Dendrochronology

Carlos Rey

I’m always amazed at those slabs of ancient
tree trunks that show how time passes.
A seed fell and sprouted and took root.
Maybe in 1492 or 1215.
There was a drought. There was a fire.
There were good years and bad.

My ancient Juniper tree lives on at the back
of a my mostly unused piece of land.
Its age gives it a certain distinction.
How old can it be?
I named the tree Carlos Rey for it surely
once belonged to the King of Spain.

These trees grow slowly in the high desert.
They experience things that we never notice.
Once they get a good start, a toehold, they
can go on for centuries.
Carlos Rey was twig when Coronado and
the Franciscans camped just down the hill.

Other old trees nearby show old jagged scars;
ax marks where a shepherd or soldier
stole a branch for firewood or shelter.
Even the scars are ancient.
Carlos Rey went unnoticed and unscathed.
Endurance and survival are the keys.

Carlos has seen good years and bad years.
I think we must be in what will be known
as bad years when some future scientist
ponders our age – our rings.
I see no small Junipers – only ancient ones.
The climate seems angry and uncooperative.

Life is precious. It has a memory to share.
There’s a man in Sussex who counts the rings
of a Stradavari or a Montagnana or
a Matteo Groffiller.
With years of practice, and in the right hands,
the old tree rings sing with the voice of angels.

Stradivari

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It’s a Desert Out There – Organ Mountains

I recently was visiting in Las Cruces and had the opportunity to briefly visit Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument (OMDP). This is one of several Obama-era national monuments targeted for reduction,  downsizing or other degradation by the Trump Administration. New Mexico, a “Blue” state, has two newer monuments targeted for degradation, the other being Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument near Taos. I’ve written about that monument here:  https://malpaisweb.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/its-all-holy-land-rio-grande-del-norte/

 

To hear the Trump administration rhetoric, one would think that President Obama ran around willy-nilly creating National Monuments. In fact, a lot of study went into the designation. The economic study for this monument is available at: http://nmgreenchamber.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Organ-Mountains-Desert-Peaks-FINAL-REPORT-8-16.pdf .

The OMDP is in four separate parcels with each one preserving one or several important geologic or cultural features.  I was able to visit just one and the pictures posted here are from that single parcel, located east of Las Cruces. This is the “Needles” section and includes the Organ Mountains iconic mountain peaks. On the east side there are broad vistas sweeping all the way to White Sands National Monument, some fifty miles away. I wasn’t able to visit the Sierras de Las Uvas or the Protillo Mountains complex. I hope to be able to do so on another visit.

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The public comment period for input into the administrations decision…for or against the monument ended in July. Supporters need to express their opinions to state and federal elected officials to fight against the proposed downsizing and/or degradation of the targeted national monuments.

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Hot Enough for Ya?

“Be careful…It’s hot out there” I said. “Oh, but it’s a dry heat” she replied with a laugh. That’s true enough. It sits at 104 degrees with a whopping 4 percent humidity. When I moved here from the Midwest I thought that humidity that low was lethal. Our body is made up of water, right? Don’t we need about 60% humidity to live? Well, apparently not.

 I remember Missouri days of 112 degrees and humidity of 80-90 percent. There are no words to describe that heat. Just the stupid question: “Hot enough for ya?”  Even squirrels were falling out of trees. Birds sat with their beaks open…panting. Some people were dying in front of their TVs.

 In the old days, long before AC, people would drag their beds out into the night. Residential boulevards in St. Louis — the ones with grassy center parkways — were nightly campgrounds. If you were lucky you had an elevated sleeping porch. If you were really lucky it was screened to keep out the mosquitos. The mosquito-borne St. Louis Encephalitis made its appearance in the 1930s as if the heat wasn’t enough.

It gets hot here in the high and dry New Mexico desert but the record is a wimpy 107 from a few years ago. The low humidity can trick you into thinking it’s not too hot. With a breeze and some shade, you might not feel so hot. You don’t sweat. The dryness sucks away any moisture. You must drink water and lots of it. The intense sun light, at over 5,000 feet will toast almost anything not in the shade. After a few years here I took a trip up the road to Colorado Springs and began sweating for the first time in years — I had forgotten what that was like. Later that year I spent the first week of September in St. Louis for a family reunion. I was moist, to say the least. I recall my Aunt and Uncle coming to visit us in St. Louis during the summer from California and listening to them complain and carry on about the heat. We didn’t know what they were complaining about — isn’t this normal everywhere in summer?  No.

