Como Palo Fierro (Like Ironwood)

“What we love we shall grow to resemble.”  Bernard of Clairvaux

She sunk roots deep downward over decades, like fingers, arms, filaments of love anchoring in the volcanic tumble of rocks and ground, spectrum of mauves, black polish, lichen.  Deep down and outward too, seeking buried nourishment, slaking ancient thirsts, trading secrets with the soil, every root hair, every inch of growth a commitment to place, time, continuity.

She grew branches out into the endless sky from heavy slow-grown trunks solid as stone, into a thorny, leafy shelter, a shady canopy of sustenance and security, that others might gather there or call it home.  She scattered the ground through seasons of plenty and want, with a profusion of her own abundance: cycles of shed detritus, carpets of lavender leguminous blooms, mass fallings of seedpods, years of her wisdom, understanding, and compassion a rich compost of its own.

She survived psychic and real clear-cuts, sending up phoenix-like regrowth from trunks cut to the quick–cortado–and slow-burned in naive colonial fires and tasteless charcoal smolderings.  And like her red-brown heartwood, she resisted the decay of progress with its blades and drills and  pumps and puffy political paradigms.

She created next generations, monsoon-germinated, rain-sustained, culinarily embedded into meal-memories, recipes shared and passed on of collecting, preparing, eating, and growing from place.  Mentor-mother, she offered islands of fertility for those blown in, sown in, honed in on a presence and future rich in diversity, adaptability, ingenuity: survival.

She balances in the middle of opposing forces, building bridges and basins, reservoirs of hope, models of the world she wants to live in, holding it all together like a chiseled keystone, like glue, like the ceremonial branch of a dense generous tree held in hand with another to symbolize lasting unions, fair agreements, faith in regenerative action, trust, love.

She waits.  She waits to see whether everyone will come to their senses, to see, feel, hear, and taste what endures.  She sheds what can’t be kept alive to nourish what can.  Through all manner of extremes–fire, flood, freeze, heat, drought, and storms of ignorance, apathy, and greed–she keeps on growing: like a weed, like a seed, like dreams, like ironwood.

for Barbara Rose


Precarious Possibility

Scan 3 - Version 3

Stunning stupa in Bhutan.

I learned about stupas from my dear friend Geneve, who made several treks to India to visit her guru.  She returned with postcards of stupas visited there, and I became enamored of them.  I’m no expert, but here’s what I learned.  A Buddhist tradition, stupas originated as earthen burial mounds, places of meditation and visitation for the living to honor the dead, then developed into more complex and elaborate constructions, some representing the shape of the Buddha sitting in meditation, with stupa details reflecting the 5 elements of purification.

Stupas may also be relatively rustic constructions of whitewashed stones decorated with prayer flags and Buddha eyes.  Others were labors of great devotion and massive work efforts.  The tallest, largest, and one of the oldest stupas is in Sri Lanka, and it took 15 years and over 9 million baked earthen bricks to build.  Other notable stupas may be seen and visited in Thailand, Pakistan, Mumbai, Java, and India, among other places.

Stupas often contain relics enshrined within: special possessions, scriptures, and remains of Buddhist monks, commemorative or symbolic objects, and tsa tsas, or written mantras.  All stupas encase a central tree-of-life pole.  Erecting a stupa supposedly brings great immediate and karmic benefits to the builders.  With this in mind, a friend and I decided to build a small rock stupa together one desert Spring.

This exercise included gathering all the rocks needed to build the stupa, a meditation in itself.  Before placing any rocks, we decided to write poems about the experience, so we had something to enshrine within the stupa.  Both poems took the same title: The Precarious Possibility of Wholeness, and we created a time limit in which to write our unique versions.  After reading aloud our poems, we rolled and stuffed them into tiny glass jars to withstand the elements and time deep within the stupa.

Then began the process of stacking rocks into a stout-based tower and interlocking form that would remain in place for years of visits and meditations.  If you’ve ever worked with rock, you know this process is like piecing together a big, heavy puzzle.  If a rock doesn’t fit in one place, it must be moved to where it does, not forced, no exceptions, just like jigsaw pieces.  From the bottom layer up, every placement counts.  If the foundation rocks aren’t solidly set, none that follow will be either.  After a full day of creative work, we completed the stupa.

It stood for many years on a path I walked every morning, reminding me of my friend who helped build it, and the opportunities we have daily to offer up prayer, meditation, and gratitude for this life.  Desert birds enjoyed alighting on its apex, to survey the area and make loud pronouncements about the world.  Then one day while I was working in my gardens, I heard a great waterfall sound of rocks returning to earth–it was like a song!–surrendering to forces of nature and time.

I dug through the chaotic rock pile to retrieve the jars for safe keeping.  Then in a move suggestive of karmic rebirth into new form, I used the rocks to edge  and secure the fence bottom of one of my gardens that a visiting group of javelina kept rooting under, to eat my juicy greens.  They haven’t gotten in since.

Is succumbing to gravity and collapse bad karma?  Not likely.  Things constantly shift and change, even the great monuments of human ingenuity and folly.  Nothing lasts–except stories, memories, prayers, and poems that live inside us, like relics stowed in a beautiful, humble stupa.


Precarious Possibility

Little stupa stone simple

Drop me to my knees to worship

The solidity of rock and earth

The dependability of gravity and falling

The vulnerability of balance and wholeness  and

The sweet addiction of creativity and purpose.


