Saturday, January 17, 2015

High – And Dry Too!

Mars and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico for the Christmas holiday.  Our daughter-in-law and son live there.  She is the daughter of a Master Gardener and an avid, very good plants-woman in her own right.  Our son learned from me and therefore provides muscle when and where he is directed.

There was however nothing horticultural going on while we were there – except what transpires secretly under the earths’ surface during its supposedly dormant season.  Despite its tropical sounding name, northern New Mexico (even with its more southerly latitude) is just about as plant-friendly during the winter months as southern New England.

The reason?  Particularly out west, altitude equals latitude.

A good “rule of thumb” for elevation’s effect on climate (even on the east coast) is 1,000 feet of altitude = 300 miles of latitude = 4 degrees F in temperature.  Here is a “small math” example. Santa Fe is forty miles north of Albuquerque and 2,000 feet higher.  So it is usually about 8.5 degrees cooler.   Wethersfield, CT has an altitude of forty-five feet above sea level.  Santa Fe is about 7,000 feet at its lowest – more than enough to eliminate any temperate effects of Northern New Mexico's more southern latitude.

As a result the Santa Fe area has between 150 to 180 frost-free days with the last frost occurring usually between April 20 and May 10.  By comparison CT has around 210 days with a slightly earlier end to the freezing season.  To make matters worse, Santa Fe’s annual rainfall is a measly14.21 inches.  (New Mexico does have some similarities to the country from which it borrowed its name.) CT averages over four times that amount.

The story of New Mexico is in large part the story of water – who owns it, who needs it, and how to distribute it.  In rural areas this was accomplished by “acequias” community-operated watercourses with engineered canals that carry snow runoff or river water to distant fields. Each acequia was managed by its own “Mayordomo” and commission.  Most of the “engineering” was done by trial and error, experience, oral tradition, and more or less continuous manual labor with shovels and rakes.  One result of this system is that the older properties in the Santa Fe area are laid out long and narrow with access to the waters of the Santa Fe River at one end, and housing at the other.  Inconsequential today when the river is more of an occasional trickle than a rapidly flowing source of sustenance.
(This is the Santa Fe River - not an acequia.)
Our D-I-L and son live about one quarter mile from the SF River, but not on one of the funky old-time tracts.  (Their area was in fact a Japanese internment during WWII, but that’s a different history lesson.) She uses soaker hoses and generates a very productive harvest that last year included kale, sungold tomatoes, arugula, dill, hollyhocks and buffalo grass.

They sent, and we received and sowed a package of NM their hollyhock seeds this past autumn.  There is hope that these biennials will flourish in our plant-loving CT environment.  We have tried this before.  Some succeeded.   Others literally drowned in the overabundance of water – or succumbed to the dreaded Hollyhock “rust”.  This crop is intended to take over the space that was formerly allocated to our miniscule vegetable garden of six tomato plants.

But it’s only January – way too early to even think about gardening back here in “The Land of Steady Habits”.  Still, like gardeners in more fertile areas, our D-I-L is eagerly poring over her newly ordered seed catalogs out in the cold, arid “Land of Enchantment” – one of them from Baker Seed, owners of our own home town Comstock Ferre.

In his book “A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm”, author and farmer Stanley Crawford writes “To dream a garden and then to plant it is an act of independence and even defiance to the greater world.”

Overdramatic hyperbole to us sea level, drought-free, Northeastern plantsmen.  But spot on accurate for our high desert dwelling family and friends – and their predecessors.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Still Missing – But Getting Warmer

(Mars and I subscribe to "New Mexico" magazine. It's a little bit like our home state's "Connecticut" periodical but with turquoise and denim instead of pearls and polo shirts - and a regular feature called "One of Our Fifty is Missing." The column sardonically relates real-life stories wherein some non New Mexican behaves in a manner that indicates they have no idea of what or where "the Land of Enchantment" is, or even that it is a part of the United States of America.

Most of these situations involve a bureaucrat or service representative informing a New Mexican that their state is actually a foreign country and therefore special postage or a passport is required - or even worse that the thing they want to do just can't be done.    

 None of our friends or acquaintances seem to be afflicted with this shortcoming – they all seem to know where and what New Mexico is – but many of them don’t quite get what the weather is like when you get there.)

