Sunday, June 30, 2013

Planting the Rotary Centennial Arboretum

Last Thursday I got back over to the Rotary Centennial Arboretum, which is still in progress along the Milwaukee River. Due to open in September, a crew from the nearby Urban Ecology Center was busily planting plugs to jumpstart the new growth. I shot a few pictures of them in action before a storm drove them--and me--indoors. (To read more about the arboretum, read my previous post: "how to grow an arboretum.")

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Monarch on milkweed

I've had milkweed growing in my yard for several years now. (The yard was landscaped with all native species, but the milkweed offered itself gratis.) Today, however, marks the first time I've witnessed a monarch caterpillar munching on one of them. Sweet!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Desert Monastery knows how to do seclusion

“The world is too much with us…,” the poet said.

If, as Wordsworth says, we “lay waste our powers” by “getting and spending” then one solution is to remove the temptation by retreating from society.

The impulse to escape the travails of the world, to disconnect the TV, avoid the news (if not “getting and spending”) is easy to understand. It is one reason I came to Ghost Ranch. But for me it is temporary, an interlude of rest and recuperation. Monastics make it a way of life.

By their nature and purpose monasteries are meant to be retreats from the world. In many cases the idea of “retreat” is to remove oneself physically from contact with the larger society. This can happen just about anywhere—behind walls.

I drove a long way down a desert canyon to visit the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. For those not faint of heart it is a popular side excursion while staying at Ghost Ranch. This place has got seclusion nailed (unless you count folks like me who are allowed to wander in from the world!)

The dead end dirt road is 13 miles long. While thirteen miles doesn’t sound far in our car culture, I averaged about 13 miles per hour (not counting stops to take pictures.) That should make it easy to calculate how long it took to get there!

I might have gone a little faster in a 4x4 pickup but my little rental Kia Rio was not too steady on the narrow, dusty and washboarded road. The little round pebbles didn’t improve traction any, either!

Much of the road also is only one lane wide, carved from the red clay cliffs along the Chama River, with no barrier on the riverside edge. There were occasional turnouts to allow opposing traffic to pass, but I discovered that guys in SUVs seldom wait at a turnout. Yes, there was traffic that had to pass. 12 miles of the road is forest service access to recreation points along the river. Several times I had to squeeze by huge SUVs with kayaks or rafts lashed on top. On one particularly harrowing occasion our rear view mirrors nearly touched. And I was on the river side of the road!

Once I passed the last boat launch at mile 12, it was just me and the monastery ahead.

There is some proverb, I think, about the silence of the desert. (I’ve been blessed with the sounds of the desert; that old truism, if it exists, must refer to the absence of human voices and the clamor of culture.) If there is anything more silent than the desert it is a remote canyon in the desert.

Furthermore, the monks at this monastery have taken vows of silence. Even their own human voices are absent from their secluded existence. I didn’t meet any of them. The person at the gift shop (there is a gift shop, of course!) will talk to you (and sell you Christian paraphernalia; I resisted spending and getting any of it.)

Seclusion is accompanied by self-sufficiency here. Solar technology allows the monastery to retreat from the grid as well as society.

It was truly a peaceful place. The interior is dark and enclosed, like a cave or a kiva. The silence felt like a presence rather than an absence. Some, perhaps the reclusive monks, might name that presence. I was content to feel it for a brief interlude.

When I stepped back outside it was the canyon itself that 
moved me, now that my attention wasn’t on the perilous 
drive to reach it. “Late and soon,” it is nature that I 
name and claim. 
Here is Wordsworth’s short poem in its entirety:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,           
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
 Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!           
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;           
The winds that will be howling at all hours,           
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;           
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;           
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be           
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,           
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;           
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;           
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Colorful Colorado: a tale of caterpillars and pine beetles

I pulled over and parked next to the bright yellow sign with red lettering that said, “Leaving New Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” Thick black smoke billowed up from behind a copse of spindly, eerily leafless aspens down the mountainside. Several other cars, two motorcycles, and an official-looking red truck were already parked there. People stood staring down the steep slope. On the side of the truck was the logo: Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The object of everyone’s attention was the train, which was the source of the black smoke. It also was emitting loud mechanical grunts in fits and starts. But it wasn’t moving. Something was wrong.

The narrow gauge, coal-fired Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad runs from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado. Once part of a utilitarian mining route, it now serves tourists who flock to enjoy the combination of railroad nostalgia and magnificent scenery. Today’s run was in trouble.

I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie and went over to the man holding it. He wore a gray uniform and matching cap with the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad insignia on it. I asked if the train always struggled with the slope like this. He shook his head. “What’s the problem?” I asked. He simply pointed down to the crushed gravel surface at our feet and said, “Them.”

