The First Harvest

With the dog days of summer finally past, many of my vegetables have let out a collective sigh of relief. During the day, we get a pleasant 85 degrees, and in the evening, it falls down to the 50s. When Lily and I first arrived, the daily average temperature hovered someplace in the 90s. For many vegetables, that's too damn hot. With my mind still thinking like a Midwesterner when we first moved here, I figured the beginning of August meant that the cool fall season was just around the corner, and so I planted cool weather crops. Now, almost two months later, some of those crops have just sprouted — if the beating rays of the sun hadn't already burnt the seeds. Now that fall is approaching and the weather is cooling, many of the vegetables are making great progress. This last week, Lily and I were able to harvest some arugula and some basil. On Saturday, the arugula and basil was greatly enjoyed on a homemade pizza, along with many local beers and some oven roasted Hatch chiles (the pride and joy cultivar of New Mexico). 

The arugula patch and its first harvest

Garden fresh basil on homemade pizza cooking in the oven

The first harvest was small but good. Today, Lily and I made progress on ensuring an even more bountiful harvest this fall. While we live in one of the driest climates in the United States, I have been overwatering the garlic. To try to ameliorate the damage, I moved the garlic to into new pot filled with a better draining soil — a mixture of coconut coir (the fibrous coverings on coconuts), perlite (a mineral commonly found in potting soils that helps provide structure to the soil), and compost. While I was working on transplanting the garlic, Lily began constructing a work bench/potting station. Earlier in the day, as I was busy working on math, she went to Home Depot and loaded up on pine boards. This afternoon, she built half the bench, and tomorrow she'll finish it. I'm always admiring her brilliance and craftiness. 
The beet patch is doing well!

While not all garden vegetables find the New Mexican desert to be an amiable place, many plants and animals do. This past week, one particular desert plant has really grabbed my attention: the Rio Grande Cottonwood. Related to the Eastern Cottonwood —  the Cottonwood found in Wisconsin — the Rio Grande Cottonwood finds it home in much of the American southwest, with its range extending down into Mexico (plants know no borders). Unlike the small Mesquite trees lining the boulevards of Albuquerque, its presence is never forgotten. The cottonwood towers over everything down here except the mountains. It regularly reaches heights of 50 to 60 feet, although some have reached monstrous heights of 90+ feet. You may ask why a tall tree has grabbed my attention so much. After all, the cottonwood's height is nothing compared to the goliath red woods that line parts of the west coast. What makes the cottonwood so fascinating is how it reproduces. Unlike the prickly pear or the cholla cactus, the Rio Grande cottonwood requires a steady supply of water, so, as its name suggests, it is most commonly found in the floodplain of the Rio Grande river. Before white settlers began altering the landscape, much of Albuquerque was subjected to flooding at certain times of the year, corresponding to the shrinking and swelling of the river. Like life everywhere, many species down here have evolved or adapted to these flooding conditions, including the Rio Grande cottonwood. During a short period of spring, when the river is high and much of the river bank floods, the female trees release seeds, which then hopefully find a new home after hitching a ride from the flood waters.  Assuming the seed didn't end up in the river itself, once established, its roots can reach down directly to the groundwater — a plant with this property is called a phreatophyte. 

Walking amongst the beautiful Rio Grande cottonwoods

Top two: views from dried up parts of the Rio Grande 
Bottom: Rio Grande cottonwood saplings on dried up parts of the Rio Grande
A view of the Rio Grande and all her beauty

Like all good stories, there is tragedy. As white settlers colonized what is now Albuquerque, they paid little attention to the flora and fauna of the area. The subsequent urban growth has transformed the land from a floodplain into a sandy terrain capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly, the Rio Grande cottonwood found its young facing more odds. As a result, their numbers have dwindled. Places like the Rio Grande Valley State Park are some of the few spots in Albuquerque left where the cottonwoods reign supreme. 

Unfortunately, the tragedy does not end here. As Lily and I hiked through the breathtaking beauty of the Rio Grande bosque, we came across an avian migrant who didn't make it. As much of the west coast has erupted into catastrophic forest fires (as if 2020 didn't already resemble Dante's hell), migrating bird populations have taken a nose dive. Smoke drifting from the coast has killed off thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of migrating birds throughout the southwest, according to ecologists at New Mexico State University. 
One of possibly hundreds of thousands of migrant birds dead as a result of the forest fires on the west coast

While 2020 has caused much grief, despair, and panic, it is also been a time to seriously consider alternatives to our current way of doing things. I mull over such alternatives as I watch Remy play in the backyard and I sip my beer (a delicious wheat beer to celebrate the end of summer). I've come to the conclusion that a garden is just one such alternative. The garden allows us to cut some times with the factory farms and monocultures wreaking havoc on our environment and our own health. According to NASA sattelite estimates, there is over 40 million acres of lawn in the US. That's a lot of time wasted cutting grass instead of growing tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, wheat, bok choy, daikon, quinoa, raspberries, currants and any other foods that we love and cherish. It's time to say goodbye to the prim and proper lawns of America and make each one of us a gardener. Urban apartment dwellers are not exempt either. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network — a collective of black farmers and gardeners who grow fresh, organic produce for their community, a community affected adversely from the decline of the auto industry and the housing crisis of 2008 — have shown us how to raise food in the heart of a city. Following their lead, people across the country could transform their communities into giant gardening spaces, capable of feeding everyone in it, while severing their ties with the agricultural practices that destroy biodiversity and speed up the process of climate catastrophe. While it may seem odd that I urge everybody to have a say in food production — after all, most of us are not farmers because we have other dreams and ambitions — I leave you all with this thought. Is it healthy for a country to have less than 2% of the population produce all the food we eat? Can we have democracy when we have no control over how food is created and distributed in our community? Perhaps these ideas feel far fetched and too utopian, and you may think we are too entrenched in our current ways of doing things to embrace such radical alternatives. But, as the writer Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us, the divine rule of kings once felt inescapable and immovable as well. Any human made system is capable of being changed. 

As we face a growing multitude of crises, I hope the thoughts above help us think clearly and seriously about real alternatives to our current ways of doing things. We cannot wait till 2050 to get our shit together. Anyways, I have moved onto my second beer, and my garden needs watering. Homework problems on harmonic functions are calling my name, and Remy is getting ansty for some attention. Much to do. Tomorrow evening, we'll head to the Bosque for another hike and to admire the wonderful and charming cottonwoods - and hopefully see some cute lizards. 

A turtle sunning himself on the Rio Grande


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