Still Missing – But Getting Warmer

Mars and I spent the winter holidays in Santa Fe, NM with our daughter-in-law and son (M and B) who live there.  When we returned home to Connecticut we were greeted by a pile of Christmas cards.  On one of them our good friends MJ and J had written, “Hoping you are enjoying your Christmas visit to warm New Mexico.”

 “Nooooooooo!  Not in the winter!” popped into our collective minds.

We’ve been traveling to northern New Mexico for almost twenty-five years now and hear things like that quite a lot – sometimes from people like MJ and J, who are in fact frequent travelers to Arizona and know exactly who its eastern neighbor is.  It seems that even those who are totally “not missing” New Mexico’s geographic location and/or national affiliation cannot help themselves from placing the Land of Enchantment in the wrong temperate zone.

In truth Mars and I have only seen that part of New Mexico from Albuquerque northward but we have heard that temperatures in the lower part of the state can be significantly warmer.  It is however worth mentioning that on the day I initially began this essay the temp in Carlsbad was a brisk nineteen degrees – while Santa Fe was a comparatively balmy twenty-four.  The average high for December is fifty-nine versus forty-three.

 (It actually took me several Internet sites to find out this info.  When I asked online for a “New Mexico temperature map” I was told  “Oh no! The page you are looking for does not exist. Go back, friend, go back!”  Evidently even the website is confused about where New Mexico is climatically.)

We travelled to Arizona once on an Elderhostel trip to the Grand Canyon and the Sonoran Desert.  And the major thing that we learned was that, especially in the western United States, altitude equals latitude – or as someone else put it in an Internet chat about weather conditions in NM, “elevation means everything out west.”.

That author went on to say that a good “rule of thumb” for altitude (even on the east coast) is 1,000 feet of altitude = 300 miles of latitude = 4 degrees F in temperature.  Santa Fe is forty miles north of Albuquerque and 2,000 feet higher.  So it is usually about 8.5 degrees cooler in the “City Different” than it is in the “Duke City”.   Our home town of Wethersfield, CT has an altitude of forty-five feet above sea level.  Santa Fe is about 7,000 feet at its lowest – more than enough to eliminate any temperate effects of Northern New Mexico's more southern latitude.

Mars and I first learned about winter weather in northern New Mexico when we renewed our wedding vows at half-time of a University of New Mexico  “Lady Lobo” basketball game with 11,000 of our closest friends on Valentine’s Day in 2004.  (It was a contest, which we and about twenty other couples won.)

We flew out for a long weekend and visited Ten Thousand Waves Spa in Santa Fe on the afternoon before the ceremony.  It was, to be generous, in the low twenties with a gale-force wind chill – or so it seemed – as we soaked outdoors in 100 degree plus waters with piles of snow on the ground around us while our hair and the wooden deck froze solid with each splash of liquid.  Albuquerque was probably eight and one-half degrees warmer – but we didn’t really care.

This year all four of us sat in the same hot tub as snow fell lightly on our heads and steam from the heated waters fogged our glasses.  On Christmas Day we all hiked in an arroyo at Museum Hill with our grand-greyhound Cheyenne.  The air was in the low thirties but the warm Zia sun allowed us to remove our gloves and hats, unzip our jackets, and unwrap our scarves.  In and around this we visited with “the kids” and their friends (some now ours also) – and enjoyed the heat (dumb-downed for New Englanders) of our daughter-in-law’s posole, and carnitas plus her non-Southwest comida such as cheese fondue, Italian Wedding soup, strada, and gingerbread cake.  

On our last day in New Mexico we met up with Mars’ BFF from high school who now lives in Albuquerque to hike along the Rio Grande Bosque, and dine on her tamales and black bean soup.  On our drive back from the river we pulled over to visit with a group of Sand Hill Cranes who, as they do every year, had fled to northern New Mexico from the Great White North for the winter season.

The morning after our travel day back home I went for a walk along the bicycle trail that begins across the street from out house.  The dial on our outdoor thermometer pointed to the same numbers that we experienced in Santa Fe – but the ambient New England air felt much cooler than that of the ten previous days.

New Mexico is way less humid than Connecticut.  So maybe it was because cold moist air actually does feel colder than dry air – something about moist air having a higher specific heat.

Or maybe – in spite of all the meteorology  – MJ and J, and the Cranes are actually right.  It is warmer in New Mexico – at least at Christmas.