Sunday, August 29, 2010

While Rome Burns

or From Micro to Macro

Monsoon season in the American desert southwest is cause for rejoicing.   After weeks of scorching sunshine, afternoon clouds and thundershowers temper the heat and glare.   The dust settles;  the mesas green up and the sunflowers come into bloom.   To call it a rainy season strikes the outsider (and even the insider) as laughable—we measure rainfall in the hundredths of an inch;  if a storm lasts for an hour we count ourselves lucky.   The rains can still bring floods to our brick-hard lands, but they are localized—intense and damaging, perhaps, but soon over.   To compare our storms with the deluges unleashed on the Indian subcontinent and its neighbors and call them both the monsoon almost makes a mockery of language.   Technically, however, the weather patterns work the same way:   the prevailing winds reverse direction and bring with them seasonal moisture.   The difference is one of degree rather than of kind.

With the monsoons come more varied clouds than we often see here—not only the mighty cumulonimbus, the towering thunderheads that can be several miles tall, but also cirrus clouds with their delicate "fallstreaks," the high, wispy clouds that may look stationary but are most likely being buffeted by 150 mph winds; and the lovely cumulus, with its steely, flat-iron undersides and sunlit, billowy tops, each cloud boasting 350,000,000,000 water droplets per cubic foot.   I marvel at them from the patio.   I may love the sense of connection with a larger world that cloud-watching gives me, of reaching out with my imagination into the ether, but when I try to comprehend how these lovely white objects can be so mammoth, so high, so complex, my brain just gives up.   I have no way of understanding those dimensions, of weighing the information on a human scale, yet I accept it as truth—just as I accept that the world is round without having traversed its circumference.

I love writing this blog, for the record.   I value the creative outlet that it gives me and the way it encourages me to find the beauty and humor in the tiny occurrences and small lives with which I am surrounded.   As I seem to be growing fond of saying, you can only hoe the row that's in front of you, and Microcosm is a way for me to hoe the row that is my life for all it's worth.

But sometimes I feel as if I'm fiddling while Rome burns.

Or, more pertinently, while a nation drowns.   The very same internet that makes it possible for me to transmit images of my small life, my small pleasures, to the world, makes it possible for the hugeness of the world and its catastrophes to come to me.   I make peace with a cat while 17 million people in Pakistan are affected by flooding, 6 million of them now homeless;  I rhapsodize about a bowl of rocks while the Indus, swollen to 40 times its normal size, strips the topsoil away from an area the size of the entire state of New Mexico.   Yes, cats and rocks are my row, and I feel no guilt about that.   But sometimes you look up from the end you're working on and realize just how far that row extends.

The very hugeness of the catastrophe makes it impossible to grasp;  how can those numbers be weighed in a scale that's accustomed to cats and rocks?   The difference in life condition makes the problem seem larger.   How can I, an American urbanite, understand what it means to a family of farmers in Pakistan to have lost their home, their cows, their goats?  to face missing the winter planting season?  to have the work of a generation swept away and have nothing left to rebuild with?   In my head I can see the answer:   the loss of food, income, security, hope; a future spent in poverty below subsistence.   But I have no way of truly comprehending that loss, of experiencing that devastation vicariously, of knowing in my gut what it means.   I have never lost everything, knowing that everyone around me, not for a few miles but for hundreds of miles, has lost everything, too, and that there are no roads left to follow toward a better life.

You know what?   It doesn't matter that I can't "get" it.

If your head is the only thing that works, then use your head.  Visceral comprehension isn't a prerequisite for acceptance.   Facts:   the earth is round;  the clouds are high;  a lot of droplets of water make a rainstorm;  the people caught in the middle of this disaster need every bit of help they can get.   An acquaintance recently wrote about the "cumulative effect of small lives well lived."   Just as it's hard to comprehend the magnitude of a problem that seems to have exceeded a human scale of suffering, so it can be hard to believe in the adequacy of small kindnesses, small mercies, small gifts to ease the suffering of others.   But it's time to accept that these are real, too, that they matter.

Because sometimes, the world is our row.