So, yes, it is a dry heat…but it is still hot.  June is our hottest month and people will sometimes escape to cooler climates. I went to Steamboat Springs for a week and just got back. Tulips are blooming there and daffodils. It was in the low 50s in the morning and topped out in the 70s most days. When I was driving home my car’s AC died…I had been having trouble with it and it went belly up south of Fairplay. By the time I got south of Alamosa I could see the smoke.  The Jemez Mountains were burning again. I wonder, sometimes, how there can be anything left to burn but driving up through the mountains you can see that there is plenty of fuel left. The Jemez Mountains, about 45 minutes north of Albuquerque, are too popular for their own good. People go there to cool off and camp on hot weekends or to picnic. They build campfires and then walk off and leave them. On a recent weekend, the Forest Service had to douse thirty abandoned campfires. What kind of an idiot walks away from a campfire in a dry and hot forest? The current fire, the one I could see thirty miles into Colorado, burned a little less than 2,000 acres (so far, it is still burning) and was started by an abandoned campfire. There is no excuse for that. The cost has reached $1.7 million to fight that fire. 

Stay cool. Have a cold beer or some lemonade. Put out your campfire.

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It Must be Spring

The weather has been perfect the last week or so and I’ve made some headway in my outdoor chores. The rock garden (AKA Rabbit Salad Bar) is looking better and I’m planting more aromatic plants that rabbits won’t eat. I discovered the Curry Plant at my local pueblo nursery. It has a strong curry aroma from the leaves and it can be used in cooking but it is actually part of the daisy family. It looks a little like lavender or rosemary but gets small yellow flowers. I have lavender, Mojave Sage, Yucca (red), and Agave in the rock garden right now along with the curry plant.

The goldfish pond is looking better but still needs a lot of work. As best I can tell all of my goldfish survived the winter. The pond never actually froze solid. Right now I have too much vegetation in the pond and need to remove about 60 percent of it but that is going to be a major effort. I’ll need to hire somebody to help with that. (ca-ching).

The storage building roof has been repaired — good for fifty years they say. I won’t have to ever do that again. I repainted the doors and the wood trim but it needs a little bit of stucco repair in the back…local critters must have tried to get inside. I’ll patch that up for now. Eventually the house and storage building will need to be re-stuccoed as well as the garden wall. Big bucks for that.

Rabbits are at it again. We will have a bunch of babies. I’ve seen more coyotes the past few weeks than I can remember. They tried to lure my neighbor’s dog away, a big dumb pit-bull, and he was happy to go but the neighbors were able to corner him in my back yard and take him back home. Coyotes have sort of a Lorelei effect on dogs…they lure them away and they eventually become dinner. My lizards are lined up like soldiers on the rocks and the garden wall soaking up sun. Roadrunners will get them later in the season but they seem to be having a couple weeks of peace.

My quail are back in droves again. They seem to be all paired up — no bachelors calling for a mate. Sometimes the women are fickle and will keep looking for a better match but things seem settled. We have Gambel’s Quail and Scaled Quail and the two can hybridize. Gambel’s have a dark plume on their head like a California Quail. Scaled Quail have a scaled feather pattern and a white tuft on their head. No babies yet that I’ve seen but the pairs keep running back and forth across the road in front of cars like it is some sort of game. They only fly in an emergency or if the car is getting too close.

No hummingbirds yet…at least none that I’ve seen. My flowering plants are still a month away from full bloom so hummingbirds are hanging back or visiting the valley orchards further south. I have never been able to tell the species apart — we only had one type where I used to live but there are six or seven varieties here.

Goldfinches are here in big numbers. I’ve noticed quite a variety in them as well. It might be different types or it might be that some birds are changing to summer plumage at different schedules.

 

The windy season came and went. Tumbleweeds were flying and bouncing down the highway. I have a few tumbleweeds that I need to get hauled away along with some overgrown sagebrush and four-winged saltbush that are encroaching in various places. Shortly after I moved here I was bragging to my neighbor about the pretty green shrubs I had growing along the fence. They were bright green and had a uniform rounded shape…nice I thought. He informed me that I was growing tumbleweed. It gets thorny and brittle as it matures and then snaps off at the base and spreads seeds by rolling along in the wind. I sheepishly pulled up my pretty green shrubs.

