Saturday, January 17, 2009

Qui Transtulit Sustinet

Our property has been reclassified as part of the Wethersfield Flood Plain -- "any land area susceptible to being inundated by floodwaters from any source." And our daughter-in-law Monica has given us sunflower rootstock and hollyhock seeds from her New Mexico gardens to transplant in our yard. Her part of the world is considered high desert -- "a dry, barren area of land.....characteristically desolate, waterless, and without vegetation".

What could possibly go wrong?

They have an average rainfall of about 16.5 inches. We had at least twice that amount during the week in November when we put our new southwest vegetation into the ground. By now the desert deserters have been exposed to more precipitation than they and their forebears have ever experienced in all of their combined lifetimes.

Our newly acquired aquatic status of course does not mean that the land will be any wetter than it has been in the past. When we bought the place in 1977 we were told by our insurer that we were "on the edge" of the wetlands. There is an actual functioning catch basin at the innermost corner of our plot. And anything over one inch in the rain gauge pretty much makes our backyard impassable to anyone not wearing waist high Wellington boots. Two or more inches and the whole yard becomes a mud-sucking marsh. Talk about a natural resource that we take for granted.

As told in novels and movies such as the "Milagro Beanfield War", the desert southwest is a story of the scarcity of water -- where it comes from, how much is available, who owns it, and who has access to it. The key to producing vegetation out there is to connect it to some external form of hydration, initially irrigation canals and nowadays black, rubber drip irrigation tubing -- thousands of artificial arteries snaking across the arid, high desert land. Just as there are children growing up today who do not realize that water doesn't really grow in plastic bottles, there are desert plants that have never felt a shower of nature’s moisture -- both of our newest additions likely included.

Over the years I have learned to make certain accommodations to my property's propensity for water retention. I never plant seeds within one week of any projected precipitation. If it does rain I notify my downstream neighbors to be on the lookout for surprise volunteer vegetation in the most inappropriate places on their property.

This of course makes starting a garden in April basically impossible. June is identical to April in average rainfall (3.8 inches) and second only to May (4.0). The best time to plant seeds in my yard is February.

The answer is an arroyo -- "a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region." You can't swing a dead javelina in New Mexico without hitting one. They are bone-dry 99.9 percent of the time, and Marsha and I frequently hike within them. Other than an occasional corrugated metal pipe there is no indication that you are in anything other than an extremely well delineated desert land walking-trail.

Because of altitude the heavy rains occur on the tops of the mountains. The dry, hard earth, being unfamiliar with the concept of downpours, refuses to absorb the water. The rejected H2O sloshes around until it builds up enough mass to make its own path -- destroying everything in its wake and then pointlessly disappearing into the end of the gulley. (Grossly inefficient but really cool to watch if you happen to be next to, as opposed to inside of, the arroyo.)

Even though "el mundo real" arroyos are created by nature I am certain that I can construct a reasonable facsimile in my own backyard. The idea would be to divert away that part of the deluge that would otherwise come into contact with the native desert plants. This would create, over time, an arid, lifeless, nutrient-free pod of earth within which they could live and thrive just as they did in their native homeland. And as they continue to grow, and begin to spread across my garden, I could readjust the gully to create more and more acres of hostile, barren soil to support their far-reaching offspring.

When we were in New Mexico last October we took part in a memorial tree planting ceremony at the house of one of our daughter-in-law and son's friends. The house was in a newly developed area where the land was still in pristine moistureless, parched, infertile condition. While some of us were busy filling up the tree holes with high-quality purchased soil and pre-packaged mulch, one of the local gardeners was explaining to my wife Mars her secret for successfully relocating her own plants -- she always brings the dirt from her old house to the new one and uses that.

I could easily get Monica to share some of the native soil in which her southwestern flowers grew up -- but that wouldn't really be transplanting, now would it!

Our Connecticut state motto tells us, "Qui Transtulit Sustinet," -- which of course means "Grow Native! And if that doesn't work, then keep screwing around with the environment until it does."

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