Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pools of Light

or Intensifying the Flame

Light is so cheap and easy these days.  You flip a switch and brightness leaps to do your bidding:  fluorescent, incandescent, LED, neon, halogen. Darkness has been consigned to the back of the closet, to the space under the bed with the dust bunnies.  It comes out to roam the house during our sleeping hours, but it doesn't govern our waking ones.  We can work or play games or read fluffy novels until 3:00 in the morning if we want to (or even later!), all without damaging our eyesight, because we have all the light we want at our disposal.

Before Thomas Edison changed the world, though, light was a precious commodity.  When night fell, darkness waltzed right indoors as if it owned the place.  It reigned everywhere except in the small pools of luminance that radiated around a flame.  One way to broaden those pools was to place a candle in front of a reflective surface—a metal wall sconce, perhaps, polished to a shine—that would intensify both the flame and the hazy glow around it.

Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) with silky threadgrass (Nassella tenuissima) behind

Light at the end of December is still a precious commodity, no matter what electricity can accomplish indoors.  We may have turned the corner, as one of my friends always says; we may have passed the solstice, putting the longest night behind us and turning eagerly once again toward the light; but just barely.  The days will begin to stretch out longer in front of us, but so far the difference is still imperceptible:  tomorrow will have only a few seconds more daylight than today.  We appreciate those things that intensify the sun, that broaden its pool of influence, that give the chill light of winter a little of the hazy glow of warmth.

This is the time of year for celebrations of light. To those of you who join me in celebrating the Light come among us, the birth of the Christ child, I wish you a very merry Christmas!  To those of you from other traditions, I open my arms in warmth and friendship.  May it be a time of joy for us all.

A time to intensify the flame.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

End Runs

or Fooling Old Man Winter

I think of it as my "stealth gardening" outfit—the multiple layers of black that make sitting in the sun enjoyable this time of year.  In summer black gets hot enough that it almost burns you.  In December, as long as you're out of the wind, it keeps you roasty-toasty, especially in a small, walled garden.  This weekend the temperature was only about 30°F when I went outside in the mornings, but wearing black in the sunshine let me make an end run around the cold.

Gardening is like dressing to outwit winter in a way—a set of tricks of the trade that let you make the most of nature's gifts while circumventing its extremes.  You grow things that will thrive in your climate, but you also water new plantings more carefully than nature would so that they grow deep, strong root systems.  You loosen and amend the soil.  And you mulch.

Since losing a fair amount of newly laid pecan shell mulch in a recent windstorm, I've been stealthily tracking the portions of it that just went into hiding to their lairs:  in the mess of suckering growth beneath the largest sand cherry, tucked into the corner with the scariest spider webs (why couldn't they blow away?) beneath the blue bench, or drifted up against the grasses.  I coax it out with a gentle hand fork and then rehome it to the barest spots.  It's not much insulation, but it might be enough to fool Old Man Winter if he doesn't look too closely.

As I was sidling around the garden hunting for errant patches of mulch, I spotted this in the central bed:

One of the sylvestris tulips (I think) is coming up—actually, quite a number of them are.  I've never grown them before so don't know if they normally break ground before the first day of winter or if this is jumping the gun.  Did I plant them too shallowly? too early? too late?  I'm not sure whether they have a clever strategy for making an end run around winter or whether they're trying to steal a base—to sneak over to third while the pitcher isn't looking.  If the latter, I'm dubious.  How often does that succeed?

You can do a lot to trick Old Man Winter, but I don't know if he's going to fall for this one.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Much Ado about Nothings

or The Power of Fluff

Such a tiny feather, just a 3/4" bit of down that was as white and billowy as a fair-weather cloud.  It came to roost among the thyme-leaf speedwell early last month and stayed for several days.  Next to its airy softness, the speedwell leaves looked thick and heavy; not for them the joy of floating effortlessly on a breeze.  The feather rippled in winds so slight that they were imperceptible to me, dressed against a November morning.  Even when I set my hand right next to it, I wasn't sure whether I was feeling a breath of wind or of imagination.  But then, down is especially good at trapping air, at holding it close against a beating heart, a small body of hollow bones and flight feathers and hunger, where it can warm and insulate.  It is a cushion against the jagged edges of frost.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Late in November the lone seedpod on the milkweed finally burst.  I have never yet been able to resist the feel of the seeds' downy floss, and its touch sent me instantly back to childhood:  pressing my thumb along the inside seam of a seedpod to break it open, easing apart the featherbed inside and teasing out the individual seeds, then sending them flying, one by one, on a breath.  Those days, I wasn't particularly interested in the seeds, only in the parachutes that held them so magically aloft in ways that the swingsets at school just couldn't manage. I didn't give a thought to the responsibility those bits of fluff carried with them, to keep their own lifeline going.  But they did teach me the joy of occasionally casting your fate to the winds.

Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis)

The speedwell didn't mind the frost the other morning any more than it had minded the feather.  Just to give you a sense of scale, its leaves are only about 1/8 inch across.  The ice crystals on them are tiny, indeed.  Some had been just pinpoints of water vapor before alighting on the colder surfaces of the leaves, where they condensed and froze.  It's hard to believe such delicate particles had the power at their backs to fell the milkweed overnight, to cast it into a deep sleep as surely as a bite from a magic apple.  

Even mid-December has days of fair-weather clouds—"decorative clouds", as one of my favorite weather forecasters calls them.  You don't expect any moisture from them, and they don't really get in the way of the sunshine.  They just cast softly shifting patterns across the sky that mesmerize you with their fluidity.  They float along in such an easy way, like milkweed seeds held aloft and slowly spinning, drifting on the wind.   That effortless buoyancy, though, belies their enormity.  They carry 350,000,000,000 water droplets per cubic foot (according to the The Cloudspotter's Guide).  "Modest-sized clouds" weigh as much as a 747 or possibly 6,268.75 blue whales—about as many as you can shake a fish at in a day.  Even smallish clouds stretch to a kilometer in diameter.

And from here they look as light and insubstantial as a bit of down.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Change of Clothing

or Autumn Slips Away

I wonder sometimes whether hummingbirds recognize people.  My guess is that they don't—I'm not sure whether they even recognize people as people, let alone have the ability to recognize individuals.  If I wear pink or orange out in the garden, the hummingbirds are much differently aware of me than if I'm in green or blue.  Pink and orange qualify me as Potential Dinner.  Yellow might let me be Worth a Shot.  But blue and green?  They just make me blue Not-a-Dinner or green Not-a-Dinner, equally uninteresting in either case.  A change of clothes is worth a whole new role in the ecosystem.  It's practically an existential makeover, in hummingbird terms.

The 'Wild Thing' autumn sage looks thoroughly chastened.  Winter stalked through the garden this week in a grumpy-neighbor "Some of us have to work tomorrow" sort of way and shut down the party, slam!  Now the riotous blooming by the patio is at an end, and the loud outbursts of color have gone quiet.  Let's hope 'Wild Thing' doesn't look in the mirror until it's gotten some rest.

'Wild Thing' autumn sage (Salvia greggii) when it's at home

Winter really did let us have it, at least in the Albuquerque scale of things.  On Monday the temperatures reached record lows for that date, dropping to the single digits F; some parts of town (though not mine) had several inches of snow.  The unusual cold pushed the garden forward into winter by about three weeks, if not into a whole different growing zone altogether.  The Jupiter's beard and 'Goldflame' honeysuckle, usually green through December, are blackened mush.  The ipheion, which comes up in fall and was beginning to make a bright, grassy (if somewhat threadbare) carpet under the sand cherries, is limp and flattened.  Even the more or less evergreen 'Lady Banks' rose has lost most of its leaves.

The changes are a little disappointing this early in the season—I was hoping for more life in the garden this winter and am sorry to lose it before winter even starts.  The changes are also a signal, though, that it's time to reframe my idea of beauty, to reset it to winter's standards and let autumn's slip away.

Crocus speciosus, on a bed of cotula and cat hair

The days of leaves and seed pods are yielding to the days of stems and trunks, stalks and buds, to the play of light and shadow, to grass seeds backlit against a low, white sun.  A new wardrobe, a new role in the ecosystem, an existential makeover.  The new clothes may well turn out to be striking, shapely, and chic.

But they won't be party clothes any more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ambient Brightness

or A Good Explanation for Everything

The nursery worker looked at me strangely.  "Where did you move here from?"  "Vermont," I answered.  "Ah," she said wisely, as if that explained everything.  "Forget the plant tags.  You can grow a lot of things here in less sun than they say, because of the ambient brightness."

"Ah, yes," I thought wisely, "the ambient brightness."  As if that explained everything.

I had just moved to New Mexico, to an apartment with a north-facing balcony, and was looking for suitable plants at a local nursery.  The first person I chanced on there was the kind of worker you trust automatically.  She may not have had a floppy hat—the gold standard for knowledgeable plants-people in these parts—but she did have the right sort of outdoorsy, weathered smile-lines around the eyes.  She suggested 'Winter Gem' boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica), even though the plant tag recommended full to part sun and the balcony only knew sunlight by hearsay.  And she was right:  the boxwood bushes were perfectly happy and didn't resent the shade at all.  Not that they resent much of anything, but they seemed actively pleased with all that ambient brightness.

Over the next few months I paid close attention to the plants I saw growing and blooming smack up against the shady north sides of houses:  lilacs, roses, Russian sage.  The ex-Vermonter in me was astonished and took the lesson to heart.  When I moved to my townhome a year later and toddled off to a nursery specializing in plants of the southwest (Plants of the Southwest, it's called) looking for natives for my part-sun garden, a worker in a floppy hat stopped me from making a purchase:  "That one needs full sun."

