Saturday, December 22, 2012

It's the smell

hobbit2 We received over two inches of rain in the last week, but it came down gently, accumulating deliberately and slowly, soaking deep into the ground.  Because it rained more like a lamb than a lion, most of the colorful fall leaves are still hanging tough on the trees. A few came down, of course, accumulating wherever the wind and gravity pushed them. But, for the most part, the rain did all  of the good things that we appreciate it for, without  resorting to a blustery tantrum of unnecessary roughness.

As the temperatures have cooled towards what we expect for this time of year, the color transition of leaves has become less sporadic and more like the romantic notions of how it should be. Our Chinese pistachio trees are now expressing their individual personalities (yes, they do have them) that are more in tune with previous years, and many have not yet reached their peak coloration.

But this year, something is different.

What makes the recent days following the rain so special is the smell. During dry autumns, we get the crunch of leaves underfoot and the riotous eye candy of pigmented leaves, but we miss the earthy smells of the beginnings of decomposition. It's an unmistakable fragrance, one that you don't realize you've been missing until it reaches your nostrils. Take a walk past the Pistachio Grove to the Faul Suspension Bridge and you will be surrounded by it. The color of the fallen leaves is now intensified by the sheen of wetness, and the small accumulating drifts are calling out with a luscious ground level aroma. It's an experience of righteous, nose-worthiness.

The downed leaves look different, too. Now, fully saturated with rain, they lie on top of each other like warm buttered tortillas--completely limp and flat without an air gap to be found.  The surface of each individual leaf is both slick and sticky, making them slippery to walk on and impossible to rake. The moist leaf litter will transition to the even earthier smells of leaf mold, eventually cycling nutrients back to the trees that made them.

Late Autumn at the Arboretum is like a three dimensional, living, breathing, scratch-and-sniff painting.And we're all lucky to have the opportunity be part of it.

Kim Stone

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Leaf love

pistachio and aloe
December 9, 2012 in the Southern Africa Exhibit
Photo: Kim Stone
It's ironic that our appreciation for leaves grows as they become less valuable. We take for granted the miracle of photosynthesis that occurs in the micro-machinery within each green leaf, and then get all sappy and romantic when the chlorophyll production ceases, revealing the colorful pigments hidden within what is really a dying leaf. What once were models of efficiency--oxygen-emitting sugar factories--are now bruised shells of their previous selves. They no longer help the tree so the tree cuts them loose, but not before leaching out every last bit of energy the leaf has left. It sounds awfully mean-spirited, doesn't it? Yet, after a season of working so hard all season, the tree needs a break. Its loss is our gain.  

Barring an early freeze, or heavy rain or wind, changing leaves will hang on for weeks, gradually turning the colors that every Hollywood director feels obligated to show at least once as a backdrop in feature films. Autumn somehow communicates that needed sense of normalcy and stability. In a perfect fall season, leaf color develops slowly, gradually, and predictably, with leaves displayed on the tree as if posed. But not this year. At the Arboretum, the transition from green to yellow, orange, red and everything in between has been wildly variable. Our Chinese pistachios, for example, have had leaf color in all stages of gestation within a single tree and even between trees. One leaf, still full of vibrant summertime green, can be mixed in with dozens of others in confused pigments of plum, deep amber, or the tinny red of half-ripened strawberries. In late November, while the daytime temperatures were still warm, leaves were falling nearly as fast as they turned color. Many trees dropped them in erratic clusters, leaving a bewildering patchwork of color globs within the tree canopy.

But now, in mid-December, as the daytime and nighttime temperatures have finally cooled, our remaining pistachio trees seem to have regained control of their rudders. Leaf color is developing more evenly and homogeneously, particularly near the Smith Building, Demonstration Garden, and the Faul Suspension Bridge. It's now late enough (or early enough) for trees such as condalias and loquats to be in full bloom. Loquats, in particular, are perfuming great volumes of air in the Demonstration Garden and near the Herb Garden. Winter flowering aloes, such as Aloe elegans, are in full bloom and in need of bed sheets and frost blankets to protect the vulnerable flowers through the coming cold nights. Strongly fragrant paper white narcissus flowers are also opening in the Children's Garden and Demonstration Garden.

