This Social Distance

I didn’t know there was a name for my quirky lifestyle.

Practical logistics dictated by our choice to move to a distinctly rural and reasonably remote area in the spring of 2001 amplified the tendency to social distance, but I’ve been working from home, staying put except for essential errands, and communicating mostly via email or phone since the 1990s. Isolation suits my personality.

There are differences, of course. Under the old voluntary regime, we traveled and hosted visitors, occasionally had dinner in town, spent the night with friends. Limiting social contacts had to do with where we live rather than compliance with a mandate from the governor.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is global, but our individual experiences in it are anything but universal. The stupid irony for me is that conditions I would ordinarily take in stride, perhaps smugly dispensing advice from my socially-distanced-by-choice aerie, have been denied me these past months.

Last fall, hubby and I began a construction project down in Cañon City (which, despite the 30 miles between here and there, is our both our nearest town and legal address). Back in 2011, we bought a run-down property to fix up as a rental. It took us seven months to renovate the three dwelling units, and apparently we didn’t learn our lesson because we eventually bought an additional three houses, all in various states of neglect or disrepair. A few years ago, we looked at the maintenance costs on one of them (a 110-year-old Victorian dubbed “The Princess” because it was cute but extremely demanding) and decided to sell it and roll the money into a new build: a house constructed to modern standards, without time bombs lurking in the plumbing or a stone foundation subject to the upheavals of expansive soil.

October 2019. The the house that once stood here had been condemned and bulldozed before we bought the property.

Long story short, I spent the winter coordinating concrete guys and framing contractors, plumbers and electricians, the electric company and landscapers. In February, as Covid-19 progressed from international news to national, I dashed through home improvement stores, laying in paint and light fixtures and tile; picking out sinks and door handles and shelving, all so finish work could proceed even if retail outlets shut down. By March, work that fell within my skillset started: caulking and painting, grouting the tile floors, installing subway tile around the tub and on backsplashes, and a seeming infinitude tedious and/or time-consuming yet hard-to-name tasks.

By the time Colorado’s governor imposed a statewide stay-at-home order in early April, I was pooped: more than ready to accept a delayed completion and shelve the project for a while. Construction had been deemed an essential business, though; the contractors kept working, and thus so did I. I rationalized my failure to comply with the stay-at-home order by telling myself I was adhering to a stay-at-houses protocol. I was either at home or at the vacant house-to-be, entering the closed carapace of my car to commute in between. I avoided public spaces and did my best to socially distance from the handful of contractors who passed through the small house completing their work. I treated the lumberyard the same way I treated the much more crowded grocery store: delaying as long as possible between trips, donning my homemade mask, hustling through the aisles with focused intent, touching as little as possible, washing and sanitizing afterward.

Colorado transitioned to a “Safer-at-Home” phase on April 27, at which point the new house was nearing completion. A few weeks on, we’ve passed our final city inspection. We’re putting the final touches on exterior paint and doing some landscaping, but the house is done and functional. It’s compact yet airy, sturdy and energy efficient. As all of us continue the bizarre and stressful ride of what is, lest we be persuaded to forget, a global infectious disease crisis, I hope it will provide snug shelter for someone through the remainder of the pandemic, as well as in the less tumultuous and disturbing times the future surely holds.

May 2020, slightly different angle.

I don’t, honestly, know what to think of the past few months. The inability to think has been a distressing side-effect of the construction project, the virus, and ongoing sleep interruptions. I’ve been incapable of finding the time or energy for reflective thought. I’ve been stressed out and distracted, consumed by decisions and esoteric engineering requirements, by meeting schedules and paying invoices and figuring out how to navigate problems and mistakes, by facing down grunt work, by trying to maintain my cool with competent contractors who nevertheless do stupid shit or, by failing to communicate their needs and expectations, allow me to do stupid shit…not that I needed any help.

I suppose what I’m feeling now is what many other people are feeling: dazed and a little lost, baffled by upheaval and uncertainty, unsure how to behave and what to believe in a world so abruptly recalibrated. No matter what direction I look, the human costs are awful: incaution can kill while an abundance of caution wrecks quality of life. Droves are out of work and out of business; others frazzled and worn down by ever-shifting demands. The news abuses my emotions with its swerving tenor: noble, tragic, dumb, craven, beautiful, wise, asinine. The wide spectrum of our responses stuns me, until I remember that’s just us, being human. It’s the pace and amplitude that’s so unsettling…isn’t it?