"Oh," I said brightly, "Isn't that just what the tag says?  It ought to do OK in less sun, because of the ambient brightness."  He looked at me strangely.  "Where did you move here from?"  "Vermont," I answered, dimming a trifle.  "Ah," he said.  Because that explained everything.

Since then I've learned a thing or two about provenance.  "Full sun" means something different to a desert plant than it does to one from a milder climate, where skies can be cloudy all day (or even longer!) and sometimes ambient brightness is the most a light-hungry little photosynthesizer can hope for.

My appreciation for these nuances of meaning ("sun":  it's complicated) got bumped up another notch when I planted an ivy this past spring.  Ivy is well-behaved here, not invasive, and useful in full-shade areas where you have a wall to cover.  I'd been growing this one as a houseplant in the sunny upstairs bathroom for several years—the only place humid enough to keep spider mites at bay—enjoying its bright green leaves, but finally decided it would be happier in the Sanctuary for Shadows along the garden's north-facing wall.  It's settling in well, but it isn't bright green any more:

It's variegated.  I'd forgotten that.  For several years the ivy had received a couple of hours of direct sun a day, with bright indoor light the rest of the time, and even with all of that the variegation had long since disappeared.  Now, outdoors, in December, on the north side of a wall in full shade, it's well-enough lit that those beautiful highlights have come out again.

Sometimes you need a tangible object lesson to understand apparently simple things like "light."  On the scale of brightness, I would have put a half-morning's direct indoor sun about on a par with full, outdoor shade—maybe even a little ahead.  In terms of my own appreciation of light, I'd vote for a sunny east window over a shady northern exposure any day of the week.  Apparently, though, human perception doesn't have much to do with botanical reality.  Maybe the difference lies in the gap between luminous flux—the amount of light visible to the human eye—and radiant flux—the total power of light across its spectrum (if I'm using those terms correctly); maybe it's just a charming quirk of chlorophyll. 

But it's probably because of the ambient brightness.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


or Building Character

After a howling beast of a windstorm Thursday night and a fussy, festering day on Friday, Saturday morning gave us a snowfall, the first (and for all we know, only) one of the season.  It was just an inch, but it fell beautifully, and its .11 inches of moisture helped to offset the desiccating effect of the earlier winds.

Offset, but not negate.  The snow didn't compensate fully for those drying easterly winds any more than it returned the two inches of fallen leaves and four inches of pecan shell mulch that used to protect my garden beds.  The wind scoured them down to bare dirt in places, and I have no idea where, this side of the Grand Canyon, all those pecan shells ended up.  Perhaps the next time a west wind comes along it will return them, but that may be a little too much symmetry to ask for.  (And may I just say, it is really exasperating to lose 240 pounds of mulch the very week that the cold weather hits.)

The snow didn't return things to neutral.  It didn't right the balance, but then, I'm not really sure we had a balance to set right; a lack of equilibrium is what gives New Mexico its character.  The relations between earth, air, fire, and water are normally out of kilter here, heavy on the first three and light on the last, and this year water has been nudged almost off the scale altogether.  The snowstorm helped it hang on a little longer is all.  We're just happy that it settled the dust—and oh, it smelled so fresh. 

By the time the day was bright enough to allow photos on Saturday morning, the snow was beginning to melt.  It was in that nameless in-between state, neither frozen nor liquid water, not even properly slush, where it still had snow's ability to negotiate with gravity, but the negotiations were beginning to falter.  It balanced or fell at random places, filling out the wrinkles in some of the withered sand cherries and turning them almost round again, sliding from others and leaving them gleaming wetly along every ridge and fold.  Each little bit of branch and stem shaped water differently.

On the sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), the water droplets dwarfed the tiny seeds they haloed or came to rest at odd places along the symmetrically branching stems.  They reminded me of a hanging mobile, all delicate weights and counterweights and wires that are just unbalanced enough to move at a light touch, to create a new shape every time they come back to stasis.

Generally speaking I'm a confirmed—nay, obsessed—symmetry fiend.  I don't mean to be; it just happens that way.  So there's a certain irony in my singing the praises of unevenness and imbalance, the way they give rise to character and beauty, the way they bring particularity into the foreground.  A talk with a friend today and other bits of happenstance recently, though, have reminded me of the joys of letting a passion throw your life out of balance—or put another way, of finding an idiosyncratic balance among out-of-kilter elements. 