The Pakistan flooding is the largest humanitarian crisis in living memory.   The following links are primarily US-based, though many of the organizations are international, and I'm sure there are equivalents world wide.   Please consider giving. (an umbrella organization that lists many member charities)
Doctors Without Borders
U.S. Department of State Pakistan Relief Fund

Thank you to my friend N.B. for originally posting these links on her Facebook page.   I hope readers will feel free to add others to the list.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cat's Cradle

or Making Peace

Sir Marley, Hurler of Fur-balls
I don't actually dislike cats; I'm just not a cat person.   Without seeing the need to have a cat of my own, I often enjoy being around other people's.   But there are limits, and when I have cleaned up enough of my neighbor's cat's fur-balls—and other unsavory things—I tend to get a little irritated.

The most famed hurler of fur-balls in the neighborhood is one Sir Marley.   I first made his acquaintance shortly after I'd planted my garden.   I had come across the signs of his passing, shall we say, but never met him in person until one June day after the plants had begun to settle in but before the pests took hold, when the garden was really looking rather fine.   I had been prepared to set Luther after him if I ever saw him (don't worry—Luther was 12 at the time, incredibly sweet, and not much of a threat).   Instead, I found this irritating cat sitting in the middle of the path, looking around at the new trees, slowly blinking his eyes—and purring loudly and happily.   He was purring at the garden I had made.

My heart melted.

Sir Marley, Melter of Hearts

Well, I thought, if he was going to approve of my garden so much, that was worth a fur-ball or two.   And perhaps discovering the occasional half-eaten cricket in my favorite chair.   And having the bird bath tipped over every now and then.   And finding a terra cotta pot or so broken.   And sometimes having to clean up a bunch of bloody pigeon feathers.   Mind you, I didn't particularly like Sir Marley.   He was always dirty, and even though he always sought out my attention, he didn't actually seem to know how to be petted;  I've long since gotten fed up with the "come hither/stay back" types.   Even so, I was more than willing to make houseroom for a fellow garden lover.

It was only when Sir Marley began to kill my ground cover by napping on it that I began to get peeved again.   When he started harassing Mr. Jackson (who expressed his ire by sitting and blinking) I began tossing pebbles at him.   (A couple of points:   1) I have never yet in my life hit anything that I aimed at and so consider throwing things to be a non-violent form of protest;   and 2) I was as much concerned for Sir Marley as for Mr. Jackson, since even a tiny taste of toad can make cats dangerously ill.)   (And a third point by the way:   my garden is really not as formal as the last point makes it sound—most of us are on a first-name basis.)   But when I discovered that my trees were being used as scratching posts and the beds torn up as litter boxes, it was all out war.   I got out the heavy artillery in the form of little plastic doodads filled with garlic oil that was strong enough to pretty well deter me, too.   (The organic gardener's idea of playing hardball.)

Sir Marley, Harasser of Toads
I wasn't reacting only to the damage to my plants but also to a sense of betrayal.   When I thought that Sir Marley enjoyed my garden, that he valued it, maybe even loved it in his own feline way, I was more than willing to live and let live.   But if you love something, you do not set out to destroy it.   Ignorant or accidental destruction is one thing, but to willfully befoul a place of beauty—I had thought that was only a human trait.   To discover it was also feline tarnished my soul a little and made me that much more determined to make Sir Marley unwelcome.

This would perhaps be a good time to mention that another neighbor of mine has three cats, which moved in when he married a year ago.   (That is, his wife moved in and brought three cats with her.)   I've only seen one of them outside before—Pinto, a large white cat with large black spots.   He perches on top of the cinder block walls between our houses, and sags impressively to either side.   I have never actually known him to move;  he just sits and looks regal.   (Well, his face looks regal.)   My neighbors spend quite a bit of time in Mexico, and they take their cats with them when they go.   One day it occurred to me that the problems with tree scratching and litter boxing had arrived, oh gosh, at the same time that Pinto had and—go figure—seemed to fade when he went traveling.   It dawned on me:   just because Pinto does not move in my presence does not mean that he never moves at all...

Ah.   A little miscarriage of justice, it appears.  Sir Marley may have been guilty of birdbath tipping, terra cotta pot breaking, pigeon feather strewing, and the not quite eating of crickets, but he had never purposefully desecrated my garden.   Of course, it didn't make any practical difference—they do not yet make repellants specific to one cat in any case.   But it's the principle of the thing.

Sir Marley, Enjoyer of Gardens
The other day I almost literally stumbled across Sir Marley lying on the garden path.   (Note to self:   Trim oregano.)   He was hidden on the side I can't quite see from the patio, and when I found him he looked relaxed and happy.   He must have sensed a change in my attitude, because after months of warily avoiding me, he came to say hello.

