Thursday, July 26, 2012


or Taking the Heat

The moral is, never say anything negative about swamp coolers in the vicinity of your own.  When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the way they go on the fritz, I should have known that mine would get ideas.  You know how unreliable they are.

Even though I hadn't been using the swamp cooler much recently, just a little bit now and then to take the edge off a hot afternoon, it's been an intermediary at need.  Now summer is happening entirely at first hand, the way it has for most of my life.  I was grateful for climate control when I moved here from Vermont, as it took me several years to adjust to southwestern heat.  I'm still incredibly grateful for it when the temperature tops 95F (35C), my Personal Wilting Point.  I'm not into virtuous suffering; asceticism has never been my cup of tea.  If the weather were still blistering hot, some handyperson would be out here fixing the swamp cooler.  But it isn't—it's just ordinary hot, summery hot.

When comfort is the flick of a button away, you make yourself comfortable.  (At least, I do.)  When summer heat is sprawled out lazily in front of you until sunset, though, you find ways around it.  You "tune" the windows to maximize a draft, you take a cool after-work shower.  You start fixing cold dinners with lemon and fresh herbs, and put the drinking glasses in the freezer, so they frost over when they're filled.  You remember that watermelon is no ordinary fruit but ambrosia and savor each cold, liquid bite as the juice trickles down your throat.   When comfort is easy, you forget that the ordinary discomforts of summer—and the end runs you make around them—create its best memories.

With windows closed and the cooler running, all the details of summer get air-brushed away.  But when you feel every change in the breeze and hear every rise and fall in the cicadas' droning song, when you see the changing face of the sky from one moment to the next, summer days grow long again, long like they were in childhood.  That's what's surprised me most without the "safety net" of the swamp cooler.  The days are just so long.

Virtuous suffering?  No.

This feels more like hedonism.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Little Knowledge

or Dangerous Things

Every time I start to write about wine cups, black widows get in the way. 

Callirhoe involucrata

Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively.  From wine cups to black widows it's a short step, you know, to idle musing about injustice, fear and ignorance, but somehow then a long step back to wine cups.  It's just that black widows get such a bad rap.  Yes, they're venomous, if not to a lethal degree then certainly to a painful one.  But just because they can hurt you doesn't mean they want to.  They're so far from being aggressive, they're downright chicken-hearted.  They are shrinking violets.  Jumping spiders will return stare for stare as you observe them; orb weavers will ignore you magnificently until you finally get bored and leave.  To daddy-long-legs, you're just so much geography to be traversed.  But let a black widow—that dangerous, venomous, bulbous, patent-leather spider with the hot red markings—catch sight of you, and she will go running for shelter.  She may even abandon her web altogether and find a safer place to start again.  (The males aren't web-builders; nor are they as poisonous.)  She won't bite unless she runs out of options.

A black widow huddled up as small as small can be (which isn't
very small in her case) to avoid me.  The white sphere is her egg sac.

Once you know how terrified black widows really are of you, and how harmless they would very much prefer to be, and how good their thick, messy webs are at trapping the biggest pests, wholesale destruction starts to seem a little unfair.  I tear down the webs now and then with a (long) stick to discourage them, and do destroy any egg sacs I find, but as long as the spiders stay off the Adirondack chair, I don't go out of my way to kill them.  I wear jeans, shoes with toes, and gloves (among other things) to garden in, and the black widows (in theory) run away at the sight of me.  Still, you never know when an unintentional act will leave a black widow feeling like she's run out of options.  A little knowledge has me living dangerously.  It's fair, though:  we're not at peace, exactly, but we're all very non-aggressive.

Just like wine cups.  Callirhoe involucrata occasionally gets a bad rap, too, but mostly from people who've never grown it, who judge its appearance but don't know what it's really like.  I have come across people who take one look at its luxuriant growth and far-reaching stems and mark it down as a thug:  bishop's weed with blooms, bindweed with bling.

The leaves fill a geranium-shaped spot in my heart.

