Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Drawing in My Feet

"Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
should always close his lips as long as he can –
to tell it shames him, even though he’s blameless;
But here I can’t be still; and by the lines
of this my Comedy, reader, I swear –
and may my verse find favor for long years –
that through the dense and darkened air I saw
a figure swimming, rising up, enough
to bring amazement to the firmest heart,
like one returning from the waves where he
went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
a reef or something else hid in the sea,
who stretches upward and draws in his feet."
Dante, The Divine Comedy (Inf. XVI, 124-136)

I’m intrigued by “a truth which seems a lie”. It’s true that Spring is here, but it feels outside my door like late summer - when the moisture is so wrung out of the air that you get thirsty just smelling flowers. But I think Dante had something more mundane in mind. He was talking about deceitful people, con artists, defrauders, liars.

Having avoiding looking at the balance in my tax-sheltered annuities these past few months, I have no idea what the greed of others has cost me in terms of money. I’m pretty comfortable with my material goods inventory, so I don’t worry about losing my home, my health, or my life’s work. But others do, and that sucks.

Dante says he can’t be silent in the face of such lies. He then promptly swears on the very poem we’re reading that he saw what he saw. Sounds a bit like my financial adviser telling me late last autumn to look at the market as a long term investment, and not worry about short-term losses and gains. I’m now feeling like I’m stuck on a reef in a stormy sea, stretching up and drawing in my feet to avoid being lost in the deluge. Greedy sons of bitches, those financial people. And like Dante, it shames me that I believed them. Not only was I naive, I was greedy in wanting something for nothing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Return of the Swallows

“I keep my fingernails long
so they click when I play the piano
And I’m going to keep them that way
Until the swallows come back to Capistrano”
Joe Ely, Fingernails

Today is the feast of Saint Joseph, which swallows celebrate by returning to the Mission San Juan Capistrano, about 1.5 hours north of my house.

The swallows make nests of mud with the entrance at the bottom that look like tiny wasps nests. Wherever they’re permitted to stay, they tend to return annually, making yet more mud nests. The result can be a nuisance (as pictured above by this guy) so the legend is a bit more romantic than the reality.

One man’s romantic myth is another man’s filthy nuisance. I think Joe Ely’s poetry is like the swallow nests. Either you see it as a transcendental image that will stick in your head forever, or a lame nonsense rhyme that insults the very word poetry.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Palo Verde Tree

"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. "
-- Francis Bacon

People who live in the North American southwest in sprawling Sonoran Desert know the yellow flowers of the Palo Verde (Fabaceae, Parkinsonia florida, (Cercidium floridum)) tree as harbinger of Spring in our region. We celebrate these yellow flowers the way the yellow forsythia flowers are welcomed as Spring heralds in the east. The trunks and branches of Palo Verde (green stick) trees are indeed green, although the trunk tends to mellow to a soft gray with age. Because the pinnate leaves of these species are so tiny, the green branches aid in photosynthesis. Palo Verde trees are drought deciduous, and can even drop smaller branches to survive. Their yellow flowers show off from March through May, attracting pollinators like beetles, flies and bees, thus inviting birds to forage and nest in its branches.

And it's not just useful to the critters. According to The Living Desert: “The Cahuilla Indians were known to harvest the seeds during the months of July to August. The seeds were dried and ground in mortars to produce a flour which could be used to make a mush or to make cakes. Palo Verde seeds were also a known food source for the Pima and Papago Indians of Arizona.“

Pictured here are the two Palo Verde (either Blue Palo Verde or Mexican Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) trees in the Water Conservation Garden last spring. The flowers are a uniform yellow.

As you can see from close-up blooms of the ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid at The Garden (pictured below), have some orange, making the overall color richer. The best thing about the Desert Museum however, is that unlike its cousins, it is thornless.

So, where did the thornless hybrid come from? It’s name tells us. According to Arid Zone Trees:
“In the late 1970's Mark Dimmitt with the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) began noticing Blue Palo Verdes that exhibited characteristics suggesting they were hybrids of other Palo Verde species. He collected and planted seeds from the assorted trees he had observed and began evaluating them. By 1981 he had identified a thornless seedling as clearly superior to the others collected. Careful evaluation of the genetic composition of this hybrid, named 'Desert Museum', revealed it to be a complex hybrid having genetic characteristics from Mexican, Blue and Foothill Palo Verde.”

