Friday, November 07, 2008

Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life)

"Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat the fruit of them." (Jeremiah 29:5)

Conventional wisdom says that it is really hard for anything to grow in the high desert of New Mexico. It ain't necessarily so.

Stacy and Jim invited us to a tree planting party at their house in Santa Fe, while Mars and I were out there house-sitting. They became friends of our daughter-in-law and son after Monica and Bram moved to that city three years ago. Stacy is also an east-coaster (Brooklyn), and is a caterer and on-air host of "Mouth of Wonder" (a food program on KSFR, a local public radio station). Monica ("the web goddess") created and maintains the website for "MOW". Jim is a furniture maker who designed and built shelving for Monica and Bram in exchange for Monica's Internet labors.

The tree planting was in commemoration of Stacy's father Ben who had died one year ago. Her mother, Bernice who moved from Long Island to Santa Fe after her husband's death, and her brother Randy from California was there along with many of Stacy and Jim's friends who have now become Bernice's amigos as well. Monica and Bram were among the original guests and when they mentioned that we would be visiting Santa Fe we also were asked to come.

Bernice and Stacy are Jewish and said that it was traditional to put up a memorial one year after the burial. Since the interment was in New York and all of the family is out west and therefore unlikely to visit an east coast gravestone it was decided to plant a tree in Santa Fe instead.

Bernice said that Ben was a lover of pears, "eating pears and poaching pears", so two local varieties were chosen and two large holes prepared for their new homes.

The yard is typical New Mexico soil -- rock hard, bone dry, nutrient free, and pretty much unable to support any form of life other than tumbleweeds which Stacy and Jim had in abundance when they moved in. And in even more abundance shortly thereafter. Contrary to their name tumbleweeds are quite adamant about holding their ground and even more insistent on spreading themselves around.

At first Stacy and Jim thought "hey, it's green" but after several warnings about the invasiveness of the plant, and after watching their arid landscape being turned into a tumbleweed terrace, they decided to take action. There is a considerable slope to the backyard (about 720 degrees) and the builder had installed mesh wiring to prevent erosion. The tumbleweed attached itself to the mesh, the mesh was attached to the ground, yada, yada. After much blood, sweat, and tears the yard was tumbleweed free.

Now they are attempting to landscape the yard with less pushy, more gentile (that's gen-teeel) local plants -- and hopefully two productive pear trees.

But first there were appetizers and drinks while all of the guests arrived. Not knowing most of the people at the party Mars and I migrated to what were familiar with -- the food -- and settled in around the kitchen island which was covered with hors d'oeuvres and surrounded by like-minded people with whom we chatted in between bites.

After a while we moved to the outdoors with Monica and Bram where we were joined by Bernice who talked about her migration from the noise of New York to the "too quiet" of Santa Fe. Bernice's "New Yawk" accented voice has now become a regular part of Stacy's radio program. She also volunteers at a local museum, plays grandmother to the kids in her apartment building, and is one of the small number of riders on the Santa Fe buses where she is on a first-name basis with the drivers. She also changed her hair color, clothes and makeup, because she thought that she was blending in too much with the totally tan landscape and architecture of "The City Different".

Then it was time for the planting.

Stacy said a few words explaining why they had chosen to do this. Several guests who knew Ben spoke. And it was time to go to work.

Many of the folks in attendance were New Mexican gardeners. I am a Connecticut one. The main difference seems to be that I spend the majority of my horticultural time pruning back and transplanting plants to keep them from overcrowding each other, and the southwestern ones expend even more hours just trying to get them to appear above ground in a somewhat green condition. Removing tumbleweed I would have been good at, starting trees probably not so good.

I do however hope someday to become a New Mexico gardener. Because of that and, since I am a member of a Connecticut men's garden club and familiar with what happens when a group of us plant experts get together to commit horticulture, I decided to keep my mouth shut, pick up a shovel, and do what I was told.

Jim had already dug two large square holes, each one slightly deeper than the height of the ball at the base of the pear trees. Next to each opening were its future occupant, a pile of dirt, and several bags of some soil amendment stuff. All had been purchased and brought into the backyard to replace the infertile lumps of hard clay that had been removed and were now scattered nearby. As one of my club members says "Dirt is what you find on your kitchen floor. What you need is soil!"

I quickly realized the first and most basic step of New Mexican gardening -- throw away the earth that you've got and replace it with something from someplace else -- something that might actually sustain life. I pictured the entire landscape of the "Land of Enchantment" as dotted with secret little plant-sized pockets of imported and enhanced soil and told Bram to expect several packages of backyard earth from Connecticut in the near future.

It was decided that the holes were slightly too deep and that the roots of the pears needed something soft and welcoming surrounding them, so a few of us began shoveling in the imported stuff. Then we added some of the soil builder which certainly smelled as if it had to be doing something good. We alternated layers of soil and soil helper until the hole was filled and the fertile dirt pile was depleted.

The history of the desert southwest is the history of water -- where it comes from, how much is available, who owns it, and who has access to it -- and has been told in novels and films such as the "Milagro Beanfield War". (The movie was filmed in Truchas, N.M., the home of the pear trees that we were planting today.) The key to bringing life to the various forms of vegetation that have been planted in the standalone soil pods is to connect them to some form of hydration, initially via irrigation canals and nowadays with black, rubber drip irrigation tubing -- thousands of independent local area networks snaking across the arid, high desert land.

The hose was turned on and adjusted to a low rate of flow, and we finished the job by building little dirt and stone dams along the downhill side of the tree holes to keep in as much water as possible. Then it was time eat some more, and absorb the lessons learned.

1) re NM gardening -- buy local and BYO soil and water
2) the best way to plant anything is with good friends and great food.
3) transplants flourish if they have a desire to grow, are able to adapt to their surroundings, and have a strong local network to support them.

Pearl Tree Planting photos @ going2nm

1 comment:

Stacy said...

Hi, I am so honored to be part of your blog.I am making a book for mom to remember the day and will down load this and include it. One little brother's name is Randy.It was a pleasure to spend time with you. Bram and Monica are so dear to us.
Stacy X