Fall is a time of transition. Over a season, hot turns to cold. The downpours of monsoon summer and the drizzles of winter sandwich multiple months of … that’s the hard part. This year more than most, it has been hard to define fall. The school year began, and my kids and I adjusted better than ever. But it wasn’t fall yet. Fall began, and my students and I celebrated the comparative comfort of outdoor lessons. Beans and corn persisted. Then the cold-weather plants had trouble starting. The dust grew. Fall turned into waiting. In the waiting, the following three poems also grew.
The palo verde tree that planted itself, helped shape our front yard and shade our house, and beautifully flowered each spring, has to come down. We might have been able to save it if only a few branches were damaged, an arborist gently told me last week. The wood borers and palo verde beetles are too systemic, and the stress from heat and drought too great, to help the tree now. This was sobering news.
By letting nature take its course, we will lose a large tree. By that same gamble, we regularly win many surprising additions to our home landscape. Watermelon, for instance! The vine had stealthily started growing this summer out of the gravel under pots I intentionally tend. A minor mystery, a thing to step over and not dare hope it might make fruit. And then, it did!
I spotted the green striped, oblong melon on Saturday while cleaning toys and turning back toward the house. A new perspective. My boys and I squealed with delight. “Dad, come see our watermelon!” shouted my 7-year-old as he ran into the house. Out came my husband, appropriately amazed. The watermelon’s stubborn existence, and my family gathered together in joy, tied for great news.
A more typical win, that still makes me smile, is finding which species in a seed mix survives. Which desert flower will take to a pot of good soil, encouraging words, and, er… sporadic watering? Firewheels is the latest answer! This beauty has bloomed perpetually since this summer, more so since the temperatures dropped. “Lean on Me” pops into my head as I praise the plant: it flopped over months ago, lived on by several close calls, and now thrives propped up in the adjacent pot of basil. Plants prop me up. I can accept garden losses in light of bright wins.
It’s a bit harder with people. My son and I both get stumped by tantrums that overshadow all the right behaviors of a day. Sore memories of my classroom teaching efforts return more easily than the positive evaluation and photos of eager 6th graders that recently resurfaced. Even though wins and losses of a day or a career are not on the scale of life and death, in the moment the pressure feels greater.
The stars and buttons I give my kids for cooperation are for my sake as well as theirs, a visual reminder that sometimes we get things right and might be getting life figured out. And sometimes I remember to write down small wins:
Listening wonderingly with my 7-year-old at the owl “who-whooo-who-who!”ing from just outside the kitchen window, pre-dawn. My son responding with a spot-on call he’d been practicing. Waiting, then hearing not only the owl reply but possibly the overlapping hoot of a pair. A win for my son, who had been asking to go owl calling since reading Owl Moon at Butterfield Elementary School. A treasure for me that we shared the moment before rougher edges of the day took shape.
My worry dropping away when I picked up my gobbling, prancing,
jabbering-goofily-about-all-the-colors-of-his-tail-feathers, 4-year-old from daycare. I had been late and harried, while he was on a turkey-inspired high. I am thankful for his playfulness and for the “free range” granted by his teacher at St. Mark’s Early Childhood Center by letting him outside.
What went right today? What went wrong? If you’ve killed some plants, have there been some survivors too? If you’ve worried about your kids, have they also shown you they’re OK? Have you swapped stories with someone, to find out we all lose sometimes? If you don’t mind trying anyway, the discoveries might make you smile.
Photos by Anna Van Devender unless otherwise noted.
The coyote was an especially good sign. I know, coyotes can be tricky. But this one was exactly where it should be. It was we – my two boys and me – who spotted the shy creature in the wash a block ahead. It was we who made the intent to notice the life in our neighborhood at 7:20 in the morning. We – my husband, our two boys, and me – are one of many families trying to balance life, school, and work. Walking to Kid 1’s school is a change this year. It is a change paying off in wildlife sightings, lower morning stress, interactions with human neighbors, and the small wonder of holding our kids’ hands. It is a change towards balance.
