Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Afternoon With an Author

Yesterday I met a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Our book group hosted her at a neighbor's house. There were 12 of us at Joan's house and the discussion in that homey, intimate setting was great.

Caroline Fraser lives and writes in Santa Fe.

Caroline Fraser's deeply researched book about the life and historical times of Laura Ingalls Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2018, along with a host of other awards when it was published in 2017.

I read it last summer and it was an eye opener for me. The myth of Laura's pioneer life is so entrenched, and the popularity of her simple life story is so cherished, that it masked the fact that Laura's life -- and westward pioneer expansion in general -- was more about persistent economic failure and poor choices than it was about nation building and independence.

Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1884 at age 17

Her life, like that of many settlers, was one of rootless poverty growing up, constant struggle against calamity, illness and deaths in her early married life, and finally complete reinvention as she nostalgically created her Little House memoirs, very late in life.

Her biographer, Caroline Fraser, has a doctorate in literature from Harvard and has written previous books about the conservation revolution and about her own life growing up as a Christian Scientist.

Caroline's previous books.

It was great to have her with us, plopped in a chair in the living room with a plate of cake, answering our questions and telling us about a writer's life. She talked about chasing Laura's story all over the remoter parts of the midwest, and how so much research is tied up in a privately held library but the curator just died last month, and who knows what history has been hidden there all these years. She told us about meeting her husband, about moving to Santa Fe, and of living previously in the northwest, all a bit of normal book group chatter.

She is quiet, very soft spoken and a thoughtful, deliberate speaker. But even in her measured speech, she got us laughing at how she heard about winning the Pulitzer Prize (no one notifies the author, you hear you won the prize via Columbia University's video stream of the awards, or in the paper the next day. She had no clue her publisher had even nominated her, and had to hear about winning from someone else.)

Things like prestigious national prizes and advanced degrees from high institutions and the heady world of big name New York publishing were all fascinating to hear about, but the real pleasure of the afternoon was sitting in a Santa Fe living room with a bunch of readers talking to a talented writer and eating cake.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Watering Plans for Spring

Here is a list of watering plans for spring 2019 in my garden:

1. Call a plumber. 
The outside faucets burst their fittings in our deeply cold winter and now spew water everywhere. This needs to be fixed.

2. Wait for this stuff to melt.

We already know that spring 2019 will be the wettest in a decade, after years of drought in northern New Mexico. Just the snow that has fallen thus far, especially all that blankets the mountains, will melt and fill reservoirs, and there is still more winter to come.

Okay, I have my watering plans in place. Now, where are those plant catalogs?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Gardener's Prayer

First it was too dry.
When we moved here Santa Fe was in a deep drought and it never rained for the first 11 months we lived here. My newly planted gardens struggled in mighty distress.

Then it was too wet.
A catastrophic flash flood in July, followed by a wet fall and a frigid, snowy winter have been too much. I'm very worried about my drowned and frozen plants.

So I am now calling on divine intervention to straighten things out. The classic gardener's prayer might help, and I'm resorting to it in the hopes that all may be saved next season.

O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can sink in; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants - I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like - and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on spiraea, or on gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant-lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen.  

- Karl Capek, “The Gardener’s Year,” 1929 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Alamo at Walking Rain

Los Alamos, New Mexico
The Alamo in Texas
Alamosa, Colorado

"Alamo" means cottonwood in Spanish and the ubiquitous native cottonwood tree provides place names for many locations in the west. In botanical Latin the western tree is Populous fremontii. There is an eastern cottonwood too, Populus deltoides. They are all really poplars.

A tall cottonwood dominates the corner of our house. In this grainy photo from the real estate listing, you can see how huge it is. It's the tallest, fullest, greenest, most massive tree in the entire neighborhood, actually.

We've since limbed it up a bit to get some light under for a garden by the house and to keep branches from drooping over the driveway, blocking the car.

Cottonwoods like riparian streamside environments, and in New Mexico they are called Rio Grande cottonwoods because they grow along the river's banks. But this Rio Grande cottonwood survives in a dry urban yard, next to a house and driveway, with no extra water. I'm surprised at how large it has gotten in these conditions.