It will either build your own character, or the characters of everyone who knows you...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

or The Little Potato That Could Couldn't Hasn't So Far

Sometimes potatoes just go overboard with optimism.  Take this one, for example:

Nov. 24, 2011

I planted it five years ago, in the bed that now holds the Sad Sand Cherry but at the time was home to a Truly Miserable Golden Currant (Ribes aureum x Tristissimus).  The idea—brilliant, so far as it went—was to grow the potatoes just inside what would become the currant's drip line once it matured.  In the meantime the spuds would fill a large space in the infant garden with swaths of greenery, practically for free.  Since I would be giving the new plantings extra water anyway, the potatoes would get all they needed to flourish.  Gently unearthing the tubers with a small garden fork at season's end would loosen the compacted soil again, and the currant's roots would have an easy time spreading into that area their second year.  And then there would be potatoes to eat. 

The delicate bubble of genius, alas, was no match for the freshly sharpened tungsten carbide circular sawblade of reality.  The potato leafhoppers moved in for the kill, drat them, and none of the potatoes survived for more than a month or two.  That fall I planted other things in their place and then forgot about the potatoes altogether.  Great was my surprise the following spring, when one little spud sent up a hopeful shoot amid the tulips and yarrow.  It grew in a small (3- or 4-inch) way until June, when the heat and aridity (and leafhoppers) proved too much for it.  Then it withered sadly away, to hoard its resources for the following spring.

Every year since then, it has done the same thing.  I have begun to look forward to seeing the potato raise its little hand every spring, in the way that normal other people look forward to the first lily or allium leaves.  I cheer it on but don't give it any extra water, which by now its xeric neighbors would resent.  The leaves always die away again in a few weeks.

Lately the tenacious tuber has changed tactics.  If summer is too hot and dry, it seems to be thinking, then why not come up in the fall?  A few weeks ago, in a bed that by now is in deep shade, this frost-sensitive, sun-loving plant began sending up a hopeful shoot.  I showed it the calendar, with the average first frost date marked in red; I showed it the blackened basil and marigold leaves in the garden's less protected places, to no avail.  Sometimes a potato just will not recognize the difference between hope and denial.  It will not be discouraged.

Nov. 29, 2011

At least, not until it's too late.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Watering Holes

or Birds of a Feather

When you turn on to New Mexico highway 247 in the little town of Corona, this is the sign that greets you:

U.S. Highway 285, 48 miles away.  The next event on this road isn't a town.  It's an intersection, and the next intersection—the very next time you see a cross-road—is 48 miles away.  (Bonus:  you can't get lost on NM 247.)  Not even a little county road meets you until then, nothing but the posts and crossbeams marking the dirt road entrance to a ranch here and there.  You might meet another vehicle somewhere along the road.  Then again, you might not.  You'll see small herds of black Angus lying in the blue grama grass and cholla or congregating around a stock tank; you'll probably come across some pronghorn antelope grazing.  Crows, hawks, yesterday even a badger (a badger!); toward evening maybe some mule deer.  But people?  Likely not.

The scenic route between Albuquerque and Dexter, in the southeastern corner of the state, zigzags along various roads through some 200 miles of low mountains, high plateaus, and scrub desert.  It reminds you what a large, empty place New Mexico is:  2 million people in an area larger than Poland—and half of them live in Albuquerque.  In the ranching areas heading south, there's a lot of open rangeland, and not much else.  When you do come to a town, the parking lot at the local watering hole is usually full.  Folks drive for miles to meet in company over a green chile cheeseburger and a drink, to enjoy being social animals for a while.

My sister and brother-in-law's house is a watering hole in its own way.  Their home near Dexter is the kind of place where strays drift in with the tumbleweeds and needlegrass:  cats, dogs, skunks, waifs in general, and the occasional sister looking for a Thanksgiving dinner.  You can be assured of a good meal and good company (human, feline, and canine), and hey—if you ever need de-worming, well, they probably have something for that, too.  A holiday done right is also an oasis of sorts, a pause in your journey through the year, a chance to flock together with others of your kind and be refreshed.

I've been thinking about watering holes because of the more-or-less traditional, day-after-Thanksgiving excursion that my sister, my nephew, and I made to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge along the Pecos River east of Roswell.  Like the Rio Grande's Bosque del Apache, the wetlands there are the winter home to snow geese and sandhill cranes—possibly record numbers of them this year, as the continuing drought in Texas sends waterbirds elsewhere.  During the day they go off to feast in cornfields, but when the sun begins to set they return to the shallow waters that keep them safe from night-time predators.  Only once have I seen a sandhill crane alone, and it was standing sentry (or had maybe been put in time-out).  They are highly social creatures, impressive in numbers and in their apparent singleness of thought and purpose.

When I returned home from the holiday and went out to the garden, I startled a trio of goldfinches, which had been perched forlornly on the empty birdbath making little "tsk"ing sounds.  They don't ever bathe in the birdbath, but they do drink from it; I'm not sure what other water sources they have in the neighborhood.  Cleaned and refilled, the birdbath now welcomes them to congregate on the rim of its garden-variety wetland once more. 