Since then I've decided not to replace the garlic oil repellant.   I've put water out where Sir Marley can get to it, and he hasn't been tipping over my bird bath.   I've put the empty terra cotta pots away, and it's amazing how they don't get broken any more.   Sir Marley still doesn't quite know how to be petted.   The crickets—well, it's best just not to look too closely.   The pigeon feathers aren't appealing, but really, who cares about a pigeon or two?

Sir Marley, Forgiver of Wrongs

Sir Marley enjoys my garden, and we are at peace.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

(Inter)Action Figures

or  Not Your Mama's Rock Garden

A bowl of rocks
I'm afraid that the entire point of this post is to elaborate on the word "huh," or possibly the phrase "Who knew?"   It's just that I've found something to be more enjoyable than expected and feel inspired to rhapsodize about it at you for a while.

It's a bowl of rocks.

(Cue response:   "Huh."   Or, from the talkative among you, "Who knew?")

The path to rhapsody begins with a book I read a couple of years ago, The Sanctuary Garden, by Christopher Mcdowell and Tricia Clark-Mcdowell, which made me want to squirm and applaud in equal measure.   The authors explore ways of making gardens (both public and private) places of peace and purposeful sanctuary.   Their outlook is colored by what I think of as a New Age pan-spiritualism (hence the squirming, but only because it's not my style—the writing is really fairly thoughtful).   They also offer plenty of sound, practical advice (thus the applause).

The bowl of rocks on the patio table
An overview of their work can be found here.   Many of their design strategies for promoting a sense of sanctuary are in essence ways of slowing the visitor down—helping to tune out the busy-ness of the world and focus attention on the present.   What made me want to sit up and cheer was the realization that the same strategies could make a small garden seem larger, because it would take more time to experience.   (Indeed, it now takes a good 45 seconds to traverse my garden from patio to wall and back—more, if you want to avoid the spider webs [which I recommend]—rather than the seven it used to.   Score!)

I was most intrigued by the idea of "interactive" features:   essentially, calming activities interspersed throughout the garden, such as water that can be ladled from one bowl to another or a tray of sand with a stick for drawing pictures.   The word interactive is a misnomer—it's not as if the ladle is going to do something back, after all—but still, the idea of providing things to do, a reason to take pause, intrigued me, and I began casting about for interactive features to include in my own garden.  (I don't count avoiding the spider webs, as they're kind of an accidental interactive feature.)

The bowl of rocks on the bench
Because my home sits in the former flood plain of the Rio Grande, I'd been unearthing river rocks since I first started laying out garden beds, some thumbnail sized pebbles, some the size of dessert plates, all of which I'd saved to use as mulch in the herb bed.   (I would have felt like a right idiot throwing away a bunch of rocks and then going out and buying gravel mulch.)   As an interactive feature, I put some of the prettiest ones in a bowl which I move around, depending on whim, so that wherever I'm seated, I can—well, I won't say "interact with" the rocks, but I can certainly fiddle with them.

I love it.   I am astonished at how much I love it.   That bowl of rocks is one of my favorite features of the garden.   Oohing and aahing over their colors and shapes; holding them in my hand and enjoying the different textures; rubbing them against my palms and soothing the tiredness out of them (my palms, that is); feeling them (the rocks) go from cool to warm and smelling their slightly acrid, minerally smell; lining them up in rows or stacking them in artistic heaps; focusing intently on something without actually thinking about it.

The bowl of rocks on the path
Why does all this surprise me?   I look at pictures of my youngest nephew jumping from one huge rock to another out on a hiking trail, and I remember doing the same thing—and loving it just as much—as a kid.   I used to love finding a pretty pebble and putting it in my pocket to take home, or skipping rocks, or even just throwing them in the water to make a splash.   (Warning:   Children, don't do this if your father is fishing nearby.)   To a child, rock = toy.   It's just that simple.

Still, when I was 20 I would never ever have expected to be so far gone in decrepitude that by my early 40's I could wax enthusiastic about a bowl full of rocks.   But then, I never thought I'd get excited by a new thermostat, either, or by a good vacuum cleaner.   The difference is that rocks actually are interesting.

