Monday, February 23, 2009

The Garden – Part 5

February 23, 2009

The garden is a cacophony of sound today. The sun is shining and there is a slight breeze. This day is a blessing since our nights have dipped below freezing. We are still clutching our seed packets afraid they will freeze if we plant too soon. The sprinkler from next door is cheerfully watering our sidewalk. I move the clothes drying on the line away from the spray. The seed pods on the mimosa still rattle in the wind although a few have dropped off to the ground and into the pond. The branches of the chaste tree creak in the wind. They still look naked and bare with no sign of life. I anticipate the first of the purple buds that echo the color of the sunsets.

The crazy clumsy black birds that love our yard and trees are having a chat. After poring over the nature guides, I am convinced that this awkward bird must be the Chihuahua raven. Chihuahua state is our nearest neighbor in Mexico over the border. His typical call is a raucous “kraack” but today he is in a jolly mood and is going through his entire repertoire. Where has he been to learn his songs? I hear the distinctive “bob white, bob-bob white” of the quail. The “whippoorwill” is on his program today too. These are meadow birds, birds of the fields, but this urban scavenger has learned their songs and brought them to the city. I wonder what the country birds are singing these days?


“Bats are people from the land of souls, land where moon dwells. They are listeners to our woes, hearers of changes in earth, predictors of earthquake and storm.” Linda Hogan

Photo by Albert Wong

My classmate Becca has posted on bats and others have responded to her posting and to our recent reading from Linda Hogan, but my El Paso bats still have more to say through me. Here in El Paso, the most common bats are the Mexican fruit bat and the Mexican free tail bat. Both species are larger than Becca’s Indiana bats and they have huge bat-wing ears to match their flight equipment.

I’ve been fascinated by bats from back in my high school and college days when we went spelunking in the central Kentucky limestone caves that riddle the earth under our homes and crops. There is something fey and uncanny about walking into a cavern room; the only sound is the scrunching of your footsteps and yet, there is another presence in the room with you. Look up and you will see hundreds, thousands of bats hanging side by side like the woolly socks on my drying rack. Their sensitive sonar is disturbed by the change in air made by your entrance. They are not still, they rustle and move. Although they sleep as one, they are so alive and aware of you in an indescribable way. I am short but their folded wings brush my hair when I do not duck quite low enough. This is their space. You are the intruder and so step warily. A thousand bats taking flight at once is not your goal.

A few hours from my El Paso home is the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad is not as big or as beautiful as the gypsum caverns from my days in Mammoth Cave National Park or Diamond Caverns back in Kentucky, but Carlsbad is impressive for another reason. During the summer, once the weather warms up, tourists and visitors gather in the amphitheatre outside the cave entrance (exit?) at dusk. We are chatting quietly until someone sees the first one, then another. Then we all join in awe as thousands upon thousands of Mexican free tail bats leave the cave to hunt for the night. The swoop and dive right above us intent only on insects. They repeat their performance every night until it is too cold in the fall.

NPS Photo by Nick Hristov

I cherish even more my local bats. We mostly see a combination of the Mexican fruit bat which is huge and the Mexican free tail. By May, I will be on my front porch watching and waiting for the first bats to appear. Every bat that hunts outside my door is an affirmation of humans living in harmony with nature. Every bat is a celebration of my garden. Linda Hogan says, “How do we learn to trust ourselves to hear the chanting of the earth?” I say listen; the bats will chant the earth for us.

23 February 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Copper Controversy

 Note to readers: this posting is an early response to next week’s class prompt. It seemed appropriate to post today since this is the one year anniversary since I began my blog on February 16, 2008.

Since I moved to El Paso, in view from my window, my car, or when I take a walk, is the distinctive red and white Asarco tower. Asarco has been a part of the central El Paso landscape for over 110 years. Recently the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) voted to void all permits for the Asarco copper smelter to reopen. This has been a painful divisive process for the entire city. Many of us view Asarco as a polluter and a company that has indiscriminately distributed a disgusting smoky haze, sour air that burns the throat and dangerous heavy metals, including lead and arsenic among others, over three states for over 100 years. However, the old-timers see it as being a company that faithfully employed many over those same 110 years. Unfortunately the company has been both.

Several years ago, El Paso discovered through testing that heavy metals occurred at alarming levels in homes in the Kern Place, Mission Hills, Rim Road and Sunset Heights areas. All of these are desirable neighborhoods quite close to the university, some of the homes valued at in the millions. It was determined that Asarco which had temporarily closed a few years earlier was the most likely culprit and the Environmental Protection Agency was brought in to do extensive testing of every home, front and back yards, in the affected areas. Those that were determined to have dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals were slated to have all of their topsoil removed and replaced. A huge undertaking.

