Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Praise of Helpers (Stylish Blogger Award Meme)

or Heavy Lifting

I've given up trying to find the source of the quote that changed my life this week.  I read it in a gardening book a few years ago and am hazy now on the exact wording, but the gist of its wisdom was, "Whenever you're about to begin a huge garden task, stop first to contemplate why the universe made teenage boys."

Now, I'm not so self-absorbed as to think that teenage boys exist solely to do my heavy lifting, but the approach does have its merits, common sense being foremost among them.  There are people with energy to burn; then there are the rest of us.  I was thinking about that while looking at the micro-garden this past week—the 2' x  4' divided, raised bed where I grow vegetables.  It's a wonderfully low-effort way to garden except at this time of year, when the soil needs replenishing.  Lugging around heavy objects like, say, two-cubic-foot bags of soil, makes my CFS flare up.  Even though my muscles can handle the effort, my energy levels can't.  Lifting a couple of bags of soil onto a cart at the garden center, into the trunk of my car, and out again means a full day of bedrest afterward.

Fortunately, as I was trying to decide which day of my life to devote exclusively to a bag or two of dirt, that quote about teenage boys came to mind, and its brilliance lit the way before me to one of my favorite local garden centers.  If I had been in doubt before, I would have remembered then why it was a favorite place.  Before I had spent 30 seconds looking thoughtfully at the mountains of dirt, a pleasant and helpful young man came to my aid.  Without any nudging, he offered to load the bags onto the wagon, then pulled it over to the cash register himself, waited while I paid, towed the wagon to my car, and cheerfully loaded everything into the trunk.  He even gave me a friendly wave as I drove off.   When I reached home, I still had energy to unload the car, mix the soils, and fill the garden.  It is planted and ready to go, eight square feet of hope in seed form.

So to those of you who may be pleasant and helpful young men, or who may have been so at one time, or who are just pleasant and helpful people in general, my hat is off to you.  You give an amazing gift that makes an immediate difference in someone's life—and when you do so while making cheerful small talk, throwing in the occasional one-liner, and acting as if there's nothing in the world that you'd rather be doing, you make the gift a thing of beauty as well—a real grace.  Thank you. 

And bless you.


I've been thinking of helpers even more this week because Diana at Elephant's Eye nominated me for a "Stylish Blogger" award.  I've long admired Diana for the way she routinely, habitually supports other bloggers—she sees blogging (so far as I can tell) as both an individual and a community endeavor. She offers informative glimpses of life in South Africa, especially of the wildlife, as well as of her lovely garden, but at the same time (and often intermixed with Jurg's magnificent photos), she situates her work in the larger community.

Any meme has its rules, of course; in this case to link to other bloggers and to give some information about myself.  Shall we start with the most pleasant option first?   I've recently joined Blotanical and come across some really lovely blogs there.

One of my favorites is Carol Duke Photography.  I love the way Carol shows a detailed section of an image first, focusing your attention on the lights, colors, and abstract forms that exist in the natural world before "distracting" you with the actual subject of the photo.  She has some more recent entries, of course, but this link is the one that captured me first.  (Carol writes another wonderful, naturalist blog, too, Flower Hill Farm.)

As a former music historian, I very much enjoy Landscape Lover's writings.  It's likely that the same people were commissioning both the landscapes she studies and the music that I did; there's something pleasantly familiar in the overlap.  I've also enjoyed her recent exposés of gardens in Marrakech.

Fuzzy Foliage is a blog entirely about African violets and other gesneriads.  I'm a generalist, myself (which, oddly enough, is why I went into music history), and so am awe-inspired by anyone with a singular, whole-hearted passion, and when the writer is not only impassioned but fun and free of snobbery, her enthusiasm speaks volumes.

Getting Dirty writes well of wind and rain in Tennessee, and, more recently, of seedlings responding to peer pressure.

On the Lettuce Edge recently posted about a lovely Jewish blessing for first occasions.

Green  Apples Garden made an emphatic plea to Mother Nature to let spring in the door, which was just as emphatically rejected.

Outside Blotanical, a blog I'm fond of is Saltaire Daily Photo.  Jenny's love for her town of Saltaire, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north of England, is apparent in every post.

Suz at A Garden Wench combines lovely images in words and photographs.  No one will be more surprised than she to receive this mention—I just discovered her recently and haven't yet been able to come up with anything more profound to say than, "Aahhh," which I have done only in the privacy of my own home.

