Friday, November 29, 2019

Mellow Yellow

The weekend of Oct 26th & 27th was likely our last visit of the year to the nearby Census Designated Place of La Cienega where we do our volunteering at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, and some of our hiking on the trails of the adjacent Leonora Curtin Wetlands Preserve. Both properties – parts of a working ranch and paraje (an official rest stop for travelers) on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro owned by thwe Vega y Coca family from the late 1600s into the 20th century – were purchased in 1933 by Leonora Curtin and her mother of the same name. (Local history has it that the wetlands were the holding area for cattle being transported along the trail.) Ms Curtin. (the younger) and her husband Y.A. Paloheimo (the Finnish Consul-General to the U.S.) established the living museum on 200 acres of the land in 1972. In 1993 the Santa Fe Botanical Garden entered into a long-term lease at $1.00/year with the trustees of the museum foundation for the Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve. Each property closed for the 2019 season on the last weekend of October.

El Rancho wound up the year on Saturday with its third annua "Spirits of New Mexico" event held from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm on the upper portion of the ranch. We volunteered. The Preserve held a family day that afternoon. But our visit there occurred on Sunday morning – after a good night’s sleep, and the removal of our white facial ghost makeup. (Next year we may reconsider performing the second step.)

At the museum we both served as anonymous ghosts, aka Spirit Guides – Marsha in the weaving area, Jim at the Butchery, the one-stop spot for animal processing on the ranch. Neither of us did any demonstrations. It was too dark for Marsha to see the loom. In Jim’s case – just because…

This year’s historic apparitions were:

Marion Sloan Russell – who traveled the Santa Fe Trail from the midwest five times in the early 1800s, first as a child, and ultimately settled in Santa Fe..

Billy the Kid – New Mexico’s most famous thief and murderer and his pursuer and killer Sheriff Par Garrett.

Vicente Silva aka the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of New Mexico” – by day a respectable business man giving to the poor, church and elderly, at night a gang-leading thief and murderer who sometimes strung the dead bodies of his victims from the community bridge.

William Llewellyn – company commander of the famed Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and a legislative leader who helped achieve statehood for New Mexico.

Manuel Bace y Delgado – born around 1824 to a well-to-do family who once lived at Las Golondrinas.

The Native American “Lightning Boy Hoop Dancers,” Pablita’s Haunted Doll House, and a performance of the tale of La Llorona (a classic southwest Hispanic ghost story) – plus food and hard cider rounded out the evening.

Our appearance required normal costumes accented by the aforementioned ghostly white facial makeup. The clothing, which is made of lightweight cotton, is suitable for daytime volunteer work on sun-soaked spring, summer and early fall days, but not so much for an outdoor evening forecast to dip to forty-two degrees. Fortunately the blouse and shirt are oversized enough to accommodate some warm-weather gear underneath. That, plus a pair of jeans under her billowing skirt, a warm crocheted shawl over her shoulders, western hat, hiking boots and cotton gloves kept Marsha reasonably toasty until the last half hour of our tour when the temperature seemed to fall off a cliff. Similarly Jim added a woven wool poncho from the museum’s “Costume shop,” plus perpetual movement, to keep him largely comfortable.

And we both were warmed by the act of sharing our constantly growing knowledge of New Mexico history with a steady stream of enthusiastic and interested visitors. El Rancho’s last event of the year – for many of volunteers the most fun one – brought our time spent “working” at the museum to just over 200 hours each for the season.

We knew how to dress for the Spirits. Our costumes were mandated. And we learned last year how to supplement our normal garb for added comfort. But we found ourselves somewhat at a loss as to our hiking apparel the next morning.

“Fall is Boots & Flannel,” according to the mini-catalog that arrived with our latest purchases from LL Bean. “In the winter you are going to be changing outfits three or four times a day,” was some clothing advice given to us by a longtime Santa Fe resident and neighbor. “By 2:00 in the afternoon you might be wearing shorts and a tee shirt.”

Yet, on our third October living in the City Different we found that we are still mistakenly dressing according to our New England habits, rather than the realities of the high desert climate. We woke to a temperature in the mid-twenties on our placita. When we headed out at 10:00 it was almost forty. Marsha opted for her Ultralight Down Sweater over a long sleeve tee. Jim chose a similarly weighted vest over a cotton turtleneck. We both were overdressed – even though our Jeep’s thermometer (which normally overstates the situation) showed fifty-six degrees on our trip home. Never underestimate the power of the sun.
What we have adapted to however are the more gentle fall colors of northern New Mexico.

At Las Golondrinas we like to tell visitors that – unlike colonial New England with its spindle and wainscot chairs; trestle and drop leaf tables; and trundle and four poster beds – the early Spanish colonists lived “close to the ground.” Spain was occupied and controlled by the Moors from from 711 AD to 1492 AD. So – among the many influences on Spanish culture, architecture, language and day-to-day living – the furniture of the early settlers consisted of stuffed mattresses which were laid out on the floor for sleeping and folded upwards for sitting, with short tables to accommodate the low-slung seats.