So my neighborhood was scheduled for testing, mailings went out in which we detailed what was the best time to catch us home, was there easy access to front and back yards, did we have dogs, etc. I filled out my form requesting 24 hour notice to confine my dogs. Do you believe in fairy tales? I had spent two years at my former house, planting desert plants, trees and removing the rock coated “zero-scaping” the previous owner had installed. My neighbor had rocks for the front yard and scrub in the back. Some months later, I received the results of my “tests” including details for the alleged testing done in the back yard where I housed two rather large, very protective dogs. Would you go into such a yard uninvited? My next door neighbor, on the other hand, was notified that all of her topsoil would be removed and replaced. Our yards are separated by a chain-link fence. Do you have an explanation of how her yard could be dangerously contaminated while mine was perfectly safe? That’s when I decided the whole thing was a scam. It was going to cost too damn much money to replace the topsoil over miles of closely inhabited urban neighborhoods. So my personal belief is that they did not test every yard. They selectively tested enough to look good on paper. No one came to my house, but there were their test results. It reminded me of the Bible story about one shall be taken and one shall be left behind. Seemed very arbitrary to me.

A vicious battle at both state and local level has been waged for many years now. Asarco has long asserted that they have in no way been responsible for polluting the soil or the air. The web-links below are all articles that appeared in the El Paso Times over the course of six days this February. Asarco lost its bid to reopen and begin smelting copper again. Now that the battle is over, there is no secret that 100 acres of prime real estate is dangerously full of carcinogens, heavy metals and hopelessly polluted soil. So who is responsible for paying for the mess? Asarco, in the middle of the battle, filed for bankruptcy while still fighting to reopen and saying they had done nothing to damage the environment. The state is setting aside $52 million but we know from past disasters like Love Canel and even other Asarco plants in other states that the cost of cleaning a site could run as much as five times that or more. Are the taxpayers to foot the bill? El Paso Times ran an online poll with one of the articles. Out of 1,373 votes, almost 90% voted no to the question posed, “Should taxpayers foot the massive bill to clean up the Asarco site?”

According to the El Paso Times:
“The state has said $52 million will be needed and that the company will fund a trust to pay for remediation of the 100-acre site. Others, including Texas Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, say the cleanup may cost up to $250 million and taxpayers may wind up paying the bill. The higher estimate is based on the fact that in Tacoma, Wash., it has taken 26 years and $100 million to clean up the Asarco site that was shut down in 1983. And, in Omaha, Neb., 10 years after the Asarco plant was demolished -- and a riverfront park put on top of it -- the EPA today continues to clean lead from contaminated homes. The cleanup is costing $400 million and contaminated homes span a 20-mile radius. Asarco announced last week that it was ending all plans to reopen its 110-year-old smelter plant in El Paso. The announcement has local and state officials scurrying to make sure Asarco money is secured to clean up the site so that El Paso taxpayers are not left with a multimillion-dollar cleanup bill. The El Paso City Council is continuing to fight any permits Asarco is seeking and monitoring the company's bankruptcy proceedings.”

Bracamontes, Ramon.“TCEQ says money to clear Asarco smelter site secured.” El Paso Times. 15 February 2009.)

As in Aesop’s Fable, the question is: who is going to bell the cat? The moral is: things are easier said than done. Or perhaps in this case and many others across the country and throughout the world, it is cheaper to take the easy way and trash the environment irresponsibly rather than spend the money to do it right and safely the first time around.

One of my earlier posts referred to a Washington state law requiring manufacturers to be responsible for the cost of the entire life-cycle of what they make and sale. That will drastically change the cost of things like televisions, computers, plastics and a host of other products. But the reality is that we have not been paying full cost for these products since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We shove atomic testing into Utah and Nevada because no one lives there. We buy cheap products from Wal-Mart and then complain about human rights and employment conditions in China, India and Sri Lanka. Southern cotton mills gave everyone brown lung so we ship our cotton overseas to be processed because health care costs and union issues grew to be not cost-effective. Someone pays the price with their health or their life somewhere.

I am quoting from my original first post on this blog that I wrote exactly a year ago today:

“As responsible world citizens, we must begin to make ourselves aware of absolutely everything we consume. For each and every choice, we must consider where it came from, do we really need it, will we actually use it, and where will it go when we are finished with it.”

I still believe this. The distinctive Asarco tower has loomed over El Paso for over a century and may have caused the deaths of unknown numbers of workers and people who lived in its shadow in “Smelter Town.” Will there be even more health hazards when they begin the tear down? Over 110 years, over 100 acres of land and who pays the price? We do. Maybe not now, not this year, but we are all responsible. We have always been and we always will be.

