Sunday, July 03, 2016

Propitious Moments

Weather: We’ve entered the period of faux monsoons, when the clouds form and the wind follows, but no water. Their benign effect is the clouds cover the sun and prevent the high temperatures of the solstice period. Last rain 7/2.

What’s blooming in the area: Desert willow, hybrid roses, yellow potentilla, Russian sage, Spanish broom, sweet peas, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red-tipped yuccas, daylilies, lilies, datura, hollyhock, bouncing Bess, yellow yarrow; can see green apples on some trees.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, buffalo gourd, showy milkweed, tumble mustard, tufted white evening primrose, velvetweed, scarlet bee blossom, alfilerillo, purple mat flower, goat’s head, silver edge nightshade, bindweed, green leaf five eyes, leather leaf globe mallow, yellow purslane, scurf peas, alfalfa, Queen Anne’s lace, fleabane, goat’s beard, plains paper flower, Hopi tea, strap leaf and golden hairy asters, native dandelions, brome grass.

In my yard: Rugosa and miniature roses, snow-in-summer, larkspur, golden spur columbine, Johnson’s Blue geranium, sea lavender, blue flax, ladybells, Saint John’s wort, annual blue salvia, catmints, sidalcea, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, tomatillo, Shasta daisy, bachelor buttons, Ozark and purple coneflowers, Mexican hats, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, white yarrow.

Bedding plants: Wax begonias, snapdragons, nicotiana, French marigolds, gazania.

Inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Two rabbits, small birds, geckoes, swallowtail butterfly, bumble and small bees, dragonfly, hornets, ants, small grasshoppers; heard crickets.

Weekly update: In Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, no one set out on a journey without consulting an almanac to find an auspicious date. The idea of a providential day was extended to significant social events like marriages when horoscopes were used in place of accumulated weather history. That all sounded quite quaint until I moved to the southwest, and weather became more than a scrim to life.

When I lived in Michigan, I only worried about last probable frost dates when I planted seeds or bedding plants. In Abilene, Texas, I discovered you did nothing until the spring winds died down. I thought it was enough to plant trees and shrubs a few inches below ground, but I was wrong. That was not enough to protect them. I’m not sure yet how anything besides prickly pear gets started there.

Here, as I mentioned in the post for 5 June 2016, you not only have temperature and wind, but also unpredictable rains to consider here in the valley. Few of the seeds I planted the morning of that unforecast deluge have germinated.

My biggest problem this year was my burn pile. I had started clearing dead weeds from the drive early last winter, and piled them in the gravel drive. I didn’t want to bother cutting them into small pieces for the trash, and thought, "oh, I’ll burn this weekend." It didn’t occur to me I couldn’t light a fire when it was so cold water wouldn’t run through the hose I always have at hand.

So the pile grew larger, the weather warmed enough to thaw the hoses, and the winds began. I watched the pile shrink. I wasn’t sure if things blew away or they settled. All I knew was, I couldn’t burn on a weekend when the winds were blowing.

Finally, in June there was a calm morning, and I thought, maybe. But then, I looked at the weather forecast and realized it was too hot and too dry. We had entered fire season. While I knew I took every precaution - siting the burn pile on gravel near a hose outlet - I wasn’t ready to risk an unexpected gust.

Toward the end of last week the forecast included heavy rains, and I thought, "if I don’t do this soon, everything will be too wet to ignite." Last Saturday morning, a propitious moment arrived. The air was damp and there was no wind. A single match ignited a fire that took an hour to burn through the yards of accumulated matter.

As I stood watching the smoke flow east, even with no wind, I noticed the weeds in the drive were growing and the grasshoppers were getting larger. Now, when could I do something about them?

The weed killers say they begin immediately, and if it doesn’t rain within three hours, the chemicals will work. That just means finding a morning when there is no wind and my wrist muscles feel up to the task of squeezing a trigger over and over and over. Whether or not I was in the mood, I forced myself out this morning. The weeds that will turn woody by the end of the summer already were brushing the bottom of my car.

Of course, they herbicides only kill the plants; they don’t vaporize them. This coming winter I’ll be out again, gathering their corpses into a pyre.

Now I just have the grasshoppers that apparently are breeding in the alfalfa growing at the far end of the property by the crab apples. They aren’t going to stay there.

Of course, the time to have treated them was with a grub killer before they hatched. As they say, if I had only known then what I know now about what they were up to.

This is the worst of the tasks because the only thing available is one of those bottles you attach to a hose and spray. That means collecting hoses from other parts of the yard and taking them out there, then dressing in a rain suit, donning a mask and putting on rubber gloves. As I know from watching the smoke last week, there is no such thing as a completely windless day here. Then, timing is even more critical: it must be done sometime early in the day before the bees are out, but after the early birds have retreated.

I couldn’t do it last week, because rain was in the forecast. Unlike weed killers, insecticides don’t always work immediately, and when they wash away the effort was wasted.

The Chinese used their almanacs to decide when it was safe to travel over unimproved roads with no bridges over what could be raging rivers. Since we launched satellites, we rely on the weather bureau’s computer simulations to predict flows of moisture and wind in the atmosphere. They are more accurate, but there are variables their experts haven’t quantified enough to put into the formulas. Rain was forecast for much of the past week, even an 80% chance of heavy rains one night. Of course, that didn’t happen, but light rains did fall a few days. Enough to justify burning before and holding off on the grasshoppers, but not enough to justify planting more seeds.

Like the Chinese, I’m stuck with the prognosticators I have, and my intuition on what constitutes an auspicious day for the big tasks in the yard.

Notes: Cao Xuequin, The Story of the Stone. The last volume, written with Gao E and translated by John Minford (Penguin, 1986), has the most references to divination. Page 344 has references to horoscopes and planning a date for a journey; page 386 mentions plans for a wedding journey. Page 68 describes other divination rituals.

Photographs: All taken 28 June 2016.

1. Desert willow that was planted in 2013. This is almost its very first flower.

2. Summer Glow tamarix will more flowers than usual, perhaps because of the cool spring.

3. California poppy seedlings the way they were planted between some French marigold bedding plants.

4. California poppy seedlings after the rains washed the mulch and seeds away. These are in a small depression at the other side of the #3 bed.

5. Sensation cosmos seedling that survived the deluge with a zinnia.

6. Sensation cosmos that planted themselves with a Catawba grape.

7. It’s too soon to know if any of the larkspur I planted the day of the gullywasher survived. These planted themselves last year, both in and outside the brick defined bed.

8. Zinnia seeds that survived in the #5 bed, where hoses caught the seeds and their covering soil. It’s bare between the hose and the bricks behind where the cosmos were planted.

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