Green in the Desert


The monsoon rains have brought green to my back yard.


Of course, with rains come roof problems.  We hope those are over for now.


These are different greens from the shades we find in the northeast, but it is unquestionably green.


Winter Walk

1 Comment

After the big snow there seemed to be more gray days than usual for our area.  But some days the sun shone, and such bright winter days are the best days for walks in nature.  These photos come from a recent walk on the Sierra Vista Trail. ocotillo

The desert has a rather muted palette in winter, and there are plenty of dry branches.  I’d like to learn more about photographing, close up, their complex intercrossings.twigs697

Some of the plants are looking very healthy, thanks to the extra moisture this year.prickly pear

The prickly pear above is in better shape than average.  Most look more like the ones below.PP and house701

The house in the background is one of several scattered between the trail and the mountains, a reminder of the ever encroaching presence of humans in the area.  This is one reason there has been a (successful) campaign to designate several parts of the area as the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument.

The last picture is of a less common kind of cactus along this trail, a pincushion (I think).pincushion702

The San Diego Desert

1 Comment

I was in San Diego, California, in October, but other things intervened and I’ve only now uploaded my photos into the computer.  These photos are from a walk in the Scripps Preserve, a small sample of what the landscape of the San Diego area once was. P1000287It still seems amazing to me that this area was desert, right up to the water’s edge, before people started altering the landscape.  Dry bushes on the cliff give way to green in the arroyos, which probably benefit from the runoff from houses, roads, etc.P1000291There are small yellow flowers, similar to the ones I see in “my” desert far inland.  I guess that this is some variety of Bahia. a family with many varieties. P1000289Many of the bushes had recently gone to seed – as one would expect in October. P1000293And the overall look of the area made it quite clear that California is in drought conditions. P1000292Deserts are deserts whether near sea level or at 4,000 feet, where I live.  And this is in spite of the greater humidity coming off the water.  My skin appreciated that difference.


Feast of Bridget


It’s another marking point in the eight-part year, half way from the winter solstice to the spring equinox, variously known at Imbolc, the feast of Bridget, a fire goddess, and Groundhog day.  I prefer Bridget, because she is said to be the patron of blacksmiths and poets, a fiery combination if there ever was one.

In Pennsylvania they make a big thing of the groundhog.  But shadow or no shadow, we knew there would be six more weeks of winter.  The traditional day to plant spinach where I lived was March 17.  We liked to pretend that spring began in early March with the big flower show, but that only happened indoors.

Here in the desert, this is the beginning of spring.  I’m behind in the garden already, because there are still two plants, one tall grass and a chamisa, which need serious cutting back before they begin to put out green again.  I intended to cut them back in January, but I only got half way around the yard.

One of the treats of this point in the year is that the sun rises between the time I get up and the time I settle in to work at my desk.  This means that I get to enjoy some grand light shows.P1000030

This one came on January 31, as if to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  It is an added pleasure to have a new camera with which to –approximately–capture the moment.P1000031

Recommendation: David Chorlton’s “The Porous Desert”

Leave a comment

When I learned that David Chorlton had written a book of poems called “The Porous Desert” I knew that was a book I wanted to read, because I have been fascinated by and writing about the desert since moving to Las Cruces eight years ago.  The book did not disappoint.

The book is not just about the desert but about the desert in drought, our current condition.  His desert is not quite like the one here because they have significant winter rains, which we do not.  A number of his poems are named by dates in February, a month when those in Arizona expect some rain.  Here is one of the more complex poems, titled “February 9th”:

We’re logging on to tomorrow, divining
our way through hours
as they drip from a rusty faucet.
We type in the address: http://www.water.com

but it comes up dry; so we try a search
for rain.  The first result
is a tease: On February 6, 1896, 3.86
inches of rain fell in Philadelphia,
setting a maximum daily record.

there will be a meeting to discuss
the heat island in our urban region
which spreads further and digs
deeper by the day, down to the ruins
of a past civilization: clay pots

still bearing the potter’s fingerprints,
and the tracks her sandals
left behind when she looked into the future,
saw us, and walked the other way.

The book contains 49 poems on 54 pages; I don’t know whether to call it a long chapbook or a short book.  One that is less specifically about the drought, though it is clearly about a dry place, is “Condor”:

The condor stares down into time;
the work of years
with a knife edge, of seasons
that sand away and polish
surfaces then grind them into wizened planes
stacked one above another
until the clifs hang on a talon.
The daily passage of shadows

from rim to canyon rim
and the final drop
of light disappearing from the highest rock
are nothing but sighs
to a bird suspended from the sun

while the minutes drip
from its wings, evaporating
before they can reach the river

moving at the pace of history,
water burning deep
into pages of stone.

Particularly felicitous phrasing or strong images turn up almost unexpectedly.  “Highway Religion” for example begins:

The desert keeps its good looks
for a while west of Phoenix
then it turns honest.

Here’s the beginning of “December”:

An empty nest floats through winter
in the fingers of a tree
scratched against a mountain
at rest.

Here’s one of “Three Lies About Moths”

In previous lives
moths were books that stood unread
on library shelves.  When the lights went out
they eased themselves free of confinement
and nobody knew in the morning
what mysterious force
opened exactly the pages
whose text described the moon.

It fits Chorlton’s overall matter-of-fact approach to call these “Lies” rather than “Myths.”

Two poems specifically refer to the work of writers.  One, called “Proofreading” begins:
This is the detail work
of flossing between the letters.

The second, called “Writing in the Desert” I give in its entirety:

Once you have entered the desert
a lock behind you clicks.  A new vocabulary
floods your tongue and leaves you struggling
to pronounce the words.  After the first year
you learn that silence is the official language
here.  The longer you stay
the shorter the book you came to write becomes
until the manuscript fits on the wings
of a moth.  Each dusk, a lifetime’s work
draws closer to the flame.