I look out my window and I see the Asarco tower. It is still there.

Additional information from El Paso Times newspaper. There was a problem with the hyperlinks. Please copy the following web-links into your browser if you are interested in reading further about this controversy. "At Asarco’s Request, TCEQ Voids All Air Permits for Smelter" "If $52 million isn’t enough taxes will pay for Asarco clean up" "Asarco Clean-up: Taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill" "UTEP students asked to pitch plans for Asarco land" "TCEQ says money to clear Asarco smelter site secured" "Video memories of Asarco"

The Garden – Part 4

February 16, 2009

My Uncle Tommie always planted by the moon. He kept a Farmer’s Almanac I mean the old fashioned paperback kind that has been around since 1792. He also had a calendar that marked each day as to whether it was fertile and good for planting or a barren day according to the position of the planets. It marked good fishing days too and he loved to fish. Something must have worked because he was a phenomenally successful fisherman and his garden was the most prolific of anyone in the neighborhood.

This past weekend, Saturday and Sunday were both fertile days and excellent for planting. Saturday we went shopping for seeds. It is still too early and cold for any vegetable plants to be sold at the local garden shops. Shopping for seeds is an exercise in speculation and dreaming. It is so easy to be seduced by the luscious pictures on the packages. It is so tempting to over-buy because, “oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to have . . . .” Albert tried to be practical and wanted to buy seeds for vegetables that are most expensive to buy at the grocer. The problem is some of those vegetables are expensive because they are much fussier about their light, water and soil requirements. That’s why the ripe veggies rack up the bigger grocery bill. We compromised with an assortment of beans, greens, onions, beets, squash, cucumbers and herbs. All of this is a tiny plot about 6 feet by 10 feet. What were we thinking.

Sunday morning dawned sunny and beautiful with just a hint of chill in the air. That afternoon we decided to finish working the turned soil in the garden patch. By the time, we garbed ourselves in gloves, gathered shovels and rakes and actually began to work, the warming sun had crept behind the clouds. What had been a promising bright morning was now overcast and gloomy. In the desert, gloomy is not a bad thing because it is rather unusual and it means that the sun isn’t cooking the back of your neck but today is even too grey and dreary for the mockingbird to appear. Spring is so brief here in El Paso. If we don’t get the seeds planted soon, it will be far too hot for the new seedlings. They will wither and dry up in the harsh sun. So now is the time for planting. Too soon, they freeze. Too late, they cook. It is a delicate balance.

Nothing got planted on Sunday. It took us until dark to finish breaking up the hard clods of dirt and separating grass from the soil. There is an interesting thing about grass in the desert. My experience is that it grows best where you don’t want it at all. Once we start watering the new seeds, every bit of grass we don’t remove will become a plant-strangling Audrey that will choke out our delicate seedlings. The bed is soft and level now and our shoulders and backs ache with the effort. The last step will be to plant the seeds and scatter compost from the compost bin over the seeds to tuck them in. We also need to devise a way to keep Fanny, the Wonder Dog from lolling in the plant bed. Wherever we work, there she must be too. If it interesting to us, then she knows our feelings would be hurt if she doesn’t show an interest. That means a fence, or something.

The next fertile days are Thursday and Friday. Can we get everything in order by then? Next weekend are barren days. The only possible weekend is the 28th. The Farmers’ Almanac doesn’t take into account that some farmers teach for a living and have no daylight hours on weekdays for their farming. The bed is ready, the seeds are ready, the soaker hose is ready. What we need now is a good planting day, no freezing nights and some sun. And time.

Sow Those Seeds!

Click on the title for a great editorial from the New York Times by Verlyn Klinkenborg comparing the new wave of modern gardeners with the Victory Gardens of World War II.


I’ve been reading my classmates blogs and thinking about what a unique opportunity we have in this class to vicariously experience in real-time nature, animals, weather and more in so many different locations. Think about it. If we were all taking this class at Chatham, we would all be limited to the area near Pittsburgh. Granted there is diversity there, too. But I delight in reading about Mark Anthony’s friend rabbit; Becca’s woodpeckers, doves and her mockingbird; Johnny’s unseasonable 12 inches of snow; Kristin’s pigs and dandelions;Mel’s nightwalks and Amanda communing with the moon; Dory’s dichotomy of Florida and New England and Elaina’s delight at her first view of the majestic saguaro I felt the same way, Elaina. I couldn’t believe they were real and that big!