I hesitate in a way to mention anyone in the "Troupers" section of my own blog list—they are all people making lives for themselves despite debilitating illness, and they are likely to be overwhelmed by outside attention.  They rely on their blogs for contact with the outside world and for support and understanding and community, but they don't necessarily seek a wide readership.  Even so, I honor Dominique at 4 Walls and a View, because of her constant efforts to raise awareness of CFS/ME in the wider community.  Despite some horrific setbacks of her own, she recently launched, an effort to bring the lives of those with CFS/ME to the attention of a wider world.

And finally, a blogger I'm much indebted to is Michelloui of The American Resident.  At one point she remarked that blogging was the only field of endeavor she could think of where being good to others was rewarded, where one's success depended on one's own generosity.  It was that remark that convinced me to start blogging myself, because the blogging community sounded like a place where I wanted to belong.


Oh, dear.  The facts about myself.  I suppose I find this awkward because my blog has mostly comprised "set pieces"—a series of essays in which I might reveal something of myself, but where, for the most part, the "fourth wall" of theater has stood firm.  To go informal all of a sudden is a change that's kind of startling—not unpleasant, just disconcerting.  With that bit of squirming out of the way...

1)  The latest anyone on either side of my family came to the United States (or the colonies, as they were then) was ~1730.  Since then, if I have my facts right, no one has stayed in the same town for two generations running; they have ranged from Vermont to California; from Florida to Washington.  I have a bit of a problem with wanderlust.

2)  If the opportunity for space exploration were available, I would take it.  In a heartbeat.

3)  In addition to being a music historian, at one point (like half the population, apparently), I was a professional radio announcer.  My favorite work of all time, except for the hours, hands down.

4)  I grew up in a family that named its wire-hair terrier/dachshund mutt "Phydeaux."  That should tell you a lot about my parents (in a good way).

5)  Leaving musicology and in essence throwing away a Ph.D. because of my health was one of the hardest and best things I've ever done.  Lesson learned: you never owe a job or a career your health.

6)  My favorite charity is Heifer International.  I value independence and self-determination, and I think Heifer gives those things both to individuals and communities—and I think it gives women, especially, opportunities they might not otherwise have had.  (Locally, I prefer literacy-oriented organizations like Albuquerque Reads—New Mexico has a terrible track record for education.)

7) Writing this list has taken me longer than the rest of the post altogether...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking Flight

or Against the Sun

Perhaps it's because I'm usually there on winter afternoons when the sun is low enough to catch in feathery seed heads and dried grass stems, or perhaps it's because those afternoons glow for weeks in my memory, but I always think of days in the bosque—the wooded area along the Rio Grande—as backlit days, seen against a scrim of radiant light.

I had heard some sandhill cranes fly over the garden on Saturday, headed due north, so high that they could barely be seen—so high that they weren't just moving from one cornfield to the next but had to be set for the long haul.  They were probably just the vanguard of the migration to come, but in the next few weeks the cranes will be taking flight in earnest.  I will miss their creaky purr once they go—they are among my favorites.  So, wanting to see them once more before they leave, I took advantage of the three-day weekend to spend an afternoon at the Bernardo Unit of the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex about 50 miles south of Albuquerque. 

The cranes were there in the thousands.  The thousands.  I cannot get over the sheer numbers of them.  With my car parked on a dirt road between wetlands on one hand and a cornfield on the other, I sat on the hood for over an hour and—I can't even say "watched" them.  I experienced them flying past from pond to field.  A grouping of a dozen, then another, a few odd strays, another dozen, perhaps a hundred birds a minute.  A brief pause, enough for a handful of breaths.  Then another series of small groups, another hundred birds.  A pause.  Another group, stream after stream after stream.

And all the while that purr is filling the air, first on one side, then another, from one V higher up, another farther out—and then suddenly a group flies past in silence, so that you can hear the air whistling through their wings, beating with each downstroke.  Their shadows play along the ground, while light shimmers off their wingtips against the sun; the red spot gleams on their foreheads.

A little later, from a bird blind overlooking the wetlands:  the cranes can't see me and are no longer veering to one side or flying high in wariness.  I am surrounded by rushing wings and that primal, throaty call.  The thrill of wildness runs through me—heart leaping, I find myself wanting to shout, "Yes!  Yes!  Wait for me, I'm coming!"

(Fortunately, they are just going to the next corn field, and I can follow in my car.)

Later still, between wetlands and cornfield once again, I am waiting for sunset—a sunset free of telephone wires and rooftops and antenna towers.  Shortly before the sun skims the horizon, the curfew sounds from every voice at once, not only from the cranes but also from ducks and geese and songbirds and crows, a free-for-all of a warning bell.  The fields take flight as bird after bird returns to the water side of the road to roost, their silhouettes dark, almost shapeless against the lowering sun.