Like many other people, I had plans for the spring of 2020, plans that have in no way panned out. But it’s the disruption of everyday routines that feels most traumatic. The construction project would have wreaked more havoc than I anticipated, but the pandemic has set off unending waves of shock, stress, dismay. Having been away from home so much, I feel unmoored. Whether it’s yakking to myself in my journal, composing a long email to a friend, trying to organize my thoughts on a topic for an essay or a blog post, or settling in for the slow iterative slog on a chapter of this book I’m working on, stringing words together at my desk is what helps me maintain a sense of sanity.

Perhaps the sense of loss I feel is just wishful thinking. Probably it’s fantasy to believe I would have been better equipped to comprehend the pandemic and its incessant knock-on effects if I had been able to embrace my stay-at-home proclivities.

I don’t know if the coming weeks and months will bring any clarity or peace. It’s possible that without the distraction of the building project, my unease and weariness will only grow. But I do know that the concept of “Safer at Home” hits me with a poignancy I’m sure the governor did not intend.

My June destination.

Posted in home, working from home, writing | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On Not Riding

At a writing workshop I attended back in 1998, our instructor, Marita Golden, urged vigilance against opening a door in an essay if we didn’t intend to lead readers through it at some point. In other words, don’t distract your audience, or cloud their expectations, by using details not pertinent to the narrative focus. This is a variation on Chekhov’s gun, a principle based on the playwright’s advice that if a pistol is hung on the wall in the first act, it should be fired in the second.

So, in writing about our equine pets back in November, when I mentioned being queried about whether I’ve been riding lately, I knew I was framing a door in this blog, and should eventually lead readers through.

When it comes to not riding, lack of time is the standard rationalization, even though we all know time is in no shorter supply now than it ever was. Prioritizing how to allot the hours of my days is a luxury I’m grateful to have, but choosing what takes precedence after work, necessary chores, and activities of daily living are complete is more convoluted than I’d like it to be.

Allocating as much time as I can to writing has been one reason for de-prioritized riding. Unfortunately, this has a knock-on effect on the physical side of things: sitting at a desk more and riding less leads to being more out of shape; being out of shape makes it harder to motivate myself into the saddle. Being out of shape makes riding a bit less fun when I do manage to do it–and sometimes considerably less fun after I’ve done it.

The matter of my partner in the endeavor presents further complications. For fifteen years, Moondo has been my riding horse, but as he’s gotten older and his neurological issues have worsened, I’ve become less demanding and more cautious.

Since we have two horses, the obvious solution would be to simply ride Jake instead of Moondo. And, indeed, this would be a simple matter if riding a horse were like riding a dirt bike. Swapping mounts in that case involves little more than momentary adjustments to compensate for differences in feel or the configuration of the seat.

Riding is a partnership, though, and the larger part of “knowing” how to ride involves learning how to make yourself receptive to the back-and-forth needed to communicate in a distinct dialect—a shared body language in which neither party is a native speaker.

Jake is perfectly rideable, but he doesn’t have any training in dressage, which is the riding discipline I fell in love with back when I was a teen. Even if I were riding him regularly, it would take a year or two to teach Jake what Moondo knows.

Moondo isn’t a world-class dressage horse, but he is a nerd, interested in learning and perfectly happy running through exercises in the arena. In his prime he was quite zippy, too, and always eager to show off his moves. Jake is smart and he’s athletic for his size, but he may never be as thrillingly responsive as Moondo. Right now, riding him is like driving a 1970s station wagon that needs a tune-up. The steering is sloppy, the brakes are spongy, there’s a delay when you step on the accelerator. Moondo is getting old and he’s got a bad knee, but riding him is still like driving a souped-up little coupe in comparison.

It must also be said that Jake is a big horse, and by that I mean not just tall but also W-I-D-E. Getting my legs around him would be taxing even if I were in decent riding shape. Did I mention I’m out of shape?

Even all that, however, doesn’t outweigh the most powerful deterrent to riding Jake rather than Moondo: guilt.

Moody is very expressive, and if I get on Jake he stares over the fence at us with an expression of forlorn consternation. His eyebrows knit in affront, and the antenna of each ear swivels backward at its own perturbed angle. The wounded look is gut-wrenching, frankly, which ratchets down the fun factor.