My point is that while Elaina and I are enjoying what passes for spring in the desert with temperatures in the 60’s, we read about your frozen landscapes up north. Our memories of childhood places are colored by the places where we live and work now. To travel through these small intimate gardens and woods with classmates that we haven’t met, gives us a different perspective and insight on our own nature writing place. I used to love living where there were distinct seasons with fall color and winter snows. That’s what I knew growing up, too. But now I read about where you are and I look at my desert with renewed interest. My classmates’ points of view encourage me to be more objective and observant with my own nature writing because I know people will read it who don’t know the desert, perhaps have never lived in this kind of environment. Even though Elaina and I are both in the desert, our deserts are not at all the same. Her red rocks might seem strange and unusual after my familiarity with the Franklin and Organ Mountains.

I think our diversity of environments and locations in our small class should be celebrated. We have an excellent opportunity for seeing the world through each other’s eyes. I can’t wait to see what spring brings for all of us.

16 February 2009

Anolis sagrei

When you arrive at the El Paso International Airport, you see multiple images of an oh-so-typical southwestern reptile. I’ve been told for years it was a gecko but it doesn’t look like the Geico guy. A lizard perhaps? Maybe, but it looks smooth and sinuous, not scaly or spiky. Our airport is rather tastefully renovated with a southwestern flair. The reptiles curve onto the floor, in the tiles, over the carpet, throughout the decorative features. Everything is the colors of sandstone, dunes, sunsets and turquoise. The little lizard guys greet each other nose to tail, tail to nose all throughout the building.

It was a difficult choice to choose an El Paso animal to research. I thought about the butterflies, the odd moths that are the size of hummingbirds and sound like a helicopter, or the klutzy and rather unattractive Chihuahua raven with its characteristic kraaak instead of a caw. But ultimately I chose an animal that by all reports doesn’t even belong here. It has made its home here in the desert and naturalized, sort of like me. That is the anole. There is apparently some disagreement about which varieties are here in El Paso. Some people say it is the Anolis sagrei, while some say Anolis carolinensis. What’s the difference you may ask? Neither of them originated here. The carolinensis species was originally from Florida and Southern Georgia way. Hey, I lived there too! The sagrei anoles are imports from Cuba who hitched rides on imported fruits. I think we share our home with the Anolis sagrei, but the jury is still out. Apparently there is enough in-breeding that no one seems quite sure anymore which is really which or if we have a hybrid of the two. I need a herpetologist to come and give a definitive answer.

The anoles, whichever kind it is, have probably given us more consistent entertainment than any other local animal other than perhaps the bullfrog that lived in Albert’s koi pond at his old house. In the evenings, we often sit in the breakfast room off the kitchen. It has a huge window on a southwesterly wall. In the summer, the heat stays in the thick stone and stucco walls. We have the light on while we plink away on our computers, read or enjoy a cup of tea. Silhouetted on the window, there might be one or two or even five or six anoles, their graceful bodies clinging with their delicate feet onto the screen. They wait, motionless for a gnat, an unaware flyer, or, please heaven, a mosquito for dinner. They are inveterately patient. I am reminded of the old goblin tale, “they do not wink; they do not blink.” Their body is never straight. There is always a gentle curve nose to tail, the letter “c” or “s” perfectly etched on our window.

The first summer after we bought the house, we didn’t see them. Maybe we were too busy, but I think it’s because we bought a house with a typical lawn groomed with chemical warfare. By the second summer, there were native desert plants, a host of butterflies, moths and other flying things and, my canary in the mine telling me all is well, the bats had appeared, swooping and diving at dusk. So I think they came to our house when it was worth their while to come, when there were more tasty choices on the menu. Since we’ve been watching them, they have calmed us with their patient watchfulness, followed by a snap of their tiny jaws. We watch them as they watch and wait.

This past summer during the last warm days of the season, we were witness to a shocking surprise. On the screen were five of the anoles, each holding its individual position. We were mesmerized watching them because there were also moths fluttering against the window. Someone would eat well tonight. Two anoles, quite far apart, were watching the same moth. Snap! One of the anoles darted forward too fast for us to track and caught the moth in his mouth. Then with no warning, the second anole leaped for the other and bit him. Hard! We had never seen anything like it! There had never been an act of aggression from them and we were dumbfounded. The first anole almost lost his grip on his prize. While he was distracted by the attack, the second anole bit him again and snatched whatever wings and moth parts were hanging out of the first one’s mouth. There then ensued a tiny wrestling match for the moth, which was still alive. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was happening on our window. The aggressor won and swallowed the moth still poised for a second attack. The vanquished one backed away and quickly left the hunting ground of our breakfast room window.