It's not in great shape, however. There is a large swelling low on the trunk that looks bad and sprouts new leaves directly from deep furrows in the bark, as if the wound is constantly trying to heal itself. Since it seems to have lost a big limb where the wound is, the branching is now awkward.

The tree seems to be living two lives -- one half leafs out earlier than the other and in fall one half loses its leaves while the other half holds them. Fall color, usually bright golden yellow in cottonwoods, doesn't do much on this tree.

And the mess, ugh. There is snowy white cotton fluff in spring as the seeds disperse, and debris from constant twig drop all year long. In May I pull up sprouts from the surrounding gravel all the time, and when I turn around more sprouts jump up, poking right up through the landscape fabric under the gravel.

The sheer volume of leaves on this tree means we have monstrous piles of leaves everywhere when they drop -- all over my gardens and covering the gravel and driveway and permanently snagged in the junipers below.

But what glorious shade the alamo on Walking Rain provides in summer. It's on the east side of the house, in front of two large windows. The triangle shaped leaves are attached on flat stems in a way that makes the leaves flutter in a breeze. As they quake and tremble, the dining room dances with dappled shadows and sparkling sun all morning.

It's beautiful.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Black Ice and White Snow

Still learning about this climate . . .

I was surprised at how icy the roads get here when there is cold weather and some snow. If we get snow that accumulates a bit, the roads turn to ice. Not because there is icy precipitation -- blessedly that doesn't happen.

But the strong New Mexico sun, when it comes out, easily melts snow on pavement, and cars heat it as they drive over it, and the remaining melted moisture constantly re-freezes into sheets of black ice or into a crust of slippery ice over snow.

It's been so cold that the sun-melt car-thaw action doesn't ever get to bare pavement. There is always a little moisture on the road, even on heavily trafficked downtown roads, and it refreezes.

On our quiet street, which the town does not plow until school is back in session, the packed snow now has an impressive melted-frozen coating over it.

Dealing with Santa Fe's deceptively clear black ice or icemelt over snow surprised me. I didn't expect these conditions in the arid southwest. I thought any snow would evaporate, not turn to ice.

Fortunately the New Year's Eve party we went to was in the neighborhood, just around the corner, and we could walk there. But even the sidewalks were treacherous, especially when tottering along carrying wine and cupcakes *.

I can drive in snow and I can ski on ice -- I was raised in New England after all -- but now I have to learn to drive on Santa Fe ice roads. Mostly I don't go out. I stay in, where the cupcakes are.

  * Jim's timeworn recipe for cream cheese cupcakes, which we brought to the New Year's Eve party. He cuts the top half ingredients by a third (eggs, cream cheese) to a quarter (sugar, vanilla) but not the bottom half and swears the math makes sense.
Unadjusted for high altitude but they came out great anyway.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

I Didn't Sign Up For This

When we moved to northern New Mexico we knew that it snowed in winter and that it could get cold. We anticipated occasional light fluffy stuff that did not linger. No one even owns a snowblower here. The sun is still intense even in deep winter at 7,000 feet, and snow evaporates quickly.

But it's been snowing off and on since late October and as the year ends, we are blanketed in white stuff and roofed in gray skies. We came back from visiting family over the holidays in a heavy snowstorm. The highway from the airport had been closed for two hours, but had reopened by the time we were driving home.

There have been some warm(ish) sunny days over the past months, yes, but nothing like last year when it was perpetually dry and balmy all winter. Last winter every time we took the patio chair cushions off and stored them in the garage, we'd haul them back out again for a nice sit in the warm sunshine on a winter's day. So we finally left them on all season.

This year I never got them off, and they are now soaked by repeated snow, some rain, and sub freezing temperatures that don't let them thaw out.

When we moved here I knew that at times the temperature would dip into the teens, or hover near freezing. But all this fall and now into winter, night after night has been in the teens. It's unusual to have such a long stretch of very cold weather.

Our homes can take weather below freezing, but aren't built for that kind of sustained freeze. Our outside faucets froze and burst the faucet fittings. They now spew water when turned on and we have to get a plumber. I had shut them off and taken the hoses in, but with no interior shut off valve (we have no basement), the faucet itself froze rock solid.