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One Thousand Desert Winters

sundagger

The calendar on the wall kept watch alone

for one thousand desert winters

and one thousand desert summers.

Faithfully measuring out the seasons.

The rabbits and rock doves had their own calendars.

The coyotes took note of every moonrise.

Lizards were thankful for the morning sun.

Years passed, stars fell and crickets chirped

but no one watched the calendar.

 

Someone once kept a holy vigil.

They watched the calendar and the changing seasons.

That was long ago and for reasons we can only guess.

Things change slowly here in the desert. One can lose track.

Was it a secret place? Was it a sacred place?

This space of discourse between sun and stone

was witnessed by a silent scribe. Watch closely…take note.

Each morning was important – day in, day out.

The morning sun sent its dagger deeper, striking out the

old season and bringing forth the new.

 

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Discovering Places – Georgia O’Keeffe Country

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I’m spending a fall week in southern Colorado and drove up north out of the Albuquerque area through Georgia O’Keeffe’s stomping grounds in northern New Mexico. I have never seen it more beautiful.

Georgia O’Keeffe lived in Abiquiu, New Mexico, for almost forty of years and was inspired by the surroundings. Here’s an example of one of her paintings from the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe….a view of Pedernal Mountain, one of her favorite landscape subjects.

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Abiquiu is a tiny village north of Espanola. There’s not much there and there was probably less back in the 1940s when O’Keefe bought a house there for her home and studio. She moved there permanently in 1949. The parish church, Santo Tomas el Apostol, is most notable today.  The church was established in the 1700s but the current building dates to the 1930s, built in the old colonial mission style.  Visitors need advance arrangements to visit O’Keeffe’s home and studio and I will do that on a future trip.

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Abiquiu offers an interesting perspective on old Spanish colonial life in northern New Mexico. It was the starting point for one of the trading routes between New Mexico and California. There are still artists and galleries scattered around the village.

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The Rio Chama flows through the valley and was dressed in beautiful yellows and gold of autumn. Rio Chama is one of the major trout streams of northern New Mexico.

O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929 and stayed in Taos with Mabel Dodge Luhan, who hosted a number of writers and artists. She bought a Model A Ford in 1929 and began exploring northern New Mexico and eventually discovered Ghost Ranch a few miles north of Abiquiu. She acquired a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and spent much of her time there until finally moving to the renovated adobe home and studio in Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe used the colorful hills and cliffs of Ghost Ranch as subjects of many of her landscapes. Today Ghost Ranch operates as a retreat, nature and educational center.

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Pedernal, the prominent flat-topped mountain, dominates the horizon west of Ghost Ranch and dominates several of O’Keeffe’s paintings. She never seemed to get tired of it. The shapes and colors are highlighted by the bright light and clear skies of New Mexico, the changing seasons, and shadows of sunrise and sunset.

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Perdenal makes an interesting subject and creeps into the horizon even from a distance.

This was my second visit to the area since my initial trip back in 1979 or 1980. That trip was also in October but I don’t remember being awestruck by the beauty of the area. As I recall, we were on a tight schedule. Georgia O’Keefe was still living in Abiquiu at that time. She lived to be almost 100 and was in failing health and losing her eyesight beginning in 1972. She hired a helper in 1973 (Juan Hamilton) who became her companion and business manager. When she couldn’t paint any longer, Hamilton, himself a potter, helped her take up ceramics and sculpture for a while. Her health declined further and she moved to Santa Fe in 1984. She died in 1986 at age 98.

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(Todd Webb photo – c. 1961)

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A Transitional Season

The wind has picked up today and is so strong that the birds and small animals have taken cover. We are transitioning into the fall season but summer doesn’t want to let go. We are still in the last tattered shreds of our Monsoon season – it has rained almost every day this week. The Monsoons should have ended a few weeks ago but they got a late start so we are thankful for the lingering rain.

