Backyard afternoon

Monday, November 21st, 2005

The furious bluster of this morning’s Santa Ana wind gave way to a whisper of breeze perceptible only in the flutter of mimosa leaves on the silk tree and the shimmer in the tall palms across the street. I suck in deep breaths of the soft dry air, shaded by the hillside from the hot November sun which lights up Poly Mountain across the valley and the treetops around me. The quiet is broken by a loud, scolding, mechanical noise, like a ratchet on a gearwheel. I get up for the binoculars and then remember: hummingbird.

Since no machinery can get in here, I hired a landscape architecture student and his crew to hand-excavate a 13 by 17 foot hole in the steep bank to make room for an addition to Jan’s home office. The day they were supposed to start, he emailed me to say it was too big a job. Our contractor friend said, “that’s alot of digging, it’ll be expensive to have my guys do it.” A couple of days later I realized that it would make a good project for me in the last few weeks of my early retirement recess. I could go at my own pace and enjoy a sense of steady progress, benefit from the exercise, test my newly strengthened back, and get acquainted with the dirt and rock I live on. Last Thursday I went to Home Depot with Ian and found a plastic cart with a scoop nose perfect for hauling spoil and a small spade with a handle we sawed to a length that would reach from the ground to his nose.

After ten minutes he decided he didnt like the work, but it suits me fine, especially during this week of dealing with the vagaries of my 89 year-old mother-in-law’s move into an assisted living facility as a result of a fall.

The top ten inches of ground are composed of adobe clay soil that breaks up into light chocolate brown pea gravel that turns to dark sticky mud when wet. I uncover buried irrigation pipe and roots to cut with loppers. Then comes the yellowish-tan hardpan, a dense but penetrable layer that grabs the point of the pickaxe and doesnt want to let go. Then blue-green or wine-brown chert, in some places yielding, like the hardpan, in others brittle and shattering into rock gravel when hit, and in others hard enough to clank, send a shock up my arm and knock the tip off the pick. When I hit this stuff, I look for fracture lines and feel triumph when it breaks.

I just got off the phone with a student who asked me to supervise a senior thesis in Natural Resource Management on the restoration project planned for a steep bank in Poly Canyon. Along with the preparation I’m doing occasionally for upcoming winter classes, this reminds me of the world I’ve been away from since June and makes me glad to return. Early retirement for more than one quarter would be too much, despite the luxury of free time. No part-time project is as compelling as teaching, whose steady stresss I retreat from and desire.

The light has changed, departed from the treetops here and weaker on the mountain, where the lengthening shadows increase contrast but reduce brightness. The large black one creeping over the Buena Vista neighborhood–could it be Bishop’s Peak?

Spring in December

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

The rains have been slow this year, only two since June. But the native garden I’ve been cultivating since 2001 has matured. Last spring I removed the drip irrigation system I’d used to get it established, and except for one ground soak, I refrained from watering during summer and fall. All 68 varieties survived and most have remained green, proving their adaptation to arid conditions, subsisting on fog, dew, and bits of moisture their roots capture deep in the parched clay soil. Buds were fattening on a buckeye I’d planted a couple of years ago and another had started to leaf.

But this made me nervous. With so little water in the ground, would they deplete their energy with premature growth? I checked my authority on California Natives, the website of Bert Wilson, proprietor of Las Pilitas nursery, and found that Aesculus californica is “tolerant to drought but needs regular water for the first few years.” Remembering Bert’s general abhorrence of watering, this warning seemed urgent. I hooked up the hose and gave the two little saplings a normal season’s worth of precipitation.

The next morning, Sunday, I was gently awakened by the gurgle of rain in the downspout on the wall by my bed. I put on a wool sweater and hat and went out to enjoy it. I climbed the ladder to the roof and cleared the gutters of curled Eugenia leaves and spikey liquidambar seedpods. I rooted up dandelions that had sprouted in the front yard. I transplanted ten bunches of Idaho fescue stored in pots after I’d cleared them off the hillside I’ve been excavating with pick and shovel to make room for an extension of Jan’s office. I cut huge clumps of deergrass straw and spread the leaves and seed stalks on the muddy paths. I filled the wheelbarrow with raked leaves and sprinkled the crackling residue on the spoil I’d been dumping alongside the house to raise the ground level. The porous mixture absorbed the water puddled on the dense clay, protected my shoes, and made a deep-textured carpet of autumnal tweed.

I knew that the thirsty plants would respond quickly to the rain, and next morning I went out to look at the new growth.

This is ribes sanguineum glutinosum, or pink flowered currant. The specimen between the neighbors’ towering second story and our roof has grown 10 feet, as fast and as tall as the Redwood next to it. Another in total shade under the fence, which I planted to replace a vigorous non-native tree I cut down, has only reached two feet, but is also showing new leaves. The two in back, on the steep north facing slope where there’s very little soil, have reached about four feet. Bert says “This Ribes is more drought tolerant than most of the drought resistant plants of the trade, but in a native garden plant towards the wettest section… .”