I looked down and was startled to see the ground crawling with caterpillars. The black and yellow stripes that ran the length of their bodies were very familiar: tent caterpillars. I looked more closely at the leafless aspens. The forks of their limbs and the crooks and nodes of even the smallest branches were black with caterpillars crawling over the silky web-like “tents.”

Adding together the clues, but having a hard time believing the sum of my calculus, I asked the railroad worker, “You mean the train can’t move because the tracks are too slick with caterpillars?” He nodded with frustration tempered with what seemed like a hint of amusement at the irony.

Through the crackle of the radio I heard, “Back her up and try to get running start.” The engine hissed loudly, spit steam, belched more smoke, and then the train slowly backed down the tracks. The crowd of spectators waited and speculated. I told a couple of helmeted motorcycle riders near me what the maintenance worker had said. Amazement, incredulity, and amusement fought in their expressions. After a moment, disgust was added to the mix.

While we waited I inspected (and photographed) some of the tent-like nests that hung near eye level at the edge of the embankment. I crouched to try to frame a shot that included the tents in the foreground and train in the background (above.) When I arose a dozen or more caterpillars of various sizes were climbing the legs of my pants. I flicked off as many as I could see.

One of the bikers noticed and said, “There are a few on your back,” and flicked them off for me. He looked down at his own clothes nervously. I assured him that they were harmless—to us. I looked again at the defoliated aspens; white, encrusted with caterpillars and their tents. Something was very wrong and not just the delayed tourist train.

Then I looked up the slope above the road. Ranks of similarly spindly, leafless aspens shone stark white, like brittle bones. Then I looked across the valley that had appeared so beautiful on the drive up from Chama. The mountainsides were a tapestry of interwoven bands of pines and aspens. The pines were such a deep green they appeared nearly black. The aspens should have complemented the pines with a bright opalescent green radiant with sunshine. No: all white. As far as I could see.

I’ve since heard that the caterpillars arrived in the area last summer, but the infestation and devastation this year have been far worse. They are native to North America and I’d seen periodic outbreaks in my youth in New York. (I vividly remember my father breaking off tents, dousing them with kerosene and setting them on fire!) But I’d never experienced anything this bad.

My mind dredged up the Hopi word, Koyaanisqatsi, from a 1982 movie by that name. It means “life out of balance.”

With a final check of my clothing I got back in the car and headed towards higher elevation. I passed a dark brown wooden sign with white lettering that said, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” As I passed mile after mile of white stands of aspen I tried to be hopeful.

I reached Cumbres Pass at around 11:30 and pulled into the station parking lot. The train had been due at 11:00. I told a couple who were there waiting what was happening. The man looked at me skeptically and said, “You mean, the train was stopped by a bug?!”

“No,” I said. “Lots of them. They’re defoliating all the aspens.”

Before driving off he added, “First the pine beetles and now this.”

At the pass I turned off onto a forest service road into the Trujillo Meadows recreation area. Most of the forest here was tall, straight pines, probably lodgepole or subalpine fir. The dark green I’d seen at the lower elevation here was tinged with grayish brown. Many of the trees were completely gray.

I passed the largest, densest patch of dandelions I’d ever seen. (Do they cultivate them here?) Not knowing Colorado, I wonder if this is another example of life out of balance. Prettier, at least, than dead trees. Surrounding the open meadow was a mosaic of green, brown, and gray conifers. As I wound up around a switchback I was relieved to see a few small stands of healthy-looking aspen. However, clearly visible among the shimmering green leaves were the web-like white tents.

I climbed higher. The deeper I went into the forest, the more prevalent became the dead or dying conifers. At least the scent of the pine forest remains, I thought, as I breathed deeply that treasured aroma through the open windows. That’s Colorado! Then, before long, that scent was overlain with another one. It smelled familiar but seemed out of place and I couldn’t quite name it.

Newly sawn stumps along the side of the road jolted my memory: the smell was sawdust. It was a smell I associated with sawmills, construction sites, and shop class. Not a smell I wanted to associate with a leisurely drive through the forest.

Of course, I know where the wood comes from that goes to sawmills, construction sites, and even shop classes. But still, something about this seemed wrong. There did not seem to be an organized logging operation going on. Farther up the road I came upon two men with a chainsaw cutting up a huge tree trunk that was lying horizontally. The open back of their unmarked pickup truck was stacked high with thick round disks of lumber. The license plate was an unofficial one, ordinary Colorado registration. One of the men waved as I went by. The other revved up the saw and pushed it into the trunk.