Aren't they?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Not Spitting into the Wind

or Matching Games

I'm sketching this post from my favorite chair by the kitchen window, the one that lets me overlook the garden.   A storm is brewing, though so far it's all sound and fury and no rain, like so many of our storms.   It's impressive enough, but it would be nice to be drenched as well.

Still, the wind is impressive.   It has bent the supple branches of the desert olives nearly double and bowed many of the perennials nearly flat to the ground; the sand cherries are whipping around like dune grasses.   We get very little severe weather here in Albuquerque—or, put another way, the severity of our weather mostly happens over the long haul.   We may live perpetually on the edge of killing drought, but at least we don't have tornadoes, blizzards, floods, hail, or ice storms.

What we do have is wind.   Every so often I catch glimpses of why some of the early pioneers went mad from the relentlessness of the winds.   Spring is the only season when it's really excessive, but it blows plenty often the rest of the year, too.   The true test of a plant out here—and possibly of a person—is how well it holds up against those fearsome blasts of wind.   As a general (and obvious) rule, the more native the plant, the better able it is to cope.   Our oft-scorned native redroot amaranth, with its small, widely spaced leaves, still looks fresh and whole, even in the middle of a storm; the broad, beautiful leaves of my much-loved burgundy amaranth are shreddy and battered.   The wildflower yarrow stems spring back into place almost as soon as the wind stops; my "Coronation Gold" yarrow bent at a 45° angle after our first big wind storm and has leaned lower and lower ever since.   The sweet potato vine and chard in the micro-garden are getting ripped apart; the purslane looks as good as new.

Like all of us, plants shine best under certain conditions—the key is to match them up properly.   I'm reminded of a day-trip I took a couple of years ago to Abó, an old mission site that is part of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.   It lies on a dirt spur road off U.S. 60, in the middle of low hills and scrub desert.

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

In the parking lot at the visitor's center that afternoon were two vehicles other than mine—a bright red Corvette with California plates and a New Mexico sky blue, 1950's Ford pickup with those wonderful  rounded wheel wells and hood.   In that place the Corvette was like a pair of stiletto heels on a hiking trail—out of place and a little silly.   It looked expensive, but in a worrying sort of way; I found myself wondering about its clearance and thinking about the windshield getting dinged up on the dirt road.   The Ford, on the other hand, radiated the cool of an old pair of Levis—classic, comfortable, even honest.   It was a harmonica blowing at sunset, chiles roasting over an open fire, feet up on the porch rail at the end of a long day.   Some things just go, and that Ford belonged out there in the desert in a way the Corvette never could.   It's all about being suited to the circumstances, about reflecting the actual reality around you rather than the hothouse atmosphere of another place, of wishful thinking.

The storm has passed for now.   I do a quick look around to assess the damage.   Some of the drumstick allium seedheads have broken off (which is fine, as I'm rather tired of them), but the native Mexican hats look invigorated, ready for another round.   Both flowers "bloomed where they were planted," a phrase which is all very well in its way.

But it works best if you get yourself planted in the right place to begin with.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


or When a Plan Comes Together...

I usually think that gardening is about hope, though lately I've been wondering if it isn't more about Master Narratives. But no matter what I think, my actual experience is that it's a leap in the dark.

My desert olive trees have olives, you see, so naturally I'm a bit confused.

One of my friends is fond of saying that we make our own realities, that our world is as much a product of our perceptions as it is of objective truths. I see this perspective playing out in the way I view my garden, and the ways its successes and failures are shoe-horned into a Master Narrative, an archetypal story—in this case, “It's all going according to plan.”

The desert olives are a case in point. They are among the plants I didn't really know much about when I put them in, although the same could be said for almost everything else in my garden. Even though I grew up in the west, I learned about perennial gardening in New York state and Vermont—antithetical regions to the high desert of Albuquerque. I designed my garden based on research into native plants, a lot of ideas from British gardening books, and (some) common sense.

In case you were wondering, research is not the same as experience. You can read all the right books, haunt the online forums, prowl the botanic gardens, question the people in the biggest, floppiest hats at your local garden center (strange but true fact: the people in big, floppy hats always know the most), etc., etc., but you don't really know what a plant will do until you know its life history in your garden. That is to say, you only really know what it will do once it has actually done it. The whole endeavor is a leap in the dark, a lesson in hope—but once it works, it's what you had planned on all along.

