoods and as many duck bottoms to look at as anyone really needs, with a lot less dust.

I guess sometimes you just want the thrill of the chase.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dona nobis pacem

or That of God


It is easy to be at peace when the world is still.  Easy, on a golden day in an unusually warm autumn, nestled into the shelter of the garden.  The leaves aren't particularly vivid this year, but their colors are warm—sienna and ocher, earth tones that soothe rather than dazzle.  Occasionally a leaf falls, riding a light current of air before landing, beached, among its drifted kin.  Sir Marley snuggles up to the west-facing garden wall.  Although the house shades the wall by mid-afternoon, it still breathes out a gentle warmth until dusk.  The cat's front paws curl underneath him; he blinks contentedly at nothing.  For some reason the way he looks off into the distance makes me think of a haiku, a poem whose simple words gesture toward something beyond them in the silence.


The Quakers—or Friends, as they prefer to be called—cherish silence deeply.  In the Friends' view, it is by centering down into quietness, by listening for the still, small voice, that we become attuned to the ways of God.

I considered myself a Friend for several years, but lately I haven't been so sure.  I wonder whether my reticence isn't really a form of rebellion against silence in general.  I may have come to value the quietness that illness has forced upon me, but to seek out more of it when what I really crave is a little noise and bustle and excitement—at this point, it's not happening.  So these observations are not coming from someone for whom "way has opened" (as they—we?— say) into peace, or from a "weighty" Friend of measured wisdom and clarity of insight.  They're just things I'm pondering and offer in a spirit of sharing.

George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, wrote to his followers from prison in 1656, encouraging them to "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone." Modern Friends still hold this saying dear, perhaps because it reaches out wide in an age when the world has grown small, when radically different cultures and beliefs bump shoulders in uneasy proximity.

That of God.

At its simplest and broadest, perhaps, the phrase refers to the urge toward goodness, to those actions that partake of love or joy; peace, patience, kindness; gentleness; maturity.  To answer that of God in those around you—to respond to the goodness in them, to speak to what is admirable in them—is to base every action on kinship, on respect.  It is to be generous in giving the benefit of the doubt.

The point of listening in silence for the still, small voice that lies beyond you is to learn to recognize its sound, to know its distinctive timbre even in the midst of noise and activity; to hear the voice of God speaking through a person's life, even when that person differs from you.  Then one can answer in kind.


Today, November 4, 2010, marks the seventh BlogBlast for Peace from MimiWrites—a day when bloggers from around the world all post on the topic of peace. It comes hard on the heels of a more than ordinarily acrimonious election here in the USA, and as I write I find myself thinking less about peace between nations than about peace between neighbors—because frankly, peace among nations seems like the more accessible goal right now.  I have never seen people with so much in common so divided, so entrenched in fear and egotism (why do the two so often go together?), so eager to insult and smear and slam doors, so loathe to engage in discussion, so unwilling to bridge differences. 

The BlogBlast's theme is "Dona nobis pacem"—grant us peace.  I can't say the words without also hearing the round we sang many years ago in high school choir.  I don't normally wax rhapsodic about high school, but experience has taught me what an extraordinary ensemble that choir really was.  Our director had a gift for awakening talent and enthusiasm and for bringing out his singers' best efforts, but he especially had a gift for uniting us that I didn't realize was rare at the time.  While I can remember some petty squabbles and hurt feelings and teenage angst behind the scenes, I don't recall any of the poison and backbiting and spite that can often destroy a group from within.  All of that was checked at the choir room door, because once we started rehearsal, we were there to make music.  Our director filled us with that vision.  He showed us something beyond ourselves.  He taught us to listen to one another for balance and blend, to watch each other's breathing, to pool our resources in a common endeavor.  We respected the different gifts we each brought to the table. 

Our worlds were noisy, full of internal and external commotion, with big and little egos, rank immaturity, raging hormones, and problems of all kinds that loomed over our inexperienced heads.  Yet when we sang "Dona nobis pacem" and our words asked for peace, all along we were engaged in the process of making peace.  We looked beyond ourselves, we listened to each other, we worked together.  I can't help thinking now that what we really did was to answer to that of God in one another.

