Thursday, August 30, 2012

Matters of Degree and Kind

or Small Fires

Outdoor thermometers—the old-fashioned kind, not the digital kind—may be accurate as to temperature, but they're misleading about experience.  That line of red creeping bit by bit up the scale, filling the space slowly from bottom to top, gives you the idea that temperatures ease gradually into one another.  Since the hot temperature marks are right next to the warm ones only higher, surely a hot day should feel like a warm one, only more so.

When you're standing in blazing sunshine on the west side of a building on a summer afternoon, though, heat is not at all like warmth.  It is a whole other animal, one that snarls at warmth and sends it scampering to cower under the covers.  It does not fill you with a cozy glow as if from within.  It beats at you from without.  It is an alien, different from warmth not only in degree (ahaha) but also in kind.  It lives by its own rules.

I was thinking about that quantum leap from warmth to heat while wandering around at Plants of the Southwest a while ago.  The parking lot at the nursery has a long mixed border filled in an easy-breezy way with dry-climate plants.  On a hot, hazy afternoon, the silvery blues and grays of their leaves shimmered like heat waves rising from the gravel.  Scattered yellow daisies radiated light like miniature suns.  The lavender looked dusty and faded.  All but one of the plantings spoke the inarticulate, panting language of heat.  The lone exception, the Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera), gave voice to a poetry of warmth.  The flowers' rich mahogany invited heat back into the fold.  They reduced it to a human scale and did what they could to tame it.  They tethered it to something comfortable and comforting.

A few Ratibida came home with me, where they've taken up residence in the small, central "I Wish I Were a Shortgrass Prairie (But I'm Not)" bed.  I trimmed the blossoms off to help the plants settle in, and they are slowly beginning to flower again.

Two tiny Mexican hats in the left foreground, with blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis); across the path is a much larger patch of sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes) than I expected.

I love watching them bloom.  First the cones form, in a pale green that echoes the blue grama grass.

For some reason this just makes my heart sing.

A few days later the sterile ray flowers begin to reach out, their petals lined with gold.

Soon the disc flowers come to life.

They mosey slowly on up the cone.  Once the whole cone is alight, the ray flowers fade and fall.

Watching them bloom is like watching a fire start.  Not a conflagration—not one of the wildfires that have devoured so much of the west this year—but a small fire, a campfire, a cozy warmth rather than the wildfires' white heat.  The kindling catches, and flames slowly lick around the smaller twigs and then the larger logs.  They sashay on up through the whole stack of fuel until everything is dancing merrily with light and color, and then die back down again to the embers. 

Seeing these flowers, you remember that, like fire, heat colored with warmth can be a domestic thing, and a good one.  You remember firelit evenings in the mountains when you would watch the shadows playing, and the light shining redly on faces gathered in a circle, where you held out your hands to the flames.

Overhead, almost close enough to touch, the stars would kindle, until the night sky was gently, quietly ablaze.

Ratibida columnifera is one of my favorite garden perennials, so I'll sing its praises in a practical way, too.  I've grown Mexican hats before and will only warn against treating them kindly.  Given little luxuries like water and compost, they get waist high, and are not welcome in the front of the border.  Otherwise, they're 18" tall or so and not quite as wide.  In Albuquerque they bloom from roughly the end of May until mid-August or September.  Like most long-blooming members of the aster family, they are short-lived, but they self-seed in an easy-going way, so that stands of them can live for a long time.  The mahogany-with-yellow form (R. columnifera var. pulcherrima) also has a sister form that is golden yellow (R. columnifera).  They grow naturally from Mexico to British Columbia and so can take just about any garden conditions, including cracks in the sidewalk, except extremes of pH and heavy clay.  (And kindness.)  They like heat and sun, but they're hardy at least to zone 4 if not colder and will still bloom well in light shade.  In my morning-sun conditions, these tap-rooted plants need some but not much supplemental water once established; they would no doubt want more in all-day sun in a dry climate (10" moisture or less per year).  They're fine in wetter climates where they will probably grow larger.  Leaves are finely cut and a good blue-grama-grass green.  They grow mostly around the base, not along the stems, so the overall effect is fairly airy.  The plants have a winter form that I could take or leave, but the basal leaves stay green.  Goldfinches will eat the seeds, if they can get to them before the ants do.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


or Making Room

The rain fell hard.  It struck an orchestra's worth of tones from the hardscape of the city:  dull, thudding drum notes from the roof, staccato tinklings off the metal gate, resonant pings against the windows.  The sidewalks hissed, the swamp cooler chimed like an untuned bell.  The water rushing from the canale by the kitchen door sang as the cistern caught it.