And here I am, playing on the World Wide Web, that watering hole extraordinaire, where we flock together to meet in company and enjoy being social animals (of a kind) for a while.

If nothing else, driving through the desert does fixate you on water...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rain in the Desert

or A Time for Thanksgiving

We haven't had much rain recently, at least not enough to measure.  A tease of a storm blew through town on Monday that left a trail of perfume and a lot of flustered leaves in its wake.  It flung a lacy, mocking shawl of snow across the Sandias' rugged shoulders and then swirled away into the night, ignoring the rain gauge altogether.  Albuquerque has only had 3.48 inches of moisture this year, so even a tease is...maybe not welcome, exactly, but better than nothing. 

Learning to be grateful for every drop of rain also reminds you to see cause for rejoicing in every simple gift and every good thing.  That seems like an especially fine thing to remember today.  To those of you who join me in celebrating Thanksgiving, best wishes for a wonderful holiday, with all the warmth and joy the day calls for!  To those of you around the globe, I hope you won't turn down a glass, cheerfully raised in your honor.

And by all means, please join me in another, in honor of small blessings.

(The "word art" was prompted by Noel Kingsbury's recent post at Gardening Gone Wild, which featured some of Alec Finlay's work.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bringing Out the Life

or Rejecting Neutral Gray

November 12

I don't know whether the sunsets are actually more glorious at this time of year or whether they just show up in more attractive places.  A little of both, probably.  The clouds (if any) in summer are usually thunderheads—impressive and sometimes beautifully colored, but fairly localized.  In late autumn and winter, on the other hand, the clouds (if any) tend more toward the altostratus or cirrus side, lighting up huge stretches of sky in the middle or upper atmosphere as soon as the sun skims the horizon.  At this time of year, too, with the sun setting farther to the south—at the end of a long, open street rather than tucked between roofs—I have a better view from the upstairs window of those vivid colors, if you can overlook a few telephone poles and wires.  And antenna towers and commercial buildings.  Sunsets are among the few real perks of the cold months.

People sometimes ask me whether I fiddle with the colors of sunset photos before posting them.  I don't.  They usually turn out more orange than I expected and less pink, but that's just the whim of the camera.  I do, however, always take them ⅓-⅔ of a stop (do we still call them stops?) darker than what my camera's light meter suggests, which brings out the life, the wonderful depth and vibrancy, in the colors.

As I understand it, in its default mode, a camera's light meter is the Goldilocks of the photographic world, wanting a visual porridge that's neither too hot nor too cold.  "Just right" to a camera is "18% gray" (or 12%, depending on who's talking):  a neutral shade halfway between the light that reflects off black objects and off white ones.  When the meter tells you that a photo is correctly exposed, it's telling you that with the current settings you'll get a picture where the overall balance is at that 18%-gray middle point between dark and light.

You have to feel for the poor light meter, trying to make the best of situations when it has no way of knowing what the parameters really are; at one time or another we have all been in that boat.  Faced with a sunset, no matter how dramatic the darkening upper atmosphere or how brilliantly glowing the clouds, the camera will do its living best to neutralize the whole scene, to find the intensity that is equivalent to that medium gray.  It means well.  Unfortunately, if you heed its advice it will also give you a sunset that's pale, drab, and washed out—a fair-to-middling sunset, when the one you saw was spectacular.

November 20

I was thinking about all of that, looking at sunsets this week, and looking beyond into winter.  I still dread this time of year, even here where the season is sunny and relatively mild.  The problem isn't the weather or the shorter days.  It's the isolation—the way closed windows shut you away from the sounds connecting you to the world:  the ambient noise of neighborhood life that in warmer weather, at least to those of us who spend most of our free time alone, resting, is a kind of company.  Without those connections, the world can look a little pale and drab.

So the goal this winter is to override the norm of neutral gray, to live ⅓ of a stop more intensely than average—maybe even ⅔, if I really want to kick up my heels.  I don't know quite how I'll do that in a way that's quiet, low-energy, and has me home on a sofa by 6.  If cameras are a good role model for life, though, and I don't see why they can't be, ⅓ of a stop is all it takes to go from fair-to-middling to spectacular.  One-third of a stop:  nothing radical, nothing extreme.

Just one little flick of the dial, to bring things into warm, vibrant life.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


or Avenues In

The thing with roads is, they go all sorts of places.  When you're out for a day's adventure and decide to find out where a quirky little back street takes you, that plunge into possibility can be a lot of fun.  Addictive, too—curiosity to find out what comes next can keep you going farther and farther and farther.  When you have a particular destination in mind, though, and a deadline to meet, and you accidentally end up on a byroad that goes who knows where...well, really, that can still be fun.  But you probably won't reach your destination on time.  You're just as likely to end up nowhere in particular, hoping you can retrace your route, or wandering around lost for a while, because roads go all sorts of places, and who knows where those places are?