It's an interesting time of year with the remnants of fall and the harbingers of spring all colliding together near the shortest day of the year. With the low winter sun, lighting is almost cathedral-like, particularly when autumn leaves and flowers are back lit. It's not surprising, then, that photographers capture some of their moodiest and most expressive shots during this celebrated month of December. 

 Kim Stone

closeup of leaves
December 11, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Masked marauders seek mighty moth mouthfuls

The night was warm, moonless, and hundreds of moths were engaged in their nightly ritual of trying to penetrate solid panes of glass to reach the bright fluorescent lights inside the lab. Their M.O. is to walk vertically up the window panes until they reach the upper wooden casing, then fly back to the bottom and begin their walking ascent up the glass again. They repeat this sequence over and over and over: walking, flying, walking, flying, on and on throughout the night. It's a fool's errand and illustrates the pinnacle of futility and hopelessness. But who am I to judge? I spend 30 minutes on a treadmill every other morning---going absolutely nowhere---and consider that time well spent.

On this particular night, I only gave the moths a passing glance as I walked into the lab about 9 pm to fix a cup of coffee. The Smith Building was predictably quiet, exactly the way I like it at this time of night.  Just me and the moths.

Or so I thought.

From the corner of my eye, to the right, behind the microwave, I caught sight of a faint shadow . Then  the panes of glass in the window behind it begin to move ever so slightly, distorting the reflection of the lab's interior as they flexed in and out. There was a muffled sound, too, a dull pressure like a thickly-gloved hand probing for a weak point in the glass. The bulk of the window was blocked by the microwave, but there was no doubt that something---or someone---was trying to get inside. I had no way to defend myself, so I did what anyone would do in this situation: I pulled out my cell phone, and began to shoot what might be my very last video.  

I inched closer and the sound intensified, as if multiple hands were now pushing against the glass. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stiffen, but continued to move forward, the  red recording light of the cell phone rhythmically blinking in front of me. I was just a step away now, close enough to see the shadow begin to take shape. It was a bulbous and pulsating corporal form that lashed repeatedly against the outside of the glass. I could now make out two dark eyes strangely framed in even darker black; the eyes never met mine nor did they avoid them, but I couldn't look away. Then, from out of the darkness, I discovered an even more shocking truth.

There was more than one.

Click HERE for the video, if you dare.

Kim Stone

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Excerpts from an Earth Journal

The following are snippets of the writings of six attendees who attended Kathleen O’Dwyer’s Earth Journal Writing Workshop at the Arboretum in June. Her next writing workshop is scheduled for October 5, 2012.

I could exist here
on this bench
in this magnificent garden
sheltered by an ancient tree canopy.
I could wake each dawn
to the fragrance of the desert earth
its pungent order a reminder
of my connection to all that is nature.
-- Bonnie Papenfuss

The sounds of birds mesmerize me. I feel compelled to listen to their reverberating phrases. Sometimes I wish I were a bird…..As soon as I gave birth to my son, I became a mother bird. I sang to him when I changed his diapers, when we rode in the car, before his nap, and at bedtime.  Some songs were inspired by his toys, while others my mother and grandmother sang to me when I was a child.
--Susan Nagle

The bees were drinking in the refreshing water. They landed and splashed, flew up and said, “That was fun. I’ll do it again, and again – aah yes.” They dipped and jumped, frolicking and playing and splashing with glee.   It did my heart good to share the enjoyment of the bees as they took a short respite from their toils of life. It prompted images of a carefree childhood running through sprinklers, wading through a crystal clear mountain stream, or leaping into a cool, refreshing pond. 
 -- Bernard Kruer

If you are still enough you will see the trees are dancing, Dancing through time and space And the stars are singing While the earth beats its drum.
-- Elizabeth Matson

Ocean waves sucking at my toes
Bee hidden on a rosebud-ouch!
Picking fragrant lilacs for the teacher
Fierce hurricane winds bending trees to the ground Raindrops staccato on the roof
-- Alyce O’Keeley

The Colors of the Rainbow
Red – the red rocks embrace Sedona
Orange – the vast creamsicle sky of an Arizona sunset – pure wonder Yellow – the harbinger gift that bathes the desert with happy Mexican poppies Green – the touch of a barefoot walk on a carpet of dew covered grass Blue – the color of imagination and exploration – provocative Indigo – my blue eyes gaze at the riches, colors and beauty of the natural world Violet – savor the sweet aroma of this tender blossom – the color of royalty.
The creator’s promise:  there is a rainbow in me.
-- Mary Alice Daenzer

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Modesty aside

I'm finally able to ride my bike around the grounds, five months after knee surgery. When I saw Tammy working in the Cactus Garden, next to the ramada, I pulled up beside her. “What’s been happening over the past few months?" I asked. “Seen anything interesting?”

