Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hawk, fallen

A few days ago, Joe and I were walking and on our way home, just around the corner from our house, we found a dead zone-tailed hawk lying at the edge of the sidewalk. It hadn't fallen there; someone, I think, had picked it up out of the street and laid it there gently, respectfully.  Its wings were folded and it looked peaceful, almost alive, except that its crimson eye was beginning to cloud over.  It was so beautiful, even in death. We stood and looked at it for a long time, wondering if we should do something. It seemed wrong to think of taking it into our yard to bury it, though we probably would have buried it in the yard if we had found it there.  Finally it seemed right to leave it where it was, for others of nature's creatures to do what was natural.  I have a friend, a poet, who heard something hit her window one night and went out the next morning to find a dead hawk.  She cut off the feet and hung them up as a talisman. I thought about that, or about pulling out one of this hawk's gorgeous tail feathers, but I couldn't.

A couple of days went by. I was busy with other projects and didn't go walking.  Joe reported it was still there, undisturbed (the eyes were gone, but that always happens quickly).  We decided to take it down into the wash, not to bury it but to place it in some more sheltered spot among the brush and trees there.  We would have done that yesterday, but when we went out it was gone, with no sign it had ever been there except in our memories, and in the memory of that good person who first laid it where we found it.

I wonder how it died, how it fell from heaven to our suburban street. That species is uncommon here at the best of times, and this time of year it shouldn't be here at all. We are fortunate to have as many raptors in our area as we do.  I've written of some of them before--the red-tailed hawks that we see often, the family of Harris hawks that used to live in a neighbor's huge, diseased pine tree until the people cut it down, the lovely little kestrel that sometimes appears on the power line at the corner of our street. I'm sure this magnificent bird wasn't hit by a car, like the doves we see so often.  Did someone shoot it?  We didn't hear anything.  Was it a sudden spasm of the heart?  Or did it, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun?

Baby birds fall from their nests and we try to put them back, to save them.  It never seems to work. Sometimes we see smaller birds lying dead, and I always wonder why.  Predators take away their prey and consume it; they don't leave it lying whole and perfect like the house finch I found in the garden once.    Maybe we're not supposed to know how or why they die.  I'm okay with that.  I don't need to know everything.  Knowing wouldn't make the sadness any less, nor does my ignorance diminish their beauty or the sense that we are blessed to be witnesses to nature at any stage of life, even the end.  Living or dead, they touch us.  They are part of us.  When we see them soar, our spirits soar with them, and even though I never saw this particular bird in flight, in my heart, our spirits soar together.

Monday, December 14, 2009


We're going to the movies later today, to see Clint Eastwood's latest project, Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the South African rugby team.  I fully expect to be moved and inspired; the trailers alone have almost brought me to tears.  But I don't want to write about the film, but rather the poem that serves as its title.

     I think I must have been about twelve when I first read "Invictus," and its power was immediately evident to me, even then.  Children so often feel powerless, and the junior high school years can be so painful. I don't even remember much about mine except small, disconnected bits and pieces. I certainly didn't enjoy them, though I don't think I was any more miserable than many, perhaps most of my peers--but I was miserable enough.  And so I often retreated into books for escape, solace, and inspiration.  I found all three in Louis Untermeyer's A Treasury of Great Poems English and American, the massive (nearly 1300 pages) poetry anthology that had been the text for one of my mother's college courses.  I still have it, with its yellowed pages, its spine reinforced with duct tape, clad in a ridiculously bright spandex cover that makes it stand out from the more sober shades on the covers of the other volumes of poetry on the shelf.  Through this wonderful collection (and Untermeyer's always fascinating commentary on each poet and his or her work) I met many friends, among them William Ernest Henley, who wrote "Invictus."


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Brave words, strong words--I memorized them right away and they have come back to give me strength and courage during dark times.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd say they have shaped much of my response to life.

     But my hardships could not begin to compare with Henley's.  He was, to use a politically incorrect word but probably the one Henley himself would have used, a cripple.  Due to a tubercular disease of the bone, one leg was amputated when he was twelve or thirteen and doctors later recommended amputation of the other, but after long treatment by Lister (the father of antiseptic surgery) that leg was saved.  A man of generous spirit, he became a magazine editor and discovered and nurtured many younger writers, though he drove himself so hard that at one point he thought he had extinguished his own poetic abilities.  He was mistaken, and some of his later poems are among his most beautiful.  Tragedy returned, however, when the death of his five-year-old daughter finally broke his spirit.  He died nine years later at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind many poems, but especially this one that has inspired so many readers.

     Henley was imprisoned by his physical disabilities, but for the most part he overcame "the bludgeonings of chance" to live a productive, if too-short, life characterized by talent, hard work, kindness, and generosity.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robbin Island for twenty-seven years and managed to remain "bloodied but unbowed," inspired, in part, by Henley's poem. He emerged to lead a nation and to work for unity, when many others would have preferred to take revenge for all the years and cruelties of apartheid.  I imagine that thousands of others like me, unknown and unlikely to be remembered except by those who were close to us, have also called up Henley's words as we faced our own, individual dark nights of the soul.