So yes, dona nobis pacem.  May we have peace, may we be given that grace from beyond us that somehow, miraculously, makes the unlikely all work out.  But in the meantime, let us go make peace, even amid the noise and clamor of a sound-byte world that pits neighbor against neighbor.

Walk cheerfully over the world, my friends, answering that of God in everyone.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Step toward Peace

or November 4: Dona nobis pacem

This is just a quick note to let those of you who might worry if I didn't post on my usual Wednesday (hi, Mom and Dad!) know that I'll be posting tomorrow instead for the BlogBlast for Peace.

If you like, you can find out more about the BlogBlast for Peace/Peace Globe Movement here.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great Expectations

or "The crocuses are blooming," she said belatedly.

Many science fiction and fantasy worlds rely on the idea that people see what they expect to see; if characters come across something that doesn't make sense, they usually re-interpret the vision to suit their expectations rather than the other way around.  Lois Lane can work side by side with Clark Kent all day every day and never recognize him as Superman—even though she's looking for Superman—because she doesn't expect the Man of Steel to wear glasses and a three-piece suit.  The muggles in Harry Potter's world can encounter shrinking door-keys and biting teakettles and never glimpse the magic behind them, because such an answer isn't anywhere on their horizon of expectations.  "Bless them, they'll go to any lengths to ignore magic, even if it's staring them in the face," sighs Mr. Weasley.

I've been feeling a bit muggley/Lois Lane-ian this week, because the fall-blooming crocuses have been blooming, and I almost missed them by expecting something else.  I'm new to the world of fall-blooming crocuses, but with the spring-blooming kind, I always expect the following:  About a month before the crocuses bloom, leaves appear; about a week before blooming, buds appear; for that entire time all is eagerness, anticipation, and suspense; then the blossoms open, and all is glory and delight; after a few short but spectacular days, poof! the flowers and leaves fade away into nothingness.

Having planted a handful of fall-blooming crocuses last year as an experiment (the bulbs are expensive, and I wanted to be sure they would thrive before getting enthusiastic about them), I've been watching for crocus-type activity since about the first of September.  Not  having seen any leaves, I'd pretty well given up on seeing any blossoms.  Great was my surprise, then, when I walked out into the garden the other day to discover these, already past their prime:


And these, coming into full flower:

Apparently, fall-blooming crocuses just up and bloom, and let the leaves happen at some more convenient time (either later in fall or in spring, depending on the variety).

Without the leaves, the flowers took me completely by surprise.  I don't think of myself as unobservant in the garden, but I didn't see any buds at all, not even for the crocuses in the beds where the ground cover hasn't filled in yet—i.e., in open dirt with no distractions.  But the buds have to have been there, right?  Even fall-blooming crocuses can't subvert all the laws of nature.  While we had some cool, blustery weather last week that wasn't conducive to long, lingering perusal of the garden beds, I still suspect that the real reason I didn't see the crocuses coming up is that I was looking for something else.  The buds had been there for days, and I overlooked them because they weren't following the leaf-bud-blossom-and-fade plot outline.

Instead of starting with the eagerness, anticipation, and suspense, the fall-blooming crocuses' story has been all about the glory, delight, and poof!, which is fine, but rather...rushed.  The surprise has been most enjoyable, but I did miss the pleasure of expectation, even though I suppose I can still look forward to the leaves showing up some day.  (And while I don't mean to criticize the design, I must say that to have the expectation follow the glory and delight seems a little disorganized.)  (Of course, it's always possible that I've imposed this plot outline on the crocuses arbitrarily and that there's no real reason for them to follow it.  But a good master narrative is a good master narrative.)  Still, the glory and delight have been strong enough that I rushed out to buy more bulbs yesterday.