Likewise, because forests of oaks and maples dominate the landscape, the colors of autumn in the northeastern coastal states are seen mostly in the trees above. There is virtually no red foliage out here. And the colors that do appear, are spread almost equally among the fifty shades of yellow displayed by tall feather-tipped grasses, chamisa, and other bushes of the high desert – and the less populous aspen and cottonwoods which cluster themselves around the hard-to-come-by sources of water.

But a golden cottonwood tree set against the brilliant blue sky is, in its singularity, a breathtaking sight.

That is why as we began our nature trek we found H, one of the preserve docents with whom we have become familiar, ensconced in her sitting walker appreciatively taking in such a view. She interrupted her reverie to explain to us that – depending upon their proximity to a hydration source, and the autumnal condition of their leaves when the recent hard freezes occurred – the trees were in varying states of seasonal magnificence from dried-crumbly-beige to sun-glow yellow. Which we observed as we wandered along the trail around and through the thirty-five acre property.

After we finished our walk we once again met H sitting at a picnic table chatting with two fellow docents. This turned out to be her last day of volunteering after five years at the wetlands – as she was moving to Ohio to be near the Cleveland Stroke Clinic. Her co-guides were commemorating the event with cake from a local SF bakery and invited us to join in the al fresco gathering.

Two young women who had been standing with H when we first saw her that morning were also at the table. One of them introduced herself as “Melo” – shortened from Melody – but known since birth by that sobriquet. Which prompted H to comment on how fortunate the young woman was, as she herself did not become mellow until after her brain seizure.

Of course it is hard for anyone not to be relaxed and cheerful on an autumn morning in Santa Fe with the warm sun on your back and a substantial slice of gourmet carrot cake calling out for your attention. Even the color of the food paired perfectly with the surrounding fall palette.

Laissez Fair Gardening, Or Not

Knowing little about growing plants in the arid, high desert southwest – and having an almost blank caliche canvas in the backyard of our newly purchased Santa Fe home – and (most importantly) being totally awed by the breathtaking, unselfconscious landscaping that Mother Nature (aka Madre Naturaleza) does totally on her own out here (such as this Monet’s Giverny Garden-like vista along one of the trenches into our main arroyo) – therefore we decided to embark upon an experiment in what Jim likes to call laissez-faire gardening, a “policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering” as defined in our iMac’s dictionary.

Well, maybe a little interference. Early on Jim noticed some isolated blades of grass popping up in what we had now come to call our “outback,” perhaps to add a wild, untamed vibe to our landscaping “plan.” Definitely not enough ground cover to require anything mechanized to maintain it. But even one shaft of fescue brought flashbacks of hours spent pushing our Toro – and besmirched our dream of scenery free of eastern greenery. So Jim plucked the little suckers from our rock-hard growing medium, and sprayed those that still remained with our toxic-but-organic weed-killing mixture of vinegar and other secret ingredients. Activities he has continued throughout the growing season.
We also added, with the help of Jose the landscaper, a Spanish Broom and an Apache Plume – and, by ourselves, a Datura (below). Three favorites on the northern NM list of xeriscape plants.

Then we spoke to one of the docents at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden who boasted of how he created his own all-natural garden by gathering seeds on hikes through the countryside, and randomly scattering them around his own private property – much like Mother Nature’s helpers such as the wind, birds and squirrels do. So last autumn, as our local wildflowers were turning to seed, we (in our role as nature’s acolytes) began carrying plastic sandwich bags and pruning shears on our own walks, and likewise scattered the bounty of our high desert journeys in our own outback.
And to our delight as the spring and summer evolved our backyard began filling with various unique unidentified examples of southwestern plants. A few were definitely weedy. But most were actually nice looking – including lots of what the New Mexicans call “mules ears.” In the spirit of our project, all were welcome.
Largely laissez-faire, and overall pleasant to look at – but not quite the work of horticultural art that adorns that arroyo access trench.
Meanwhile, we found a way to scratch that itch we have about missing eastern style gardening. (The yearning is much more on Jim’s side – but we are both taking part in alleviating it.)
El Rancho de las Golondrinas sits in a cienega (wetland) in northern New Mexico’s high desert. And, in keeping with its historical mission, the museum, grows traditional NM crops such as the “three sisters” (corn, squash, beans), pumpkins, peppers, and sorghum in the traditional NM manner (tilled, planted, weeded by hand and watered from an acequia.) The entry plaza however contains several other flowerbeds, which to an eastern observer would appear no different than what might be found at CT venues such as Hartford’s Butler-McCook House or Old Lyme’s Florence Griswold Museum.
On one of our early spring visits to El Rancho we were chatting with J, the “Curator of Agriculture & Bookkeeper” who mentioned that she could use some assistance maintaining these gateway gardens. It was the perfect situation for two former practitioners of east coast strong oversight horticulture who were not set to yet abandon their beliefs in favor of wild west laissez-faire landscaping. Long story short, we have been helping her out on Monday mornings over the past few months.
Back in CT our flowerbeds were a mix of planned plants, volunteers, gifts and rescues from abandoned gardens. To some perhaps a motley collection. But we insisted that they all look well-groomed, and that they respect one another’s space. And we spent most of our time in the garden enforcing those rules.
J’s goals for the Golondrinas gardens were basically the same. So we easily fell into our old CT regime of weeding, dead-heading, and cutting back – all to encourage future growth and allow fair competition among the plants. Plus Jim got to employ his Japanese Pruning Saw – a favorite landscaping weapon that he brought with him from CT and which had been sitting idle in our garage. As well as using the museum’s pole saw because cottonwoods and aspen seem to have an inordinate number of dead branches.
The plants are different – but the process is the same.  Plus there are some practices unique to this part of the country ­– such as cutting down the “clonal colony” of tiny aspen catkins that continually pop up throughout the plots – each one a part of the extensive root system of the initial seedling, and each one a potential full-sized tree intended to keep the community going when the older ones age and die. There also are a locust tree and several cottonwoods with similar rhizome methods of territorial population, which likewise must be controlled lest the area become a shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder aspen-locust-cottonwood forest.
Part of J’s pruning philosophy is to cut back the plants before they have an opportunity to spread their seeds around the garden. This has become one of Marsha’s specialties. As a result we haven’t acquired much in the line of transported volunteers for our outback from our Monday morning labors. (Marsha did however acquire a bagful of seeds from an unidentified small bush near the museum’s weaving area. No, not lamb’s ear.)