     I wonder if "Invictus" could even find a publisher today.  It is, perhaps, too emotional, too florid to be considered "cool."  It is powered (and I use that verb deliberately) by obvious, muscular rhyme and meter; I feel my fists clench and my jaw tighten when I read or remember it, because these are the appropriate physical reactions to threat or pain or "the fell clutch of circumstance." We fight back or, like Mandela, we hold on to the values that sustain us.

    Students today don't seem to pay much attention to poetry.  I've had students tell me they never read any poetry in high school, never wrote papers on literature, and certainly never memorized a poem.  My teachers made us do all those things and I think we were the better for it.  I remember having to memorize Bryant's "Thanatopsis"--I didn't much like it but it's there if I need an example of iambic pentameter.  My paper on Lord Byron turned into the soap opera chronicle of his love life, but Mrs. Whittemore recognized the work I'd put into my research and gave me an A anyway; probably she enjoyed the story too.  We read Macbeth aloud in her class; it was wonderful.  Mostly, however, I remember the discoveries I made on my own, when I escaped from "this place of wrath and tears" into the words of others who had faced the same trials and worse and who gave me, in their words, tools to help me face my own world and perhaps reshape it into a more friendly place.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I can smell bacon cooking, which means Joe's up to something in the kitchen, and that's generally a good thing, especially when I'm tired and don't really want to do anything except putter here on the computer or go back to bed with a good book.  Yesterday was the first day off after the end of the semester, and I am looking forward to rest, relaxation, gardening, painting, reading, watching movies, cleaning up my sewing room, various crafty or needlework projects - not in any particular order. Yesterday we went to the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, an early dinner with friends at a new Korean restaurant we'd all been wanting to try, and then to the Reid Park Zoo for ZooLights, the annual Christmas festival.

It was lovely, just cold enough to justify bundling up a bit but not cold enough to make anyone uncomfortable.  There seemed to be more lights than in past years, and it was truly beautiful.  The animals weren't out; they were tucked away in their "night houses" (I learned about that when our oldest grandson attended a special "junior zookeeper" program), but there was plenty of entertainment, free hot chocolate, and Christmas cheer to keep everyone happy.

But back to the bacon. A few postings ago I mentioned a wonderful salad I make several times when I have frisée in the garden.  This is what it looks like:

The frisée has enough body to stand up to the hot bacon dressing, while the sautéed apple slices and red onion add sweet and rich layers of flavor, and the poached egg finishes it off perfectly.  I don't think that's what Joe's making now, but whatever it is, it smells good!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Of wind and rain

        The rain set early in tonight,
        The sullen wind was soon awake,
        It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
        And did its best to vex the lake….

So begins Robert Browning’s  “Porphyria’s Lover,” and so it was here earlier this week (except that we don’t have a lake, or many elm trees, for that matter).  The rain was welcome, and we hope for more in the next few days.  Monday morning’s sunrise was promising: “red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”

The wind was spectacular.  I’d taken down the patio umbrellas earlier, or who knows where that gale might have deposited them.  It woke us in the middle of the night with its rushing and pounding; strong winds are not uncommon here, but this was exceptional.  I welcomed all of it.  When we first moved to Tucson a neighbor told me that no matter how much we water, everything responds more dramatically to natural rain, and he was right. The late-planted snow peas I’d almost despaired of have finally come up (though not the fennel or the second planting of mesclun. By taking the “cut and come again” approach we’ll have plenty of salad greens with what we’ve already got, and the new seeds may yet sprout.  I will be quite disappointed, though, if we don’t get any fennel).

The gray morning on Tuesday really brought back memories of California's north coast and made me more than a little nostalgic, although Tucson has been home for more than seventeen years now.  As you can see, the fence boards are stained with rain and it’s definitely winter, even though the mesquite trees still have most of their leaves. The little fig tree has lost nearly all of its, but next spring’s buds are already visible at the tips of the branches.  It’s so grounding, so life-affirming to slow down enough to notice the seasonal changes in the natural world.  The bare fig branches brought to my mind another poem, this one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

The first rose on my rose-tree
     Budded, bloomed, and shattered,
During sad days when to me
     Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
     Still it seems a pity
No one saw—it must have been
     Very pretty.

It matters, I think, that we stop to listen to the wind and that we pay attention to the roses and the fig buds, the scarlet sunrise, the small seedlings as they push their way up through the earth. It matters very much.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yesterday's Harvest

Another beautiful sunny day, with the possibility of a couple of beautiful rainy days tomorrow and Tuesday.  The moon, which was gloriously full earlier last week, was still high in the western sky when we went walking in the desert at 9 this morning.  On Monday and Tuesday it was huge and golden, hanging just above the horizon around 6, before sunrise.