Plants for a Future, a British permaculture site reminds me that sanguineum and glutinosum stem from the latin words for “bloody,” and “sticky,” and informs me that its fruits are edible though not tasty. From Native Plants of Montara Mountain I learn that this Ribes belongs to the Grossulariceae family, which contains currants and gooseberries. The vivid language invites a bit of rearrangement

Leaves: alternate, palmately-lobed, hand-like, soft, veined, with edges curving under.
Flowers: pink, five-petaled and stamened, funnel and star shaped, racemes in hanging cascades at ends of branches. Calyx fused to the pistil.
Fruit: Fleshy, red berries ripening to dark blue; developing below the calyx lobes in clusters, with tan seeds inside.

It includes two beautiful words I pursue in the Dictionary

Raceme: An inflorescence having stalked flowers arranged singly along an elongated unbranched axis, as in the lily of the valley…from Latin racemus, a bunch of grapes.

Calyx: the whorl of sepals…collectively forming the outer floral envelope…enclosing…the developing bud

Compared to these technical descriptions, how little of this plant have I described or perceived, even with the assistance of the camera. I need another look.

Another Look

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

“What is a course of history or philosophy or poetry no matter how well selected…compared to the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen,” says Thoreau. (Walden p. 105) I tried to exercise some of that discipline this morning. Instead of going Christmas shopping I returned to the raceme of pink-flowered currant that I had looked at earlier in the week, now again illuminated by a horizon-hugging sun.

I noticed that the five petals of each blossom split into two layers, a longer outside one arching back and curling at its edges, and a shorter inside one that remained erect. The splaying outside layers gave the blossom its star shape. The inside layers combined into an open tube surrounding its golden pistil and stamens. I also noticed some changes since the last look:

seven of the blossoms were open instead of four. Five pink closed blossoms cupped a cluster of immature green buds at the raceme’s tip. As each blossom opened, it diverged from the central axis on its own outward stretching stem. The higher on the raceme, the more mature the blossom and the the more shrunken and curled the sepal which had enclosed it as a bud.

My revisited raceme seemed to be the oldest one on the shrub, its location best placed to gather the sparse sunlight and attract me with my camera. On other twigs I found younger growing tips. They revealed that flowers and leaves are originally enclosed in a single germinal container springing from the battered remnants of last year’s growth.

The subtle fragrance of Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, more leathery than sweet, occasionally wafted past but dissipated before I could satisfy my hungry nostrils. I wanted to be smaller, faster and more sensitive–like the bug that buzzed by me and dove into one of the blossoms. Then I understood that they had evolved to entice it into spreading their red and sticky seed.

I’ve often discussed with students the lines of Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” that inspired Thoreau’s preference of Nature over Culture:

Come forth into the light of things
Let Nature be your teacher.

Enough of Science and of Art
Close up those barren leaves
Come forth and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. Returning to the same flower after a few days and noticing some changes, spending enough time to really look at it and allow the bugs to show up, taking as long as I need to find the right words–that’s a start.

On the way to the back door to clean the mud off my shoes, I noticed a patch of sunlight on the wall of my excavation.

While digging I find the life of the seasons in the mineral as well as in the vegetable and animal. A few weeks ago, this same ground broke the tip off the steel pickaxe. Now my spade sinks into the damp earth like a scoop into ice cream.

February Garden

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

It was supposed to rain today, but we got wind and clouds instead. While grading papers, I’ve been taking vitamin C and Echinicea pills every couple of hours, humbly hoping to hold at bay the headache, cough and scratching in my lungs. I visited my mother in law at Assisted Living for a break, and seeing her and her companions in the rec room 20 minutes early for Bingo reinforced the winter mood.

But the overcast skies provided some good light for pictures of developments in the garden last week. After Spring in December, not much changed during January. The longer days of February have brought the early bloom of the volunteer almond tree, remnant of what must have been a local orchard before the 1950’s subdivision of this neighborhood.

On Friday I got a copy of his brand new book, Plants of San Luis Obispo: Their Lives and Stories from Matt Ritter who teaches in the Biology Department and is curator of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory. In addition to running the conservatory, teaching full time, and writing scholarly articles for tenure, he wrote the text, shot all the pictures, and did the layout for the book himself with Photoshop and Indesign.

His descriptions of the species in my garden help me see them up close: “Fuschia-flowered gooseberry is a bristly, evergren shrub with leathery, dark green, irrgularly toothed leaves. The beautiful, bright red, tubular flowers, which are pollinated by hummingbirds, hang from the stems. The stamens, which are twice as long as the rest of the flower, hang down with bright yellow tips. To ward off herbivores, there are three stout spines emanating from each node.” (p. 57)
This Ribes speciosum is another early bloomer. I’d describe the leaves as waxy rather than leathery, since they’re thin and they dry up in late spring, unlike the thick leaves of the holly-leafed cherry for example. Once flowers and leaves are gone the plants have a forbidding allure, like that of a cactus, but now they are all slender and delicate. At the Brizzolara Creek Committee we’ve talked about planting them as hedge to keep people out of the watercourse.

At the side of the house, by the compost and redwoods, the wild strawberries are back. Soft, matt, and pertly serrated, the leaves make a fresh bed for occasional yellow-centered white blossoms.