Not that Jake is indifferent to being the unridden one, left in the pasture. He tends to express his objection more energetically, vying for my attention by, say, galloping laps up and down the fenceline, throwing in an occasional fart-punctuated buck as an emphatic “Hey, look at me, look at me!”

One solution would be to ride both horses, but did I mention I have trouble figuring out how to prioritize riding even one? Or that I’m out of shape?

Even though I haven’t ridden regularly for a couple of years, I do ride irregularly: I’ll reach a point where I am determined to throw a leg over a horse, dammit. I reached that point one day last fall, and was further determined to document the event. (A between-the-ears angle has a history that predates the smartphone era; perhaps the most famous image from this vantage is a painting by English artist Snaffles (Charles Johnson Payne), titled “The Finest View in Europe“).

I gave Moodles a quick grooming, saddled him up, led him to the mounting block, and swung aboard. He moved off before I was fully settled, which he’s not supposed to do, but who could fault an old horse still eager to do work he enjoys?

We warmed up with a few turns around the arena, Moondo’s ears tuning toward me then to the track ahead, and then back again. Like me, he seemed a little aggrieved that the movements were a bit rickety, the proper positions harder to get in than they used to be, but I think it’s fair to say we were both enjoying ourselves.

Jake, meanwhile, had retreated to the far end of the Long Pasture as if indifferent, pretending he would pass the time nibbling around the feed bins.

Instead, he flipped the metal feed tank upside-down, and started beating on it with one hoof. If you zoom in close enough, you can see him in the background of the picture above. Here, let me help you:

As I said back in November, the horses make me happy. They also exasperate, inspire, annoy, or make me laugh–and sometimes some combination of any of those the same time. They’re beautiful, smart, hilarious, smelly, annoying, knot-headed, expensive. As comrades in life, they make me think, point my attention to things I wouldn’t otherwise notice. They open up new perspectives, stretch my senses. They exercise my emotions, my mind, and, occasionally, my muscles.

Finest View in Colorado.

Posted in animal communication, horses, writing | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

On Not Writing

The classic, and in some ways definitive, advice on writing is this line by Mary Heaton Vorse, as chronicled by Sinclair Lewis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” In this era of standing and treadmill desks we might need to amend the insistence on sitting, and given the abundance of digital distractions we face, it’s probably worth specifying that what happens while one is seated actually involves the stringing together of words—not surfing, not streaming, not gaming, not clicking “like” or “follow.”

Persistence is the trick, which is presumably why, even though there is really only one way to write, there are innumerable variations on the theme of not writing.

One might, for example, simply evade. Or procrastinate. A writer might quit, or declare himself hopelessly blocked. She might indulge in a planned and duly scheduled break. They might decide it’s more rewarding to sit down and read something someone else has written (although you might see this tactic defended as “research” and rationalized as necessary preparation for writing).

This photo, like the others in this post, has nothing to do with not writing other than that I took the picture in the interval between November 2019 and February 2020, while I was not writing on this blog. These are the last of the 2019 crop, harvested on December 15 off vines I pulled up in early October and hung upside-down in the greenhouse, where the fruits gradually ripened. I sprinkled these with salt, oven-dried them, and stored what we didn’t eat that night in the fridge in a jar covered with olive oil.

Writers also fail to write by first writing and then declaring the results crap that should not be inflicted on the world. Hitting the delete key or powering up the shredder is, then, positioned as a public service.

Taking pictures is a popular means of not writing, particularly if one is traveling.

Writers and aspiring writers, like everyone else, have to meet the plumber or shovel snow or care for a sick horse (or kid or spouse or parent). Jobs happen. Life intervenes. Time runs short.

Not writing can also be the result of being unable, despite wanting and planning and good-faith intending. Applying the seat to the seat may come to naught, not as a result of stereotypical blockages borne out of a lack of ideas or an overabundance of anxiety, but from straight-up cognitive failure due to fatigue. I’ve been rather vexed to find myself plagued by this form of not-writing periodically of late. I imagine that writers with young children regularly suffer from this variation, although my experience stems from later-life-stage circumstances, aka night sweats. I’ve had extended episodes of interrupted sleep over the past few years, wakening about every ninety minutes to throw blankets off in an overheated panic, only to drag them back over myself twenty minutes later in a post-sweaty chill, leaving about an hour in which to doze off before the next round. This aggravating nocturnal rhythm brings on a daytime brain fog so thick that mundane tasks require close concentration and a monumental effort of will. I might sit with conviction, but that doesn’t mean my capacity for attention has accompanied me to the chair. In this state of mental dismemberment, much of my writing consists of lists, which I then either lose or forget to reference.