I did not sign up for this. I thought we had escaped heavy snow and frozen faucets when we found ourselves in such a nice climate the first winter here. Our second winter has been a cold surprise.

It was officially 5 degrees in Santa Fe this morning but when I got up at 7 a.m. our security monitor said zero, and showed "feels like" minus 14 degrees. I really did not enroll in this program when we moved here.

On New Years' Eve another snowstorm is coming.

Santa Fe does not plow its streets -- they only do main arteries and any roads that lead to a school. We have a school up the street from us, but it's Christmas break, so there is no plowing. Jim shoveled our sidewalk by hand, but the street will stay untouched until school reopens.

With snow in the streets, bitter temperatures, and the increasing burden of days and days and days of this already, I am getting housebound and bored. I'm shopping online for after-Christmas sales, and my Amazon cart is full of kitchen gadgets I don't need which can't even be delivered until they plow the road to the school after the first of the year. Or spring, whichever comes first.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Christmas Break

I'm taking a break from the blog for a while during the holidays.

It's been such a cold and snowy season in Santa Fe this year -- all of November and all of December so far has featured cold, cold nights and chilly days, and a fair bit of frequent snow.

I'll see you in January. Maybe it will be warmer then?

Have a wonderful holiday wherever you are!

Friday, December 14, 2018


I think New Mexico is the only state that has an official state cookie. Or it was the first state, anyway. It's the traditional Spanish biscochito -- an anise flavored butter cookie cut into stars and moons and served at Christmas. It's dusted with cinnamon. They are simply everywhere at this time of year.

Our family has an official family cookie that has been a favorite for decades and it's also an anise cookie, but a shortening based sugar cookie, frosted and decorated. Every year I make them and every year my husband and sons look forward to them. I use extra anise extract, they can't get enough of the flavor.

I've always cut them into Christmas trees and bells and mittens and reindeer, all very New England traditional. This year, I used southwest shapes as a compromise between New Mexico's anise cookie and my anise cookie.

I got cookie cutters in the shapes of a boot, a cowboy hat, a golondrina (swallow), and the square shape of the state. Also a horse. I already had a horse cut out shape.

The state shaped cookie cutter was a disaster, though -- too big, too not square and by the time it was baked and frosted it didn't look like anything plausibly recognizable. It looked like one of those "Pinterest fail" memes. The other shapes came out fine.

I did not mess with my recipe -- no cinnamon, for example, which is the dusting on biscochitos. Mine are iced and sprinkled with colored sanding sugar. And my recipe remains a sugar cookie, not a shortbread butter cookie.

With those differences I can't truly call my cookies biscochitos, but at least I'm making anise cookies in Santa Fe at Christmas and fulfilling both the state's and my family's holiday traditions.

Merry Christmas.
Feliz Navidad.
Have an anise cookie. Or a biscochito.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Table for Twelve

For our December book group meeting all twelve of us went out to dinner at a steakhouse, and I really enjoyed it. I'm still just getting to know these women, and this was a looser, more informal gathering than the structured discussions we have each month. And there was wine.

There was a Christmas book swap, and we did an interesting thing for our "discussion". We all read 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. It's a slim collection of letters written decades ago, a classic. But instead of talking about the book, each person picked one letter out of the volume and each told why she selected it.

It was so much more personally revealing than our general discussions about plot or writing or character! (Or politics, which creeps into discussions and is wildly left liberal leaning in this group.)

Twelve is a large number for a book group, and twelve women out to dinner is disordered chaos. But it all went well -- we had a private room at the restaurant and a smallish round table, which was helpful. A really good time was had.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Our Fireplace Solution

I'm tired of winter! Already.

Unlike last year, our second fall season in Santa Fe has been cold and overcast. September got chilly too early, October got wet and dreary, and all of November felt like midwinter with only occasional bits of warm sunshine at times. There is snow on the ground as I write this post.

And it's a raw cold. The furnace roars, I'm tired of wearing socks all the time. Bah. But . . .

 . . . it's Christmas and it's fireplace season, so there's that.

And I finally found a solution to our fireplace problem.