To return to the desert olive (Forestiera neomexicana). What I read in my books is that it is a large shrub or small tree with delicate leaves, golden fall color, and small, olive-like fruits that attract songbirds. The branches bend at unpredictable angles, giving mature trees distinct personalities and winter interest. They're deeply taprooted, so they are suitable for small spaces. I'd never seen one in action, so to speak, but they sounded perfect, so I planted three of them.

All according to plan...
Four years have passed since then. The first two were not easy, even for native plants that scoff at ease, as almost every single leaf on all three trees was eaten by leaf-rollers before the summer was half gone. I didn't know whether the trees would survive, but what do I know about New Mexican plants? They did, and even put on 18 inches of growth each year. They had grown enough by last summer that I could begin the gradual process of limbing them up. They're taking nice little shapes. The trunks are beginning to twist and bend. The leaves are even (mostly) still on the branches, well into August—I may actually see some fall color this year. And for the first time, the two female trees have fruit—enough to feed several birds several meals this winter. The trees are beginning to settle in, to thrive, to do what nature programmed them to do, to fulfill the Grand Plan built into their genetic code. And even though I'm just now finding out what that is, I am as full of “ta-da!” about it as they are.

Of course, one hopes when one plants trees that they will grow, leaf, and fruit—it's rather the point of trees. But telling the story, “My trees are doing just what I'd planned on them doing; my garden design is all working out” ignores the fact that my garden is on its fourth Master Plan in four years, that those three trees (and two bush cherries) are literally the only things still growing where I initially put them (if at all), that some of those unpredictably bending branches are shading what used to be direct-sun beds which will now need replanting, and that the finches have defoliated all the upper branches by perching in them so that they (the branches) look really silly.

All those things get brushed to the side, simply because the trees now have olives, and have done what desert olive trees (apparently) do. The failures, changes, re-thinkings, quirks, and disappointments are all recast as sketches, rough drafts, part of the learning process leading to this ultimate end. That's the story I tell.

But really, it was all just a leap in the dark.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Stemware

or How Are You Holding Up?

I have always adored stemware—its sensual elegance; the feel of the bowls nestling so perfectly in your hand; the interplay of curves and lines; the way the liquid, whether ruby wine or clear water, floats transcendently above the mere food at table level.

But do you know, I don't recall ever being impressed by the actual stems.   They exist to hold the flower of the glass, as it were, aloft, but unless their proportions are either extremely nice or extremely poor, they tend not to draw my attention.   (Lately the trend in spiffy shops is toward "stemless wineglasses," which in my youth we just called "glasses."   A stemless wineglass completely misses the point of the stem, which is to allow you to warm the wine or not, depending on the variety.  When the stem is taken away, not only do we lose form, but we also lose function, and then we have the privilege of paying more for this less useful, less attractive object that took fewer materials and less skill to make.   We are supposed to do this because it's trendy.  As far as I'm concerned, the stemless wineglass is yet another symbol of Commercialism Gone Wrong.)   (Don't worry—this rant wasn't entirely pointless.)

Last week I made a vague promise to discuss plant stems in an upcoming blog.   Having prowled my entire garden daily since then (thus occupying a good minute of my time every day), what I have discovered is that, for the most part, stems are not very interesting.

"Coronation Gold" yarrow, drumstick allium, and Mexican hats (with bonus seed heads for Dramatic Effect)

On the other hand, the stems that are interesting could stop a clock:

"Blackie" sweet potato vine, golden purslane, burgundy amaranth, Malabar spinach, He-shi-ko bunching onion (a stem I love, because if it didn't have a flower on top, it would be a leaf), and rainbow chard

Despite their contrasts, both sets of stems bring me back to the idea of usefulness and the ways useful objects can symbolize values in general (which is a place I never expected this post would lead).  In an odd way, the stems make me think of furniture.   Whereas the first collage suggests a Shaker aesthetic, with its austerity of line, sturdy functionality, and undeniable natural warmth, the pictures in the second collage bring the Arts and Crafts movement to mind:   they have all the simplicity and usefulness of Shaker wares but none of the austerity, glorying in shape and material as well as in purpose. 

Purpose and beauty.   Yes.   Something that intrigues me about these pictures is that the best stems in my garden belong to the edible plants.   I'm not claiming a cause and effect relationship here, just that the combination is a happy one when it occurs.   I enjoy knowing that the most beautiful stems are the ones that will soon grace my table, that they will both nourish and delight me. 