Walking helps balance the sedentary parts of the day: Kid 1 and my husband sitting at their respective desks, myself and Kid 2 sitting in the car for later commutes. It is one reason we recently changed from a nearby charter to our nearer neighborhood school. Other reasons included other means of balancing: a more comprehensive curriculum, a schedule helpful for me in the morning and for my husband in the afternoon, and hoping to meet both future and present needs of our kids in one place. But ah, I love our morning walks. A month ago the coyote ahead, tracks in the sand, and a hawk above. Last week a gopher snake, spider webs, and a Sedona-esque rock that “looks like a mountain” to Kid 2. Each day brings new motivation to walk for a mere 15 minutes. 15 minutes we weren’t walking before.
On a recent weekend, a collard lizard and I mused about another kind of balance, that of the human-built and wild environments of my home. I was removing a bush that sheltered the lizard’s hole, to accommodate a termite treatment of my house. The thing is, the lizard stayed near me the whole time, darting in and out of the remaining branches and boulders. Keeping an eye on me? Maybe. Snatching up an insect brunch as ants and leafhoppers fell to the ground? Definitely. Am I discouraging one form of bug control in favor of another? With some care, I hope not. As I teach in my Bugs and my Bigger Critters classes, we can respond to urban animals creatively after we know them better. I ended up leaving a little bit of the bush – which also serves as shade to the house’ south face should it grow back. And I requested the nontoxic-to-pets-and-gardens treatment from the pest control company for the sake of the corn growing a few feet away. How did I know to ask about option B? From chatting with one of the neighbors I’m getting to know from walking my son to school.
Sometimes balance means taking turns – walking, then sitting. Sometimes it means making a compromise – the lizard and I each making adjustments. Some areas of life are still pretty unbalanced. When I err on the side of sleeping and gardening, for example, dirty dishes pile up precariously. I get to them eventually, so maybe balance can mean teetering for a while first.
As I write this, a monsoon storm is whipping up overhead to balance out an especially hot morning. The lizard across the yard still guards its domain. A month into the school year, walking is still working wonders in our busy mornings. What can you do to balance parts of your day or your environment?
“Did this stick come from a TREE?” asked my 4-year-old. He accepted my affirmation thoughtfully, then inched along the trail again with an 18” pine bough in his grip. “This stick”, along with promises of ice cream, motivated him for the last leg of our family hike around Dogtown Lake. For that, I was already thankful. That my son had just made the connection between sticks on the ground and ponderosas growing all around was as cool to me as the mountain air that lured us to Northern Arizona for this summer’s vacation.
In the span of a week, to my boys sticks were: “inventions”, “secret hideouts”, “nests”, “barriers”, “beaver dams”, “food” in a fake fire, kindling for real fires, digging tools, “poppers”, “microphones”, a walking stick, “fishing poles”, and good ol’ “Can I throw sticks in here?” Our family even tried our hands at fishing with real poles. My 7-year-old was remarkable patient, then turned to engineering seven versions of poles made of sticks and scraps. The 4-year-old most wanted to bob his real pole up and down in the water or use it to poke his bobber. Hence we found spots for stick play out of the way. He made his own opportunities because sticks are everywhere, are tangible, and spark his imagination.
It’s also a matter of scale. Fallen sticks are closer to a child’s eyes than the shade-producing network of living branches above. The pole-like straightness of pine trunks currently relegates them to obstacles around which to step, not construction materials with which to play.
Bigger than my boys by height and age, I relish the cooling shade, the sweet scent tugging at memories of childhood trips, and the many voices of wind through the wispy needles. On vacation, I am content to be, to rest, to absorb. My experience is expanded, though, by watching the serious work of play.
“Can I put THIS one in?” asks my young hiker as he eyes a driftwood log as long as himself. “Sure,” I say, with an intentional casualness disguising that I think he might not actually be able. Four grunt-accompanied tugs later, the log is in the lake. My son is temporarily out of breath and also satisfied to move up the trail to new stick supplies. We are outdoors, with the larger elements weaving their way through us all, one small piece at a time.
