Friday, December 24, 2010

Rain inches its way towards the holidays

There is no better sight to behold during a morning drive to work than to see Gift Shop Clerk and bicycle commuter Chris Evans dodging water puddles on his daily ride to the Arboretum. More puddles mean more rain, so the more Chris suffers, the happier we are. We don't really know exactly how much we receive until we check our official rain gauge, but more often than not, the numbers disappoint. "Only a third of an inch?" we ask. “By the way Chris was weaving around those puddles, I’d have guessed twice that much.” This is why like I to use anecdotes rather than inches to describe rainfall events – they’re just more interesting.

Driving down to the picnic area through the sliding gate is one of the better barometers of rain fall intensity. Light rains will cause a thin veneer of red, decomposed granite from the overflow parking lot to rush down the hill towards the picnic area. A heavy rain will do the same thing but it will also leave two inch deep rills of the stuff along with the fist size rocks that it picks up along the way. I get goose bumps of anticipation when I feel these lumpy rocks under my tires, because I know that I'm getting closer to the collection nursery, where the real proof in the pudding will lie. 

   Wheelbarrows and plastic buckets are the informal tools of rain measurement in the collection nursery and we use both as an informal gauge. We can also see how much pooling and runoff has occurred by the locations of tiny, floating bits of mulch that have been dispersed over the area. The real piece de resistance is a ground-level drain near the corner of the Smith Building that, when completely plugged during wildly heavy downpours, has been known to direct water beneath the Lab door, down the middle of the hall, out through the Interpretive Center, and onward towards Queen Creek. When the muddy imprint of the high water line in the Smith Building hallway is higher than the wheels of an industrial-size mop bucket, an official reading from the weather station becomes, well, academic.

   Last night, we received .92" of rain (measured officially at the weather station). In a near repeat performance of last year, we all anticipate that this will be the "germinating" rain for this season's annual wildflowers.

   Even though it started a little late, rain is always a gift -- and its timing couldn't be better, both for this holiday season, and for the year to come. Best wishes to all.

Kim Stone

Friday, December 10, 2010

The peak of fall foliage. Are you worthy?

    For anyone prone to spontaneous outpourings of raw emotion, this year's fall foliage show might just leave you weeping, with tears falling like the gentle stream of Chinese pistachio leaves gathering at your feet. Every year is different, but this season, every leaf seems hell bent on perfectly complimenting the next. Not just on the same branch, or even the same tree, but inter-specifically, with trees and shrubs of different species singing in perfect harmony. It's not a Coca Cola commercial, it's more like a diorama-in-reverse, as if life is imitating art, and doing a really good job of it. "No, this can't be real," you tell yourself. "It's just too perfect, it must be a movie set."  But it is real. There are no painted backdrops and the lingering smell of turpentine, only a fully-developed, three-dimensional wonderland. It's what Alice might have found had her rabbit hole been horizontal. The Main Trail leads you directly through pecans, pomegranates and pistachios with leaves in every stage of transition,  vegetatively describing just about every color on the upper half of a rainbow.

   For photographers that shamelessly use software like Photoshop to enhance the world around them - I include myself in this group  -- this year's color show has created an ironic problem because un-retouched photographs are so saturated with color that they look fake.  It's as if Dorothy stepped out of her house just after it touched down in Oz, took one look and said, "No way." This has forced photographers to make the scene more believable by making it less real,  requiring the "saturation slider" to be moved towards the minus side rather than the positive,  posing a unique ergonomic challenge. The various hues of orange have been particularly intense, especially at the Faul Suspension Bridge, where no less than four Chinese pistachios came into full fall plumage simultaneously.

   In the Demonstration Garden, the signature pistachio in the Wildflower Meadow is at its reliable best. And the nearby Combretums have colored-up early and more intensely than is typical, with leaves the color of pickled beets in the sunniest exposures. The cottonwoods, ashes, and willows in Queen Creek canyon are mostly at peak, with sumptuous views from the Main Trail at Picket Post House. There is even an extra pistachio, large and full and  the color of a roasted bell pepper, that seemed to have come out of nowhere; an over-achieving sapling that broke all the rules and grew from six feet to thirty in one year just to provide a focal point for what would otherwise be a sea of cottonwood yellow.

   Fall isn't over yet and there is still a lot to see. The weather has been warm, clear, and sunny with very little wind. As groundskeeper Becky Noth said to me the other day, "If this weather holds, we might have good fall color until Christmas." I hope she's right.

Kim Stone

Sara Roberts, a visiting student from Washington, finds a comfortable bench beneath the intense autumn color of our most often photographed Chinese pistachio, located near the Wildflower Meadow in the Demonstration Garden.  Photo by Paul Wolterbeek.