Purpose and beauty—at the risk of becoming a little too grandiose, let's hold that combination aloft here, to float transcendently above the mere words on the screen.   Purpose and beauty are the water and wine of our daily lives, quenching our thirst and inspiring us.   Even the dullest stems are reminders of the deep satisfaction to be had when form and function meet.  They stand opposed to the stemless wineglass, the commercial Product that has neither art nor use, that exists only to be sold, and that is destined to disappoint.

Ladies and gentlemen, I call a toast:   To stems, wherever you may find them!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fool's Gold

or When Instinct Goes Awry

My friends, we are gathered here today to laugh at the foibles of youth.   I don't know about you, but when I was young, I felt endlessly like the protagonist in a Victorian era British novel—the kind where the main characters spend most of the (very long) book doing embarrassing things while an all-knowing narrator tsks pityingly at them.   (And somehow, I was certain, everyone else in real life was the all-knowing narrator.)   Well, now it is our turn.   We are the all-knowing ones, laughing (gently?) at the well-intentioned errors of the young in this "Tale of Two Fledglings."

A family of Lesser Goldfinches has recently found my thistle feeders (which deserves its own "Hooray!").   Even a couple of weeks ago, the fledglings would feed as a mutually supportive group, but as they've grown older they've become squabbly and aggressive.   The least aggressive one in this family usually waits until all the others, which have been fighting for the best perches Keystone Kops-fashion, have been spooked by some spurious danger (usually me) and flown off, and then enjoys having the feeder all to herself.   (Query:   Who's actually the sensible one here?)   This quiet, unassuming, well-fed finch is one of our protagonists.

The other is a newly-fledged black-chinned hummingbird.   For the record, let it be stated that for most hummingbirds, the following equation is always in effect:   "Bright = flower? = edible!"   Hummingbirds love the warm colored flowers, especially red ones, but also pink, orange, and yellow.   The emphasis seems to be on color; the hummingbird definition of "flower" is a little more nebulous.   If you live anywhere in hummingbird territory and have ever worn a hot pink top outside on a summer day, you have probably had the experience of having a tiny bird hover in front of you wondering whether it has just struck the mother lode.   (And nothing makes your own big, overwhelming project suddenly seem do-able like having a 2-inch hummingbird speculatively eying all 5'7" of you and planning its dinner menu.)

The other day, our little goldfinch was sitting at the feeder, having patiently outwaited all her siblings.   Being a cautious sort, she wasn't actually facing the feeder but rather the wide, scary world, and her sunny golden chest was facing into the morning light, gleaming brightly and cheerfully.   The young hummingbird flew by and, seeing this vivid yellow object, put The Hummingbird Equation into action.   Much to the finch's consternation, the hummingbird hovered in front of her and tried to feed, poking her delicately with its long bill and "sipping."

What astonished me most was the odd level of understanding on the finch's part.   She obviously wasn't frightened as she would have been by a predator; while she was clearly uncomfortable with being someone else's feeding station, she wasn't about to give up her own.   Instead she shifted her feet unhappily on the perch and made odd little distress calls ("I'm fauna!   I'm fauna!   I'm fauna!").

The hummingbird drew back a bit and tilted its head in a "Well, that's unexpected" kind of way.   But when you're young, you're used to things being unexpected and are more likely to chalk confusion up to inexperience than, say, to faulty judgment.   Shaking off doubt (what would the finch know about it, after all?), the hummingbird approached to feed again, at which point the goldfinch just kind of lost it and started flapping its wings and darting its beak emphatically in the universal language of "Oy!"   The hummingbird finally caught on, did a clear double-take, and high-tailed it away.   (The goldfinch settled its feathers and returned to the thistle feeder.)

I've seen what I'm sure is this particular hummingbird again, always when the family of finches is feeding.   It flies straight up to them and then suddenly looks like a cat caught in some foolishness:   Who, me?   I was just going to check out this... yeah, this bit of... Well, I'll just be going, then.

It makes human youth look so easy—at least when we were teens (unless our childhoods were unusual indeed) we never had to prove whether we were animal, mineral, or vegetable.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Album Leaves

or Songs Without Words

“Elf.”   “Foreboding of Suffering.”   “Slumber Song.”   Evocative titles, whether of character, emotion, or ambiance, belonging to the “characteristic” piano pieces in Robert Schumann's Album Leaves.   These are brief works, many less than a minute long, which present a vivid image, a tableau vivant, a snapshot of something small yet significant.   (For some reason, the titles also make me think of department store perfume counters, but that's not Schumann's fault.)