But the seasons change and the undomesticated flora along our community’s walking trails are offering their own propagating pips for our personal purposes. So once again pruning shears and plastic bags are a part of our hiking ensemble.
In general we are happy with version 1.0 of Madre Naturaleza’s backyard mural – although she seems a little heavy on the yellow and way light on the purple for our tastes. She also seems to rely too excessively on mule ears  which can spread out to about a foot wide. So, in preparation for the next spring’s wave of germinating seeds we have removed about three/quarters (twenty or so) of that overabundant yellow desert flower. Our plan is to cover the vacant spots with small stones and strategically scatter our foraged seedlings (mixed with mushroom compost) amongst the rocks. Plus we are explicitly seeking out purple aster seeds and pretty much anything else that is not yellow, to hopefully create more color variety.
One other aspect of our quasi laissez faire landscaping that seems to be working really well is the partially planned profusion of hollyhocks. The abundance is intentional, the placement is up to fate to decide. The house came with two established examples of the tall, showy member of the mallow family in our placita (plaza).  We let some of those seeds fall where they might. Then harvested others and combined them with still more from Monica’s & Bram’s own burgeoning, multi-colored hollyhock forest – and scattered them around our placita, in our outback, and even on the open space immediately behind our own abode.
A decade ago we tried cultivating M & B’s ‘hock seeds back in CT with mixed results. They grew. But more rain than they were used to resulted in rust infected, haggard looking plants. 2012 featured New England’s version of a drought. The hollyhocks evidently loved this meteorological mistreatment. Two of them shot up to ten feet in altitude. Other shorter, but still formidable, ones surrounded them. From then until our 2016 departure, the flowers appeared again and again in smaller numbers at lower heights in slightly different parts of the garden with no noticeable problems.

From that experience – and our spring and summer spent in the South Capital area of Santa Fe, where hollyhocks appear from sidewalk cracks, roadside curbs and resting against adobe walls – we learned that these plants seem to thrive on what would kill most of the flowers we were used to, i.e. unending sunshine, lack of water, miserable “soil” and inappropriate locations.

So we knew that somehow, some way they would succeed pretty much anywhere that we let their seeds drop. And they did – in the spaces between stone slabs on our placita, in one of the yard’s hand-placed natural rock French Drains, and in the gravel border of our adjacent common land. All proof to us that, given the opportunity Mother Nature’s landscape design is both creative and resilient.
But sadly impermanent. On a recent walk we discovered that Jose’s annual bushwhacking of parts of our community’s open spaces has resulted in the decimation of the arroyo access Giverny Garden vista that began this essay, in favor of unobstructed drainage for raging rainwaters – and reduced wildfire tinder.

In truth it wouldn’t have lasted anyway. The purple and yellow flowers would change into dried up seed pods, which would then drop or blow away leaving pale, lifeless skeletons. Others would shrivel up, each in their own way, and lie dead or dormant on the seasonally lifeless desert floor.
Until next year when, like Monet who painted myriad images of his beloved ornamental grounds, Madre Naturaleza returns once again to redecorate her own much grander canvas
As the Roman philosopher Plutarch put it, “this nature itself has no permanence, nor ‘being,’ but is becoming and perishing according to its relation to time.” And that is the joy of (even quasi) laissez faire gardening. If you want something that lasts – take, or paint, a picture of it.