Following a freeze warning for Friday night (which didn't materialize in our yard) I took the sheets off the plants yesterday to marvel again at how well they're doing.  Here's what I harvested yesterday, from left to right: endive frisée, mesclun, and broccoli raab.  The frisée and broccoli raab were getting pretty crowded--time to thin things out a bit.  This will give us salad for the week, and probably pasta with sausage and broccoli raab, a wonderful combination. 
    The frisée is something I look forward to every year, ever since I found a recipe in the NYTimes food section for a salad using it along with bacon and a poached egg on top.  I've lost the actual recipe (you could google "salade endive frisée" - there are dozens of recipes that are of varying degrees of difficulty; I like mine simple), but basically for 2 people you cook up a couple of slices of bacon then sauté a sliced apple (one with some body and tartness, ideally) and some chopped red onion in the bacon fat, then whisk in apple cider vinegar to turn the bacon fat into a dressing.  While you're doing all the sautéing, put a bunch of frisée on salad plates--about 3 cups per plate (the hot dressing will wilt it) and sprinkle each with half the crumbled bacon.  And put on some water to poach one egg for each serving (a little vinegar in the poaching water keeps the whites from doing that weird thing they tend to do, or at least from doing it so badly).
    Okay, to finish assembling the salad, pour the hot dressing over the greens and bacon (try to evenly divide the sautéed apple and onion between the two plates), then top each serving with a poached egg.
If you don't have frisée, other greens will do, like escarole; just be sure they're sturdy enough to stand up to the hot dressing--no tender baby greens or mesclun.  The article in the times said this delicious and economical dish was popular among struggling artists in their garrets in the 19th century.  I can see why. Think I'll fix it for a quick dinner after work tomorrow, with some good bread and a nice glass of Liberté, a nice Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon from Familia Nueva that we recently discovered at Trader Joe's. (It's not 3-buck Chuck, but it's pretty inexpensive too) Yum!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Rain, rain, please stay

We've been blessed by a couple of days of rain - good news for the garden - and even cooler weather - good news for knitters (I'll be wearing a sweater and hot pink hand-knitted socks to work today).
     The first planting of vegetables is doing very well, though the fennel, snow peas, and second planting of mesclun have yet to show their heads.  The yarrow that I transplanted in the spring and that struggled through the summer seems to be looking more lively.  It was big and beautiful and totally out of control in its previous location at the four corners of the medicine wheel garden.  Here's a picture of Cosmo with a bouquet that I picked back then.
     The medicine wheel garden is looking much better.  It was very sad, with a number of things looking ragged and weedy after the summer, and then it looked pretty empty after I cleaned those plants out.  Now the nasturtiums are doing well (though no blossoms yet), as are the chrysanthemums, which are proving to be perennial mainstays, and new plantings of petunias and pansies, as well as the alyssum that I waited a bit too long to plant so it's having a harder time getting established.  The garden column in yesterday's newspaper tells us that since November was excessively warm (we already knew that), there's still plenty of planting time left, and that's good news, I guess, though bedding plants like alyssum have pretty much disappeared from the bigger home and garden stores.  I'll trust Saint Fiacre, shown here in last spring's glory days in the medicine wheel garden, to keep everything growing and, I hope, thriving.  That white mum is much bigger now and the red flowers are all gone, replaced with a deep red mum, the aforementioned Cherry Belle nasturtiums, and a border of dianthus in the front of the red section.  Eventually I'll get it all into perennials, as soon as I decide which ones they'll be.  In the meantime, the medicine wheel evolves as the seasons change. And I suppose that's as it should be.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gardens Yesterday and Today

Yesterday was the kind of winter day that makes snowbirds flock to Arizona, and makes those of us who live here year-round (almost) forget the blazing summers.  It was a perfect day for gardening, and for harvesting the last of the tepary beans, a traditional crop of the native Tohono O'odham people, who have lived here for centuries and whose vast reservation stretches from a few miles below Tucson south to the Mexican border and even farther west, a total of 4,453.307 square miles.  Long before development sucked away much of the water and global warming made it so much harder to live off the land, they farmed here. The tepary beans they've raised for centuries (and still raise on the tribe's cooperative farm) have been shown to be useful against diabetes, a gift of Western culture that came along with white flour, white sugar and sugary soft drinks and other foods that have replaced much of the traditional diet, especially since World War II. The beans are higher in protein than most other legumes and their complex carbohydrates help maintain steady, healthy blood sugar levels.