At one moment, overhead I can see all their different models of flight at once:  the frantic wingbeats of ducks, the air singing shrilly around them; the Canada geese flapping just as frantically, but on a larger scale; the steady thrum of the cranes, their wingtips turned gracefully upward even as they struggle for more height; a flock of blackbirds rising and falling in clouds, like the day's ashes blown on the wind; and above them all, a lone hawk circling, its wings from the distance looking perfectly still.

In a haze of gold, backlit by the sun, the cranes are returning home.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


or Skeletons in the Closet

A few years ago I was hanging out with an international group of friends, trading favorite figures of speech and laughing at the way the idioms translated into our different languages.  Somehow the phrase "fixin' to" came up, and I can still see the delight on one friend's face—his joy at this manner of saying that no, you're not doing anything yet, but you might be at any time; that while you may look idle, you're actually working on thinking about getting ready to accomplish something.  Soon(ish).

Of course, it's a lot more fun being the one who's fixin' to do something than the one waiting for it to happen.  Right now, when winter is fixin' to head for another hemisphere and spring is fixin' to arrive, there's a lot of anticipation floating around without anything to attach itself to.  It's actually one of my favorite times of year, despite how painful the suspense can become.  Every day the excitement builds, and some tiny but significant change rewards your vigil—a twig that's come to life with richer color,  a bud that's opened up a hairline fracture in a bleary, Monday-morning peek at the world, a single leaf flaunting its green enthusiasm amid the skeletons of winter.

Make no mistake:  those skeletons still predominate, old snake-skin remnants of the previous year—the trimmed stalks and leaf-mulch, the sprawling dead growth on plants that still need cushioned against frost, the bare earth where the mulch has blown away.  This is actually the one time of year when I'm embarrassed to have people see the garden, as if all those skeletons are skeletons in the closet—as if this phase of transition is something to hide from all but the most tolerant eyes.

And yet, the vestiges of winter have their beauty, too—a decomposing leaf with its warp and woof unraveling, a study of tensile strength and fragility; the haphazard palisades of tarragon stalks, protecting tender new growth; the paisley swirls of dried leaves punctuated by dots of green.

I will not miss winter when it goes, but despite the suspense and the eager wait for greenery and blossoms, I may as well enjoy it while it stays.  To try to see winter beauty on spring terms is to miss it altogether—almost as pointless as berating winter because it hasn't yet yielded to spring.

After all, it's fixin' to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


or A Fateful Day

A vicious Arctic blast? No problem.

Snow and ice? Please.

Gale-force winds and sub-zero temperatures? It is to scoff.

As you may recall from a recent post, the Lady Jane tulips were more than a match for the winter storm we had a couple of weeks ago. Confronted by nastier weather than we almost ever encounter, they grew, they thrived, they flourished. They welcomed whatever Mother Nature threw at them—welcomed it and quite possibly danced a breathless tango with it. They had the fire of spring coursing through their little botanical veins, and mere weather—the weather that brought two-thirds of the country to a standstill—could not stop them.

And yet, they have since met their Waterloo:

Sir Marley.  The neighbor's cat.  Don't be deceived by that heavenly beam of light.  It is a trick of the camera, nothing more, and an accidental trick at that.  (In any case it is certainly nothing angelic.)  I would like to say that Sir Marley used some brilliant Wellington-ian strategy to defeat my poor tulips, that they met their fates honorably in a battle which, really, could have gone either way.  But I can't.

He sat on them.

I believe he also napped on them and may quite possibly have rolled on them, as the ground has warmed up nicely this week, and the garden is pleasantly sheltered from the wind, and napping and rolling become irresistible to cats in these circumstances.  I even sympathize with him, because it really has been a gorgeous week.  As someone who was not planning to celebrate spring by rolling in the dirt, however, but by reveling in the eventual sight of cheerful spring flowers, I am a little disgruntled.  I do wish that pet owners would remember that they are responsible for their pets whether on or off their own property.  But, since they won't, I will break out the heavy, cat-repelling artillery.  (Garlic pellets, here we come.)

If you have any brilliant Wellington-ian strategies to offer I'd love to hear them...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunset Boulevard

 or Being Willing to Be Moved

Loretta was a fount of good advice, all dispensed in a whiskey tenor.  Jabbing at the map with fingers yellowed by nicotine, she pointed out the cheapest gas stations and choicest views, the tourist traps and real finds.  She radiated no-nonsense, small-town westerner in a worn-to-softness plaid flannel shirt and faded blue jeans; her hair, an equally faded gray-blond, was feathered back 1970's-style.  She may have parked her 4x4 pickup truck in the closest parking space—the kind that really should have been reserved for guests—but she had the knack of a good concierge for steering travelers toward what they would most enjoy.