A little knowledge, a little experience shows you just how little danger wine cups pose.  The three-foot stems don't creep and twine and root themselves in inconvenient places; they just grow horizontally rather than vertically, no more a threat to your garden than a salvia or a daisy stem.  They may thread their way up through taller supports, but they're not kudzu or ivy, overwhelming their hosts.  They just...appreciate the support.  They lean.  They relax.  They take it easy, in someone else's arms.  Finding your rosemary and gaura sporting bright magenta blooms is really quite charming.

Among the gaura.  The flowers open during the day and close at night.

Not only are wine cups not aggressive, but they die back to the crown in winter and (at least in my garden) the worst of summer heat.  Leaves re-emerge when conditions improve, but they do leave blank spots where lush greenery used to reside.  I find that growing them among the autumn sage  (Salvia greggii) works well—the wine cups fill the space while the salvia grows back from its winter pruning, and then the salvia takes over as the wine cups fade.  If wine cups were like bindweed, we wouldn't have to make these little plans.

C. involucrata in strong, mid-day sun near a west-facing wall.  The new growth
is monsoonal; the brown is left over from the last heat wave.  The wine cups
grown in more shade still have all their leaves and are blooming well.

My limited experience is that wine cups are borderline plants here in Albuquerque.  They're native primarily to the Great Plains and, while their good, thick taproot makes them drought tolerant, drought and desert are different things; in my garden they look best with a little more moisture and a little less sun.  They also prefer cooler temperatures and don't bloom for as long here as they do elsewhere, but six weeks in flower is still nothing to sneeze at.  Otherwise, give them good drainage, and watch them go—in a vigorous but non-aggressive sort of way.

A little knowledge, a little experience:  doors open, possibilities beckon...  What a dangerous thing.

In the interests of full disclosure, though, wine cups do have one bad habit.  While they don't self-seed with abandon or require dead-heading, they do shed dry blossoms wherever they feel like it.  They're a little messy.  You wouldn't think that reaching in to tidy them up would be a problem, and it wouldn't be.


If the black widows weren't in the way.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Bad Time for Swamp Coolers

or Why a Rainstorm Is As Good As a Workout

A swamp cooler is a fine thing, if the water line doesn't split, and the belt doesn't break, and the pump doesn't give out, and the float doesn't sink, and the weather isn't too hot, and the humidity's really low.  We usually manage the last one out here pretty well, and when the stars are properly aligned and all the other things work out and the swamp cooler's chugging along, well, it's a fine thing.

If we're going to be technical (and you know me, I'm all about technical), we should really call it an evaporative cooler, that little box that sits on top of a great many houses in dry states.  (Dry as in climate, not Prohibition.)

"Swamp Cooler on a Hot Tin Roof"

In it is a pump, a fan, a water reservoir, and a set of pads.  The pump sends water over the pads, the fan blows air across them and into the ductwork, and as the moisture evaporates it cools the air.  The swamp cooler uses more water than none but not so much as to be entirely wrongheaded, and takes a lot less electricity than refrigerated air.  Especially when it doesn't work because the belt's broken, or the pump's given out, get the picture.

A local bluegrass band called the Duke City* Swampcoolers has a CD titled Drained and Unplugged, which is a little play on words because at the end of summer and before the first frost, swamp coolers have to be...drained and unplugged.  The CD has a cut called "Swampcooler Breakdown," which is another little play on words because not only is a breakdown an uptempo instrumental number in bluegrass, but also swamp coolers tend to...break down.  When the Swampcoolers travel to non-western states, people ask them if a swamp cooler is some kind of a mixed drink.  You see just what an endless source of good humor the swamp cooler can be.  At least, on the love days of the love-hate relationship.

All to say, what with monsoon season being upon us and all, the air is pretty humid these days.


In fact, it's humid enough (sometimes 50%! or even more!) that the swamp cooler isn't working very well.  Which is fine, really.  I find that I don't particularly want it this time of year.  The weather is still hot but not miserable.  By afternoon clouds have moved in and hidden the sun, and the wind has picked up.  It's nice to open windows and let the breeze and the drone of cicadas in, and sometimes the smell of rain.

Of course, monsoon season in New Mexico doesn't mean "all day rain" or anything.  It's the desert version of the monsoon, and not anything to be all that impressed by (unless you live in the desert).
Not rainy.