I intended to plant my tree in my mostly sunny front yard, where the steep terrain would provide good drainage and allow the roots to spread out and find their own water. We recently chopped down the old dead tangerine tree, and knowing there’s a sprinkler head in the planter area, I figured this would be a good home for my Desert Museum specimen. Boy, was I wrong. The railroad ties apparently collect all the heavy clay, making the spot a muddy pit that would almost certainly drown the poor roots.

One site I found researching the matter, said they shouldn’t be too near a water source as they prefer to seek out their own supplies. So, I’ll obey nature and find another home for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tripping Down the Old Psychopath

“Contemptible likewise is the woman who is constantly laughing out; for, as it was said by an author, 'If you see a woman who is always laughing, fond of gaming and jesting, always ruling to her neighbours, meddling with matters that are no concern of hers, plaguing her husband with constant complaints, leaguing herself with other women against him, playing the grand lady, accepting gifts from everybody, know that that woman is a whore without shame'.” The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefwazi, Translated by Sir Richard Burton [1886]CHAPTER 4, About Women Who Are To Be Held in Contempt

Now I’m as big a fan of miscegenation as the next liberated chick, but this bugs the crap out of me. I may sometimes play the grand lady, and may often be found laughing besides, but I’m no shameless whore. Ok sure, many is the time I’ve been ashamed, but I think my days of charging a dinner and a movie for a quick grope are behind me, something I’m sure we’re all relieved about.”

First, a minor digression from the path:

This Guy says Psyche “was the goddess of the soul, wife of Eros the god of love…Aphrodite commanded Eros to make Psyche fall in love with the most hideous of men, but the god himself fell in love with her and carried her away to his secret palace.”

Bitch Aphrodite – great looks sure, but low self-esteem. Threatened by the beauty of Psyche, she (Aphrodite) took out a hit on her (Psyche); sent Eros to rub her out. Psyche, she’s so hot. How hot is she? Well, let’s just say Eros fell in love at first sight, so she’s so hot she melted Love’wax wings so He fell her bigtime. Aphrodite, she bad.

You just have to check out this site “She contemplated suicide by drowning, but even the waves refused to take her. The only way to salvation was by passing APHRODITE's cruel and unusual tests. Forget sorting poppy seeds from lentils before daybreak or grabbing a cup of water from a mountain monster — the ultimate challenge was this: Go down to the Underworld and steal PERSEPHONE's beauty cream. “

Sorting poppy seeds from lentils is cause enough to despair. What's worse is trying to drown yourself (talking to you, all you wannabe Ophilias) and the freaking ocean rejects you Loser. Which in this case, was enough, I postulate, to make Psyche psycho. Being held in contempt like that would be enough to drive any woman nuts.

So, back to my story, it’s men’s attitudes like this that send me trudging off down that old psychopath. What really bugs me about this quote is that the dude – you know it’s written by a dude – lumps fun and games together with meddling and “plaguing” and “constant complaints”. Do these people have no sense of humor? Does not any husband sometimes want his old lady to cheer him up, even if it’s just with stories about trying to rule their neighbors to take their empty trash cans back up to their yards after trash day?

Enough of this gaming and jesting. It may be time for me depart from Shaykh Nefwazi Perfumed Garden and sit down to write My Book, working title: “Men Who Are To Be Held in (if not Contempt, then At Least with Haughty) Disdain". I like the idea of beginning with a list of contemptible traits of guys. Where do I start?

Monday, March 09, 2009


“I like seasons.”
A tourist from Idaho visiting The Garden in March

I volunteer in a local public garden, spending one morning a week engaging the squirrels and rabbits in battles over doomed vegetables. When I greet visitors on such occasions, as a docent and representative of the Garden, I am polite, informative and a generally all-around nice person.

So, after complimenting me personally on the lovely warm sunny morning I’d arranged for her visit (ha ha), the recent visitor said she’s only in town for a few days visiting family, and then she and her spouse return to Idaho because, and I quote: I like seasons. In my capacity as a docent, I gritted my teeth and laughed at her original little joke as if I’d never heard it before, refrained from whacking her with my pitchfork, and returned to turning the compost pile - perhaps with a bit more vigor than before our brief conversation.

But here’s what I was thinking.

Here’s the thing, you yokel. As a gardener, I actually do notice seasonal change in my climate. Your moronic observation is not only wrong, it assumes we’re all Philistines who take the easy way out and enjoy our perfect Eden in our perfect and unchanging climate, while you and your hardy brethren build character and muscles “enjoying” your fancy-schmancy real seasons up there in Idaho.