In the garden, amid the living things, the rain fell more quietly.  As I sat slicing peaches near the kitchen window I could hear the soft pattering of droplets on leaves and earth.

The peaches were a gift from an acquaintance.  A windstorm the night before had blown several bushels of soft, ripe fruit from her trees, and she was anxious that they be put to use.  I gladly came away with a couple of bags, and spent the evening peeling and pitting, cutting away bruises and blemishes.  The fragrance of peaches, the fragrance of rain, both of them were unexpected and precious.  They mingled beguilingly while the wind blew cool.  The practical part of me, the part that wasn't giddy with ambrosia, wondered what to do with the quantities of fruit.  As I worked and pondered I kept a watchful eye on the canale.

The canale in question (on a sunnier day).

It's in an odd place, draining over a tight corner between the house and the little wall and gate that divide front from back.  Left to its own devices in a heavy rain the canale can send torrents of water gushing down.  The force eats away at the base of the wall and washes little arroyos into the crusher fines on the path between the houses.  It's my own flash flood zone in miniature, a small version of the floods that are always the flip side of drought.

In Albuquerque, with the sheer limestone and granite cliffs of the Sandia Mountains on the edge of town, the sun-baked, packed earth in the foothills, and the concrete and asphalt of the city, an intense storm can send a mountain's worth of rain down from the heights to flood the valley in short order.  Hard surfaces can't take in all that water at once, so you have to divert the water and temporarily make room for it elsewhere.  The city has an extensive network of arroyos and catchment areas to cope with the problem.  I have a much smaller problem, and a cistern.

Sorry about the trash can, but it has to go somewhere.

A glazed pot, really, partially filled with gravel.  The pot catches the water pouring from the canale, and the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot lets the water out again in a smaller stream.  To slow the water even more, a shallow trench, deepening as it gets farther from the foundation of the house, is filled with gravel and planted with vinca; the far end of the trench waters one of the boxwoods. 

The rain that night was the hardest we've had since I set up the drainage system, and I was pleased to see that this bit of hardscaping worked.  The flow from the cistern wasn't forceful enough even to budge the gravel underneath; the overflow from the trench puddled in the crusher fines but didn't wash them away.  The rain was a lot of a good thing rather than too much.  It was a windfall, like the peaches, a generosity in life to be enjoyed all of a sudden.

The peaches have been turned into a simple sauce, ripe for a touch of culinary brilliance, should I have one, this autumn or winter.   Fortunately I had just cleared out the freezer anyway, making room by chance for all this bounty.  The pint jars glow with summer light every time I open the freezer door.

Peaches and rain:  reminders to make room for those moments when the feast-or-famine winds of life turn sharply toward feasting.  Room, so that a windfall isn't left to lie, feeding no one.  Room, so that a shower of good things doesn't run off unyielding surfaces.  Room, so that good things can soak into the soft places, bringing life to thirsty roots.

Room to enjoy a lot of a good thing, all of a sudden.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


or Unconformity

The finches are calling to one another from the feeder in the side yard and the desert olive in the back, from the neighbors' sycamore across the way.  Their calls strike me as a kind of echolocation:  sound waves sent out to meet another bright body and be reflected back from it.  Lesser Goldfinches are not comfortable being alone.  Their whistles and sighs and rasps—"Are you there?  I'm here."  "I'm here.  Are you still there?"—are a way of affirming each others' presence and and making the strength of connection clear.  They are a kind of safety net, a reassurance that all is as it should be.

Humans are social animals, too, or so said Aristotle, more or less.  True aloneness is for the very few:  ascetics who seek enlightenment through solitude; misanthropes who shun their fellows.  Solitary confinement is an extreme form of punishment that trespasses on the cruel and unusual.  We are wired to live in community.  A rift between people is a hard thing and a sad one, our own version of the goldfinch whistling to its kin and hearing nothing in reply.  In the face of that emptiness, we, too, grow distressed.

