Christmas Tradition

Charles Schultz story first televised 50 years ago.

Charles Schultz story first televised 50 years ago.

Christmastime is more than a religious holiday, and yes, more than a marketing and shopping frenzy. It’s a time of year when our high tech, cutting edge culture is willing to indulge in nostalgia. Really old fashioned music is playing everywhere you go. Theaters headline plays written over 150 years ago. And, for about three weeks, we just can’t get enough.

The earliest carols were sung thousands of years ago in Europe to celebrate the winter solstice. The songs were retooled to reflect Christianity and have been going strong ever since. “O Come All Ye Faithful” appeared in its current form in the mid 1800’s.

The most popular Christmas song is “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin in 1940 and first performed by Bing Crosby in 1941. The achingly nostalgic song is the best selling single of all time, with 50 million copies sold worldwide. More than 500 versions have since been recorded by various artists.

“A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens in 1843 and still today the theatrical adaptation is a holiday tradition for many families. We used to go see “The Nutcracker” every year as a family until my son and husband rebelled.

Based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, the Nutcracker was originally performed as a two act ballet to music by Tchaikovsky in 1892. Today elaborate performances are bread and butter for most American ballet companies, generating up to 40% of annual ticket revenues.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was produced and directed by Frank Capra in 1946, and is one of the most popular films in American cinema. The movie is based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” written by Phillip Van Doren Stern 75 years ago.

In our society today school curriculums focus on science and technology and career paths in IT and engineering are paved in gold. Considering the challenges facing our planet and the human population, the sciences will be critical.

But while humanities such as such as literature, music, dance and theater have fallen from favor, we’d be wise not to forget them altogether. The popularity of tradition as upheld by music, theater and dance provide us with links to the past. The stories, songs and visions hold truths and morals that we apparently aren’t willing to let go, even in this digital and ever changing world.

The Future is Everyone’s Playground

Desert Museum 020

I was fortunate to hear the brilliant author Margaret Atwood speak recently. She was in town as part of the ASU sponsored Science and Imagination Series. The initiative defines sustainability as stories about the future world we desire.

Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy takes place in a future world run by anonymous corporations while scientific research in biogenetics is carried out in fortressed compounds. Big Pharm sells vitamins that make people sick and gratuitously markets the remedies. The God’s Gardeners’ underground movement tries to keep old traditions and themselves alive.

In person Atwood was funny and wry. She labels her Maddaddam work as speculative fiction. Extrapolating present facts and trends, she projected into the future. She asks, do we really want to go there? If not, she declares, we need to change the road we’re on.

In regards to climate change, Atwood pointed out that in many cases we have the technology we need to address the problems, but lack the will to change. Towards the end of her talk she mentioned a project out of Norway called Future Library.

A young woman named Katie Paterson came up with this mind-bending idea. Why not plant a forest of trees to be cut one day to create books? The books would contain literature written over the past one hundred years, specifically for this project. A specially designed room within the New Public Deichmanske Library in Oslo has already been prepared, where the stories, poems and essays will be sealed.

Works of literature will be contributed over time to build a collection of manuscripts. The stories and poems will be contributed as gifts to the future, one a year, dating from when the forest was mere seedlings until their crowns spread into the sky.

Starting in 2014 and for ninety nine years after, an esteemed author will be asked to submit a piece of writing to the project. Margaret Atwood was the first to be invited to participate and is currently working on her contribution. She’ll never know how her work is received, none of us will. No one alive today will read her story, because it will be sealed in the Future Library.

A printing press will be placed in the library along with the growing body of literature. One hundred years from now, enough of the forest will be cut to print the library’s treasure. A century of fine literature written by storytellers from each era will become available to readers.

What will the world look like then? Who will the “readers” be?
How uplifting to consider an enterprise that reaches across the divide of time and that carries history and meaning. Commercial gain was not a driver in this case! The project embodies the expanse of the human soul.

Atwood claims the future is everyone’s playground. Let’s cut free and go play. Let’s change the road we’re on.

