Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring, Winter, Summer, Spring

It was snowing on Thursday night as we drove into Prescott, Arizona; the brief storm deposited about an inch of fluffy crystals on the town.  After checking into the Hotel Vendome (built in 1907), where we had a lovely corner room at the back of the second floor, we went out for a short walk around the historic downtown.

Prescott was Arizona’s territorial capital and is proud of its history.  The town is built around a central plaza, site of the old courthouse and of many community events.
The pinkish-amber glow of the streetlights made photography problematic, but it was wonderful to be out in the crisp, cold air after the snowfall.  The moon was waxing (it will be full tomorrow) and its cool glow added to the overall effect.
Next morning there was still a little snow, but it didn’t last long.  Spring was well underway before the snowstorm, with ornamental fruit trees in bloom along the sidewalks, highlighted with icy crystals for just a couple of hours early in the day.
     I was there for the spring colloquium at Prescott College, where one of my students was presenting her master’s thesis.  Prescott College is a small liberal arts school with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice which is reflected in the physical campus itself as well as in the work done by its students and faculty.  It offers both residential and distance learning; I had never actually been to the campus before.
      What one first sees from the street is unprepossessing—a series of small, low buildings that appear to have been converted from other uses—but the central core of this very small campus is more interesting.  The two main buildings—the library and student center (with classrooms, meeting rooms, food service, etc.)—face each other over a xeriscaped courtyard, all of  it above a small creek, Butte Creek, that is the focus of a restoration project by the college and its neighbors.
     Here you can see terraces built to prevent erosion and also to hold organic gardens. Like the courtyard walls, these are constructed from slabs of recycled concrete that might otherwise have gone into landfills.  In addition to being functional, they also look great.
 This little crossing is made entirely of recycled materials.  The sculptural quality of the handrails comes from used rebar twisted into fanciful shapes.
     The bathrooms are fantastic, the most polished parts of the campus (in every sense of the word) with walls made up of slices of rock and even little artifacts found with the rocks—note the little bottles embedded on the right side of the picture.
     Joe and I both had a good time there.  The faculty, staff, and students are all very interesting people and we attended some informative and thought-provoking presentations, including one by a professor on the tradition of sacred trees in Norway and Sweden.  And my student did a fine job with her thesis presentation. 
     On Sunday morning we headed home, but with a stop in Scottsdale for a long and long-overdue visit with one of my old friends (we're not old, of course, but we first met the summer before third grade!).  What a lovely way to end our trip! It was nice to cool off in mile-high Prescott before returning to the low desert, where the temperature is predicted to reach 90 in Tucson today (for the first time this year), followed by a roller coaster weather ride the next few days—we’ll soon be back down in the 70s.  As this weekend illustrates, weatherwise—and in other ways, the Southwest can be a land of extremes.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Seasons, Turnips, the Zen of Picking Peas, and Love

    The season is changing rather suddenly from spring to what in most places would be thought of as summer – but here in the Sonoran desert we know better. Summer will come in like a dragon soon enough, breathing fire and making the air shimmer with the heat. We’re still enjoying relatively mild weather in the high 80s, and the garden’s been telling us it’s time to shift gears.  The Swiss chard will last through summer, as long as we keep it picked and watered, but most of the greens are finished and gone, as are the turnips that furnished us with delicious greens as well as lovely purple-topped white globes.  These are the last of them.  Next year I may plant twice as many.

    The snow peas are still going strong.  I froze a large batch last weekend and will do so again in a few days.  They have to be picked daily—it’s best to do it in the morning (it’s best to pick everything in the morning), and it’s not necessarily easy.  The pea pods are pretty much the same color as the vines and leaves, so they’re hard to see, and it seems like the harder you look, the more difficult it is to find them.  You have to look from different angles; when you think you’ve got everything in a certain section, take a few steps to one side, look again, and you’ll probably find more.  You need to get up close, but you also need to stand back and relax  your eyes.  Then you’re more likely to spot them—when you’re not really looking, when you go into a meditative state that lets you slow down and appreciate the plant as a whole, but without sharp, acquisitive staring. Then they become visible, light shining through them as through stained glass, and you wonder why you didn’t see them before.