It mostly means clouds and thunder in the afternoon, with isolated showers every few days.  Those showers make you work hard.  With all the windows open, the start of a rainstorm means a mad dash inside the house to close the ones on the rainy side, then a sprint up the stairs to close the ones there, and then a lot of mopping up of water on windowsills.  A few minutes later the rain stops, so you quickly run through the whole house, upstairs and down, opening windows again.  Another shower breezes through:  another mad dash to close the downstairs windows, another sprint upstairs to do the same, another mopping upstairs and down.  Just as you get everything set, the rain changes direction mid-storm.  Mad dashing, stair sprinting, window closing, window opening, mopping.  It's all very good for you, in a breathless sort of way.  A pity that I'm more of a dawdler than a dasher at heart, but there you are.  Like all good things, rain takes effort.  I'm certainly not complaining.  And for all that our rainstorms are hit or miss and stop and start and a lot of work for not much in the way of measurable rewards—

They're still more reliable than a swamp cooler.

* The city of Albuquerque was named for the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque**, and one of its nicknames is Duke City.
** The city of Albuquerque used to be spelled Alburquerque, just like the Duke, but an "r" was removed so that the spelling would be easier, or so says urban legend.  Because the r's are definitely the tricky part.***
*** Other theories about the r float around from time to time.  One involves prunes.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fifteen Minutes

or Transformations

Photography may be all about light, but townhouses are all about shadows.  In a tiny garden surrounded by walls, with the neighbors' houses spitting distance away*, shadows are eternal.  They may move throughout the day, but they never vanish altogether.  Sunlight is likely to enter the picture as mid-day glare, not the "golden hour" of sunrise or sunset.  In my garden, for a couple of weeks in April and September, the rising sun does shine through the narrow space between houses; for 15 minutes or so the flowers in its path glow in a gentle radiance.  The rest of the year, the sun doesn't top the walls until mid-morning.  For living in, that's just dandy; for taking photographs it isn't ideal.  (And if that's the worst thing I have to complain about, life is pretty darn good.)

I'm certainly not complaining about an excess of shade in July.  It's a welcome respite in the afternoons, generally cool enough to be enjoyable even when the temperature is in the low 90's.  The garden at this point of the season is primarily a green garden, an effect I rather like in mid-summer when so much else is brown.  Like shade, greenery is a welcome respite:  cooling, soothing.  None of the foliage is particularly dramatic—no eye-popping purples or limes—but I often prefer my dramas quiet in any case, more about slight changes of expression, and less about car chases and explosions.  Subtle greens in shade are just the right kind of drama, I think.  Each change in texture or color is like a lifted eyebrow, an upward tug at the corner of a mouth, a speculative tilt to the head.

Not that there's anything wrong with a good car chase, of course.  Or with explosions.  (In movies!  I just mean in movies!)  One of the nice things about a townhouse garden is the stark contrast between light and shadow.   (Nice for photography, at any rate, if not always for plants.)  At almost any sunlit time, you can find a deep, velvety backdrop not too far away.  When the sun is just right, even if only for 15 minutes every other Sunday, it lights up the few flowers in the garden like fireworks, from the normally gentle salmons of licorice mint

Agastache rupestris
to the delicate stars of gaura.

Gaura lindheimeri 'Whirling Butterflies'

The contrasts between dark and light, foliage and flowers, lifted eyebrows and explosions:  I'm still amazed at what extremes a small space can hold, at what transformations a few minutes of sunlight can work.  I'm in the mood to be amazed, because even as I'm writing this, rain is falling.  It's not the first rain of summer (and hopefully not the last), but it's the first to soak through the cushions on the Adirondack chair, the first with potential to fill the rain barrel.  If it lasts for more than 15 minutes I'll be surprised, but the sky suggests (with a subtly lifted eyebrow) that there may be more where this came from.  Suddenly the air is fresh, and the trees are dripping.  Thunder is rumbling across the whole great arc of the lower atmosphere.  The breeze smells sweet.  Dry, dusty New Mexico looks clean and alive.  What a transformation; what a lightning-fast journey from one end of the spectrum to the other.

It's been every bit as good as a car chase.
* Note:  spitting is rude.