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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


or Micro-Mastery

One of the feverfew plants in my garden has decided to bloom a second time this year—not an entirely unexpected event, although I didn't exactly plan any parties around it, either.  Whereas the stalk that bloomed in June stood up properly, the fall-blooming stalk isn't so lucky.  The sun has shifted, and now the plant has to lean over to reach the light.  The flowers have tilted at an angle to the almost horizontal stem.

A lot of my garden plants end up tilting at sunlight.  A small townhouse garden surrounded by walls is essentially a checkerboard of micro-climates with the added trick that the squares morph spontaneously from one climate to another as the seasons change.  In a place with a short growing season, this wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but in an environment where I can reasonably expect some plants to continue blooming into December (go, Wild Thing autumn sage!), it really kind of is.  Light is the biggest issue.  Areas that receive full sun all summer might be in full shade all winter; flowers that bloom happily while the sun shines from the north begin leaning desperately toward the light when it heads back south again.  I'm not sure whether I'm learning to garden so much as learning my garden—learning which incredibly specific needs each square foot of ground has and finding what will thrive in that one tiny, idiosyncratic space.

It's a lot like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.  (Really.)  I've finished book after book of the collected puzzles over the last few years—enough that now I can generally finish the Sunday puzzle in about 30 minutes, or maybe more if the Sunday morning pancakes are especially tasty and distracting.  It's not as if I actually know the answers, though—for the most part I've just learned what to expect from the New York Times crossword.  I feel like I could meet Will Shortz, the puzzle editor, and be in comfortable mental territory.  We would have a fascinating conversation about French needle cases (a four-letter word starting with E:  etui), and I would be able to supply every third word or so in his sentences; one of those words, I can tell you now, would be Esso; chances are good that another one would be snee.  I am familiar with Shortz's style, his editing, the bent of the clues he approves from his different puzzle authors.  But give me an older puzzle edited by Eugene Maleska and I'll be sneaking peeks at the answer key in short order.  I haven't mastered puzzles in general, just (more or less) the New York Times crossword as edited by Will Shortz.

Similarly, an elderly friend (who would be most upset with me if she knew I was calling her elderly) recently moved house for the first time in about 50 years.   For weeks she complained that the new house was confusing—the light switches were in the wrong places, the drawers weren't where they ought to be, the dishes weren't in the right cupboards.  While those of us who have been more nomadic have learned that you just have to keep opening (different) cupboard doors and eventually dishes will appear, it was a shock to my friend to learn that she hadn't mastered the art of living in Houses in General but just of living in one particular house.   

One of my favorite lessons from gardening is how limited mastery is.  You learn to work with a particular location, to enhance the gifts of your little plot of earth, but you don't necessarily master gardening at large, any more than you ever master living:  you just master (if you're lucky) the art of living within your own set of circumstances for right now.  A well-suited plant adapts to new demands with remarkable grace.  The feverfew may be leaning and twisting and growing in strange directions, none of which will show up in a botany text or plant catalog or internet database, yet it is every inch a feverfew, fulfilling its genetic destiny, living out its feverfewhood, no matter at what angle.  It has mastered the art of blooming in October, 2010, in a tiny little corner of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And that's all anyone could expect it to do.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

or Mountains:  A Good Idea

No matter how much I enjoy Albuquerque, I also like leaving it now and then.  After spending a lovely weekend with my parents, who were down during the Balloon Fiesta, I went holidaying last week, wandering down to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico for a few days.  Just to be outside again, not just out on the patio but really outside in The Great Outdoors, has "filled the well" in ways that have me purring with contentment.  Cities are all fine and good, what with the modern conveniences and all, but fresh air, sunshine, and dazzling landscapes are even better.

One thing New Mexico doesn't have a shortage of is dazzling landscapes.  (Fresh air and sunshine are fairly plentiful, too, now that I think about it.)  Many of them are best appreciated from afar, and it has been pleasant to be focused on the distance rather than close-in, looking upward and outward more than is my wont and marveling at vast expanses, wide open spaces, and big hunks of mountainside.  Vistas.  Drama.  Rugged cragginess.  Scenery in general.  Geography may not offer the action and intensity of, say, a football game, but it's a perfectly satisfying spectator sport on its own.

As a participatory sport, of course, it's even more rewarding, and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with a fair amount of geography on hikes at the Catwalk National Scenic Trail, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and the Fort Bayard National Recreation Trail.  When I say "hike," though, I want it to be clear that I have never been a capital-H Hiker in big boots and a big hurry.  I certainly admire those who can clamber over rough terrain at three miles per hour, but I don't understand them.  I go to the opposite extreme, and if I make it through a mile in less than three hours, I get irritated at myself for rushing.  If anything I'm a naturalist, though even that's still a bit grandiose.  I just like being in the mountains looking at things.

And "looking" is far too small a word for the attempt to experience a landscape—to absorb the "stilliness," as a much-loved aunt likes to call it, to take part in the quietness and vibrancy, the simply lovely and the jaw-droppingly sublime, to follow the contours of a land and delight in (most of) the lives that dwell in it.  To me the joy of hiking through a stand of ponderosa pines is not actually hiking through it but stopping to catch a whiff of its vanilla-scented sap.  (A good hiking trip demands that you spend at least part of it rubbing sap off your nose.)  And as long as you're there with your nose in a tree, why not pause to admire the rich variety of its colors, the canyons and mesas that age has carved into its bark?

In fact, I think that the entire point of hiking is actually to pause—to listen to the chuckle of water on stones, to mourn the death of a butterfly, to wonder at a sapling growing in an unlikely place.

The thing is that when you get up close and personal with geography, it turns into a microcosm again—you just see a lot of miniature worlds in sequence that add up to the world in general.  Each seed head and flower has its own self-contained beauty; each fallen log and rock is its own little ecosystem, even while it is part of the larger system of the forest.  Its existence means life to some small creature; its loss would be catastrophic to the insects and lizards and lichens and birds that depend on that particular rock, that particular trunk, for sustenance and shelter.

Every so often the obvious up and hits you and makes you wonder why you're so slow to catch on.  It really shouldn't surprise me that a lot of microcosms create the world, but I've been wandering around anyway saying, "Wow!  The forest is the trees!" as if I'd just discovered something profound.  In any case, it's been wonderful to see both this week.

And I still have a little smudge of sap on my nose.

A post-script to a previous post:  Look what my parents brought me last weekend...