At this point all I could see were stumps and dead trees, their branches drooping like the shriveled carcasses of spiders. The greenest parts of these trees were the gray green fungi that clung to the drooping branches like clumps of lint. I had to turn back. This forest of corpses was no longer a pleasant place to be.

Pine beetles, tent caterpillars, dead forests and scavengers. Koyaanisqatsi. The climate is changing; are we ready for it?

The National Forest Service reports that the mountain pine beetle epidemic is waning. That is, it’s expanding at a lower rate than last year. Small comfort. Meanwhile, the report goes on, the spruce beetle is spreading.

Balance will be reestablished. The earth will survive. Forests will grow again. But at what cost? Will we recognize these new forests? Will we still want to ride the train up over the pass and through the remains of its magnificence?

(On the way back down I learned that the train had made it nearly to Cumbres, but then it had slipped off the rails. That’s a powerful bug!)

As I left Trujillo Meadows I happened to glance to the side. This doe was sitting there peacefully. She was alert to my presence but, as long as I stayed in the car, unalarmed. I rolled down the window to shoot one final image. This is the one I want to remember about my short excursion into colorful Colorado.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ghost Ranch burning: Pedernal disappears in smoke

Pedernal is the mountain made famous by Georgia O'Keeffe because she painted it so often. She is even quoted as having a proprietary claim on it: "God told me I could have it if I painted it enough." Pedernal is one of a number of distinctive landmarks that make up the "Valley of Shining Stone" near Abiquiu, NM, where O'Keeffe lived for nearly 50 years.

I am staying at Ghost Ranch, which is where one of O'Keeffe's two houses is located. This is where she painted many of the canvases that include Pedernal as a motif and metaphor.

Sadly, Pedernal disappeared yesterday. The sky was clear enough in the morning that Pedernal stood out in the distance as usual (above.) But a plume of smoke rose ominously over the mountain and drifted off to the east, as it has ever since I arrived in NM ten days ago. The smoke is from the Thompson Ridge fire in the Jemez Mountains. It is some distance beyond Pedernal from this vantage and doesn't threaten the immediate vicinity. It is the same fire that I saw and posted about in Santa Fe last week.

By mid-morning yesterday the wind had shifted and the smoke came directly over Pedernal, obscuring it completely (below.) The fire was reported to have been 40% contained at that time.

Pedernal is in the center of this photo, just to the left of the dead tree, barely visible through the haze of smoke.

The good news, though, is that it rained for the first time in a long time yesterday afternoon and evening. There have been record droughts two years in a row here now. The rain was insufficient to break the drought, but a news report this morning says the Jemez fire is now 60% contained. I was relieved to see Pedernal again on my morning hike (below.) Today, for the first time, there is no obvious plume of smoke.

Keep your fingers crossed. Pray, if that's your inclination, for more rain.

I posted a related story, about the "O'Keeffe Landscape Tour," on Arts Without Borders.

To see additional photos from Ghost Ranch, go to my flickr set.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Santa Fe burning

I arrived in Santa Fe yesterday. I had read about the fires, but like the tornadoes in Oklahoma, they were abstractions. The tornadoes were horrible; the fires were horrible. But horrible is an abstract emotion. It doesn't bite to the bone. That is when we say "terrible" instead of "horrible."

I could see the smoke before I got halfway from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.

There are two fires burning, in the Jemez Mountains to the west of Santa Fe and the Pecos to the east. They don't threaten the city itself, apparently, and so people go about their lives, though the pall of smoke is ever-present.

It was the sunset last night that really brought home the fires for me. I watched the sun go down for over an hour with a mixture of fascination, horror, and melancholy. It was terribly beautiful.

I am staying at a B&B and my hosts were patient with me when I asked where I could go to watch the sunset. I could see the melancholy in their eyes. The fascination, if they ever felt it, had faded with time. "The fire in the Jemez [to the west] does make for beautiful sunsets," one of them said sadly.

The smoke drifted ceaselessly upwards, as it has done for too many days. It rose into a wide pall that stretched across the entire sky, gradually darkening until it was impossible to distinguish the smoke from the on-coming night.

Tornadoes, fire, drought.... What will we dream in this on-coming night?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Postcards from the Rio Grande in Albuquerque

Two days in Albuquerque; two hikes in the bosque along the Rio Grande. A few pictures:

 There are well established trails along both sides of the river, but it was easy to feel secluded.

A paved bike trail parallels a canal on the east side of the Rio Grande. It is heavily used even in the heat of the day!


The cottonwoods in parts of the bosque have been damaged by beavers. To save the trees fences have been put around the bases of many of them. Makes me wonder how cottonwoods ever survived before there were humans around to protect them this way!