We have seasons, sister. The thing is, our seasons might be a bit too subtle for you. Our winter doesn’t reach through the storm windows and shake you by the neck this time of year. We don’t carry umbrellas nine months a year; we don’t shovel snow or rake leaves; or undertake other endless seasonal chores to magically improve our bodies and minds struggling through changing seasons.

People like you who expect the seasons to smack them in the face with a different collection of sights, sounds, smells every few months might not notice our seasons. Our autumn doesn’t announce itself by causing the entire landscape to turn gaudy shades of red and yellow before curling up, turning brown, and falling off the trees and bushes. Our spring doesn’t knock us over with a riot of color as everything awakens from hibernation and blooms in the same ten minutes, making sales of benedril spike. Our summer isn’t damp and moldy with 95% humidity, when your sweat makes you stick to your sheets as you toss and turn through the night, swatting mosquitoes you hope don’t infect you with exotic diseases. And yes, we don’t shovel snow or slide into each other like bumper cars on ice every winter.

In winter here, many of the Southern Hemisphere Mediterranean climate natives - like grevallia (pictured here) and gum trees - bloom at the same time their relatives are blooming in the Australian summer. As a tourist from Idaho, you probably didn’t notice that spring is coming. It’s not here yet, but the orange blossoms on the orange tree in my front yard will knock you out if you approach closer than about ten steps. The air is warmer, not as dry as later in the summer, and filled with mysterious promise and new scents as winter departs and spring approaches. In autumn, the summer population of birds departs and we hear the flocks of wild parrots yammering overhead as they move farther south.

In winter we have to wear sweaters some mornings, and we greet the rain with joy and abandon. Unlike the summer rain of my childhood in a “real” climate, when we put on our bathing suits and cavorted in the street, rain here is cold and discourages fun. When my daughter was young, we’d put on our boots and raincoats in the first rain, and walk to the top of a nearby street and make little rafts out of eucalyptus leaves and twigs and sail them down the gutter. Then we’d come home and drink hot chocolate – celebrating the seasonal change that you might have missed because you were too busy disparaging our climate simply because it’s a bit different from yours.

There. That feels better.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

In Defense of OCD

“And on these barren rocks, with fern and heath,
And juniper and thistle, sprinkled o'er,
Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life…”
- William Wordsworth, from Left Upon a Seat in a Yew Tree...

There is a fine line between passion and obsession – like the difference between a lover and a stalker. So when does a passion for gardening cross over into an obsession? For me, it crosses the line when I feel this overpowering compulsion to use a chain saw.

It was warm the other day, high 70s with the clear bright moist breeze of winter. I intended to cut down this small failed Allepo pine in the front yard. Six hours later, unable to start the chainsaw, I’d trimmed some old junipers adjacent to the driveway. The junipers were being engulfed in slow motion by that noxious red apple ground cover, serving as an emblem of my own unfruitful life, slowly being engulfed by the uninspiring quotidian, and the entropic forces of age.

I was using a Felco with a missing spring, and the honking yard-long green heavy-duty clippers that must weigh in at about 200 lbs. I stopped often, sat often, brushed off sleeping spiders most often of all. But here’s the fun part. Tech Support Guy has installed an infrared sensing system across the driveway that beeps the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth in both our living room and Mother’s room. It’s a good way to notice the postman or meter-reader, or unannounced guest.

Funny story. Turns out the junipers being cleaned up surround the beeping sensor. You can see the short green post at the foot of the juniper. Turns out the metal clippers I lugged back and forth and around and around set off the sensor and was beeping the crap out of the system to the collective annoyance of Tech Support Guy, Mother, Sandy-the-Good-Boy, and miscellaneous paranoid and/or fearless cats. What’s worse, is that this isn’t the first time I’ve managed to trigger numerous alarums (!) which, unconsciously (!) remind my roommates that while they’re sittin’ on their collective sedentary backsides that somebody else is up and about.

My ocd led me to a task different from that which I’d first planned. That dead pine tree is still leaning there at the foot of the driveway, mutely reminding me of my gardening faults and failures every time I journey out or back home. But I don’t morbidly trouble over all the unfinished tasks, even when I don’t accomplish what I started out to do. I have cleared the underbrush from the junipers and they look happier than they’ve been in years. And, I’ll get to that dead pine tree sooner or later. Either me, or the ubiquitous red apple…