     Tepary beans are an ideal desert crop.  They need very little water; the manager of the tribe's cooperative farm told me a few years ago that they only irrigated them twice during the summer, though that may have changed since then, as the last few summers have gotten progressively hotter and drier.  They thrive in the heat; in fact, they're a traditional monsoon crop, planted with the first of the summer storms.  They also come in a number of different varieties: this picture shows brown, speckled blue, and black, all of which I've grown in my own garden.  For a couple of years I let them trail over the ground in masses of  tough, wiry vines, much tougher than those of any other bean or pea I've encountered.  This year Joe built a splendid trellis that may outlive us both, which made the beans much easier to harvest. It's important to keep them picked so the pods don't split and release them into the mulch where they'll be lost (but not forever, since next year they'll be back--they're still quite close to their hardy wild ancestors, I suspect).
       I'm sure the tribe has at least one bean combine, but for the small-scale home gardener, this is a very labor-intensive crop, and that's why I've decided this summer's was my last planting of teparies.  I can buy them from the tribe at local farmers' markets (along with amazing melons during the season) or from Native Seed Search (, a locally based organization dedicated to maintaining traditional seed varieties of many kinds that are adapted to the southwest. NSS has a special diabetes project to promote the use of tepary beans and other native crops among the tribes.
      The last teparies I bought (some to eat and some for this year's planting) were $4 a pound and well worth it, considering the work of raising and picking them and cleaning them of the dried pods, etc., as well as their superior nutritional value.  Although they are smaller than, for example, pinto or black beans, they take longer to cook, but once cooked you can use them as you would those other beans in pretty much any recipe calling for plain cooked beans, and you'll have the satisfactions of taste, a healthy meal, and knowing you've done your bit to help preserve another traditional (and environmentally friendly and organically raised, since insect pests don't seem to be a problem) crop against the onslaught of the so-called progress of monoculture agribusiness.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Art and Nature

Today we visited just a few of the artists on the Tucson-Pima Arts Council's free open studio tour, which continues tomorrow from 11-5 (go to for more information, list of artists, and maps of where the studios are).  It was wonderful to see the spaces where other artists work, to visit with them, and to be inspired by their art to spend more time on my own.  But I didn't take my camera, so I'll post a picture of some of Nature's art instead:

These are the last of the caladium leaves for this year (that's one of Joe's paintings behind them). I'd wanted to try this amazingly gorgeous plant for a long time and found them at a local nursery early in the summer.  This one thrived in a gorgeous Talavera pot in the shaded entryway outside our front door, but now it's finally cooled off, so I'll do what the books say and take out the tubers and store them for next spring.  No matter how difficult the day might have been, coming home to find these amazing leaves on their  2-3 foot tall stems waiting outside the front door made me smile.  Maybe next spring I'll try more in different colors.
     In the meantime, it's back to the easel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


These are the first radishes from our winter garden, with a sprig of epazote in front.  Like the old gardeners recommend, I planted radishes and carrots in the same row, to mark the row since carrots take so much longer to come up, and they are coming up, their fern-like leaves so small and delicate next to the rowdy radishes.  These are d'Avignon (French breakfast) radishes, which have charmed me since I saw a picture in a French cookbook, years and years ago, of a slice of baguette spread with butter and topped with a layer of sliced radishes (maybe with a little coarse sea salt sprinkled on?).  They're so delicious, I'll have to plant more this weekend.  Even if I didn't like to eat them, I think I'd plant them just because they're so pretty!
      You can cook radish greens, too, just like any other green, or with another green.  They don't need to cook long and they have a mildly sharp, peppery flavor, not surprisingly.  I learned that from an old Adele Davis cookbook.  Wonder if her books are still in print?  I've tossed thinly sliced radish leaves into the water I was boiling for couscous, or into a stir-fry in the last couple of minutes.  Like all greens they cook down to much, much less than their original volume, but they add some vitamins and flavor, even if a bunch of radishes doesn't furnish enough greens for a real side dish.
     The epazote's gotten completely out of hand - again.  Even if I pulled it all up, there'd soon be more, since it reseeds itself so enthusiastically.  I'll cook some beans this weekend and use up some of it, though the conventional wisdom seems to be true, that if you eat beans fairly often, there's less of a problem with the, ah, anti-social qualities some people fear, and that a bit of epazote significantly reduces.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wildlife Encounters

The weather's back down in the 80s, closer to where it belongs (though still unseasonably warm), and it's a gorgeous day - bright blue sky and a few wispy clouds just for textural interest.  On our walk Sunday morning Joe and I saw something unusual, at least in our limited experience.  At first I thought it was a smaller bird chasing a hawk away from its nest or young, something we've often seen.  But on a closer look, it wasn't that at all, but rather a red-tailed hawk and a significantly smaller Cooper's hawk, apparently just hanging out together, riding the air currents in that glorious sky.  We stopped and watched for about 5 minutes, until they drifted up and westward out of sight.

A few days earlier, in that magical lavender pre-dawn light that lasts only a short time each morning, we came upon a bobcat watching a rabbit that had just crossed the road (why does a rabbit cross the road? I have no idea).  Again, we paused to see what would happen.  The bobcat was utterly still yet we could sense its focused attention on the rabbit, its muscles like tightly coiled springs, and then it leapt, almost crossing the road in one bound and flushing the rabbit from a thick clump of red-blossoming oleander.  The bobcat was right behind it, less than a foot away, when the rabbit wheeled into a tight right turn and was off down the road (the rabbit stopped half a block or so away and looked back before ducking into the brush).  Apparently bobcats, perhaps because they're bigger, can't turn as tightly as rabbits.  In any event, this one knew when it had lost its prey - predators, after all, miss more often than they hit.  I didn't necessarily want to see a bloody spectacle enacted just 20 feet in front of me, but I do hope the bobcat eventually found some breakfast.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Settling in for Winter

