Desert Livin'

It has been a rough few weeks for my garden. First, we had intense heat, with temperatures reaching the high 90s for what seemed like weeks. Then, as if out of nowhere, a cold spell, accompanied by a wind storm, wrecked havoc on the lovely, sleepy city of Albuquerque. Public Service Company of New Mexico (more commonly known as PNM around here, it's the power company) reported that over 10,000 customers lost power due to damaged lines from the wind storm. Between the intense sun and the intense wind, my garden has seen better days. However, one doesn't move to a desert and expect their garden to always be at peak performance.

After all, the desert is not a place you expect to be bustling with life. The intense rays of the sun, with little to no shade, makes it an uninviting and unforgiving environment. We've all watched a movie or read a book where one of the characters wanders off into the desert never to return again. Some people actually have gotten lost in the desert. Six years after releasing his 1969 cult classic album U.F.O, the American singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan wandered into the New Mexican desert, never to be seen again. It is with this in mind that I ask myself why the hell anybody moves to the desert in the first place. After all, Lily and I moved down here because I was offered full funding for a PhD program, not because I thought the desert was a verdant oasis.

Singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan

First and foremost, the desert is a harsh place because there's not much water. Walking around Albuquerque, I occasionally see a green lawn. Upon closer inspection, I find that there are sprinklers every ten feet or so. Every time I come across a lawn like this, I chuckle. Why did they move to a desert if they want green lawns? Move back to Illinois! It reminds me of an anecdote from Edward Abbey's  memoir of living  in southern Utah, Desert Solitaire. Abbey, a park ranger, is making the rounds of the park's campgrounds when a tourist from Ohio invites him to the bonfire for a beer. Not far into conversation, the Ohio tourists insists that there is simply not enough water out here. But, nevertheless, Abbey reassures him that there is certainly more than enough water out here in the desert. Eventually, Abbey walks away from the bonfire filled to the brim with beer, with both him and the Ohio tourist thinking they have taught each other something.

writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey 

While the anecdote seems comical — a mid-westerner from a great lakes state complaining about the lack of water in a desert — Abbey's response to the tourist raises a fair point. There is more than enough water out here, if you know where you're living. And for thousands of years before colonization, American Indians lived out here in the Southwest quite successfully because they knew were they were living. The desert is bustling with life. It's just different than the lush forests of Wisconsin or the rolling prairies of South Dakota. 

For starters, not everywhere in the desert lacks water. Albuquerque sits on the Rio Grande, the fourth largest river in the United States. Surrounding the Rio Grande, as well as its many tributaries like the Pecos River, are forests known as basques. Moving away from the rivers, the environment becomes noticeably less green, but it's not from a lack of life. Instead, life had adapted to the rugged, dry terrain. I assure you that if you walk barefoot for five feet into the countryside surrounding Albuquerque, you'll never forget that it isn't simply rocks and sand. You'll be pulling out thorns and spikes from your feet, and if you're unlucky, you'll be recovering from a snake, spider, or scorpion bite.  But I said earlier, humans have lived here for thousands of years. Not everything out here is going to kill you!

The bosque on the muddy Rio Grande

One plant that attracts everybody their first time down here is the prickly pear! While the prickly part is uncomfortable, there is indeed a "pear" or fruit part to the plant. This last Friday, Lily and I took a drive to a friend's house whose side yard holds dozens and dozens of prickly pears. With some tongs and a plastic bag, we started plucking the tender little fruits. You know they're ripe when they turn a maroon or burgundy color. 

The fruit is the red bulb sticking out at the ends

Before handling them, you have to singe the needles. Not all the pricks on the fruit are big and obvious. There's teeny, tiny ones that get into your hand like fiberglass slivers. Carefully, I turned each fruit over our gas stove, singing the prickly little bastards off. 

Singing off the needles

Once they were ready for handling, I sliced them open. Much of the fruit is tough, coarse seeds. I strained the seeds and fruit through a sieve, collecting the juices. Finally, I made some jam!

The fruit has a watermelon flavor to it. It's best made into jam or simple syrup, or paired with other fruit, as it's not the most intense flavor in the world. 

Another culinary plant that grows in great abundance down here is the sotol plant or the desert spoon — known formally as Dasylirion. The inner hearts of this plant are fermented and distilled into the wonderfully earthy and warm liquor known as sotol (the name isn't surprising, huh?). Sotol tastes like an earthier tequila. 

The sotol plant

Not all plants down here necessarily have culinary value, but they are charming, nevertheless! For instance, one plant commonly found down here is the wild Blue Grama grass (while this is technically edible, I don't know of anyone who actually harvests it). 

Blue Grama grass

And although it's been an unfortunate few weeks for my garden, as a cool desert fall comes, it looks like smoother sailing from here on out!

The Cholla cactus, one of my favorite desert plants down here


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