“I need to keep digging to find that leak,” I updated my school gardening colleague. “There’s a leak?” he asked, surprised. I remembered he’d been off campus for a week and had seen neither my new dirt pile or the trail of bermudagrass, purslane, and mallow that had suddenly appeared on a soil slope with no known irrigation emitter. It was the trail of weeds that led me to discover water seeping up from underground. A cheerful pink penstemon and a fledgling Texas Ranger had appeared about the same time, so I wasn’t in too big of a rush to remedy the situation. Still, I needed to get two crisscrossing irrigation systems in order before Summer Break. Thank you, bermudagrass, for showing me where to dig.
Bermudagrass has been to me over the years: a front yard lawn to play in, a school field to lunch on, a school garden nemesis to take on, an excuse for exercise, a form of meditation, a topic to educate about, and a red flag for water out of place. Bermudagrass is an amazingly drought resistant, rapidly spreading, commonly planted turf grass in the Desert Southwest. Where it’s wanted, great. Where it’s not wanted, it’s a weed. In fact, bermudagrass is the weed that taught me to love pulling weeds.
Rewind to fall of 2000. I returned to the U of A after interning for 12 weeks in remote Badlands National Park. A senior Honors Thesis project, as yet undecided, loomed ahead. A yearning for the freedom and undeveloped openness of my summer home tugged at me also. Plus I had tests to tackle and romantic drama to reckon with. So, I started a school garden. It wasn’t quite that simple, but it was exactly what I found out I wanted to do.
Among the necessary tasks? The bermudagrass in the corner of the school playground would have to go. Each Wednesday, I fidgeted like a little kid through my Anthropology class until I could help elementary students learn about desert plants and animals and plan our garden. To prepare the way, I went on weekends to dig up the incredibly tough, sneaky, regrowing grass. This became my physical exercise: stabbing a shovel in and grabbing chopped out grass with my hands. It became my time alone in nature, in the middle of a bustling city. It became a way to both think and forget, to cleanse my brain with something like meditation were it not for the accompanying glee at destroying something.
Back in my current school garden, I finally found the responsible uncapped emitter. I had to dig deep, and imagine the removed tree that water used to sustain. I had to take a good look around, finding that bermudagrass on a spectrum – from tan to yellow to pale spring green to deep summer green – persisted all along the ridge where I stood. Add some extra water, and green bursts from tan. Now, the cap is in place, but still I dig. Thank you, bermudagrass, for keeping me alert, for keeping me fit, and for being a living thread from past to present.
The trees are thirsty. The kids are restless. The day is young, and one that will heat up quickly. I turn the hose on a trickle and then rest easy. The water promises 30+ minutes in nature for the kids and for me.
When I water our backyard’s two young live oak trees, my boys get to play in the mud. Sprinklers? Too cold, they say, plus we have fake grass. Pool? We had it filled in. Wading pool? We call it a bathtub, but that’s another story. Muddy tree wells with sand, rocks, sticks, and toy cars mixed in? Their most regular water play.
Water and summer go together in concept: a way to cool off in hot weather. This becomes messier in the desert. Our water supply in Tucson is overdrawn. We receive far less from rainfall than we use, and our groundwater supply is supplemented by the Colorado River. When we look for ways to cool off, we can also look for ways to mitigate our water use.
I just learned a new word for what I’ve been teaching in my classes and practicing at home: “stacking”, or serving two or more purposes with one activity. Katy Bowman presents the concept in her book Movement Matters. Now I have exactly the word for watering trees and kids at the same time!
On my family’s lovely getaway to Northern Arizona earlier this summer, my husband, Tim, made a similar discovery. All four of us had been playing in Sedona’s Oak Creek. “All four” being key. “It’s more engaging. It’s far more interesting than swimming laps in a swimming pool,” he reflected. He navigated shallow and deep, slippery and steady with Kid 1 while I dug and splatted luxurious red sand-mud with Kid 2. We all laughed at wading in and around multicolored cobbles. We stacked exercise, cooling off, enjoying something together, and time outdoors. We also found water flowing in the desert, as it does in a few rare, special places.