    Growing and picking any kind of peas is not for the greedy or impatient; it is an exercise in sublimating greed and impatience for something quieter, softer, more beautiful.  It’s a little bit like looking for love, which is a lot more likely to show up when you stop pursuing it and focus on appreciating what you already have—like gardens and sunsets and mystery novels and zydeco music, or whatever it is you already love—and it often shows up in the form of someone who’s likely to appreciate those same things with you.

    So here we are, enjoying what’s left of spring and anticipating summer.  Joe needs to get the cooler going, but not today. We have fans that will meet our needs for a little while longer.  I’ve planted the squash and pumpkins—it’s hard to imagine those little seedlings will soon turn into ill-mannered vegetable hooligans who'll muscle their way past the pathetic boundaries we try to impose on them.  They take up far too much room, but we forgive them because we love the gifts they bear. For now, I get up a little earlier to make sure I can pick the day’s crop of snow peas before I go to work, and I try to slow down and breathe softly as I do so. And with every pale emerald pod that I drop into the basket, every green half-moon with its tiny row of jewels running down the inside, I feel profoundly grateful.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Flowers everywhere

Every morning Joe and I get off the bus on the south side of Speedway and walk north through the underpass that links the University of Arizona arts complex to the McClelland Building that houses the business department (our offices are in buildings nearby and far less grand), and for the last two weeks, when we come out of the underpass, we’re hit with a rush of intoxicating fragrance from the blooming acacia trees that makes me forget, at least for a moment, that I’m on my way to a long day of work—mostly rewarding, sometimes frustrating, but work nonetheless.  The high winds of the last couple of days have shorn the acacias of many of their blossoms, but this picture shows how they can touch even the plainest, most functional building (in this case a parking garage) with a loveliness made even more precious because it is ephemeral.

     Part of the east wall of that same garage is blanketed in yellow and white Tombstone roses, known outside Arizona as the Lady Banks rose.  They’re tough and hardy as well as lush and gorgeous, thriving in our heat and, unlike so many other plants that grow in the desert, devoid of thorns.  I haven’t planted any in our yard because I haven’t decided on the right spot yet, but I will.  Maybe not this year, though.  It’s getting late to plant roses.
     Some of you may remember the song from the ‘60s that contained the lines “Flowers in her hair / Flowers everywhere / I love the flower girl . . . “  Well, it’s like that in Tucson now.  The sour orange trees, common landscape plants here, are so heavy with blossoms you could almost get drunk on the fragrance, and total strangers stop to marvel together at the pure sensual pleasure of the experience. No, we don't actually call it that (at least not when we're speaking to strangers). It's usually something more like "Aren't the blossoms beautiful?" or "Doesn't that smell amazing?" But the effect on us is much more visceral and intense than such mundane language can express. 
     On our patio at home, the Meyer lemon I bought two years ago, that had one blossom when I bought it and produced none at all last year, is so loaded with buds and blooms I think I may have to prop up the branches.  It’s in a half wine barrel right by the kitchen door, and a rose geranium stands on the other side of that door, so there’s always something sweet-smelling as we go in or out.
     This year I got totally carried away planting nasturtiums.  We have the long vining type on a trellis at the back of one of the vegetable beds, several plants that have gotten much bigger than the package promised in one of the herb beds, pushing up against the chamomile at one end and the pineapple sage at the other, and a big round cluster of several plants of the Cherry Belle variety in the red quadrant of the Medicine Wheel garden.  When Deirdre and the boys were down during spring break, she and I taste-tested them (I love their peppery taste in salads, to look at and to eat) with the boys.  Isaiah, who’s going on eleven, is becoming a more adventurous eater and liked them, while Eli, who’s five, made a face and spit his out.

I remember seeing, in a magazine, chopped nasturtium petals in egg salad, very pretty and, I imagine, very tasty.  Think I’ll give that a try this weekend.