I don’t want to legitimize list-making as writing, but this matter of scribing one item in lieu of another points toward a distinct form of not-writing. Ironically, this particular version can yield published work; I suspect quite a few of what are called “craft essays” owe their existence to writing about writing as a way of not writing. Avoiding writing by writing about not writing no doubt accounts for a related genre.

Last puff of snow atop a blanketflower seedhead, February.

I’ve been doing a lot of not writing by writing one thing rather than another lately, although in my defense the writing I’ve been working on during my absence from this blog relates to my book-in-progress.

That project revolves around scientific literacy, a topic I’ve been interested in for a couple of decades now. Back around the turn of the millennium, I was finishing up a PhD dissertation on public perceptions of science, and I’ve always thought I would be able to spin that research into a book. The challenge has been, and remains, how to write about the subject without descending into dull exposition.

Herd of pronghorn in the pasture, January. We’ve seen them here occasionally, but never in such numbers.

It’s easy, too, to lose the thread. We tend to think of scientific literacy as the facts-you-need-to-know about science, so staying focused on the dynamics of the nonspecialist’s encounter with scientific information and ideas is surprisingly hard. I’m interested in the interior aspects of scientific literacy: in science as refracted through self. Explaining what I mean by that isn’t easy, which is why what I’m working on is a book and not an essay.

Last summer I set myself a goal, and a deadline. I needed a push to get the fragments of rough draft I’ve accumulated so far coordinated into functional chapters. And so, starting in November, that’s where my writing energy has gone. For the past few months, when I sat down in my office chair to write, that’s what I was working on. The book took some measurable steps forward, although it is very, very far from done. The project remains vulnerable to all the hazards faced by an immature thing in this big busy world, including parental neglect and the predations of criticism. I still might lose my nerve. I can see so many ways I might not write this book.

For now though, I’ll keep putting myself in the chair. Some days I’ll work on that, but I’ll also try to get back to working on this other thing.

*You can find an account of the saying’s origins here.

Full moon rising over the barn on a frosty evening, November.

Posted in procrastination, scientific literacy, writing | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Pets

For a whole bunch of different reasons, we do not have housepets. Actually, in the case of cats, there’s one very good reason, which is that Doug is highly allergic, even though he likes cats and they universally adore him.

We’re regularly asked why we don’t have a dog, and the answer there is complicated because, as I said, there are a whole bunch of reasons. We’re re both worriers, for a start, and a dog would be a source of worry. We share the landscape with mountain lions and bears.

A dog’s outdoor time would have to be supervised, or we’d need to put in a fenced area. The house sits on granite, so setting posts would be a major headache–and I dislike the look of fences around the house, anyway. And what if it took to chasing deer, or elk? What if yodeling coyotes set it barking at night, when we’re both lousy sleepers as it is? What about rattlesnakes, or porcupines? What would we do when we travel, with no neighbors nearby to look after it?

Besides, it’s not like we don’t already have pets; they just don’t live in the house.

These guys: Jake and Moondo

I’m asked whether I’ve been riding lately even more often than Doug and I are asked why we don’t have a dog. The answers to that one are best left for another day. I’m a little touchy on the subject, which is probably why I detect, or think I detect, an unstated question under the question: Why do we bother to have horses if we aren’t riding them?

The answer there is simple. They make me happy.

I look for the horses every time I’m outside. I love to watch them, to see what they’re doing. I enjoy visiting with them in the pasture, and feeding time is a ritual that anchors my days. This is real life, not a fairy tale, so our interactions aren’t always a delight. They have personalities, and moods, as do I. We bicker sometimes, and get on one another’s nerves.

But mostly, these guys make me smile, if not laugh. Who wouldn’t want that in their life?

Winter dinnertime.

Under summer skies.

Under confinement during Jake’s convalescence.

Priority: nice view.

Priority: FOOD.

Although getting scratched in the pasture is nice, too.

 

A serious guy who is sometimes funny without meaning to be.

Total clown.