I fully expect to be surprised by them again next year.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


or Hastening the Inevitable, Part II

In my last post I wrote about letting go, especially of the care and upkeep of the micro-garden.  To let go was a relief, a pleasure, a grace—and not just any old grace at that, but a lovely, lovely one.  By relinquishing the remaining plants in the micro-garden to their fates, I was simply yielding to the inevitable; rather than trying to elbow autumn out of the way, I was going to curtsy politely to it, extend an ushering hand, and say graciously, "After you."  Death would come decorously to the micro-garden, and all would be peaceful and sweet, perhaps even a little soulful, as I practiced the virtue of non-attachment and allowed nature to pursue its course unimpeded.

But when I wrote of hastening the inevitable, that did not mean that I wanted any help.

Now that all of the flat-blossomed flowers elsewhere in the garden—the yarrow, feverfew, and marguerite daisies so beloved by beneficial insects—have more or less stopped blooming, and the bugbath isn't filled so assiduously, and the pest-eaters have grown sleepy and slow, aphids have moved in to the micro-garden in droves.  Ironically, the plants they are attacking are the perennial bunching onions, which I planted in part to deter pestilential insects, the entire allium family supposedly being anathema to all that goes on more than two legs.  Ha.  The onions are covered.

I know these aphids of old, and nasty little blighters they are.  A few winters ago they obliterated every "Powis Castle" artemisia in the neighborhood.  (Which ought to be a lesson to landscapers not to plant the front and side yards of an entire neighborhood with the same five species, thus creating easily destructible monocultures, but probably won't be.)  They are impervious to frost; the sharp spray of water from a hose that is supposed to wash them away and kill them only allows them to take a little exercise while incidentally making a royal mess of the kitchen window; insecticidal soap just gives them a fresh, clean scent.  Where are all of those praying mantises that were peeking in my windows a few short weeks ago?  Where are the lady beetles, the lacewings, the hoverflies?

Gosh darn it, I like the onions.  I was planning on continuing to  harvest them enthusiastically through at least November.  Aphids, why can't you just munch on the sweet potato vine?  I'm done with that.  Or the amaranth?  Help yourselves—there's plenty for all and sundry.  The basil? marigolds?  Go for it.  But why the onions, you perverse little pests?


(Do people who have let go usually growl this much?)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hastening the Inevitable

"Blackie" Sweet Potato Vine
or Letting Things Go

When I lived in the northeastern US, I actually found the early weeks of fall to be a little bit stressful, ironically because they were so beautiful—I was keenly aware of a pressure to enjoy the moment.  Every time I walked past a maple tree, I felt like I ought to be having an intense aesthetic experience:  marveling at every nuance of color on every leaf, soaking up the glory of the entire tree, shuffling my feet joyfully through the fallen foliage, inhaling its musty, damp fragrance and saying "Aahhh" with deeply felt satisfaction.  A lot of fuss is made of leaf-peeping season in that part of the country; interactive websites even guide peepers to areas of peak color.*  If you happen to drive past a breath-taking scene while distracted by work or your grocery shopping or—heaven forbid—the road conditions, you feel like you're letting the side down.

It doesn't help to know that the steely jaws of The Unicloud (as my older nephew refers to it—the vast, gray layer of altostratus that settles in in November and doesn't leave until—well, that doesn't leave)—that steely jaws, I say, are about to clamp down on the horizon any day, and that you won't be seeing much color again until the trillium bloom in spring.  You feel like you'd better get a lot of appreciating done before it's too late.

So I was always relieved when the leaves would get just past peak color.  I no longer felt like I should be having a transcendent, life-changing experience every time I saw a tree but could go back to enjoying things in the regular way.  You could let expectation go, and allow autumn to run its course (as if it wouldn't have in any case) while you rode its rhythms comfortably.

This past week has been a more than ordinarily intense CFS week.  I caught a minor cold, which in turn caused a serious flare-up.  I've had to let a number of things go, and one of them has been the care and upkeep of the micro-garden.  That little 2' x 4' garden has given me sautéeing greens, scallions, and herbs—an average of two cups a day—for several months now, in exchange for a few minutes a day of watering, dead-heading, pest-chasing, and the like.  We're closing in hard on frost, so the season will be ending soon anyway; I've just ended up hastening the process a little bit.