We were amazed that we had this peek into a private alien world. These guys are tiny. Their bodies are perhaps 5 – 6 inches long; add the tail and you get another 2 inches. Never would I have dreamed that their lives included attacks, battles and victory. I suppose I assumed that they lived their quiet individual bug hunting without even being aware of the other anoles except at mating season. Even more surprising was when I learned that my window fighters were most likely females of the species. The males are rather distinctive and have a huge pinkish dewlap under their throat that they like to show off. My hunters are a drab brown, almost transparent in places. Survival of the fittest in a girl fight!

Everyone knows that the sleeping kitten has claws and teeth, but an anole? So now when I walk through the El Paso International Airport and I tread on the carpet with those gentle images nose to tail, tail to nose, I wonder who is the fastest. Who will win when the moth lands at my feet? Within a few weeks it will be warm again, the young ones will hatch and we will watch the watchers on our window with new eyes.

16 February 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Avoid Cut Flowers has good advice on reducing your carbon footprint by either growing or buying local flowers rather than cut flowers for your loved ones. Click on the title to view the full TerraPass article.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Garden – Part 3

February 8, 2009

Yesterday would have been a perfect day to work in the garden but I was incarcerated in a training meeting all day. By the time I arrived home, the sun was going down. Today, the morning started out beautifully. However, it became the kind of day that makes us hide in El Paso. By noon, the clouds were scudding across the sky. It became grey and blustery with the wind carrying dust and grit from the mountains across the border in Mexico. I had been enjoying the back yard. Today was laundry day and the t-shirts and towels were snapping over our garden plot as the wind picked up. I should have known, the animals told me. Our wolfy-looking dog was hiding in her house and there were no birds, not even our friend the mockingbird. They knew that the weather was changing. After peeling down to summer-wear, now I pull an alpaca sweater over my head before dashing out to get the laundry off the line.

So today instead of soaking up the sun in my back yard, I am gazing out the window at a gloomy day, a rarity in El Paso. We count on the bright sun so much of the year that we never seem quite prepared for the occasional rain. The bottle brush is tossing in the wind. Within a few weeks its fire-engine red blossoms will be ready to burst open. The rose leaves are appearing, the iris has returned from its brief winter sleep and the chaste trees are covered with buds. The mimosa rattles like dry bones keeping last year’s pods a little longer. The winds will eventually tear the pods away to grow little mimosas elsewhere.

The acacia tree is leafing out. We need to put a supporting strap around the multiple trunks. Last fall we had to remove a major branch that grew too heavy with the brown pods that stain our driveway. The tree was never pruned properly and now it is paying the price with unhealthy branches. Insects always find the weakest point and the tree bleeds sap where they are worrying it.

The acacia is even more tenacious than the non-native mimosa. I am always amazed at the fecundity of desert plants. The majority of my friends have one to two children, perhaps three. The acacia is prepared to spread its seed to all corners with thousands upon thousands of brown bean-like seeds. How many will actually germinate? Three or four, even one hundred are a tiny proportion to what it produces every year. I hope the wind blows to the west when it is time for the acacia to fly. The tiny seedlings are much hardier than any garden vegetable. A tiny plant only an inch above the ground requires pliers to pull up. The tenacious roots will have already dug deep seeking any moisture before the delicate lace-like leaves appear above ground.

Tonight will be cold.

NPR story: E-Waste Law: Manufacturers Pay For Recycling

This week National Public Radio (NPR) a story about a new law in the state Washington that now requires manufacturers to be responsible for the entire life cycle of electronics. This is a huge step in the right direction. A shocking number of computers, game systems and other electronic devices containing heavy metals and many recyclable elements are ended up dumped in landfills regardless of local laws concerning their disposal. This becomes even more important with the switch to digital televisions which will produce even more dangerous waste.

I'm glad Washington State has taken the initiative. Now what about the other 49 states? And why didn't we start doing this 50 years ago?
E-Waste Law: Manufacturers Pay For Recycling
by Ann Dornfeld

Golden apples of the sun

February 8, 2009

In Becca’s recent posting, Sign of Spring
on her blog she said she dreaded the spring. I understand her dread. My mother has been dead for sixteen years now and Christmas has never been the same for my sister, my son or for me. Christmas has long been associated with a time of mourning for us not a time of joy. My love for farming and for growing things was instilled in me by my mother. I don’t remember her ever complaining about the work being too hard, the days too long or the sun too hot. My father did much of the heavy farm work so it was left to us, the woman and the children to plant the garden, hoe the weeds, and harvest for canning and freezing in the late summer and autumn.