Loretta reigned over a little B and B in Williams, Arizona, one of the "gateway" communities to the Grand Canyon, and had probably seen every variety of tourist known to humankind.  She knew all the questions before they were asked, could spout the answers (and probably offer an appropriate brochure) in her sleep, and gave the general impression of not being easy to surprise or impress.  But when she found out I'd never been to the Canyon before, her face softened unexpectedly.  "I grew up here in Williams," she said.  "I worked up at Bright Angel Lodge right on the Canyon for years."  Her eyes looked off into a remembered distance.  "I've seen the Canyon all my life, and I've never seen it look the same way twice."

I've been thinking this week about that conversation from a couple of years ago, and about Loretta's willingness to be moved by a wonder she was so familiar with.  I was standing at the upstairs window, looking at a bright splash of sunset, and being a little impatient with it, as it was starting to interfere with dinnertime.  "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, it's not like the sun won't set again tomorrow," said a rather snide inner voice.

My own jadedness took me aback.  Just because the sky is omnipresent and unavoidable doesn't mean it isn't still amazing.  It's just as varied as the Grand Canyon under shifting clouds; the same view from the same window, day after day, isn't actually the same view.

So in a Grand Canyon frame of mind, I offer the following collage of roughly a week's worth of sunset photos, all (obviously) from the same vantage point.  Even the ones that are comparatively dull have their own character, their own statement to make on the quotidian fact of sundown.  (The collage is best viewed large—just click on the image.  For the record, I haven't altered the colors in any way.)

You're right, Loretta—you can look at it all your life and never see it the same way twice.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In Our Element(s)

or Staying Off Balance

The breeze this morning was a gift from our friends in Canada—fresh, brisk, invigorating.  And, not to sound critical or unappreciative or anything, it was also rather...cold.

The sun, on the other hand, was strong and warm—warm enough that despite the cool 23° temperature I could take advantage of a day off work to spend some time on the patio.  Dressed from head to toe in black to soak up the sun's heat, I was perfectly toasty.  Wistful, perhaps, to be all dressed up to be in a spy movie and then not to have one handy, but toasty.

The contrast between wind and sun was a delicious one, the line between cold and warm sharply drawn.  Each was experienced with the same intensity at the same time—they reminded me of a sink in an older house, where the hot and cold water run from separate taps.  It was the kind of day in any case where you're vividly aware of wind and sun, a giant blue-sky day free of clouds from horizon to horizon, the kind where you soak up freshness, space, the blue of the upper atmosphere, the white-hot ball of sun burning its arc across it.  I guess I don't normally experience wind and sun quite so independently of each other as I did today. Their separation had something bare-bones about it; they were reduced to their elements:  Air.  Fire.

Earth.  Once I started thinking about elements, earth wasn't really hard to find.  In the garden plenty of bare earth still shows, whether in the bed I haven't yet had the energy to mulch with gravel, or in places where the winds have stripped away the bark and leaf mulch.  At this time of year, it is a dusty place, and a microcosm of the New Mexico landscape in general, where plants always seem to get stuck playing second fiddle to the plain old ground.  Usually, every wind carries a comet's tail of dust along with it; today's didn't, and the earth stayed put.  It was kind of nice.

The only element missing from the picture this morning was water.  That's really no surprise in the high desert—if I had to come up with an elemental recipe for Albuquerque, it would be something like three parts each of air, fire, and earth to one part water.  (Mix until crumbly.)  The normal balance of the elements is one that's out of balance. 

Even for here, though, things are dry.  Last week's snow and ice didn't yield much moisture, since the wind evaporated them before they could melt.  We really haven't had much precipitation since a wonderful rain in December, and the ground is dry for a long way down.  I was trying to decide this morning whether to water when it warms up this weekend—whether to tip the balance a bit more in favor of moisture, in favor of the young plantings that probably don't have the roots to withstand prolonged drought just yet—or whether to leave the balance off-balance, and let the plants' need for water play second fiddle to earth, air, and sun for a while longer.  Normally when I try to fix things like that, I mess them up instead, so for now it's probably better to let the balance take care of itself without my interference.

After all, in the wild the plants don't seem to mind second fiddle.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


or A Matter of Perspective

I can't figure out whether last week in New Mexico was one big, mad scramble or whether everything came to a screeching halt.  It felt like both, really.  Perhaps that's the essence of an emergency—a lot of frantic activity in an effort not to lose ground.