As winter (or what passes for it here in the desert) gets closer, I feel more domestic, more concerned with the small things that make a house feel like a home.  These are a few of the prickly plants that live on my kitchen windowsill.  The one on the left is some kind of euphorbia - there are so many members of that vast family! I've collected a few of its kin, including a couple of firestick plants, a very large crown of thorns, and the wild Mexican ancestor of the big-blossomed poinsettias we'll soon be seeing in the stores (and yes, I know the red "blossoms" really aren't blossoms).  The wild ones have reseeded themselves at various points in the yard, no doubt with some bird accomplices.
       But I'm not really posting to talk about plants, but rather dishcloths, like the one underneath these these pots.  Several years ago, when I was in grad school, a group of us liked to gather weekly for a "wine and whine" session, to which we brought our knitting or other projects.  My friend Laurie suggested that dishcloths were a good way to begin knitting, but it wasn't until a few years later that I actually knitted my first dishcloths.  They're good small projects for driving trips (as long as the knitter isn't also driving) and for trying out new stitch patterns.
     I like my dishcloths to have a nubbly texture which helps get things cleaner.  I tend to be a relaxed or loose knitter as opposed to a tight knitter (which means I really have to check my gauge, or things can come out 2 sizes too big), so if the pattern calls for a size 7 needle, for example, I drop down to a 6 to get the right gauge.  But gauge doesn't matter so much with this kind of project.  The best yarn is worsted-weight cotton, like Lion Brand Kitchen Cotton or Lily Sugar and Cream.  Here's the pattern for this particular dishcloth:

Chevron Rib Dishcloth, to be knit on size 6 or 7 needles in worsted weight cotton;
Cast on 41 stitches.  Knit 2 rows in garter stitch, then change to pattern, keeping 2 stitches in garter stitch at each edge of every row, in addition to the pattern stitches shown below, so that your pattern stitch is framed on all four sides by a narrow band of garter stitch.
Row 1: (right side) P1, *K1, P2, K2, P2, K1, P1; rep from * to end.
Row 2: *K3, P2, K2, P2, K1, (P2, K2) twice; rep from  *  to last st,  K1.
Row 3: *(P2, K2) twice, P3, K2, P2, K2, P1; rep from * to last st, P1.
Row 4: *K1, P2, K2, P2, K5, P2, K2, P2; rep from * to last st, K1.
Repeat these four rows until the dishcloth is only 1/4" to 1/2" shorter than it is wide. Knit 2 rows in garter stitch, then bind off.

When I first heard of knitting dishcloths, it seemed a bit silly to me.  After all, I was a "real" knitter who was capable of making more important things like sweaters, socks, etc., etc.  Now I'm a convert.  They actually do make doing dishes more pleasant, they're an easy pick-up project when I don't feel like anything more complex.  Oh, and you  can use them in the bath as well as the kitchen, and they make lovely gifts.  How about a couple of these washcloths (as opposed to "dishcloths" in a basket with a bar of soap and a bottle of lotion, for example, or for a smaller token gift or stocking stuffer, perhaps just one, rolled up and tied with a bit of ribbon?  I've also given a couple of rolled up dishcloths along with 3 wooden spoons, all tied together with raffia or twine.  There are all kinds of possibilities.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fruits of Autumn

I have a friend who was recently waxing eloquent on the joys of persimmons, which have just appeared in our markets.  So sweet, so delicate, with flesh like a quivering orange jewel, they are a transitory pleasure; like the fresh figs of a month or two ago, they won't be around for long, so in my opinion it's all right to make gluttons of ourselves.  I didn't taste persimmons until I was a grown-up but I remember a photograph I saw in a book, of Japanese children in the snow, shaking a leafless persimmon tree loaded with bright fruit.  I don't know if they would have been a viable crop in Idaho, where I grew up, but certainly no one grew them, at least no one that I know of.
     It's also prime season for fresh pears, which I  didn't fully appreciate until a few years ago, having grown up eating the canned variety.   But look at these!  The  red, like the princess in a fairy tale, more easily bruised than some,  so  we'll eat those first,  then the more common but still noble Bartlett,  which  sometimes  blushes  a bit,  and  the  sturdy  brown  Bosc, wonderful for poaching, but we'll probably eat these raw with a nice pungent cheese.  Though pears are more common than some fruits, they are a sensual delight, and prices are low--'tis the season. Let's treat ourselves!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The first cold breath of winter

Winds and other weather factors from the northwest have rushed down on us here in the desert, causing the temperatures to drop by more than 20 degrees, with freezes predicted for last night and tonight.  So I picked all the eggplants that remained in the garden--there were more than I thought! I'll make a big batch of eggplant parmigiana and then use the rest in ratatouille, since it freezes well.  This was an excellent year for eggplant, especially the big Black Beauty variety (I've always grown the long Japanese Ichiban before and was surprised to see the Black Beauties out-perform them).
        I'm so happy to see winter coming, and I hope it's as rainy as predicted.  Sweaters and gloves and handknit socks and scarves and hats are among my most favorite things!  I wore a long flannel nightgown to bed (and put on an extra blanket) and then had oatmeal for breakfast. Such simple things, yet they offer so much pleasure.