Thankful for prayer

Wash Junction

Sometimes the events of life are so full of sorrow or horror or worry that there is nothing to do but turn one’s mind to prayer. When I was a young girl I stayed with my Gram when my sister went into the hospital for brain surgery. She did everything she could to comfort me, but Gram never said it would be ok, because no one knew.

Gram made some phone calls and told me that all her friends were praying for Barb. I pictured people in straight chairs, holding hands around a circle, with grey heads bent. Through the hours I held tight to that image. In contrast to the mightiness of their efforts my own prayers felt flimsy, even ridiculous. Barb came home, and I do believe that Gram’s prayer circle helped make that happen.

The tragic, sudden death of a friend in our midst has stunned us all. Even while I try to comprehend, other losses and worries tug at my mind. In my car at red lights, I find myself putting my palms together before my breast. The surrender of the gesture eases my heart, but I don’t find words for prayer.

Hiking, I leave the trail and follow a wash to a confluence of dry streambeds, where a cluster of saguaro cacti stand as sentinels and an age-blackened tree snag points to heaven. Here it is absolutely quiet and nothing moves. I sit and attend to the stillness and my own being is steeped in the hush. This takes a long time.

The sky appears eternal as does the landscape. Even the trees have stood in this place for hundreds of years. I feel I could sit for that long in this peacefulness.

Here in this rocky, stand-strewn channel in the desert it is apparent that more is at stake than the busy lives and machinations of human endeavor. The forces of nature turn on an all-encompassing wheel. Perhaps we don’t need to carry the burden of understanding everything. Sit for a time in the stillness of nature and find that prayer has no need for words.

Cradle to Grave for Burmuda Grass

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

Xeriscape demonstration garden at Glendale Public Library

A lawn in the Southwest is a guilty pleasure. Green turf is soft underfoot and comfortingly cool….especially on 110 degree days. Burmuda grass thrives in the heat, and many homeowners maintain a patch for the kids, for the dog, for the sanity a little green brings to the desert. Burmuda grass flourishes in school yards and parks across the Southwest, going dormant during the cooler months and greening up again come spring.

A lawn stays green and comforting only when watered copiously…and of course, water is a rare commodity around here. According to University of Arizona County Extension, 50-75% of the water used on a landscape can be saved by removing a lawn.

What many folks don’t consider when they opt for a patch of green, is that trusty, reliable Burmuda grass is very difficult to eliminate. If at some point in the future you decide you want a garden, or a low-water-use landscape instead of that thirsty lawn, you are facing a big chore.

According to the Maricopa County Extension, there are two methods for getting rid of this plant. Bermuda can be poisoned with one to several applications of the herbicide glyphosate (Round Up and other brand names), or it can be solarized.

Solarization involves covering the entirety of the lawn with black plastic for the summer months. The grass is suffocated and baked. Even still, what remains when the plastic is finally drawn back must be removed from the landscape, or it will re-root.

I spoke recently to Greg Peterson local expert at He claims Burmuda grass can be eliminated by cutting and removing the sod to a depth of two to three inches. The area is then watered to stimulate growth of the remaining rootlets so they can be raked out. All of these processes hint at the necessity of continued vigilance against re-emergence.

Gyphosate manufacturers state that the herbicide becomes inert when it contacts soil organisms. However, it does seem ironic that in order to plant gardens, fruit trees or native plants in areas where lawn grows, putting down poison is the “logical” first step.

According to Jack Kelly, Assistant Agent of Agriculture in Pima County office Cooperative Extension, glyphosate kills most plants when it is absorbed by green leaf tissue. The herbicide travels through the plant to new roots, shoots and developing fruits. The plant must be growing actively for the poison to work, so glyphosate should be applied to fresh growth in spring or in fall when the daytime temperatures are still in the 80’s.

Use a coarse spray to minimize drift and shield nearby plants. Do not water for 24 hours while the Burmuda grass takes in the herbicide. Then resume watering so the plants stay active while the effects take place, for 7-14 more days. Taper water over that time until the plot is brown.