Purple basil in bloom at long last
Now the "Blackie" sweet potato vine, which would normally be, um, blackish, is drying up enough to enjoy its own private little autumn.  I'm no longer dead-heading the marigolds, and perhaps they'll have a chance to set seed before frost.  The basil has finally been allowed to flower, and it is blooming happily away.  The whole micro-garden, small as it is, has an unkempt, "don't you dare photograph me like this," going-downhill-fast messiness to it.  It's not particularly attractive, but frankly, it's kind of a relief.  While many of the things CFS forces me to let go of frustrate me or grieve me, it is nice to look forward to a few months of not watering vegetables.

One of my friends in Vermont at some point every autumn declares momentously, "I'm not dead-heading my container annuals any more."  She always sounds a little defiant about it, a little defensive about letting flowers that are still going strong run to seed; but she always sounds a little gleeful, too, about taking the plunge into...inaction.

Often, having to let things go is a burden.

But sometimes it's a lovely, lovely grace.

* Thanks to P.H. for bringing this one to my attention!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just the Facts, Ma'am

or The Stories We Tell Our Children

A friend of mine has a precocious son who, at the age of two, would declaim random facts that he had learned from books.  He would earnestly tug your hand until he had your attention, raise solemn brown eyes to yours, and then soulfully inform you that, "An octagon has eight sides."  Or that "Water boils at 100°C."  Or "Geese migrate south every winter."  He was so wonderfully pleased that the world was full of things to know, that one could know them, and then there you were.  Fortunately, he lives in Vermont, so his bubble about some of those facts won't be burst for a long time to come.

Since the sandhill cranes have begun coming home, I've been thinking about the extent to which most of the stories we tell about the natural world in this behemoth of a country really only apply to relatively small portions of it.  If we were asked, say, whether Canada geese migrate south every winter, we would nod enthusiastically in agreement—even if they don't do that where we live.

Colorado, for example, is hardly the tropics, yet as harsh as its winters can be, most of its Canada geese do not migrate south.  They don't go anywhere at all.  Ever.  They just move from one park or lake or cornfield to another and honk for chortles in passing.  Many was the time as a young child that I would point to a V of geese in November (or December, or January) and exclaim, "Look!  They're flying south for the winter!"  And one long-suffering parent or another would say, "Actually, that's northwest," or "Nope, due east."  I learned a great many directions from Canada geese (and my parents), but south was never among them.

The snow geese, on the other hand, do migrate south, and the bosques sparkle with them at this time of year.  That is to say, this is the south to which the snow geese migrate.  Migration doesn't always mean away.  In fact, in most of the country, autumn is not the tidy season of departures summed up in "Geese migrate south every winter."  Some do, some don't; some stay, some leave, some arrive—but that's hardly the stuff that word-and-picture books suitable for precocious two-year-olds (which are most likely published in the northeast, where geese migrate south every winter) are made of.

Or take the boiling point of water.  I vividly remember a high school chemistry experiment that began with the directions, "Bring water to 100°C."  We lit our bunsen burners and started the water to heating and waited and waited and waited for it to get to 100°, while our teacher prowled around in his lab coat making knowing wisecracks every time one of our beakers would get to 95° and then...stop.  We never could get it any hotter, and meanwhile the water was boiling away to nothing (while we enjoyed a pleasant facial steam in the process).

Well, as we learned, water boils at 100°C only at sea level.  The boiling point drops by about one degree for every thousand foot gain in elevation, and in Denver, the Mile High City, the boiling point of water is 95°.  Our textbooks didn't mention that little fact; our teacher just let us know that the facts it did mention didn't apply to us, and on we went. 

Unless you live in the relatively small area of the country where received wisdom actually works, you quickly learn that most of the wisdom doesn't apply to you—but that doesn't mean you don't receive it.  You recite "April showers bring May flowers" every spring, even though the rainy season isn't until August; you associate snow with snowballs and snowmen, even though the snow in your area is generally too dry and powdery to pack; you firmly believe that Platonic ideal geese fly south every winter, even though "your" geese stick around all year.  All these little ways of describing the world—you accept them as true, perhaps even as the standard, while you also learn that they have nothing to do with, you know, reality.  In the back of your mind you just add the footnotes and the fine print that says "except..."