Posted in horses | Tagged , | 6 Comments

This Fall Interval

In this interval, we hauled the hay, stacked the wood, stowed the cushions from the outdoor furniture. We transported the flowerpots that spent the summer adorning the decks around the house down the hill to the greenhouse. If the plants survive the travails of overwintering, they’ll take the ride uphill again in spring; otherwise they’ll be committed to the compost pile.

In this interval, we’ve unhooked the hoses and winterized the watering system in the garden. We ate fresh peas and beans until we got tired of the legume regimen and I blanched and froze the rest. The tomatoes plumped on their vines but refused to ripen until I brought them inside to a warm windowsill, where the uniformly green forms gradually matured into a collage of red, reddish-brown, and yellow.

In this interval, the mule deer bucks strut under their sharp antlers. They’ve grown husky at the neck and now spar with one another and harass the does. We hear bull elk bugling on the hillside below, drawing the attention of mates, rivals, and hunters.

In this interval, the grass has spun itself gold in the wind. The aspens, leaf by leaf and branch by branch, splashed the landscape yellow, taking that assignment over from the late blooming sunflowers. Polka dots of rust erupted on the leaves of the currant bushes, which then fell to the ground, where the sticky geraniums were closing out the season with a leafy flare of lurid red.

In this interval, the first frost came late, but arrived as a killer, a plunge into single digits that switched off the kaleidoscope turn—green, saffron, maroon, umber—of the scrub oak on distant slopes. Within a day after the cold snap, there was but one fall color: brown. The winter preview did not open on a feature presentation of Indian summer, not this year. The advertised show cued up immediately after the coming attractions had played. Snow has already come and gone, come (a little) and gone, and now come again.

Is there a season more complicated than autumn? Fall is bright color and fading. Preparations for the long dark are interspersed with events of celebratory gratitude. This season offers relief from the frenetic pace of the summer’s long days with its own lists, but these tasks are blessedly well-defined and finite, so unlike the ceaseless churn of warm-weather chores. For all its busyness, summer seems absurdly simplistic in comparison, and spring, with its melodramatic swings between promise and blizzard, is at least consistent in its teasing. Winter is the judicious and slightly cranky sage, counseling reflection, patience, and endurance in gruff no-nonsense terms.

Autumn, though? Autumn is melancholy and anticipatory at once. Fall portends rest, poses an ending that intimates a re-start, but only after a duration appropriate for contrition. All feels ephemeral, gradual, a slow coast toward stillness, a sense of closing that mostly—mostly—manages to avoid the provocations of finality.

Posted in change of seasons, color, fall, gardening, spring, summer, winter | 9 Comments

On Tomatoes

Homegrown, thanks to bedding plants from Desert Canyon Farm.

Revolting.

If you had asked me when I was a kid what I thought of tomatoes, that’s probably the word I would have offered—or “gross” maybe, or “disgusting” when I was a little older. Actually, you probably wouldn’t have had to ask. If a tomato, or slice or dice thereof, was anywhere in my vicinity, I would declare the judgment unsolicited, most likely accompanied by a gagging sound effect or hands-at-my-throat choking gesture.

When I was in high school and first heard George Carlin’s bit about tomatoes not looking like they’re fully developed yet, I laughed with the overblown hilarity reserved for the most fanatical of partisans.

At an extended family Thanksgiving dinner one year, I was pressed into service slicing tomatoes. One of my aunts paused to watch for a second before commenting icily that I didn’t know how to slice tomatoes. I think I smiled tightly and said, “Nope,” while I snarled internally: “I sure as shit don’t, and I can’t believe I’m touching this slimy disgusting thing, how can you people put them in your mouths??”

Then came salsa.

In my late twenties, I discovered the zippy charm of a good fresh salsa, redolent with onion and cilantro, laced with the hot crunch of jalapeno or serrano pepper: so addictive with salty tortilla chips. It was good, too, over burritos, tacos, or beans with rice: easy-to-prepare meatless staples I relied on as I entered into live-in arrangements with, then engagement and marriage to, a vegetarian (who has since lapsed…but his meat-eating hasn’t changed my relationship with fresh salsa).

Still, I always diced the tomatoes very, very small. A tomato was an object of suspicion, ever worthy of cautious handling. I never allowed a bit of tomato to pass my lips unaccompanied.