Monday, October 26, 2009

By the Seaside, By the Beautiful Sea

This past weekend Joe and I flew over to Orange County CA to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in Corona del Mar--it had been far too long since we'd been there and it was wonderful to spend time with them.  Both evenings we all sat out on the back patio and watched the sunset, and Catalina Island in the distance.  I wonder what it was like a century or two ago, when the hills weren't crammed full of houses and people weren't distracted from the natural beauty of twilight by the garish glow of someone's widescreen TV on the next rise - but probably if those folks thought about it, they'd have pulled their drapes. At least I'd like to think so.
My uncle lent us his car on Saturday, so we drove south to Laguna Beach, which is especially nice now that high season seems to be over.  We stayed out of the shops (with one exception) and had a wonderful stroll on the beach. I was busily collecting odd, calcified excrescences that turned out to be the tubes certain marine worms live in (there weren't any at home that day).  Then I saw a sign forbidding any collecting of shells, stones, etc. And that's okay.  Here's a photo I took after emptying my pockets; most of what's in the picture isn't anything I'd picked up. That's a worm tube at the lower right.

A little further on there are some rocky outcroppings; I climbed up on one and took a picture of the surf pouring through this hole in the rock (which is smaller than it might look, only 3 or 4 feet wide but quite dramatic.                                       Looking out to sea from where I stood is a big rock that was covered with pelicans. Unfortunately my lens wasn't long enough to get the kind of picture I wanted, but perhaps you can make them out. There were two young boys--probably 10 to 12 years old--out there in wetsuits with their surfboards, cavorting like sleek young seals.  When they saw me with the camera they waved and grinned and clowned around.  Their joy was infectious and they seemed so at home in the water.

This solitary sandpiper is one of the last pictures I took that morning.  The sun had been coming out from behind the clouds from time to time, but the light in this picture shows what it was like for the most part - more like a day on the north coast, and it made me rather homesick for Arcata. I fantasized a bit about living by the ocean again, but the next day, when we got off the plane, I was happy to see cactus - it made me truly feel that I'd come home, and of course I had.  Still, it's nice to feel connected to more than one kind of environment, to know there's more than one place where I could be content, just in case I'm reincarnated as either a sandpiper or a lizard!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup!

I got up ridiculously early this morning to email my comments on her paper to a grad student, but then I discovered I'd left that folder in my office, so instead I made soup.  (Yes, I know a normal person would go back to bed.) This delicious and super-easy recipe seems especially right for this time of year.  I'm a great believer in soup.  It's easy to make, the longer-cooking varieties are especially good at making the house smell wonderfully welcoming, it's usually (but not always) healthy and relatively low in calories, and there's just something cozy and comforting and delightful about a bowl of soup. I always felt that way as a child, when a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of Campbell's tomato soup was the ultimate comfort food.  Since then I've lost my taste for canned soup, but since most soups are so simple, I don't miss Campbell's (though I do use canned chicken broth). So without further ado, here's the recipe for:

Pumpkin Peanut Butter Soup (3 to 4 servings)
16 ounces canned pumpkin or 2 cups fresh or frozen pumpkin puree (thawed)
2 Tablespoons butter
1 smallish to medium onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1/8 cup (2 T.) creamy peanut butter, preferably the natural kind
1/4 cup heavy cream or milk (or half-and-half, and the fatfree works fine)
salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco or other hot sauce to taste (I use a good couple of shakes)

In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add onion and sauté until light golden brown. Add pumpkin and chicken broth and heat to boiling.  Add peanut butter and cream and stir until smooth. Cover and simmer over low heat for a few minutes.  Season to taste.  Purée in the blender if you like (I do this if I'm using home-cooked fresh or frozen pumpkin, which sometimes has stringy fibers).

Depending on how much energy I have this evening, I may make cornbread to go along with the soup, corn and pumpkin being such classic harvest partners, and this recipe (which I sent to Sunset magazine several years ago and which they actually published!) is delicious and so easy. It makes a slightly sweet cornbread with a nice, moist texture.

Really Good Cornbread
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400; spray an 8" or 9" square or round pan (I use a cast iron skillet).
Mix all the ingredients together, pour them into the pan, and bake 20-25 minutes until it's browned nicely on top and a toothpick comes out clean if you poke it in the center.

 It just occurred to me that you could core some apples and stuff the holes with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a little butter on top and put them in the oven when you start preheating it.  They might not be done when the cornbread is, but it wouldn't be much longer until they're tender and you have baked apples for dessert (especially nice with a drizzle of cream or a scoop of ice cream, or maybe a spoonful of sweetened or vanilla yogurt).