Mark my path

And this rare territory

With this unlikely pile of

The pretty the dull the heavy the hidden

The crystallized the load-bearers

The best-for-last the story-starters.


Yes I’ll marry you mass and space

If you promise to love

Where you are and

The inevitability of change.


Take as your lovers the elements

Rain washing waterfalls down on you

Wind whistling major and minor tunes through

Sunlight penetrating deeply to your core

Cold exploding molecules cracking you wide open

Moonlight tolerating the interruption of your shadow.


Oh shrine to remembrance

Oh habitat for the tiny

Oh wonder at the hand

Lifting and placing

The heart’s investment in

The precarious possibility of





Most gardeners know that, regardless of where you sow and grow, output never truly equals input; that is, loss is always part of the production equation.  Crop loss may be caused by pests, climate factors, insufficient resources, and human mistakes, from seed to harvest and all stages in between.  Any yield reduction is an income and sustenance loss, so energy and attention must be put to cause against such impacted income outcomes.  Most farmers also know tried-and-true strategies for minimizing losses too.  Any past loss that informs a future success is a good harvest in itself.  Humble pie can be so filling…

Planting enough and successive times accounts for germination an seedling loss.  Using beneficial insects and companion plants to mitigate pest damage is another proactive practice to protect food plants.  Employing season-extending methods like warm greenhouses in winter and cool shade houses in summer reduces climate-related losses and extends yield seasons.  Watering and amendment schedules keep plants at optimal health so they easily resist and recover from disease or damage.  Myriad other higher-tech gizmos exist to combat pests great and small: anti-rodent vibration-emitters, squirrel throwers, electric fencing, bird-thwarting mylar pinwheels and streamers, deer fencing, faux-predator birds and snakes, appetizing foul-odor lures, baited live-release traps, etc.

Fences are an age-old, simple solution for keeping out unwanted pests that consume or damage crops.  Fences mark a boundary between in/out, mine/yours, open/closed, and safe/vulnerable.   My first desert garden mentor used moveable fences, 5-sided wire cages that protected active beds from hungry rabbits and squirrels.  Around my first sunken-bed gardens in downtown Tucson, a 4-foot high fence kept out roaming dogs and cats.  A crazy scarecrow confused some birds; others stayed their distance anyway, because of my two territorial cats.

When I moved out of town to a more rural location, factors city-dwellers rarely confront required consideration and action: wild animals.  More infrastructure was needed to prevent the unwanted entry of snakes, lizards, rabbits, javelina, squirrels, and many birds, pursuing the salad bar and cool jungle oasis surely built for them.  Competition for cool green food and refuge in a hot dry desert can be fierce!  Wire mesh small enough to prevent flexible rodent and reptile skulls from squeezing through had to be attached meticulously to posts and fencing.  Sinking fencing below grade is also wise; if not, heavy stone edging keeps nose-nudging javelinas from rooting under and into gardens.  Consider them helpers in locating the weakest spots in your design }: (:).  Don’t put it past them to clamber over low flimsy fence tops either.  Some pigs!

Netting to enclose the top of the garden area is an effective final barrier to the winged raiders, like autumnal flocks of voracious sparrows who expertly remove every seed from every bed, and seemingly innocent quail who insist on raking aside straw cover in search of grubs and bugs, as if it’s a contest.  Manic curved-bill thrashers do just that in moist soil and mulch.  Netting with the smallest openings can even deny entry to lilting butterflies and moths, whose caterpillar offspring would otherwise hatch into armies from eggs laid on host plants, and devour them.

I call the whole set-up, from fence to wire mesh to netting to foolproof gates, Zartacla.  That’s because it’s a refined design to keep things out; the opposite of Alcatraz.  Yet, at the same time, the goal of keeping things out is keeping things in intact.  Interesting edges, fences.  To animals seeking access to the garden, the thin but rigid boundary, the visibility through to oasis inside, and exclusion frustration all confuse and confound–like  the invisible glass pane boundary the moth bounces off of over and over in pursuit of light on the other side.

If Zartacla is the ultimate design to keep the unwanted out and the wanted in, that’s because Alcatraz, the notorious federal prison, was  designed to keep the unwanted–wait, the wanted unwanted?–in, to prevent inmates from becoming outmates.  The prison was built on Alcatraz Island, which sits in the choppy cold supposedly shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay, with hazardous currents to boot.  Federal officials claimed no successful prison breaks from Alcatraz in the 19 years they ran it, though a few inmates escaped the structure and made it to the water, but were never found, presumed drowned.

Stakes at Zartacla aren’t so high.  Netting has trapped and killed some lizards, which I regret; it is not a perfect solution. I’m in a current struggle with leaf-cutter ants who have co-existed in my gardens for years.  It’s not like I’m in control and allow them; quite the opposite.  They can defoliate whole plants overnight.  Some collective intelligence sends out workers to snip tendrils off trellised pea plants, so stalks fall to the ground for easy leaf harvest.  The ants themselves are admirable farmers, cultivating fungus food on the stolen leaves in their subterrannean labyrinths.

Setbacks happen, but things will recover and growth prevails; I’ll replant consistently, too.  Maybe in the end, the nibbling makes the plants stronger.  In one garden breach, I attributed a growth spurt in survivor seedlings to soil aeration from pointy javelina hooves.  Terrific!

Welcome to my green world.  Just don’t forget to close the gate…