A power rake should then be employed to remove dead grass. Kelly recommends also removing the top 2 inches of soil so mulch can be added to the new landscape without overflowing sidewalks and driveways.

Sound like a chore to you? That’s why I’m proposing that the sustainability concept of cradle to grave be applied to the planting of Burmuda grass. Cradle to grave planning means that manufacturers of products must provide for an end of life use, or sustainable recycling method for said product. Then all those disposables that litter our landscape and clog our seas would cost enough to give us pause before purchasing. And maybe a cradle to grave approach to Burmuda grass would make us think twice about putting that seed down in the first place.

Converting Turf to a Xeriscape Landscape by Jack Kelly is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension publication AZ1371

Island Enchantment

Really big fern

Meg RainforestSunrise again

My body returned from Hawaii days ago, but my thoughts linger there, circling in meditation like a coconut rolling in the shallows. On arrival at Oahu I unfolded limbs from restrictive airline seats like a new butterfly drying its wings. Outside the airport I found transformation in the island’s nature.

The Southwest’s earth is parched, river beds lay bone dry and the plants on the landscape scrimp and pinch to get by on minimal moisture. In Honolulu rain pours down almost every day, moisture plumps every cell and the air is heavy with humidity.

Reunited in the airport baggage area with Mom and Megan, we found we were all in one piece and glad to see each other. Megan drove us across the mountains to her home on the windward side of the island.

On the pass dramatic pali rake moisture from the sky and gather it around their peaks like grey shawls, until the heavy mists swirl into low hanging clouds. As the rain falls it carves fissures in the shoulders of the pleated mountains, forming impossibly long waterfalls, one after another. Here the water cycle is a tangible expression of infinity.

Unbridled competition for sunlight spurs the tropical shrubs, vines and trees skyward where they unfurl extravagantly large leaves. When we reached the windward side prevailing breezes had driven the clouds back against the mountains, revealing sunny skies and providing relief from the humidity.

In the coastal town of Kailua the ocean immediately dominates the senses. Even in town where we stop for acai bowls the breezes are weighted with salt. On the beach near our VRBO, the mild surf rolls onto immaculate sand, only as gritty as whole wheat flour.
The surge of the waves is unceasing, regular as the breath of a sleeping beast. Two shades of blue meet at the horizon where the imagination conjures tossing ships, islands lost and mythical sea creatures from clouds and air.

Here in Hawaii the charismatic mammals are not tethered to the earth. Sea turtles frolic in the surf, humpback whales nurture their young in warm waters and schools of otherworldly fish browse among coral reefs. We thrilled to songs of birds new to us and tried for photos of frigate birds soaring overhead on crooked wings.

We too let go of earth and embraced the salty buoyancy of the sea. Floating on the surface in a protected cove we stared wide eyed through snorkeling masks at fish and sea urchins, the crusty sea bottom sliding away as currents pulled us.

Perhaps instead of transformation it was an enchantment, as the island not only inhabited my imagination, but on my return, cast a pall over the charms of the desert. But yesterday I heard a bird song new to me and wondered who was migrating through, hidden in the palo verde trees. And today I saw a flock of finches chase a raptor across the sky. The glorious cool temperatures of fall beckon.

The Coyote Call

Young spying coyote

Young spying coyote

There are multiple perspectives to consider in every decision, even that concerning whether or when to share your life with a dog. Go ahead and line up the pros and cons, but be sure and weight the entries.

A huge positive by-product of dog ownership is the mandatory trip outside first thing in the morning. This forces you into a magical realm, when dusk still holds the upper hand and daylight is just a promising glow in the east. Wildlife is out and about.

I sit sleepily in the patio chair and wait for the dog toilet duties to be done. Birds sing and rustle in the trees. Coyotes calling nearby wake me up and bring goose bumps chasing down my spine.