The wind is poking around in every nook and crack. I can hear it protesting in the chimney because it can’t come all the way into the house. I always have windows open, even in the dead of winter, so the wind is finding another way to get in.

chamisa-1The Chamisa is in full bloom so the sometimes dry and dreary desert landscape is cloaked in bright yellow. I’ve never seen it so thick and bright…but this is just my third year in the desert so almost everything is still a surprise. Chamisa is our Spanish name for the local variety of what some people call Rabbit Bush. If you have been out west you have probably seen it. Ours is usually small and neatly clumped as if someone tended and trimmed it every day. The rabbits, of which I have many, do not eat it but tend to hide among the clumps. The quail do the same thing.

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Fall, and October, means two things here just north of Albuquerque: Balloon Fiesta and the arrival of the Sand Hill Cranes.  The Balloon Fiesta is the first full week of October (including both weekends) and we will see several hundred thousand visitors pour into town. It is a beautiful time of year anyway and the 800 hot air balloons add to the color and delight. They have mass ascensions every day and on most days they fly to my neighborhood and land all around me. So far no one has landed on the house but they are in all the vacant land around me. They have an interesting procedure each morning…they send up a “Dawn Patrol”, five brave balloonists with flashing lights on their baskets just before dawn to see what the conditions are. If they are good then the other 800 will go up…if not they postpone or cancel the mass ascension and try to locate the five guinea pig balloonists.  It reminds me of the videos I’ve seen of Penguins in the Antarctic that shove a couple Penguins into the water to see of the Leopard Seals are waiting.

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The arrival of the Sand Hill Cranes is a little later in October but almost as spectacular. Most of them continue south to Bosque del Apache wildlife area but we have a resident population of several hundred just in my area. They are noisy birds and you most often hear them before you see them. If they are flying overhead you might not see them at all in the dazzling sunlight. When they are roosting near the river they sound like croaking frogs. I went to a Christmas event one year and the birds almost drowned out the carolers trying to sing Silent Night. At this point we still have a few hummingbirds but they will be gone soon. I had a falcon sitting on my garden wall earlier in the week hoping to grab a dove or maybe even a hummingbird.

I made a last-day-of-summer visit to our botanical garden. It seemed tired and a little worse for wear. The summer was exceptionally hot and dry from June to August. By the time the rain arrived most of the flowers and plants were too far gone. There were a number of bright spots and the Japanese Garden is always pleasant. They installed a special rose garden featuring roses that do well in the desert climate.  The roses looked pretty good in spite of the weather. The “Heritage Farm” section, a replicated Rio Grande valley farm, was selling apple cider from the apple orchard.

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I’m doing some garden work of my own. When you landscape your property with native plants they don’t always know that they are supposed to stay where I put them. Being acclimatized to the desert and doing what comes naturally, they send out little volunteers everywhere. If I left it alone I’d have a jungle of sorts. That’s what I had when I moved here and it took over a year to get it under control. The previous owners planted Russian Sage, a pretty plant but one that sends out root runners and then one plant becomes ten plants and then thirty plants if you don’t keep it under control.  I also have a 1,500 gallon goldfish pond that needs frequent care. I have sixteen large fancy goldfish and it is pretty to look at but also can get out of hand. I noticed the water level was too low a few days ago and started filling it with the hose. Something happened and I got distracted and then had to go someplace. The hose ran for about ten hours and when I realized what happened I had more than a foot of water above the normal level. Goldfish were swimming where no fish has gone before. It was still contained but the pond will not need any additional water for quite a while.

watson-2Watson, my elderly cat and almost constant companion going back sixteen years died this summer. He is often missed when I work outside because he stayed close and was a watcher, not a doer. In his entire life he caught one vole that I know of and a few lizards. He never quite understood the goldfish and was puzzled by the very idea that something could live under water. I miss him also when I write because he would curl up on a rug close by and fall asleep or watch out the door for anything interesting. He was also a snorer. I’ll find a new cat at some point but not for a while. Watson was on medications twice a day and that required me to stay home unless my daughter could take care of him. I’d like to do a little travelling before I get another cat.

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So now we are looking at changing seasons. We have a nice long fall season going up to late November or early December. Nights will be cool and there might be an early frost but daytime temperature will be in the 60s into the first week of December. This windy cold snap is a hint of what is in store – they say it will be down to 41 degrees tonight. We don’t have many of those golden Aspen trees – they are up in the mountains or farther north in Colorado – but in a while our Cottonwoods will put on a show to rival the Aspens.

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Well, I think I just heard that the wind blow away my watering can so I have to stop and retrieve it.

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