I was sitting on the patio a while ago enjoying the little vignette below—the gentle arcs of the grasses and the way the sun tickled their edges, the peekaboo effect of the farther grass behind the trunks of the desert olive tree, the warmth and roundness of the terra cotta pot (still home to a black widow spider, alas), and the irrepressible blooms of 'Wild Thing' autumn sage in the corner.

It made me aware of the garden more generally as a series of vignettes in the late-autumn light.   The sun has settled in the south, and now when it moseys on up toward noon in its stiff, arthritic, cool-season way, instead of illuminating the whole garden from above, its low angle creates a succession of spotlit moments.

A vignette can be a self-contained scene, or it can be an avenue into something bigger.  Take vignettes in a book:  the fancy lettering or scrollwork or small illustrations at the beginning of a chapter are charming on their own, but they also lead you into the writing. They entice you to read further, to find out what comes next—to follow a road that might go all sorts of places, possibly a long way from your starting point.

In that sense, a garden vignette is a bit of theater, suggesting some action happening just out of sight off-stage.  Maybe it leads you to wonder what's on the far side of the grasses, or what the rest of the tree looks like, or how this little patch fits into the whole. As a piece of mental theater, this post led me down even more distant avenues:  the outdoors seen only in the bits and pieces of time that the shorter days allow; the Grand Canyon under partly cloudy skies, where one vignette after another appears as the sun spotlights one "temple" or throne or monument among the others.

Grand Canyon, Arizona, October 2009
I. M. Pei's ultra-modern, mountain-shaped hyperbolic parabaloid in 1970's Denver, just down the road from historic Second Empire-style architecture—glimpses of bygone or futuristic worlds seen through double-decker bus windows.  The Christmas window vignettes at Neusteter's department store when I was little, where mechanical figures in winter scenes caroled or threw snowballs or made toys over and over and over.  The distance between the worlds outside and inside the windows, bridged only by imagination.  Bloggers, giving their readers a window onto their worlds; blog posts as vignettes—a brightly colored succession of spotlit moments. 

The scenery along these byroads was great, but eventually I'd find myself at a loss, wondering, "Now where do I go?"  Because once you've wandered into a vignette, once you've decided that it isn't a self-contained tableau but an avenue into something else, once you've plunged into the world of imagination behind the window scenes or started reading the chapter, there are so many roads to choose from.  They can take you all sorts of places, most of them delightful, but that doesn't mean that you know where you are when you've arrived, or how to get back to your starting point—that small scene of sunlight and grass and late-autumn warmth, and the single word vignette.

You certainly won't be able to sum up the journey in a tidy, one-sentence clincher...

Thursday, November 10, 2011


or In Which We Celebrate Individuality, Whether We Want To or Not

The furnace really was more important than the Western sand cherry bush (Prunus besseyii).  I thought so last February when the temperature dropped to -7°F (a 40-year low) and the furnace broke down, and still think so now.  The repairman did a wonderful, careful job despite vicious wind and sub-zero temperatures and was cheerful the whole time.  Even so, the part of me that likes to ponder the general cussedness of things wondered what law of nature decrees that with three feet of clear space and a brick path to stand on, a workman must nevertheless step on the plants.  The Sad Sand Cherry, poor thing, was apparently in the way, and after its little adventure with big boots, it took a while to recover.  Three seasons later it's still missing half the branches on one side and looks pretty lopsided.  It didn't grow much over the summer, but it lived, and that's saying something, in an Eeyore-ish sort of way.  Now, autumn has come to it in spots.

Autumn or chicken pox?  It can be so hard to tell.

Meanwhile, across the path closer to the patio is another cherry planted at the same time two years ago.  It gets quite a bit of shade from one of the desert olives (Forestiera neomexicana) and isn't growing quickly, but it's thickly leaved and branched and looks strong and healthy.  It is now officially taller than the salad burnet, and it produced one (1) cherry this year.  I was so proud.  The Slow Sand Cherry is fixin' to enjoy some autumn, but maybe not all at once.  It's getting there, though, one easy-going, leisurely leaf at a time.

The other cherry near the patio is what I expected all of them to be—about three and a half feet tall and wide, more or less nicely shaped, thickly leaved, full of cherries, and generally well-behaved.  It's been in the ground for four years and has officially graduated to drought tolerance.  (Now there I am proud.)  The Teacher's Pet Sand Cherry is still mostly green, but it's beginning to change colors ever so delicately and attractively.  With impeccable timing, it should be at its reddest precisely when its neighboring olive tree is at its most golden-green.*

And then there's the Big Hairy Monster in the far corner.  I love that cherry.  It's about six feet tall and wide, way too large to be convenient, half again the size I thought it would be.  I end up whacking it back hard twice a year, and it still blocks the path.  But boy, is it gorgeous.  If I remember correctly, it was one of the first things I planted in the garden, if not the first.  Back then I nurtured things properly, rather than just plopping them in the ground and wishing them luck.  I watered regularly and fertilized carefully and worried and fussed, and as a reward I have a healthy, happy monster on my hands that's really way too big.  Two weeks ago it looked like this:

But now it looks like this:

For the record—because you certainly can't tell from looking—the point of planting four bushes all alike in the four quadrants of the garden was to enjoy a little symmetry.  Not uptight symmetry, not super-pruned rigid sameness or anything, just a general sense of kinship between one part of the garden and another.  The idea was to create a single, overall effect, especially in the fall, when I had hoped for a garden full of rust-red leaves.  All at once.  That is to say, all at the same time.