We actually had some severe weather, you see, the kind that seldom happens here, with snow, ice, Arctic winds, and bitter cold all at once.  Record-breaking sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures combined with natural gas shortages to deprive some 30,000 homes of heat, and led the governor to declare a state of emergency.  Schools were closed for four days; the universities, national labs, and state offices shut down to conserve gas.  Pipes froze and burst, furnaces went on the fritz (I had a little of that drama myself), some cities even had rolling blackouts.  Churches and school buildings turned into impromptu emergency shelters.  In Albuquerque, where many people don't own ice scrapers, let alone serious mittens or boots, many chose not to venture out at all.

So once the cold eased up and I'd had a chance to inspect the garden for damage, I just had to laugh at the contrast.   Yes, a couple of plants that weren't really thriving seem to have received the coup de grâce, and the ones that are only semi-evergreen have lost their leaves, but look what the Lady Jane tulips accomplished this week:

They've grown a good two to three inches since the last time I looked.  And the tarragon—one of the most tender plants I grow—broke ground in some new places:

The little nubs of crocuses coming up have turned into definite leaves, the catmint has fuzzy new growth at its base, and generally, most of the plants are acting like this weather never happened.

While all this drama has been carrying on in the human world, while we've all been fussing and worrying and hunkering down, the garden has been quietly getting on with things.  The realization made me catch my breath—it was one of those moments when you catch a brief glimpse into something alien and beautiful, when you realize what a different rhythm plants are attuned to and catch the faintest echo of it yourself.  The frantic tempo of wind and weather—so dangerous to us—doesn't really seem to matter to them.  Secure in their rootedness, pacing themselves to the slow ebb and flow of seasons, their priorities are elsewhere.  The days are lengthening; the sun is getting stronger.  And so, snow and wind and cold notwithstanding, buds are fattening, tulips leafing out, and new growth stirring underground.  It's as if the weather that affects us so powerfully is completely beyond their ken.

In the rock-paper-scissors game of gardening, of course, sometimes weather does trump seasonal instinct.  (I would encourage any plants that are listening to remember that our average last frost date isn't until the middle of April.)  But what a lovely manner of living—to be attuned to something beyond the fuss and bother of momentary squalls, to respond to a larger pull and tug toward life.

I almost want to say, "Amen."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Primordial Oomph

or Seeds, Up Close and Personal

As a friend who used to live in Minnesota is fond of saying, "There is no bad weather; there are only bad dressers."  For the most part I agree with her (at least, now that I live in New Mexico I do), but sometimes, despite mittens and hats and woolen scarves and woolen socks and long underwear and lined boots and parkas and knee warmers and layers—well, sometimes it's just nicer to stay indoors.

Combine staying-indoors kind of weather with the pleasant winter task of sorting through old seed packets to get rid of the ones that didn't thrive for two summers in row, the ones that thrived but that I didn't like, and the ones that by now are almost archaeological finds; combine all that, I say, with a really lovely idea for photographing Macros in a Mason Jar by David Perry at Gardening Gone Wild, and you end up with a totally enjoyable winter afternoon spent indoors taking pictures of seeds in jam jars, of course.

Seeds.  In a jam jar.

I am astonished by the results, not so much because of the photographic je-ne-sais-quoi, but because the seeds look so different than I had expected.  (Which now that I think about it, may count as photographic je-ne-sais-quoi.)  Seeing the seeds "writ large" blows me away.  The variations in texture alone range from papery "exoskeletons," pitted craters, and striations to cabbage-like folds to eggshell smoothness.  Colors show a depth and subtlety not visible from a distance.  And the individuality—forget from type to type.  Within each variety of seed, every particular specimen has its own shape, coloring, and texture that remains true to its species while being entirely one of a kind.

Each seed already seems to have a history.  When you think of a seed in part as the end result of a plant's life process, rather than just as the prototype for future generations, it makes sense.

I think what really takes me by surprise is the way seeds leap into life when seen at this scale.  They remind me of pebbles and shells on a seashore, things with an existence and a history in their own right, not just bland nothings destined to disappear underground until they're transformed into something important.  Normally when I think of seeds, I think of what they will become—"this will be a radish."  But seen at this magnitude, seeds just radiate life—not dormant life, but the real thing.  I am less amazed now that something so tiny has the power to turn into something 100 times its size, to put forth roots and leaves, to flower and bear fruit.  The primordial oomph is obvious.

Oh, who am I kidding—it's still amazing.