Last year, even though it was constantly dry and sunny and warm, we did try to have wood fires in our fireplace. It didn't work well. The two-way narrow firebox, open on both sides, never contained the fire, and smoke came into the room. We tried the glass doors open, we tried them closed, we tried combinations of open and closed, and all we got was smoke in the house. Even if we got a fire going well and kept puffs of smoke from billowing out, the house just smelled terribly of smoke for the next week.

We tried those fake Duraflame logs and they made the house smell like kerosene.

I would love to convert the fireplace to gas, but the entire fireplace structure sits in the middle of the house, with no adjoining walls. The floor is a slab. It would be impossible to run a gas line to the firebox.

What finally solved the problem was fake logs and ethanol. We bought a grate that holds a metal pan that is surrounded by faux ceramic logs. You pour ethanol into the pan underneath the logs and light it.

The ethanol comes in plastic soda-type quart bottles. The logs hide the metal pan, although not as cleverly as the product page picture shows. It burns totally clean, no smoke, you don't even need to open the flue. I do miss the crackle of a wood fire, though, and the ethanol flame gives off little heat.

The logs look terribly fake, but no more phony than most gas fireplace inserts. I got extra logs to pile up around the metal pan to hide it better.

Two bottles burn nicely and make a constant flame for exactly two hours and 45 minutes, which is a perfect amount of time for wine and snacks followed by dinner. Because the flame is visible on both the living room and the dining room side, that works out well.

It doesn't give off much heat, but it's pretty.

The ethanol is not cheap, it costs $5.85 per quart bottle, which is good compared to the cost of trying to run a gas line or even the cost of having a cord of wood brought in I suppose. But I'm sparing with the fires because I'm aware of burning up the fuel each time.

So that's how we solved our fireplace problem. It's fake, it looks phony, it doesn't give off heat, it doesn't crackle or pop, and we have fires only sparingly due to cost, but oh, how I love an occasional pretty fire dancing in our fireplace on these cold (and snowy!) fall days before Christmas.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rosemary and Lavender

I'm worried about the rosemary and lavender I planted.

Rosemary 'Arp' can survive temperatures down to 0 degrees F, but not for too many nights in a row. This fall, we've had constant night temperatures below freezing, and yesterday when I woke up it was 11 degrees. After coffee and sunrise, it got up to 15 degrees (but "felt like" 7 according to my monitor.)

I have a very small sprig of rosemary 'Arp' planted outside in a spot up against a warm west facing wall, and it's probably okay. But it's still only fall and there is so much winter to come. I'm a little worried.

I also have a small sprig of lavender planted in a a tall pot outside. It's a dwarf English lavender called 'Wee One'. It can take colder temperatures, below zero for brief times, but in a pot it's more vulnerable. And the pot is terra cotta, subject to cracking.

I never got around to moving it into the unheated garage -- I thought I had so much time this fall yet. Now, frozen solid after so many nights in the twenties and teens and this recent bitter spell, I needed to rescue it. So I toted it inside, snow covered and iced, and I'll wait for the furnace heat to warm it up a bit and melt snow all over the floor.

My pretty 'Seiryu' Japanese maple is also hardy below 0 degrees F for brief periods, but it too is in a pot and that means the rootball gets much colder than trees in the ground. But it's too big for me to move. I might manage it with the hand truck, but I have to roll it through gravel to get it over to the garage, and the wheels won't move in gravel. At least this pot is fiberglass and won't crack when frozen solid.

The maple never lost its leaves this fall. Japanese maples are prone to this; if cold comes on before the tree has gone through the process to harden off the leaf, it won't separate and fall off. I wrote about the process of abscission here, and I had it happen several winters on the Japanese maple in my Connecticut garden.

I worry too about the tiny stick of Chilopsis I planted at the corner of the driveway. Desert willow, like rosemary, won't take temperatures below zero F for long. And it's a tiny thing, planted just last summer.

I thought I would have so much more time after Thanksgiving to get ready for winter. I never got the patio chair cushions off for storage in the garage, and now here they are wet and ice covered.

I need to take them off, set them in the sun to dry out, or bring them inside to drip all over the floor, before packing them away in the garage.

But it's too darn cold to go out there and do that, even with gloves. Did I mention it's still only fall?