Desert the Bittersweet

This is the kind of friend the desert is…the kind that tells you he just gave you the clap, but on the up side, he thinks you’re the one.

Here’s a question, does anyone even know what the clap is anymore? For those of you who weren’t sexually active in the seventies, or perhaps not yet born, it’s an STD. But for this analogy, it’s the caterpillars in my garden. And the upside is that my friend the desert can bring on beauty overnight just as easily as it can deliver decimation, often simultaneously.

To wit, the triple digit temperatures arrived this week and set off a flurry of blooms. Maybe the plants think the world is about to erupt into flames, so they must make hay while they may. Kind of like how everyone ran out and got laid for the Y2K Armageddon.

This happened in my garden:

Texas Sage exploded overnight. A gorgeous plant that usually is mal-pruned, so no one gets to see its blooms.

Texas Sage exploded overnight. A gorgeous plant that usually is mal-pruned, so no one gets to see its blooms.

The Tranquility Tree I've pruned to cascade over the courtyard entry went nuts with its tiny yellow flowers this season. Best blooms to date.

The Tranquility Tree I’ve pruned to cascade over the courtyard entry went nuts with its tiny yellow flowers this season. Best blooms to date.

The blooms up close.

The blooms up close.

p.s. Thanks to Anne Carson for writing Eros the Bittersweet…well…for writing everything she’s ever written.

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Chaos Theory Applied in Garden

The tranquility trees are blooming. I’ve been training the one closest to the courtyard to drape like an arch at the entry. Anyone who comes to our house gets to walk under this arbor. I think this is why people are generally friendly by the time they reach our front door. This season the draping branches hang over the stone wall Joe and I built out of river rock, red round stones we collected from here and there. This morning the tree branches are blushed with tiny yellow blossoms. I wrote about these trees last August when the blooms had already turned into the hard smooth seed pods. I wrote about our courtyard last September, but the picture in that post doesn’t show the branches of the tree draping over the wall. It hadn’t gotten that far when I took the picture.

So today, I’m discovering a dilemma with blogging. I have to remember what I write about, so I can always offer something new. This could get sketchy.

Today the bit of news is that these  trees are the reason we redid our front yard.We were given six of them to test out from a local nursery and they were sitting in their wooden boxes on our old driveway. It was summer and the only way to keep them alive was to hand water them. This was my job, because my husband works a lot and my children don’t like the out doors as much as I do, especially in the summer when it’s well over a hundred degrees. I like watering plants, because it’s a meditative kind of thing to do and I’m a terrible meditator. Watering makes me feel as Zen as I’ll ever be. But watering six large trees in the dead heat of summer is too much Zen.

So I innocently said, “we should plant these trees.”

And my husband didn’t say “sure, we could do that.”

Instead he drew up a plan and showed me the drawing. We talked about little revisions that I can’t recall, but making them allowed me to feel like I had some hand in the final design. And I’m fuzzy on the order in which things unfolded from there. I remember a huge pile of sand sat in front of the house for so long the neighboring kids thought of it like a small playground. A ditch deep enough to bury a few horses cut across the yard in an arc all through the rainy season and filled with water enough to resemble a muddy pool. My son played in it until he looked like he was made from clay. A fireman friend came by to put in a steel header shaped like a giant egg to contain the grass we planned to keep. Walls went up. Sprinklers were installed.

Then my husband came home driving a front-end loader and broke the driveway apart by catching the concrete slab in the loader’s teeth and lifting it high in the air. Then he let it drop so it could crack into flagstone-sized pieces. There were many weeks of setting the broken concrete to form a new drive and fill in the courtyard.

Then we planted the tranquility trees.

Two years may have gone by during all this mess making, but time has a way of flowing past me in immeasurable streams, so maybe it was three. It doesn’t matter now. The trees are blooming and beginning to look like they’ve always been here.

clustered bloom of the tranquility tree

clustered bloom of the tranquility tree

Tranquility Trees

From my front window the street is cloaked by trees. The Caesalpenia paraguariensis, commonly named Tranquility Tree, has finally emerged from its awkward adolescence and now drapes its wide canopy across my view. It has delicate compound leaves like feathers made of feathers. The tiniest component, a leaflet like a flat grain of rice, repeats to create an intricate lace of greens and light.

The branching of Tranquility Trees follows its own peculiar geometry. New shoots in spring or after a strong summer rain will grow straight down towards the ground so walking under the trees feels like moving through a tropical rain forest, a hand always up to brush away the urgent growth that seems to want to fill the air. Any minute a tendril may grab hold of a passerby. Other branches will grow for a while in one direction and then U-turn back and stitch their way through to the other side of the canopy. Trees don’t usually do this.

Guided by light, most tree branching tends outward and upward, since branches exist to hold leaves up like open mouths to the sun. Trees eat sunlight, a risky business. The stronger the sun, the more cautious the trees must be when dining. In the intense desert heat, they need to nibble from a multitude of tiny leaves. However the meal goes, trees generally waste little energy sending branches back through the canopy. Not so with the tranquil. They eat like my son used to, jumping up to run between bites or simply throwing himself off the bench where he perched like a bird refusing to sit still. He burned more energy during a meal than he consumed. It’s a wonder he or the six trees in my front yard have grown at all.

Tranquility might seem a misnomer since each tree when examined up close reveals an internal turmoil about where to grow next. The canopy from afar looks organized, gently drooping and softly shifting in the wind, but on the interior is a tangle of conflicting branches. Is that what tranquility is, the appearance of calm in spite of internal chaos? I know the feeling well. When I wonder about a word, I seek its origin, its early meaning or context, which is why my Oxford English Dictionary is so often off the shelf. A Latin word for quiet, tranquil has a cluster of synonyms―calm, serene, placid, peaceful―as expected, but what I find intriguing are the quotes from the early texts, most of which link tranquility to its opposite. It is the calm that has richer quality because it precedes the storm. It is a feeling of peace more deeply felt because it comes after turmoil of heart or mind. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his essay Nature: “I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Tranquil often describes seas or broad landscapes that have a way of calming a person. This last idea of tranquil reveals the connectedness of nature to the human spirit, what Emerson observed: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” I look out my front window to these trees, my version of Emerson’s “tranquil landscape,” the wide horizon across his neighbors’ farms, and wonder if it might work the other way round, that perhaps I can learn to wear the colors of this tree’s spirit, how it can offer such tranquility to the landscape despite the inner chaos of its branching.

tranquility tree, images by me.