During Schumann's lifetime (the first half of the 19th century, more or less), instrumental music came into its own.   Until then, the idea that its expressive power could give vocal music a run for its money had been rather a new one.   Some 75 years earlier, a Frenchman at an instrumental music concert was known to have asked in exasperated perplexity, “Sonata, what do you want of me?”   If music was to have meaning, it needed to have text; if it had no text, you should be able to dance to it.  (Or march to it, or walk down an aisle to it, or talk over it.)   But just to sit and listen to instruments—why?   What could they possibly have to say?   The idea that instrumental music could express something that words couldn't, that it might reach deeply enough to grasp inexpressible shades of meaning that words were too definite to capture—let's just say that it took a lot of getting used to.

I've been thinking about the idea of characteristic pieces during these weeks of midsummer when even my plants that “bloom all summer” (ahaha) are conserving their resources for a last burst of energy before frost.   What remains to enjoy are the leaves, which are certainly beautiful on their own.   And yet, we seem to expect more of leaves than we do of blossoms; mere beauty is not always enough.   If summer flowers offer us a little color, a little pizzazz, then we're happy.   But leaves?   Leaves are the kinds of things that seem like they are about to mean something—that have texture, shape, design—but never quite get around to telling you what it is.   Gosh darn it, what do they want of us?  They have the characteristic pieces' sense of individuality, of intensity compressed in a small space, of a snapshot that says a great deal with economic means.   But what do they say?

If we are going to be mundane about it, I suppose yarrow tells a kind of story about sunshine and drought, of frugality and thrift; sweet potato vine of plenty and profligacy.   But Tiger Eye amaranth?   Purple basil?   Once plants are that highly bred, I sometimes suspect that all they say is, “I'm bright red and green!”   Or “I'm purple!   And ruffly!  With nifty green edges!”

But why be mundane?   If leaves refuse to offer us easy meaning, then it's up to us to immerse ourselves in their language, to follow the rhythms in their veining, the contours of each ridge; to limn each edge with light.   Even with all that effort, though, perhaps all they really say is, “I am a leaf.   I grow.”

Which is actually pretty ineffable.

(Possibly coming soon to this blog:   Stems!)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Vision Quest

or Where Is M. C. Escher When We Need Him?

I've been spending many evenings on the patio lately, and have made it a point to be there in time to see the stars come out.   It’s not exactly a hardship.   The evenings have been delightful, with glowing sunsets, cool breezes, and no—count them, no—mosquitoes.   I like twilight, the way colors and shapes stand out differently than they do in full sun.   The disks of coronation gold yarrow turn into pale spaceships hovering around the birdbath; the hot pink of Wild Thing autumn sage, the diva of daytime, gives way to the white starlets of apple-blossom grass, bowing on their invisible stems.   I love the moment—it always seems to come suddenly—when it becomes clear that I can no longer see to read my book, and that I may as well give myself to sensory pleasure.   At that moment, I lean back in my Adirondack chair and watch the sky, waiting for the moment when the first star appears.

“Appears.”   What a misleading word—as if the star hasn’t been there all along.   More accurately, it is only once the interfering rays of sunlight have faded that our eyes can penetrate the distance and see another take on reality.

It reminds me of the annual road trips I used to take each May from Ithaca, New York, where I was a student, back home to Colorado.   I was always so eager for my first glimpse of the Rockies—emblems of home to anyone who grew up along the front range.   You'd think that they would first appear on the horizon as small bumps, growing slowly larger as you drew nearer.   Instead, they materialize all at once.   One minute you’re traversing unbroken prairie; the next your eye can finally penetrate the haze of distance, and the mountains are there—fully, gloriously, spectacularly there, the peak of Mount Evans glimmering with snow, all 14,264 feet of it towering above the plains.   You realize that the mountains have been there right in front of you for miles, but your eye was too limited to see them.

I could draw the obvious inferences here—“through a mirror darkly” and all that—but I’ll leave you to do that for yourself, if you're so inclined.   I simply want to return to the sense of startlement that can lie buried in the quotidian:  in the setting of the sun, the shining of the stars; the shift in perspective that transition brings.

The moment you realize that what you’ve been looking at and what you’ve been seeing are two completely different things.