These days, I wouldn’t say I particularly like tomatoes, and I still refuse to eat them on their own. If I see someone pop a naked cherry tomato into their mouth, I cringe involuntarily. But I keep fresh tomatoes on hand for cooking, and I’ve come to appreciate them in salad, provided they’re well chopped up.

Not quite vine ripe, but getting there. This plant is in a container, so it will move indoors when frost is due.

I grow them—or try to do so; our high elevation isn’t conducive to timely ripening—because they’re so versatile as an ingredient. I even have a couple of recipes that feature them in starring roles.

Roma tomatoes are still probably available in your farmer’s market or, perhaps, in your garden. They’re popular as a paste tomato, but the meaty flesh makes terrific gazpacho. If the weather’s still as hot where you are as it is here in Colorado right now, give this no-cook recipe a try.

Even if you don’t particularly like tomatoes, you might like this.

 

Tichi’s Gazapcho
(from José Andrés’ Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America; I’ve included my comments and adaptations in italics)

2 pounds (about 10) plum tomatoes (if you use a less meaty tomato variety, skip the water while blending; be aware that this recipe will not redeem hard, mealy, or insipid tomatoes).

½ pound (about 1) cucumber

3 ounces (about ½) green bell pepper (I like a little kick, so usually use something with some heat; poblanos have the perfect combo of bite and flavor, but make the color of the soup a little murky; cubano peppers, if you can get them, work well)

1 garlic clove, peeled (if you don’t like living with raw garlic flavor in you mouth, heat the garlic in some olive oil for a few minutes to de-fang it)

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (this is worth seeking out; red wine vinegar will serve in a pinch, but sherry vinegar is a magic elixir: trust me)

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil (if you have the conviction, go for it, but I’ve never used anywhere near this much; start with ¼ cup and use more if you think it needs more richness)

2 teaspoons salt (start with 1 teaspoon, add more to taste)

Core the tomatoes, peel and de-seed the cucumber and pepper, chop everything in rough chunks, and put it in the blender with the garlic, sherry vinegar, salt, and up to a half cup of water. Blend smooth. Adjust the vinegar, oil, or salt levels to taste. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

That’s it. Tasty and remarkably filling, what with all that fiber bound up in some nice rich olive oil. The original recipe calls for straining, but I never bother; there’s also a very fussy garnish protocol in the original, but the whole point of this, to me, is how easy it is.

The gazpacho keeps for a day or two; if it tastes flat, mix in a few drops of sherry vinegar and it will perk right up. It might sound crazy, but I love making this for road trips: put it in a mason jar to sip on as you drive. It’s flavorful and filling enough that it will keep you out of the chip bag.

If gazpacho season has passed where you are, fear not. Here’s another recipe from Andres’ book that’s perfect for fall. Lay in some more plum tomatoes and make a big batch of this for the freezer.

Romesco sauce, in case you haven’t had it before, is WAY better than ketchup. Have it on burgers, with steak, or with egg-based quiche/torta/tortilla recipes. Serve it with grilled veggies and the vegetarians and vegans in your life will swoon.

Ready for the grill: zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, radicchio, and red onion tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a touch of vinegar (might I recommend sherry vinegar?); throw slices of marinated eggplant on separately so you can monitor their cooking better.

This is kind of an idiot’s version of molé: much easier to make but very complex,  and with some crossover of ingredients. Having said that, this isn’t a particularly simple recipe, so give yourself time to lay in the ingredients plan to make it on a cool day when you don’t mind running the oven. It’s worth the effort: you’ll be able to pull some summer out of the freezer come winter.

 

Romesco Sauce

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish), plus extra for coating the vegetables (again: works fine with less)

1 red bell pepper

6 ripe plum tomatoes

1 head garlic, halved, papery skin removed

1 Spanish onion

3 ñora chili peppers (or other dried sweet pepper)

¼ cup blanched almonds

1 oz. white bread, crust removed

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika (I also like to add a pinch of smoked paprika for flavor/heat)

½ tablespoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees; brush olive oil on the fresh pepper, tomatoes, garlic, and onion, place them in a roasting pan, and roast until the veggies are soft, about 25 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting, soak the ñora chilies in hot water for about 15 minutes. Strain, and remove the seeds. Place the chilies in a blender and puree until smooth. (You can sieve the puree, but I’ve never done so.)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small sauté pan over low heat. Brown the almonds slightly, about 1 minute; remove. Raise the heat to medium and add the bread; cook until it’s nicely browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove and set aside.

