Sunday, April 22, 2018

Reflections on Earth Day

This year I jiggered together a sort of semi greenhouse out of Wal-Mart shelving, animal fencing and a heavy plastic drop cloth. I set out trays of Cherokee Purple tomato seeds saved from last year's crop (lost one tray because it got too hot one day, and they cooked!), long pepper seeds -- we could pretend they're Hatch chiles, but they're not, they're seeds from garden variety Anaheim chiles grown in Texas,-- a tray of wildflower seeds, and pots of Indian corn and bolita beans, cantaloupe, acorn and butternut squash, catnip, lavender, and other flower varieties. Most of the seeds have germinated, and the tomatoes and peppers are almost ready to transplant to larger peat pots. I think I'll have plenty to give away this year just as was the case last year. Some of the people who took the plants last year said they had the Devil's own time trying to get any fruit off the vine, but tomatoes are touchy. It's simply a fact that it's very dry in New Mexico, and tomatoes like lots of water. I know one year I grew tomatoes here and for a while, the plants seemed to flourish and then they declined, never had more than one or two tomatoes from each plant, and then they seemed to shrivel and die. I'd grown them in large pots with good potting mix, and so their decline seemed strange -- until I pulled out the plants and discovered that only the top couple of inches of the soil had any water. Most of the soil in the pot was bone dry; I hadn't watered them nearly enough, though to my eye, and to my California conditioned watering hand, they'd had more than enough water. Lesson -- sort of -- learned.

This season, we had the driest winter in many years, and it has affected everything. I've started watering the trees and lilacs and other long term residents of our property here, but some,  I think, aren't going to make it. They've had many years  of drought stress before this only occasionally relieved with "good years" of reasonably abundant rain and snow. And a "good year" is dry by any common measurement.

The Indians abandoned this area in the 1670s during a severe drought and famine exacerbated by Spanish colonial Franciscan padres who simply saw the suffering of the Indians as God's wrath for  idolatry and whatnot. By the time the nearby pueblos were vacated, there were only a few hundred Indians left. They mostly joined pueblos on the west side of the mountains along the Rio Grande -- which apparently still had some water in it. This area was left more or less uninhabited for many years. The raiding tribes would set up temporary camps amid the ruins, and from time to time Spanish settlers would run their cattle and sheep over the range. But otherwise, it wasn't until the early/mid-1800s that small settlements were set up on the lower slopes of the mountains, and re-settlement of the plains (without the Indians) only got going in the early 1900s.

It's not easy land to farm, and drought is a persistent risk. I'm sure the early dry-land bean farmers were shocked the first year the rains didn't come. And the next and the next and the next. Eventually, they realized they couldn't rely on summer rainfall and winter snow to grow their crops, and somebody decided to drill down into the aquifer that underlies the whole basin. Sure enough they hit water, and ever since, such crops as are grown here have been under irrigation. But it's an uneasy balance.

There are a few farms still operating, but mostly such agriculture as there is around here is cattle raising, and when things get too dry -- as they seem to be right now -- the cattle... disappear. Where they go is one of those.... mysteries. Most I imagine go to slaughter right away. A few go to feed lots or greener pastures in Texas and Colorado.

The farms grow beans and corn and alfalfa and a few other crops for the animals, not so much for people. I'm one of several trying to get some varied vegetables to grow here. It's possible with enough water, soil amendments and care, but it's not easy.

For one thing, the soil lacks nutrients. It's mostly heavy clay with some sand, and it's highly alkaline. Organic matter is nearly completely absent, and all our attempts to establish a compost pile have failed. There are no earthworms, and practically no soil bacteria. Compost doesn't form because the material you're trying to compost doesn't decompose. It petrifies.

They say there's a way to make compost in buckets if you're patient and you keep it wet and introduce bacteria and earthworms, but I haven't figured it out yet. The two open piles we started are kind of hilarious what with their petrified garden debris and food scraps. One has grown quite large, but nothing has happened. Everything is as it was deposited, just dessicated.

In pots -- and bags and other containers -- things can grow very well. The only things we've been able to grow in the soil have been tulip and daffodil bulbs, but even they are stressed by the super-dry winter, and this year they are pretty peaked and wan.

Our farmer friend down the road supplements his soil with fish emulsion and manure. It gives him good crops, mostly beans and corn, but he's had only middling luck with vegetables. They will grow, but it's like they don't want to. He's preparing to grow some vegetables in greenhouses, but his first attempt failed when some kind of disease in the greenhouse killed off most of his plants. I don't think he's going to try again this year, but his kids have set up two vegetable plots outdoors. They set out lots of plants one weekend. Couple of days later, there was a hard freeze overnight. They'll have to replant when the weather warms up enough.

My beans and corn germinated in the greenhouse a week ago, and that same hard freeze killed most of the beans. Even though the greenhouse has heat (a number of 25w pads) I forgot to turn them on that night, and by the time I remembered, it was too late. The corn is struggling, but looks to be surviving. I'll plant more shortly.

So far, the squash and melons have not germinated though they were planted weeks ago. I'll give them another few days, then try again. Oddly, some hollyhock seeds that are at least five years old are starting to germinate. We'll see. They can be really tough to grow. You never know.

Though there have been some failures and disappointments so far this year, all in all I'm pretty pleased with the way my modest attempts at growing things are going. Freezing overnights have not quite ended, though, so I might have some more losses. It's not all that cold right now (early morning -- about 5am, about 37°) but the prediction is for it to freeze again by 6am. I've got the heat on in the greenhouse just in case.

I've just got to keep learning and trying.

Meanwhile, we don't do nearly enough R, R, & R, though I think we do much more than most others. Our garbage can, for example, is hardly ever full, unlike that of our neighbors -- some of whom have two cans overflowing, week after week. We recycle, reuse, and repurpose as much as we can, and so we send much less to the landfill than we might.

We learned about "living lightly on the Earth" many years ago and those lessons have stayed with us.

Even our house is a recycled pioneer adobe. From time to time, I think about doing another renovation/remodeling, but since we're getting up there in years, I'm not so sure it's going to happen before we shuffle off this mortal coil. We'll have to make do in the meantime..

Reflections on Earth Day? Over the decades, the lessons are largely ingrained and unconscious now. Sometimes the advocates get too enthusiastic and expect too much from individuals and not enough, it seems to me, from civic bodies and institutions. There's a constant tendency to approach the issues of Earth Day from a position of superiority over those who haven't got the message yet. Demanding, directing, disapproving, hectoring, yadda, yadda. It seems to me, too, that the whole thing is so very, very... white. Ain't much of a Rainbow Coalition. Those who have adopted some of the principles, however, or who have always lived by them, aren't nearly so white or so judgmental at all. We just do our thing!

Keep on keeping on...


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Note: I deleted the comment above as it seemed to be little more than an incoherent babble, but you know what? A whole lot of what we face these days is incoherent and babble. Just saying...