Spring for me is a time to take a deep breath and begin anew. Spring is a time for planning and for planting. Looking through seed catalogues even the act of running seeds through my fingers is a memory of my mother. We’ll grow tiny sweet bell tomatoes because when I was a child, we ate them over candy. My mother always made sure that there were a few of those planted. Funny, I don’t remember them being served at the table. What I remember is my mother walking back from the garden where my sister and I were resting in the shade. Her skirt was lifted up with her white cotton slip showing and in the basket formed by the cloth of her skirt was a mound of golden yellow tomatoes. When I hear a song or story with a reference to silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun, I think of those sun-kissed tomatoes she gathered for us.

Becca says, “If home is where you keep your stuff, then this is definitely home. And if home is where you spent your childhood, I’m in the right place.” My stuff is in El Paso, my childhood was in Kentucky so which is my home now? Either, or neither? I’m still not sure. Becca, grief has no season but we do still have hope and we have our memories to sustain us and comfort us. Nearly every day, I will think of something I want to tell my mother. There are times I have reached for the phone wanting to call her. There are times I dream of her, clear eyed, loving and strong. The grief will fade but your memories never will. When your memory of childhood awakens in the spring, cherish it and look forward to a glorious spring.

An Elegy

February 8, 2009

Requiem (excerpt)

by Wendell Berry

Though the green fields are my delight,
elegy is my fate. I have come
to be survivor of many and of much
that I love, that I won’t see
come again into this world.

The word requiem is often associated with the Mass for the dead, but according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, it also means rest. An elegy is a song of mourning. Our reading of Wendell Berry’s work this week and all of our discussion and postings about family members who have died made me get out Wendell Berry’s The Wheel, a collection of poems that celebrate the great circle of life while mourning both people and ways that have passed on.

The two excerpts I am posting have a deeper meaning for me today than they did 25 years ago when Mr. Berry signed my copy of The Wheel. I understand them so much better but now I wonder what losses he must have had in his life to have written these poems so long ago. But of course he wasn’t much older than I am now when he wrote them. By the time you reach my age, there are substantial losses. He speaks of the connection between the living and the dead and the connection of the land between the living and the dead. Another of the poems in this collection called “Rising” says, “There is kinship of the fields that gives to the living the breath of the dead.” His poems are gentle and quiet but they speak of people and things that won’t “come again into this world.”

As we start our garden in the back, I look back to my childhood and my youth when farming was a way of life with us. Since my son was born eighteen and half years ago, I have tried to share with him my knowledge and experiences. I have so desperately wanted him to love the earth and the joy of growing things, of harvesting and eating the fruits of your labors. Loving the land and growing things are so much a part of who I was and who I am, somehow I thought it would be in his blood too. It is not.

It saddens me that I cannot seem to impart this tradition, this fundamental relationship with the land to my son. I do not want to see him become a consumer, one of those strangers so far removed from the earth. But he is not a farmer. He will help. If asked. He doesn’t volunteer though.

I remember when he was a baby of two and three, asking to pick the herbs growing by the house. He would crush the mint, the basil, the sage in his tiny hand to smell the sharp scent. We picked plums and figs from the trees still warm from the sun. So much time has passed since then. I don’t think he will ever love the earth the way I did. The way I do.

My son’s grandparents are all dead now. My parents were farmers and so were their parents before them and beyond for I don’t know how many generations. Most young people today don’t care about the old ways of doing things. Who will be left to remember, to tell, when the last of us are gone?

The backyard soil that Albert turned with such hard work is cold now and hardening in the sun. It is still too cold to plant anything. But we talk about what to plant where and how much. Beans, tomatoes, greens, for sure, and herbs; a real herb garden, not a few pots on the porch. We will plant and we will tend and we will harvest. Albert grew up in a Hong Kong high-rise but his love for cooking ties him to the land in a different way. My son will eat the fruits of our garden and perhaps the love of the earth will seep into him with the warmth of the sun, or maybe not. Perhaps when I am gone, too, he will remember. But still, I will rest easier in the night knowing the plants are growing in the back yard.

In Rain (excerpt)

by Wendell Berry

Let the rain come,
the sun, and then the dark,
for I will rest
in an easy bed tonight.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Response to Dory and Elaina

In Dory’s Nature Writing blog, she refers to “Florida in its natural state” being “an inhospitable environment, or at least for humans.” El Paso, which is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, is also an inhospitable place for humans to live. It is much better suited to geckos, lizards, and coyotes. A colony of skunks and the occasional fox stroll by when we take a walk. They are so used to humans that they only stop and look at us as we all go unmolested about our business, just as the deer watched and moved on in Dory’s earlier posting. We are blessed with fewer bugs than southern Florida but thankfully there are enough to provide a substantial dinner for the bats.