Add the pureed chili to the pan and cook for about 30 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat.

Once the vegetables are out of the oven and cool enough to handle, peel them, and seed the bell pepper and tomatoes. Place the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor and add the almonds, toasted bread, pureed chili, vinegar, paprika and the remaining 7 tablespoons of oil. Blend until it forms a thick sauce. Add salt to taste. Serve at room temperature.

To freeze: I measure out 1 cup portions, pour them into plastic containers, and freeze. To save space, you can pop the frozen pucks out of the containers, wrap in waxed paper, label and store in zip-top bags. You should plan on refreshing the sauce with a dash of sherry vinegar when you thaw it.

Roasted vegetables ready for blending. You get a smoother sauce if you peel and de-seed the tomatoes and peel the peppers, but I don’t always bother.

Posted in cooking and recipes, fall, gardening, summer | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Vacation Reflections

Well, vacations—both the planned of July and the unplanned of August—are over: time to get back to writing work. What better way to get back into the routine than to reflect on the break?

About not writing in August, there’s nothing to say other than it happened. As for the July blog vacation, I recognize a level of absurdity in calling daily posts a “break,” but the idea was to relieve myself of the obligation to find a topic, draft a narrative, check sense and logic, organize the right words in the right order, edit, and all that. My break was intentional, total, and extended to my work-in-progress as well as the blog: I was released from guilt about a lack of progress. No angst, no pressure, no recrimination.

A separate goal was to maximize time outside while the wildflowers were at their peak, and to share the show; I wanted to spend some of my summer idling and ogling rather than immersed in The Busy.

Featuring flowers native to my part of Colorado offered a way to provide context without narrative. I knew going in that including names would complicate the project, but felt they were an important element in properly sharing the bloom. A flower picture on its own is a taxonomic assignment; pair it with a name and the viewer’s curiosity has a head start, should he or she be inclined to learn more.

The problem with plant names is that they sound definitive even though they’re not. Common names rely on whimsey, tradition, and local convention. Formal names lean on classification systems subject to debate and revision.

Then, when it comes to naming plants, we’re talking about living organisms rather than products manufactured within consistent and well-defined specifications. In flowering plants, elaborations of form, color, and scent are executed in the interest of reproduction. Even if plants are not locomotory, they do get around, if you know what I mean, and diversity is part of the point of sexual re-mixing.

In addition to the uncertainties built into labeling and genetics, you also have to take into account the fact that the field guides we use in identification are texts. As such, they perform a sly bait-and-switch. Declarations therein propose answers but cannot ensure certainty on the ground. Drawing a conclusion requires judgment, which almost inevitably demands further reflection, inquiry, or observation.

What field guides are best at is directing your attentiveness. They point the user to field marks and identifying characteristics. A good plant guide will coax you to look not just at flower color and petal shape, but also at the size of leaves and the height of the plant, at growth habit, soil type, slope exposure, moisture and light levels.

The daily blog posts of this past July were insistent and specific reminders of where I am, but they also located my local flowers and my experiences of them within a larger framework of human knowing and life on this planet. I hope my bloom-a-day July captured the gratitude I feel for this place, and for the privilege of being here.

What fun to have an excuse to immerse more deeply in my place. To go walkabout across this piece of Colorado’s bounty with the sole aim of documenting its divers wonders was a gift whose value I’m still finding ways to comprehend. It’s humbling to know just ignorant I remain, despite this latest chapter in my decades-long attempt to understand where it is I’ve located myself.

One of the mysteries I’m confronted with is the origin of the fantastic bloom. Unlike other parts of Colorado, where record snowfall fed botanical exuberance with unusually abundant water, the big NOAA rain gauge I monitor shows that year-to-date precipitation at this site is merely so-so.

I speculate that temperature was more critical to our spectacular 2019 Wildflower Summer than snow and rain. The winter was cold, and snow sat on the ground for months. The cover protected soil and plants from desiccating wind, and the accumulation provided a sizeable infusion of water once the ground thawed. All of our May precipitation came as snow, which soaked in more slowly than rain and kept the brakes on plant growth with cold temperatures. And then, unlike the pattern of the last several years, during which June seared with an unrelenting blare of hot, sun-filled, rain-scarce, and fire-prone days, the weather stayed cool. The weather station recorded 1.85 inches of precipitation: respectable, but not extravagant, unless you compare it to June 2018’s dismal 0.09.