A coyote chorus is chaotic like a drawer-full of pots and pans rolling across the kitchen floor. Two or three coyotes yipping sound like twenty as each individual in the pack yips shriller and louder than the next. The cries ring from the desert hillside just at the end of our block.

Lexie tips her nose to the sky and draws out a series of woo woo woos in a deep baritone. It’s clearly her best howl and the moon shines from the dark sky with approval.

Then an answer rings from the flanks of South Mountain, just to the north of us. These coyotes are farther away, and their cries are less piercing. The territories marked out by this auditory posturing is clear, even to me.

On a recent predawn walk, with the dog of course, a coyote materialized. A dark form trotted on the sidewalk far ahead, dimly illuminated by streetlights. As we approached, the creature veered into the wash that runs between the neighborhood block wall and the sidewalk where we walked.

We continued on, and I watched for the coyote to pass us by in the shallow wash. Abruptly she re-emerged onto the sidewalk just ahead and crossed the street. Her tawny coat gleamed with good health and she flowed past at an easy lope, near enough to see the flash of her eye. Lexie whined and strained at the leash.

A car approaching from a side street cast headlights across the scene and the coyote flinched. She accelerated effortlessly like white water in a gorge, flying to the dark safety of the wash where she disappeared for good.

This seasoned resident was clearly familiar with the risks of urban life. She wouldn’t alter her route more than necessary to avoid a single dog and a human, but reacted much differently when a vehicle entered the picture.

Falling strongly in the camp for dog cohabitation, I have high regard for the intelligence of dogs and the positive impacts they bring to a household. It is intriguing and bewitching to hear the calls and see behaviors of similar, equally intelligent and social animals living in the urban wild just beyond our ken.

Big Rains Bring Bugs

See the bee in bottom left

See the bee in bottom left

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Record amounts of rain create a big impact in an arid region, and not just in freeway underpasses and basements. The familiar trail where I walk was positively lush. Some plants I hardly recognized, so dressed were they in profusions of green. Seldom seen grasses grew in clumps on the desert floor, thrusting up and setting out seed heads in a water-fueled rush.

Insect eating birds – primarily black-tailed gnat catchers and verdins, worked busily among the foliage. Looking across the wash that dominates South Mountain’s Desert Classic Trail, I saw bugs massing above the green trees, backlit by the rising sun. Rain equals life, and near the bottom of the food chain, rain equals bugs.

A western spotted orb weaver spider hung her web from a block wall just above a hedge of Ruellia that buzzed with bees. The large moth trussed and motionless in her trap seemed to be looking out through the silken wrappings at me. A bee was also caught, with a leg tangled in the sticky web. It struggled vigorously, but in vain. The spider reached out and plucked at the web, which quivered along its length. Would she quickly wrap the bee as well? But she only strummed at her web until the bee broke free.

The sun was well up when I walked past again on my way home, and the spider and her meal cast a black shadow on the block wall. She crouched over the still form, feeding avidly.

In the garden I pushed aside a branch of Sonoran pipevine that snakes along the ground and discovered a large black caterpillar with red tubercles. This is the larval stage of the pipevine swallowtail. It feeds only on pipevine plants. The cautionary colors of black and red warn predators of powerful toxins that that the caterpillars ingest from the vine.

In early spring the adult swallowtail breaks out of the chrysalis as a large iridescent butterfly in shades of ebony and sapphire. Woe to birds that try to eat the butterfly; for all its changes in appearance, the swallowtail still harbors the toxins that the caterpillar recieved from its larval food plant. The butterfly is a dazzling visitor to gardens and roadsides where it pollinates many desert plants.

Read more about the pipevine swallowtail at Onelookout from March 2012.


"Fields" of greens inside the greenhouse

“Fields” of greens inside the greenhouse



I’m in such a salad rut. I eat a salad every day, either for lunch or dinner, or sometimes both. Eating lots of vegetables makes me feel good, and oh so virtuous. Although I enjoy eating salads; buying and washing the ingredients and doing the chopping and slicing does get a little tiresome.