I feel that way sometimes too.  It’s a good thing this is not literally true; if it were this book, “The Porous Desert” would not have been published.  I recommend it.

A Winter Walk


It was a hike, really, but a short one.  I had to make a trip down to El Paso and stopped in the Franklin Mountains on the way back for a short trip up a canyon.  It was a trail I had not walked before and I was disappointed at the rockiness of the old jeep road up.  The weather was poor: wind blowing up a lot of dust across the valley below.  In time my irritation subsided in the pleasures and challenge of the moment.

canyonThere was lots of red soil and rock

red rock

And yucca plants sturdy on the slopes.

yuccaI love the color of the hillside, but it is hard to capture: the deader stalks provide a background I think of as mauve, a sort of dusty dim purple, for the bright yellow-green of the scattered prickly pear.

carpet lookI can imagine a carpet in those colors, but since I have no place to put one, I admire it across the canyon. I return from an adventure like this thinking I must do this more often.  Spring and its increasing heat will be here soon.  I’ll hope for better light for photographs next time.

Poet and Place: Fiesta Season in Las Cruces


When people from elsewhere think of New Mexico they usually think of Albuquerque,  Santa Fe or Taos, the northern part of the state.  Las Cruces is different.  It is in the desert in the southern part of the state and on the border.  You can’t take a main road from Las Cruces to the rest of the country without passing through a Border Patrol check point.  It’s quite clear that this area used to be part of Mexico.

My poem, “At the Edge,” about walking in the desert, has appeared this week on 200 New Mexico Poems, a site to celebrate New Mexico’s centennial of statehood.  You can find the site by clicking on the name in the blogroll to the right.  You’ll find poems about all parts of the state and many of its cultures: Native American, Hispanic, etc.

In my writing, the desert enters often.  As you can tell from my previous post, I pay attention to native plants and places to hike and they show up in my writing.  In Pennsylvania, there was a red-leaf maple outside my window which made frequent appearances in my writing.  Now the view out the window near which I write includes tall grass plants, an apache plume and a mesquite tree, which has grown from a small bush in half a dozen years.  I have thought of gathering these poems into a collection called “From Maple to Mesquite.”

Culture is a more complicated matter; one should tread lightly in referring to aspects of culture that really “belong” to others.  But it’s fiesta season in Las Cruces, and it suddenly seems as if everyone has a share in all the cultures we have here.  It began last weekend with a Salsafest downtown.  My family skipped that because the Greek Orthodox church in El Paso was having its Festival at the same time.  We came home with Greek food to keep us happy for a week.

On this three day weekend, there are enough events to do something every day.  You can go north to Hatch for the Chile Festival, west to the Fairgrounds for the Wine Harvest Festival or south to Holy Cross Retreat Center for the Franciscan Arts Festival.  First priority for me is the Franciscan Festival, where my favorite local musician, Randy Granger, will play his flute.  It remains to be seen whether I’ll get to the others.  I do need a little “down” time on the weekend.

The party continues all fall.  On September 15 and 16, hot air balloons and the Diez y seis de Septiembre festival (Mexican Independence Day) in Mesilla will be in competition.  Soon after that comes the Whole Enchilada Festival, then the next weekend the Southern New Mexico State Fair.  (It takes several of New Mexico’s sparsely populated southern counties to put together the equivalent of a County Fair in other parts of the country.)  Pagan Pride day arrives in mid-October, when some of my friends who belly dance will be performing.  November 3 and 4 there’ll be competition again, between the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mesilla and the Renaissance Arts Faire just across town.

After that I hope to get a little break before the holiday bazaars, tree lightings and luminarias of December.  November is time to be outdoors here, to visit White Sands National Monument and the petroglyph sites and hike up into canyons.  Landscape and culture: so much to keep us busy.

After Desert Rain


My back yard is mostly sand.  At least twice previous owners have tried to grow grass there and given up, leaving the strings which once held sod together.  The ground is a pale yellow color.

Until the summer rains come.  Then all manner of weeds sprout up, providing a cover of green.  It is said that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place, but I find the situation is more complicated than that.  Some weeds I pull as fast as I can: the lanky grass that goes to seed so quickly, and the pretty, spreading plant called goathead, whose yellow flowers turn into nasty pronged seeds that stick to cloth and hurt bare feet.

Purple Mat

Other weeds I have reclassified as wildflowers.  One of these is purple mat (Nama hispidum).  When we have a wet winter, which we did not this year, this low plant shows up across the desert where I walk.  In my yard, it likes the shady spots where moisture lasts a little longer.  I had to go out early to get a picture of it in the sun.  And even so, you can hardly make out the purple flowers.

Another native flower I’m fond of is limoncillo ((Pectis angustifolia).


Its English name, lemonweed, may reflect what most people think of it, but I think it’s lovely, with its thin leaves and yellow flowers.  I usually get a scattering of this.  This year, it has sprouted all around our small pool, as if it had been planted there.  How very nice of it!  I happily pull out all the competing weeds so that it can shine.

In this harsh desert climate I’ve had little luck at the kind of gardening I did in Pennsylvania. Even when I focus on heat-hardy plants, my seedlings fail to take hold and my vegetables die off before producing.  I’m dependent on nature and native plants to fill my yard.  After the poppies of early spring there were “wire lettuce” with its wee pink flowers, and stickweed, currently called “Velcro plant,” whose pale yellow flowers are best appreciated from a distance.  Then things got hot and dry.  After the rains come, purple mat and limoncillo arrive to give me joy.  They are a gift I did nothing to earn.