Our house is near the university campus and in the shadow of the Franklin Mountains. We live less than two miles from downtown, less than five miles from the Mexican border. The Franklins are furrowed near their base with arroyos. An arroyo cuts through our neighborhood. An arroyo is a low area or wash that provides natural drainage when we have our torrential rainstorms once or twice a year. El Paso for many years was true desert with six inches or less of rainfall each year. In recent years, our response to global change has been surprising floods. The sandy soil cannot absorb the now about eight inches of rain that seems to all come within a few days in August. Population and expansion in El Paso have pushed people to build in places where they should have never built, much like the Florida wetlands that man tried to reclaim. In our last flood, houses filled with mud and roads broke apart to accommodate the rains that continued to fall while the mountains poured their excess water down into what should have been our natural collection system, the arroyos. The arroyos always have provided stunning views of the mountains framed by spectacular sunsets. A most desirable place to live, right? But when the arroyos are bulldozed and paved like Joni Mitchell’s parking lot, the water still comes. We are perhaps the geological opposite to watery humid Miami but water is an essential part of the desert eco-system, in a different way.

Similar to Elaina at I thought the desert landscape was unappealing when I first arrived in El Paso. I grew up in the soft hills of Kentucky; had lived on the windy plains of Iowa, near the San Diego beach, among the pine forests of North Carolina and southern coastal Georgia. My son was born in my beloved Mystic, Connecticut. I was used to seasons, green trees and grass. Flowers had always grown where I planted them. My first years in the desert were a learning curve as I killed so many plants that were not biologically engineered to grow in the southwestern sun or this harsh alkaline soil. I missed fall and spring. I missed rain.

Then I began to study the native plants that belonged here. I shopped at the annual University of Texas at El Paso sponsored FloraFEST and Native Plant Sale which they hold every April in the Chihuahuan Desert Garden on campus. I watched the plants and animals that live and thrive within our urban populated area. In El Paso the plants and animals do not recognize any superiority or transcendental qualities of their human neighbors. We move in and they join us.

Like Kristin and Dory, I have lived many places and loved them. The El Paso desert is my home now and I am learning to live in harmony with this exigent land so different from any place I have ever called home. I believe the desert welcomes those who understand.

The Garden - Part 2

The Garden - February 1, 2009

I came home from a long Saturday filled with a cafeteria packed with hormonally challenged tweens to find that Albert had spent the day digging up a substantial rectangle of the back yard. This January day had warmed to seventy degrees, a hint of spring coming soon. I came in the back gate and he proudly led me over to the plot. There was a soft pillow of turned earth. The grass was gone and the soil had doubled and was fluffy in volume from his work with the spade. The digging up of the plot, Albert’s removal of the grass, was a commitment. His secret surprise knowing I would come home exhausted. The tension and noise of the day lifted from me. As we stood there watching the beginning of the garden, like a gift, a mockingbird flew boldly down and began shopping for bugs or worms in the newly turned earth. He took our presence for granted as he saucily hopped about this way and that, cocking his head and flipping his tail.

The garden had suddenly become a symbol of our choice to join our lives; the mockingbird an auspicious sign for the project. He took me back to summer mornings when as a child I would wake to the male mockingbird’s entire repertoire of songs. His joyous song filled the dawn as he sang every song he knew while his little ones grew in their hickory tree nest outside my bedroom window.
In El Paso, we don’t see many mockingbirds. Starlings and doves, yes, the scourges of city life. Doves are as plentiful as pigeons in New York City and I cannot love them. Perhaps if there was a market for dove guano? They seem so dull and dense with their tiny beads for eyes. But the mockingbird returns my gaze with a lively, intelligent air as if there is a private joke between you. He has no fear of humans and takes it as his right to join you and share the moment. And we do.

The scent of the earth rises warm, strange and yet familiar. I pause a moment and ponder the sum of chemicals that may buried there. But we have let the soil rest for two and a half years and there will be compost, and mulch. And there will be mockingbirds. I watch him fly away and wonder where his nest is. It doesn’t matter. He knows where we are. He has found our garden and he will be back. He will bring his mate and later his young. Next year they will bring their young. The sun that had warmed the soil has dipped behind the house. It will be dark soon and we turn to go back into the house. We could talk about what to plant first, but we don’t. Not yet. We both savor the moment. Our decision to grow food together has become a reality. It is a beginning.