An octagon, on the other hand, really does have eight sides.*


* Except in alternate dimensions and universes, where normal rules of the space-time continuum do not apply.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In Which We Are Excited By Birds

or A First Time for Everything

Oh, what a confusing subtitle:  we haven't even gone anywhere yet, and already we are off track.  To clarify, this is not the first time I have been excited by the sight of birds, even though I am not a bird-watcher.  I may not spend my days standing in dense woods looking with binoculars up into the tops of thickly foliaged trees for a tiny brown speck of avian life with a distinctive eye-ring, but if birds conveniently come and present themselves, I am happy to admire them.  Every year at about this time, some of my favorite birds pass by, and the first sighting of the season is always cause for celebration.  Actually, it's not the sight that's so moving at all.  It's the sound—but we're getting ahead of ourselves again.

I've been thinking about the difference between "autumn" and "fall" for no better reason than that...well, frankly, for no particular reason at all.  When writing I usually prefer "autumn"—I like its look on the printed page, its sound, and the fact that it isn't focused as wholeheartedly on leaves as "fall" is; besides which the bonus little "n" at the end is just so charming.  Perhaps because the preferred word here in the US has changed over the years from autumn to fall, autumn always seems to suggest the antique to me in ways that resonate fittingly with the year's aging.  On the other hand, I love that "fall" is really a verb.  Fall and spring are such active seasons, when we move rapidly from growth to sleep or back again to growth; it's only right that they should both be represented by verbs.  Summer, on the other hand, may look like an active season, but it's not a season of change in the same way.  It is a season of surface activity that window dresses only one primary event:  the growing season.  And winter—the other noun season—is of course a time of lying fallow and of rest.

For some reason I've been especially aware this year of the little events of fall.  (Maybe that's a useful distinction between a verb and a noun season:  the difference between activity and events.  Summer has lots of activity but very few events; fall has less activity but events a-plenty.)  I've been aware of all of the lasts, certainly:  the last hummingbird, the last basil harvest, the last use of the swamp cooler, soon the last early morning coffee on the patio, and hopefully the last of those endless "waterbugs."  But more so all of the firsts:  the first wolf spider seeking shelter indoors, the first moment that it's cool enough to plant garlic, then flowering bulbs, the first golden cottonwood leaf, the first time I reach for a jacket, the first lighting of the furnace pilot, soon the first frost, then the first killing frost, possibly someday the first snow.  All of these mark the progress of the season until we find ourselves knee-deep in autumn.

But my very favorite first, the one I start anticipating from the moment the rabbit brush blooms, is the first time the sandhill cranes fly over.  Thousands upon thousands of them winter here in New Mexico, whether along the Pecos River at Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge or on the Rio Grande, most notably at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge but even here in Albuquerque at the Rio Grande Nature Center and the Open Space Visitors Center (and anyplace they can find a cornfield in between).

Festivals—weekend-long, even week-long—mark their arrival.  We love our cranes.  (Correction:  those of us who are not farmers with cornfields love our cranes.)  Their call—a kind of creaky purr—is one of the most wonderful sounds I know of (if you choose to click the sandhill cranes link above, be sure to listen to the recording).  To hear it from dozens of throats at once and then look up and see these large, graceful, delicately-boned birds circling hundreds of feet overhead, glinting silver in the sunlight, riding the thermals to gain altitude, or flying in a slow-winging V (with none of the frantic flapping the geese engage in), is to become homesick for the power of flight.  When I hear them leaving in spring I am always smitten hard with wanderlust; hearing them arrive in fall, on the other hand, is a kind of homecoming.  It is lovely to live in a place where autumn signals not only the departure of life but also its arrival; I suspect, however, that the appeal of the cranes lies also in that homing signal, received just as the days are closing in and the temperatures are dropping and the neighbors light their first piñon fire of the season and we all want to be nestled someplace warm in any case.  At such a time, anything that radiates "homecoming" is bound to be welcomed with fervor.

I heard the first cranes last weekend.

Now it's really fall.