It was a muggy, mid-July morning and she was busy consolidating the red gum Eucalyptus bark that falls in long, sinuous strips this time of year, accumulating like twisted ribbons of stiff butcher paper. She paused next to one of the neat piles she’d created and leaned on her rake to consider my question. Her eyes narrowed into a squint of focused thought, and, after a few seconds of shaking her head absently towards the ground, she answered, “No, nothing that I can think of.”

Her answer came too quickly, so I provided some suggestions to keep her thinking. “No snake sightings, or something eating something else?” I asked. "Come on, what I have I been missing?”

She squinted again, but looked up this time, and I hoped that one of the passing clouds might resemble a sleeping bobcat, a bull snake being attacked by a trio of rock squirrels, or a coati feeding on myrtle berries, all of which we’ve seen before. I thought these familiar images or others like them might remind her of something she’d forgotten. I was still waiting for an answer, when I heard a loose crackle of eucalyptus bark, and saw two western whiptail lizards run between the wheels of my bike and stop abruptly in the middle of the trail.  

They were barely ten feet in front of us and resembled two playground buddies taking a quick breather before continuing their high energy chase. But seconds passed and neither of them moved. We knew something was up when one of the whiptails began to climb onto the other’s back, slowly and deliberately, one leg at time, like scaling individual rungs of a ladder. The presumed male jockeyed himself into position on top of what we deduced was the female, and we knew, as Sherlock Holmes would agree, The game was afoot.  

I’ve been caught in a handful of embarrassing situations in my life, so watching this scene develop allowed me the humility to respect the lizards’ complete lack of inhibition. Paul McCartney reportedly wrote all three lines of the song, Why Don’t We Do It in the Road¸ after watching two monkeys in a zoo and marveling at how they could act with equal indifference to the judgment of onlookers. With that same spirit, Tammy and I assumed the roles of itinerant journalists from National Geographic, and watched with equanimity as a scene unfolded before us that few humans ever witness.

Though both of us were familiar with the basics, neither of us was prepared for the finer points of what came next.

The male continued to creep onto the female until their pelvises were roughly aligned and then he began a motion that reminded me of trying to insert slugs instead of quarters into a hotel washing machine. Each time the coin tray is pushed in, it’s rejected, in and out, time and time again, until real quarters are inserted and the machine starts to fill. He moved to the left side of the female’s tail, then to shifted over to the right side, alternately pushing in the coin tray a dozen times on each side over the course of a long minute that proved as frustrating to watch as it must have been to execute.

Then everything stopped. The female, who had been looking in no particular direction was now arching her head upwards. It was apparent that the male had procured the proper number of genuine quarters but he wasn’t through yet. He slowly began to contort the upper part of his body into a compound 90 degree angle, simultaneously turning to the left and down, curling around the female’s abdomen like a soft pretzel and burying his head below her body. Once in place, the two were locked motionless for about 45 seconds, his body clamped securely around hers.

Then, suddenly, they exploded apart. As uninhibited as they were during most of the process, it was as if their nakedness overtook them during what is generally thought of as the recuperative cigarette phase of the process. They were a babysitter and her boyfriend leaping up from the couch, surprised by homeowners returning home early from a party. The two lizards sprang apart in opposite directions, both of them dashing off in fits and starts, running at full speed and then stopping to look around, acting like neither quite understood what just happened.

Just after they separated, I noticed that the tails of both the male and female arched upwards, as if molded with clay over the curve of a golf ball. They were held slightly to the side, too, five or ten degrees from their normal position. Usually, their long tails follow directly behind, dragging unselfconsciously like the train of wedding dress, so it was odd to see them held at such uncharacteristic angles.

The entire process took less than three minutes, and the lizards were gone, resuming the normal duties required for their day-to-day survival. Tammy returned to her raking, and I pedaled up past the lake, glad to finally have my legs back.

Kim Stone