I don't really expect the two youngest bushes to be the same size yet as the older ones.  I understand that the Sad Sand Cherry has had a hard time.  And boy howdy—micro-climates, are they everywhere or what?  Not one of the bushes has the same growing conditions as the others, even though they're only a few feet apart.  Genes can sure be different from one plant to the next; colors do vary from year to year.  As personal problems go, having your shrubbery out of sync ranks so low that it doesn't even make the list.  And yet— 

I'm just going to mutter "Vive la différence" for a while until I believe it.

* As a fine example of cussedness, this exemplary sand cherry is the one of which I am least fond, for no apparent reason.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


or Making an Impression

The rock crumbled beneath my hand.  I had leaned on it for balance to take an odd-angled photo, expecting it without thinking to be solid.  Instead it was ash, pumice, tuff—I'm not sure which, but one of the softer volcanic layers comprising the white cliffs of Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  The cliffs and hoodoos there look strong and imposing, but at a touch the edges wear away, filling your regretful hand with dust, the six million year old relic of a cataclysm.  You let it fall, and it leaves delicate, white traces on your palm, as if you've just set free a moth.

On the last of my vacation outings a couple of weeks ago, I spent the afternoon wandering the short trails at the monument.  I think of Kasha-Katuwe (White Cliffs, in the Keresan language of neighboring Cochiti Pueblo) as a "heart of New Mexico" place—it embodies many of the most distinctive features of the region, all in one exciting area.  The rock formations, where wind and water have worn away the softer layers beneath hard capstones, are certainly fascinating.

I apologize for my bad habit of photographing light-colored rocks in the desert at noon on sunny days.  In the center left, though, you can see more of the hoodoos with capstones; another clearish one is at the lower right.
When the hoodoos lose their capstones, erosion takes place more quickly (and maybe even more dramatically).

The contrast between extremes is strong:   one minute you're driving through sleepy settlements in hardscrabble land, aware of boarded-up windows and dust in the little village of Peña Blanca, and the next you're walking through wonders in Kasha-Katuwe's Peralta Canyon while crows hint of darker mysteries in the sky just out of view.

You are conscious of the elements not in the gentle, domesticated way we play with them in gardens—a pool of water, a set of wind chimes—but as untamable dynamos with weight and strength and power and relentlessness behind them, as mindless forces before which you are soft and small.  You see how the wind chisels away layer upon layer of crumbling stone.

You walk through a slot canyon formed by flash floods and (always) more wind.

I'm 5 foot 7 and don't recall bending under that huge stone in the left-hand picture to go into the slot canyon.

Even in the mild days of autumn, you're aware of the fiery strength of the sun and grateful to the trees and hills that shade you from it.

You see life—stubborn, insistent, resilient life—in all its creativity and passion for continuity:

The people in the first two photos give a sense of scale to the roots on the ponderosas.

and you are aware of it hanging in the balance, walking the razor edge with oblivion:

In many of the earth's other extreme places you can be aware of existence both reduced and exalted to its bare bones.  This is the corner I'm walking in now.

Sometimes all you can do is wander in awe.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Late Arrivals

or The Last Hurrah

When the hummingbirds leave around the first of October, the party goes kind of flat.  Your favorite guests have gone—not that you don't care for the others, too, of course.  But the goldfinches, housefinches, sparrows, and mourning doves are the mixed nuts of the party, while the hummingbirds are the champagne.  You can count on them to add zest and a touch of magic to anything they do.  And with their explosive tempers, you never know when sparks will fly, or when a high-speed chase will ensue.  You wouldn't enjoy the party nearly as much without the other birds, but when the hummingbirds leave, they take a lot of the fizz with them.

When the sandhill cranes return near the end of the month, then, they are doubly welcome.  You hear their creaky purr sounding long before you see them, and when you first catch sight of them gliding down the Rio Grande valley,  the sun glinting off their silvery, upturned wings against an azure sky... Oh, they do know how to make an entrance.  Late arrivals though they are, they breathe new, dramatic life back into the party.  They bring a new character to it, too, a touch of elegance and dignity.