I've found myself thinking about rifts this week, after my old friend from out of town and I drove to the Sandia Crest and rambled around for a few hours along the knife-edge of the mountains on the eastern rim of the Rio Grande Rift.

An off-shoot of the Sandia Crest trail, somewhere around 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) above sea level,
and about a mile above the Rio Grande valley.

The Sandias aren't actually part of the Rocky Mountains.  Unlike the Rockies, they weren't formed when the earth's surfaces crumpled together, but rather when they tore apart.  Movement along California's San Andreas Fault put pressure on land in what is now southern Colorado and New Mexico, causing the crust of the earth to split.  In the same way that  pie-crust dough, rolled too thin, tears apart in a series of ovals, so the earth, as it tore, formed a series of long, rounded valleys:  the San Luis in Colorado, and the Española and middle Rio Grande valleys in New Mexico.  In the middle Rio Grande valley, the break on the east side of the rift tilted the Sandia Mountains up; on the western side, the weakened earth allowed heat to vent as volcanoes.

Looking west over the Rio Grande valley, with the river in the foreground, and the cities of Albuquerque, Corrales, Rio Rancho, and Bernalillo alongside it; volcanic Mount Taylor is in the background about 60 miles away.

In between mountains and volcanoes, the land sank, inviting water to drain into it.  Those waters became the Rio Grande.  The river then nurtured life in a variety and to an extent that otherwise would not exist in the desert.  The shady bosque—the cottonwood forest—that runs the length of the middle Rio Grande valley, the seasonal flights of sandhill cranes that I love, the large human settlement of Albuquerque along its banks, would not have been possible without the Rio Grande Rift.

The Sandias themselves are full of rifts of different kinds:  the Great Unconformity, a mysterious gap of eons between the mountains' Precambrian granite bones and their surface coat of late-day limestone; the cracks in stone worked by time and weather and exacerbated by the insistent roots of limber pines;

Some of the Sandias' limber pines (Pinus flexilis) are more than 1,500 years old.

the disparity between the long lives of the pines and the brief ones of flowers.

Coral bells, or Sandia alumroot (Heuchera pulchella)

In the mountains, as in the valley, a great diversity of life is made possible because of the Rift.  Sandia coral bells, now much-loved nursery plants, grow wild only here, in the limestone crevices of these mountains and the neighboring Manzanos.  Alpine flowers flourish on the open heights.

One of many Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) among Geyer's wild onion (Allium geyeri)
and miscellaneous small, yellow flowers.  (That's as specific as I can usually get with small, yellow flowers.)

Columbines gleam among the high-altitude spruce and fir.

Desert columbine (Aquilegia desertorum)

The Rio Grande Rift and the many smaller rifts within it are stories of possibility, of new avenues for life, of openings where roots can take hold and water can flow, and small beings can find shelter and safety.  Not all of those possibilities will turn out well; many years hence these roots may widen the gaps in stone to their own destruction:

A limber pine on the edge.

but in the meantime life will have thrived on the glorious brink of disaster for centuries.

I am struck at what a different effect rifts have on us humans.  Try as I might, I cannot twist these geologic stories of possibility around to a tidy moral tale.  My own experience of rifts does not conform to the mountains'.  My friend has returned home, and I am mildly bereft.  When I walk in the door the sense lingers that I should be walking into a conversation.  I'm not.  A gap yawns between friendship lived in person and friendship across continents, a rift, even though no division but space lies between us.

In the face of a chasm, we don't look expectantly for creative niches to fill.  We reach out to nullify it, to bridge it by any means possible.  We call out plaintively like the goldfinches, "I'm still here."

Are you there, too?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Extravagant Art

or Divas

One of my favorite people of all time is in town, and he and I are headed to the Santa Fe Opera tonight.  I do love "the extravagant art," as it's called:  the hoopla and fanfare

'Major Wheeler' Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), May 2012

and sumptuous costuming;

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

the villain plotting from the shadows;

He Who Must Not Be Named (baritone)

the virtuosic solos

Lace cactus (Echinocerereus reichenbachia), May 2012

and intricate ensemble work;

'Fino verde' basil, 'Flamingo' chard, and 'He-Shi-Ko' bunching onions

the chorus members in the wings, waiting for their time in the spotlight;

'Kerala red' amaranth

the over-the-top emotions

and the gracious false modesty when the lead singers take their bows.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

It's almost as exciting as a garden.