So I’ve been happy to discover a new ingredient that is super nutritious and offers exciting textures and flavors. I’m talking about microgreens, and I learned of them through Arizona Microgreens who are partners in and supporters of the Brooks Community School in South Phoenix.

Co-owner David Redwood visited with me about the benefits of his product. He pointed out that microgreens are grown in soil or coconut coir and take nutrients from those mediums. The little plants are allowed to go through photosynthesis and pick up phytonutrients from that process. Studies have shown that microgreens have more nutrients per bite than adult plants.

Other, dynamic aspects of this food make it a darling of chefs. Microgreens are beautiful! They contribute crunchy succulence and a variety of textures to a salad or a sandwich. In culinary creations they provide a visual presence, body and bursts of unique flavor.

Microgreens are different than sprouts. Sprouts have suffered some bad press due to bacteria outbreaks. Cultivated in water with no natural sunlight, sprouts miss out on some of the nutrient qualities of microgreens.

Arizona Microgreens features more than a dozen different plant varieties. Some customer favorites are sunflower, arugula, cilantro, broccoli, curled cress, radish, pea shoot and wheat grass. The company sells to restaurants and individuals at farmers markets. David says people buy a four ounce baggie of sprouts one week and come back the next raving about how their kids loved them, how they found them less perishable than other greens and how they enjoyed the flavors.

One of the benefits of my job at the greenhouse is taste testing. Every so often I get called on to sample a new crop. Radish microgreens are peppery and crunchy, sunflower microgreens fill your mouth with succulent, mild flavor and oriental mustard? Wow! It tastes like smooth, high-quality wasabi.

Arizona Microgreens are grown organically in flats of premium soil and allowed to get just a couple of inches tall before they are snipped off in harvest. They are tender and delectable and require no slicing, dicing or chopping. They will be coming soon to these farmers markets: Carefree Sundial, North Central Phoenix, Old Town Scottsdale and Ahwatukee’s Sunday Market. Check Arizona Microgreens website for dates and times.

Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.

Gardener Extraordinaire

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

I arrived at Desert Botanical Gardens about 6:15 pm. The evening air cast a cool grace over the gardens. I was there to soak up the wisdom offered by a genuine, true-blue gardener. Pam Perry put her hands in the soil with the intention to grow plants when she was just three years old. Years of observing the performance of different varieties of plants in different soils and microclimates grant life-long gardeners a feel for growing that’s hard to get from books.

Pam’s stayed closely tuned to her passion all these years. For her, varieties of plants have unique characteristics, even personalities. She describes the Rosa Bianca eggplant: “An elegant girl, nice to have in the garden, beautiful really, but be aware she might give you just four eggplants all season”.

Here is someone you would love to have at your elbow as you confront the big seed display at the nursery. Pam offered a perspective on the performance of crops depending on the type of seed purchased. Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been in cultivation from 50 years to more than 3,000 years. Hybrid seeds come from plants that have been carefully bred to be disease resistant and to produce in a short growing season. These plants are trialed all over the country to ensure reliability and vigor.

Seed producers market seed based on the moods of the time. In the twenties, carnations were a favorite flower for funerals, durable and uplifting with their spicy colors and scent. But carnations fell from favor when people began to associate the smell of the blooms with death. Even today carnations are bred to be odorless.

The class covered the secrets and tips to be found in the study of seed catalogs. Pam orders a number of favorite catalogs every year and lines them up to compare offerings for specific plants. Ordering in January allows her to get first dibs on what might be limited seed for popular or newly introduced novelty crops. We learned the ins and outs of saving seed from plants we grow in our own gardens, and how long they last with careful storage.

Seed libraries are sprouting up (sorry) all over the country, and in Phoenix the Permaculture Alliance offers heirloom seed for free, asking only that you save seed from a few of the plants you grow, to renew the library’s supply. Local seed exchanges can be found online.

Master Gardener Pam Perry manages the demonstration vegetable gardens and the native plantings around the Maricopa County Extension offices at 4341 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s worth the time to stop by and see what’s going on in the garden.