Springtime on Nordic Mountain


Rhododendron Vireya

Here on our San Francisco mountainside we’ve had several weeks of cold but mostly dry and sunny weather. The dry part is what I care most about, both because I’ve been anxious to get out into the garden, and because any kind of precipitation or dampness turns into an horrific nightmare on a daily basis when you have three very lively Tibetan terriers to look after. I dream of arid climates where the ground is never bedewed and dogs’ feet and coats are never wet. Or at least a large covered patio area where dogs can spend time outside whenever they need to without creating a huge mess for themselves or for me to deal with. With adjoining fenced play yard, of course: paved to avoid dirty feet, totally devoid of rocks (our little Misha loves to gobble down rocks like so many bonbons), and safe from predators (we have coyotes, raccoons and skunks) and from canine escapes. Well, that’s my ideal fantasy world. I’m still figuring out how to make it happen. Meanwhile, I’m ecstatic when the weather is dry.

It rained yesterday afternoon and during the night, but before that I got in four good gardening mornings. Spring, which comes to us early, seems definitely in the air. I can hear different kinds of birdsong, or the birds sound happier than usual, at any rate, and the air seems different. The crocus bulbs I planted a couple of times over the years stopped producing flowers after awhile, and I haven’t planted any more, otherwise we’d have crocuses by now. What we do have are hellebores–loads of them, since they’re great winter bloomers–and some vireya rhododendrons. That’s a vireya pictured at the top of this post. They hail from Southeast Asia originally, anywhere from Thailand down to Australia, though Malaysia seems to be their chief stomping ground. We were told they are hard to grow, but we’ve adopted about half a dozen over the years, and only lost one, and they are lovely and reliable plants. We keep them in Vietnamese porcelain pots on an open brick patio area near the house, so we can see them and because in the early years I wanted them close by so they could be brought under shelter in case of a rare frost. I’m too lazy to be carrying vireyas around now, and they seem to do fine where they are. They were first discovered by Europeans in 1843 and brought to England where many new hybrids were developed. The two world wars put a damper on tropical plant cultivation, and it wasn’t until after 1960, when the first vireyas were brought to America, that they really began to thrive again. About 400 types exist now and new hybrids are being developed all the time. 

Before the rains came, I managed to clear a flight of about a dozen wooden steps leading down the center of our hillside to a gate which opens to our much larger lower garden. And I spent about three mornings trimming our very large phormium tenax and weeding the areas immediately surrounding it. Some mole-like creature has been living beneath the phormium for years, eating the roots and the tender bases of the stalks. I’ve seen him or her a couple of times, and the dogs have always been curious. But it’s a wild creature, probably with very sharp teeth, so I try to keep my distance. Meanwhile, the rains should be gone by this afternoon, so I’m hoping the next couple of weeks will bring many fine gardening days. There are literally hundreds of neglected plants out there, in desperate need of my attention. I can hardly wait myself. 


                                        Phormium Tenax, or New Zealand Flax





Julio Herrera y Reissig: Chiaroscuro


Pedro Figari (1861-1938). ‘En la Pampa’, oil on cardboard, 70 x 100 c.m. Private collection.

Here is my translation of a poem entitled ‘Claroscuro’, by the Uruguayan Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910). The original was first published in the Buenos Aires literary journal ‘El Diario Español’ on April 2, 1905. I have made no attempt to preserve the rhyme scheme or meter of the Spanish.


In the lintel of the sky, little bells at last have rung.
Harsh voices of the muleteers rise and fall,
Echoes multiplied by a hundred cliffs and hills,
Where flocks of winged handkerchiefs beat in file.

Smoke arises from the hovels and floats in lilac air;
Maternal cattle make progress on the paths;
And, knapsacks hung on shoulders, austerest forest men
Turn dark faces toward the tranquilizing dusk.

Near the cemetery’s rest, there beyond the grange,
Twilight lays long warnings on the grass.
And vapors now exhaled from cattle and from swine

Bestow a scriptured ancient musky peace…
And memories like doves, violet, arise
From olding walls, wrinkled and obscure.

The Hopi Save a Tiny Plant


Packera franciscana (Senecio franciscanus), the San Francisco Peaks Groundsel or Ragwort, an endangered Arizona alpine plant. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service.

On my first automobile excursion from California to New Mexico in the summer of 1987, my traveling companion Ed and I were driven from our lodgings in an infernally hot Scottsdale by a ferocious combination of heat and cockroaches–it was the latter, hidden mostly in the brown carpeting of my bedroom but cropping up alarmingly from time to time, which really got to me. So we left Scottsdale after sundown and arrived in blissfully cool Flagstaff, fragrant with the odors of mountain forests, in the middle of the night. I have rarely been so glad to arrive anywhere, and this principal memory of relief is vivid for me still. My second main memory of Flagstaff, though, is this: the next morning, as we were checking out, a female guest at the front desk was engulfed in an absolute frenzy, a high-decibel screaming fit, claiming that the chemicals in the motel’s hot tub had dyed the lower half of her long straight mane of blonde hair bright green. And it was astonishingly true, though, unlike her, I found the whole incident hilariously funny. We continued on to New Mexico that day.

What we paid almost no attention to, I’m sure, were the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff. And I regret that now heartily. The highest point in that range, Humphreys Peak, is the highest point in Arizona, 12,633 feet in elevation. This mountain mass is what remains of an eroded volcano, and there is an aquifer within the volcano’s caldera which supplies much of Flagstaff’s drinking water. The Arizona Snowbowl ski area is located on the western slopes of Humphreys and has been the focus of much controversy in recent years because of the expansion of the ski resort, ecological concerns, and threats to the integrity of the peaks themselves as a sacred site for several Native American tribes. For the Hopi, for example, the peaks are associated with the cardinal direction southwest, are considered ritually pure sacred spaces, and are a source for various ceremonial objects. The alignment of the sunset from San Francisco Peaks with Hopi villages on Black Mesa is used to calculate the winter solstice, important for a whole range of religious, agricultural and cosmological reasons.

The Hopi have been engaged in a serious legal battle with government authorities and the ski resort itself over various issues, and in November their legal counsel filed a new lawsuit claiming that the ski resort’s planned upcoming creation of artificial snow for the winter skiing season, approved by the U.S. Forest Service, did not take into account the irrevocable damage that might be done by drifting artificial snow on the habitat of the extremely rare and endangered San Francisco Peaks grounsel, or Packera franciscana (aka Senecio franciscanus), an ankle-high plant with yellow flowers whose only natural habitat is the peaks. There are only about 500 plants in existence, and the Hopi lawsuit claims that the artificial snow, made from water pumped directly from Flagstaff’s sewage treatment plant, would contaminate the tiny population of San Francisco Peaks groundsel with trace levels of hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals, steroids and antibiotic-resistant genes, among other horrific substances. I don’t know how all this will turn out, but I’m rooting for the little plants. And thanks go to the Hopi, once again, for placing themselves in the forefront of challenges, environmental and cultural and economic, to the powers that be. May they be victorious. On behalf of the vulnerable little groundsel, and for the sake of the rest of us too.