 So there you have it: pumpkin, corn, and apples, the perfect autumn supper, with very little effort.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Woman Made of Flowers

I should be painting.  There's really no excuse; I have a show coming up in January and want some new pieces to put in it. Of course I'll show acrylics, like "Adam's Apples," but lately I've been wanting to do some things in pencil and pen and ink, the media I once used most. Then I gave them up for a long time and now I'm enjoying them again.  Also, I haven't drawn or painted people in many years but suddenly I feel the urge to try my hand at mythic and/or folklore figures.  So here's one, the Welsh Blodeuwedd.

There are at least two ways of looking at Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. This is the first:

The Welsh goddess Arianrhod cursed her son, Llew Llaw Gyffes, saying that he would never have "a wife of the race that now inhabits the earth."  But  the gods Math and Gwydion circumvented her curse by creating a bride for Llew Llaw from flowers, Blodeuwedd, "the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw" (Graves 308).  Some time after the two were married, Llew Llaw went off to visit Math and while he was gone a hunting party came by, led by Gronw Pebyr; when he and Blodeuwedd met it was love at first sight. And so they plotted the death of her husband by treachery, since he could not be killed in any ordinary way, but with the help of Gwydion he was resurrected and took vengeance on Gronw Pebyr. Gwydion then transformed Blodeuwedd into an owl (which is the meaning of her name), that is "hateful to all other birds" (Graves 312).

But consider the story from Blodeuwedd's point of view.  Created by Math and Gwydion to be more beautiful and desirable  than any mortal woman, she is given no choice in how to live her life or with whom to live it. Instead, she is punished terribly when she follows her own heart, rather like the biblical Eve.  According to Barbara Walker, Blodeuwedd is the Welsh goddess of spring, the maiden face of the goddess, and Llew Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr alternate in the role of sacred king, slaying or being slain year after year and then being resurrected to begin the cycle again (111).

Blodeuwedd's identification with the owl is interesting, since that bird is also associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom (among other things) as well as with Lilith, "the witch [Adam] loved before the gift of Eve" (Rossetti), a figure of loathing and terror in the Judeo-Christian tradition (though her actual origins go back much further) who has been reclaimed by feminist theology as a figure of empowerment and strength. It's all quite a bit more complex than a simple story of love, death, and revenge.

I was surprised when I uploaded this photo to see a shadow behind Blodeuwedd's face; it is from another drawing on the next page of the sketchbook, this time of the third face of the goddess, the crone.

 Robert Graves. The White Goddess, Amended and Enlarged Edition. 1948. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "Body's Beauty."
Barbara Walker. The  Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.  1983. New York: Castle Books, 1996.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October's bright blue weather

I'd been so enjoying autumn and now summer's back, at least for a couple of days, with temperatures in the mid-90s.  But to paraphrase Dickens, I will keep autumn in my heart.  This is the time of year, here in the desert, when earth seems to heave a small sigh of relief.  It is my favorite season in the way it signals beginnings and endings.  It's the Celtic New Year, and I wish I were more computer literate so I could post Van Morrison's song by that name. It's the time when I find dead butterflies at the side of the road, pick them up carefully and take them home to keep them safe until I find some artwork into which they can be incorporated, and I find myself quoting Yeats:

. . . and wisdom is a butterfly
and not a gloomy bird of prey . . .

Here also it is the time before el Dia de los Muertos, and I set up my ofrenda to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, although according to some traditions at this time the veil between the worlds thins and they can either pass through to visit us or at least see how we honor them.

The photographs are of parents, grandparents, and our sweet little cat Cleo.  The skeletons let us laugh at death (and the writer at her typewriter lets me laugh at myself).  The brides and grooms (there's another set not shown in this closeup detail, of  a calavera bride and groom driving off to their honeymoon in an open jeep) were actually wedding presents!  We love them.
          It's traditional to set out things the dead enjoyed, and probably I could have put out a pack of Pall Malls and a pint of bourbon for one grandfather, who died of emphysema.  The fruit is for my maternal grandmother, in the sepia wedding picture just behind the Golden Delicious apple. During the Great Depression she worked in the fruit-packing sheds at Emmett, Idaho, a town once known for its wonderful orchards that have since been turned into subdivisions as Emmett itself has become a bedroom community for Boise.  She loved the work and continued there as a seasonal supervisor even after the economy improved.  She especially loved apples.  The workers could take the culls home, and my mother remembers Grandma coming home after a long day at work and staying up until the wee hours of the morning, canning applesauce, cherries, peaches, all sorts of things.  She also made sure to buy at least one pomegranate each year as a special treat, and I do too.  The pomegranates remind us of Persephone, who descends into her husband Hades' realm at this time when the world turns colder and darker.

When it's cold and dark, it's lovely to snuggle up in warm sweaters and quilts.  I made this quilt last year for el Dia de los Muertos.  It's a small one, lap robe size, just right for an evening with a good book and a mug of hot cider or mulled wine.
I hope you all enjoy this season and everything it brings us, especially the promise of rest and renewal.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pesto and Salad Dressing

All weekend I kept telling myself I needed to harvest the basil and make some pesto. The Genovese, purple, and Thai varieties were all beginning to bloom, though not the spicy globe basil--it was just getting bigger.  Since I didn't get to it over the weekend, I harvested a basket full when I got home after work today and whipped up a big batch of the rich, cheesy, garlicky green stuff.
Here's the recipe I've been using for about 20 years.  I pack the finished pesto into 1/2 cup plastic containers for the freezer, for a taste of summer even in midwinter.