And then came July. The weather warmed, and more rain came–in moderation, but it came. Plants up here know what to do with water; my 31 days of wildflower porn is a testament to their talents.

I’d like to think the display was memorable enough without my self-assigned documentary project, but I’m not sorry I challenged myself to record the field marks of an extraordinary season.

 

Postscript: At the end of July, I tallied up the plants I hadn’t gotten to, along with those that don’t bloom in mid-summer. There are enough native flowering plants I didn’t manage to document in July that I could to the bloom-a-day project for another month, without repeats.

 

Posted in observation, trees and plants, wildflowers, writing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Sunny Flowers

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts featuring the wildflowers blooming in our part of Colorado this July, you may have noticed a relative dearth of the classic and recognizable form commonly referred to as sunflowers.

The local sunflower types tend to come out later in the summer; at our altitude, many are just beginning to bloom now. Fortunately, that’s just in time to close out my project with a cheery blast.

Identification, you might not be surprised to learn, is complicated; the plant family we’re talking about here (composites, or Asteraceae) includes not only the common sunflower and other disc-and-ray plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Blanketflowers and Coneflowers, but also goldenrods, thistles, nettles, artemisias, dandelions, and, as you might expect, asters.

Following my post on groundsels early on in this project, a friend commented, “You know, you could just call them DYCs, Damn Yellow Composites.”

Duly noted.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Penstemons

Thirty days ago, I was inspired to blog the bloom by a prolific little flower I called “the little purple penstemon that blooms earlier than most of the penstemons” (kindly identified as P. virens by Susan J. Tweit in the comments to that post).

Those plants have now gone to seed, but their larger penstemon compatriots are blooming now, and it seems appropriate to allocate a post to them as this project winds down, even if it must be a group recognition.

When I started this series of bloom-a-day posts on the first of July, it seemed like thirty-one days might about cover it, and it’s been good fun to share some of the abundance of flowering plants we’ve been seeing this summer. Still, there are flowers I won’t have time for: lupine, cut-leaved evening primrose, wild rose, blue mustard, pussytoes, wild strawberry, Rocky Mountain bee plant,  fairy candelabra, Platte thistle, cinquefoils, buckwheats, and cacti, never mind some very attractive grasses and the various sages and rabbitbrush just beginning their bloom phase now. We’ll also miss some plants that flowered earlier, such as pasqueflower and mountain bluebell, and others I haven’t seen blooming yet, including Rocky Mountain clematis and bottle gentian.

But, July is not over yet. The varieties of penstemon aren’t quite as dizzying as the astragulus array, but a handful of species is in full glory as I write. Their tall spikes are like pennants of color waving here and elsewhere across the West, urging us to slow down and look.

Look really close on that front-facing blossom, upper left.

 

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Pioneers

Not all of our wildflowers insist on living “wild.”

Pioneer plants are the first to colonize disturbed ground, including construction sites and burn areas. They help recover disturbed soil by stabilizing against erosion and shading tender seedlings. What makes them pioneers rather than weeds is their willingness to share space: rather than simply taking over the place and keeping it to themselves, pioneers yield to successive, and typically more diverse, generations of plants.

For such plants, bare ground amounts to opportunity.

Yarrow is a willing pioneer where we live, and over the years I’ve been able to watch as solid patches of it gradually morph into the botanical mosaic characteristic of our grasslands: the yarrow is still there, but it’s a collegial part of the overall mix.

In the fall of 2004, we set up horsekeeping with a small field we now call the Barn Pasture. By the time we finished fencing additional fields on the other side of the driveway the next year, the horses had cropped those few acres short. High-traffic areas were trod into hardpan. Once the horses started spending most of their time in the larger pasture, the yarrow surged and, despite a fierce drought, the grasses soon followed.

Here’s a picture of part of that pasture about a year into the recovery, with our beloved Max soon after his arrival in September 2006.

Here’s how it looks today (sadly, without Max, who died in 2012).

 

Achillea millefolium

 

Another pioneer, Curly-cup Gumweed, thrives in the poor soil along the gravel roads. The plant pictured here has shot up since the area was scraped clean by the road grader in early June.

 

Grindelia squarrosa

Posted in summer, trees and plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Pioneers