A Reflection of Peonies

By Mary Oliver

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open –
pools of lace,
white and pink –
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities –
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again –
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

(Prompt #2 All italics reference lines from Mary Oliver’s poem.)

Reading Mary Oliver’s “Peonies” took me back to my childhood, back to the front yard of my parents’ house in Kentucky. In early Spring, the iris sent their sharp green swords through the earth where nothing but dead leaves and jumbled brown bulbs were before. Between the iris beds, there was a clump of peonies so big my five-year-old arms did not reach from one end to the other. Oliver’s description, “the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart,” is so apt. I remember wondering how that profusion of petals could possibly be contained within that tight, hard, green ball. After the iris were in full bloom, the peony buds would appear, swell and, suddenly, they were the size of ping pong balls. It is the memory of them now half a century later that breaks my heart.

The peonies exploding into bloom was always a wonder and a surprise. The peonies were mixed, snowy white “pools of lace” with red veins in their heart. But nestled under the huge snowballs were the smaller but cherished raspberry pink peonies. The pink ones were perhaps half the size of the showy white ones. Even Oliver’s ants in the poem were more impressed by the overshadowing white ones. The pinks were slower to open but when the white peonies were blowsy and tattered, showing the wear of the summer rains, the vivid pinks held their color and their heads high.

My mother would send me to the front yard with kitchen shears to cut flowers for the table. My childish hands would amass a bouquet of bluish-purple iris and white peonies just before their peak of bloom so they would continue to open on the kitchen table. Tucked into the bundle, I placed one or two of the glowing pink peonies. Their smaller blossoms were dominated by the mass of white and blue but they were always my secret delight, “and there it is again – the brave, the bright, the exemplary, blazing open.”

Mary Oliver’s poems seem to love nature but they look at it through wistful eyes. So many of her poems look into the past with bittersweet remembrance or they look forward with underlying sadness and an impending sense of loss. This poem of peonies is a sensual view, a Georgia O’Keefe voluptuous gaze with words into the fleeting beauty of a summer flower.

I have not lived in Kentucky for many years and peonies in the desert landscape of El Paso are just not possible. In my mind’s eye, I see that Kentucky front yard not as it is now with new owners and their tidy beds of petunias, but as it was fifty years ago. I see it on a bright summer day as a child with the morning sun on my arms as I shake the morning dew and the ants from the flowers my mother sent me to gather. My mother loved the iris best, their translucent sapphire petals crowning the fuzzy stripe of yellow that disappeared into the heart. She worried the peonies would carry ants and who knows what else to our dinner on the table. I shook each flower examining the furled petals so that she would welcome them and they could join the bouquet. Her iris and my peonies mingled in the Mason jar.

Gazing into the past, that moment in my childhood seems “wild and perfect.”
The peonies of my old front yard are gone now but they remain, a captured moment in my mind, forever.

Non-natives v/s natives

In a previous post, I provided some definitions for xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is our local response to planting native plants which in turn encourages and nurtures native insects, birds and animals. My classmate, Becca, in her blog at spoke about becoming a beekeeper and wanting to provide native plantings for her bees. She also provided information about the National Wildlife Federation and creating a certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Becca recommended, a nature blog by Emmett Duffy. Duffy has some wonderful advice on using native plants and he provides food for thought about the ultimate effect on our environment, particularly urban and suburban areas, when the dominant plants are non-native species.

Although I consider myself to be someone who cares about and is knowledgeable about ecology and biodiversity, I had not considered the bigger picture of non-native plants affecting the lives of local fauna. For years I have been much more concerned about the use of pesticides and herbicides and the chemical warfare to create green golf-course lawns where none were meant to be. But Duffy’s remarks make so much sense! He says, “Sure, that Wisteria looks nice. But does it taste nice–that is, to the creatures that have to make a living on it? How has this creeping transformation of outdoor space affected the rest of the ecosystem?” I honestly never thought about the long-reaching effects of non-native plants literally starving out our local fauna!

Reading both Becca’s and Duffy’s blogs motivated me to do something very public in our neighborhood. We waited in trepidation for someone to complain to the city authorities when we dug up our front lawn and began planting native plants. The only people who commented were positive about our flowering sages and penstemons so we breathed a sigh of relief. Today I spent time on the National Wildlife Federation website going through the process of certifying our home as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. Our urban yard meets all the requirements of using organic methods, planting natives, and providing food, water and cover for animals. For a $25 fee, they are sending me a weatherproof aluminum sign that we will proudly place in our front yard under the Mount Lemmon Marigold shrub (tagetes lemmonii) to announce that our home is also home to the plants and animals that have made it their home long before us.