Basil Pesto (makes 1 to 1 1/3 cups or so; I double, triple, or quadruple the recipe if there's enough basil)
2 cups fresh basil leaves, stripped from the tougher stems and firmly packed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 T. pine nuts (traditional) or walnuts (an acceptable substitute with just a slightly different flavor)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup + 2 T. grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (I've also used Asiago, with good results)

Put everything in the food processor and process until it's the consistency you want. I like it finely chopped or ground, but still with little chunks of cheese, etc. visible.  The pesto will keep its color better if you don't over-process it.

Pesto has uses beyond just tossing it into hot pasta.  It's good spread on bread (my daughter loves that) or on a bagel, over a thin schmear of cream cheese.  It's also a nice addition to an omelet filling, and I love grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto and sliced tomato.

We were out of salad dressing so I made some of that, too.  I don't really like very many bottled dressings, but that's not a problem. This homemade vinaigrette is as easy as they come, tastes great (I like my dressing a bit tart rather than oily), AND it only has 9 calories per tablespoon.  I've adapted the recipe from one in Julee Rosso's wonderful Fresh Start cookbook; I often make it with white balsamic vinegar instead of the dark variety, for a lighter, somewhat fruitier (but not sweet) flavor.  I usually double the recipe and since it has such a high proportion of vinegar, it keeps well without refrigeration. As Julee Rosso says, "Don't worry about the hot water--it works."

House Dressing (makes about 3/4 cup)
2 tsp. finely minced or pressed garlic
1 T. sugar
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 T. olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (white or dark, or some of each)
1/4 cup hot water
pinch of salt
pepper to taste

Just pour it all into the blender and blend well, then decant into a clean bottle or jar. Store at room temperature; shake before using.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Of rattlesnakes and ruins

This morning we went for a hike on the David Yetman trail in the Tucson Mountain Park west of the city (and less than 5 minutes from our house!). The trail signs have been refurbished and there are some new ones, so there's no risk of wandering off in another direction, unless, of course, you want to. There were several tiny butterflies, like miniature Painted Ladies, but they refused to land in any place with good light or to hold still long enough for me to  take their pictures.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


The backyard is our green space; the front is pretty much desert landscape (except for a small flower bed by the front door).  Early this summer Joe cleared out this space in the front yard for a small labyrinth, something I'd been wanting for a long time. There was no room for it in the backyard because much of the yard is on a slope and most of the rest was already taken up by trees, raised beds, and the patio.  He pruned some big cassia plants to make a short path between them  to the entrance and after I'd laid out the stones we "paved" the labyrinth itself with sand.  If I keep it swept, the next morning we can pick out the tracks of the birds and animals who've come (mostly during the night and early morning) to drink from the water bowl at the center.  When you walk to the center (barefoot is best, to feel connected to the earth)  you stop facing east, toward the morning sun. I like to stay there for a moment, looking at the little world in front of me, between where I'm standing and the hedge of untrimmed Texas Ranger that divides our yard from our neighbors.  It almost always makes me smile.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Morning Glory Guerrilla

Why morning glory garden?  Well, when we first moved to this house and began planning what to plant, I was dismayed to find that the seed catalog companies wouldn't ship morning glory seeds to Arizona.  So I got some from a friend in California. The next year when we went on vacation our housesitter was shocked to see them in our backyard. "You do know those are illegal, don't you?" she asked in a tone that reminded me of Sister Angela many years ago. I was almost afraid she was going to call the garden police (she didn't, but we didn't ask her to housesit any more). For a few years we smuggled the seeds in from California, but recently I've found them for sale in stores right here in Tucson. I must admit, it was more fun growing them when it felt like a subversive act. But they're still lovely.

Here's one of those male zucchini blossoms that we had so many of earlier in the summer and that we need now!

"Winter" Garden

It's a glorious day here in the Sonoran desert. The recent 100-degree-plus temperatures are becoming a dim memory and our 70- and 80-degree afternoons remind us why we live here.  The vegetable seeds I planted on Sunday have almost all sprouted and popped up their little green heads.  The turnips and radishes were first, with full rows in view by Wednesday.  The only things that aren't  up yet are the nasturtiums (they always take longer), beets, cauliflower, radicchio, and cilantro.

All that's left of the summer garden are the eggplant, zucchini, and tepary beans.  The eggplant was the summer's best performer.  As for the zucchini, with the reduced number of honeybees I've gotten very good at vegetable sex.  Early in the season there were so many male flowers but no females, then for a short time there were equal numbers and as long as I made sure they got together, plenty of zucchini.  But now there have been mornings with female flowers but no males - so sad.  All those lovely golden blossoms doomed to spinsterhood!