The cranes arrive about when the first of the fall-blooming crocuses opens.  In the garden, 'Wild Thing' autumn sage (Salvia greggii) may still be partying hard—if anything, blooming even more raucously than usual—but everything else is getting sleepy and quiet.  The agastache is winding down, the gaura looking tired, the West Texas grass sage ready to call it a day.  When the crocuses suddenly appear from nowhere, you welcome them with delight.  They bring a bright presence with them as they sound the last hurrah of the growing season.

Over by the patio, 'Wild Thing' is getting to the "wearing a lampshade and dancing on the table" stage—although really, it arrived in that condition and has kept up the rumpus ever since.  When the crocuses call you away from the action, inviting you over to their corner for some intense conversation, you're happy to go.  You appreciate 'Wild Thing,' you really do.  Its high-spirited loudness gives it a special place in your heart.  It's been blooming enthusiastically since April and is just as ready to spread a good time around now.  It will even still be cheerful tomorrow morning, with no (apparent) regrets. 

The crocuses, though—they'll be gone before you know it.  (Actually, last year one crocus or another bloomed through to December.  But each particular crocus is only around for a short while.)  For all their glowing color, they are fragile, ephemeral.  They remind you to make the most of every shining moment, and to enjoy their company while you can.

But don't get despondent about the passing of autumn or the fleeting nature of time or anything.

'Wild Thing' will still be partying hard tomorrow.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Gold in Them Thar Hills

or Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Nothing with "nauseosus" in its name should smell so good.  Even if the word does just mean "heavy-scented," it doesn't sound like it means anything pleasant, certainly nothing like the heady fragrance coming from the stand of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) on the far side of the parking lot.

The scent bypassed floral altogether and went straight for honey, for thick, musky ambrosia.  No wonder the bees were so giddy—they must have felt as if half their work had already been done for them.

Like no other month, October (in the northern hemisphere, at any rate) seems to show every place in its best light.  Just breathing the air or looking at the sky can be a sonnet-worthy experience.  I always take a week of vacation around mid-month to make the most of the gorgeous sunlight and weather while they last, and try to spend every possible minute of it outside.  Among the short day-trips I took this year was yet another excursion to Elena Gallegos Open Space park in the foothills on the edge of town.

Cholla, juniper, blue grama grass, and rabbitbrush

I'd been looking forward to this visit for months, ever since the first time I drove up the gently curving, suburban road to the park and saw the roadway lined with rabbitbrush (or chamisa, as it's known here) from bottom to top.  Like blue grama grass, rabbitbrush is one of the signature plants of western North America, growing from the panhandle of Texas west to the Sierras, from Mexico to Saskatchewan.  I have loved it since early childhood—Dad used to call it "bunny bush," which for some reason sent my five-year-old self into endless fits of giggles.  Its golden flowers are still among my favorite sights of autumn.

The sky is another.

The park was as glorious as I'd hoped, at least where the rabbitbrush held sway.  It's about the last of the high desert plants to bloom, so it had to hold the fort pretty well on its own.  Here and there on my walk I saw a dyspeptic aster or two, and once a dull patch of mounding peppergrass, but nothing to keep the bees and butterflies satisfied.  Instead all the pollinators descended on the rabbitbrush in droves, making the most of its flowers while they could.

A more or less cooperative variegated fritillary.

I knew that rabbitbrush was an "opportunistic" plant, the kind that colonizes disturbed places.  It's common along roadsides and ditches, and on open range-land it can indicate over-grazing.*  For some reason I didn't expect that to translate into easy photographs, but it did, as the rabbitbrush was wonderfully thick in all the most accessible places—on the edge of the parking lot, beside the paths, near the occasional ramadas.

As thick as the stands of it were, though, they're not long-lasting.  Rabbitbrush sends down deep taproots as well as lateral roots that allow it to take hold fast; they make it valuable for stabilizing the soil and beginning the process of rebuilding.  But for some reason  all those roots and the plant's general sturdiness are not enough to make it a particularly strong competitor.  Once the next phase of succession begins, the rabbitbrush colonies will fade away.  I can't believe I'm saying this with a straight face, but they really do have to make the most of the bad, disturbed, barren soil while they can.

I love thinking back over a day trip later that evening, letting memories bubble up.  A few of them always stand out from the rest and become emblems of the day.  In this case the "signature" of the walk was the fragrance, drawing in the bees and the butterflies (and, less usefully, me) that will help the rabbitbrush set seed.  This winter, those seeds will drift on the wind to the next disturbed place (rabbitbrush:  the Mary Poppins for unhappy soils), where a colony can start over again, and make another autumn day golden in time.  Maybe in a subtler way, too, there was a kinship between the bees and the butterflies and the rabbitbrush and me that drew us together later in my mind—a sense of exuberance, of living it up.

We were all opportunists, making hay while the sun shone.

* It's also a staple in xeriscape gardens and commercial landscapes, and (for what it's worth) it is one of the all-time most spectacular plants ever in a high wind.