Back at home, I’ll take Kid 2 to his swimming lesson at Demont Family Swim School this afternoon because he needs to learn and we don’t live by a creek. I’ll water my pots on the patio, talking to the brave blooms and nourishing us both. Even with creative play and with letting some garden beds go during the summer, I use more water than if I didn’t love plants or my kids. I’ll keep looking for water to enjoy and to also let seep back into the soil.
“Can we go water the Forgiving Tree?” asks a middle schooler. Her teacher casually answers “Yes,” and two girls head purposefully around the corner of the school building. Next, my eyes question the teacher, who’s supervising her students in the school garden where I recently started working.
The “Forgiving Tree,” I learn, is a young palo verde whose growth is slow due to not being on the irrigation system like its neighbors – yet steady due to the kids’ long-term care. It forgives them. It survives between irregular waterings. It keeps growing. It even produces gorgeous yellow flowers from its low, wispy branches. The Forgiving Tree, it seems, nurtures and rewards those who take time to notice it.
Spring is a time for renewal and growth. Spring is also crazy busy. I find myself in need of some nurturing. And palo verde trees have assumed that role on multiple occasions.
When longer and more frequent car commutes wear me down, bright yellow corridors beckon me to perk up and continue to my destination. Magee is such a sight for sore eyes this month, and even long, hot Ina. Palo verdes help me be patient.
In a similar vein, palo verde trees are a model for taking turns. I had read that the various local species bloom in sequence. This prolongs the nectar source season for pollinators, and it serves the trees themselves by improving the chance of spreading pollen within a species. When I noticed our family’s Mexican palo verde was not yet producing flowers like other nearby plants, I remembered that it was a late bloomer last year too. Now, it has a turn! We as human beings have to take turns all the time. We stand in line at the grocery store, jostle for a drink at the water fountain, wait in an invisible cue to receive a payment, and wonder when our kids will reach developmental milestones. Palo verde trees show off a reassuring order.
Leave it to my 4-year-old to remind me to lighten up. He plays with palo verde flowers and got me to try playing too. While I was tuned into the grand show and deep lessons of the branches above and before me, my little one and his preschool friend started scooping up fallen flowers from the sand. Cute voices, small fingers, and the lovely little gesture of handing me the tiny petals were a respite from a long afternoon. I gently turned the flowers into “rain” scattered above his head. He smiled. I smiled, knowing that flowers can brighten both of our days.
We eat our breakfast outside. Every summer morning around 6:30 my two young boys and I schlep a simple meal to the backyard, pick a place to sit, and celebrate the company of birds, opening blooms, and warming-up cicadas. After eating, the boys zoom around on their bikes or invent games that naturally combine toy cars and the fish pond. I water the butterfly garden, marvel at my kids’ energy, and guide that energy as the need arises.
We live in Tucson, Arizona. For a good three months of the year, the heat is uncomfortable by 8:00, exhausting by 9:00, and dangerous without extra precautions by noon. In prior summers, I felt trapped and defeated by the time it took to start the day with a toddler and preschooler while the slim hours of enjoyable weather baked away. Gardening, breathing fresh air, and simply being present for the sun rising over the mountains are core desires of mine. Feeding the kids, getting them dressed and “ready for the day” are equal needs. The challenge became to allow for both time in nature and time for other needs.
Bare feet are OK in the mottled shadows of early morning. Shoes can wait. A muffin can be savored along with conversations about the clouds. Brushing teeth can wait. PJ pants actually help keep off the mosquitoes. Getting dressed can wait. These are the allowances I made starting last summer and have instilled daily in Summer 2016. Time has passed too. My now 3- and 6-year-olds are not only more capable, but also have come to expect breakfast outside.
Deadlines aren’t out the window. We take our selves and our stuff inside and resume preparations for the rest of the day by 8:00 a.m.. My kids’ behavior and my peace of mind depend on certain routines that some parents may feel more free to ease up on. That outside hour or so first thing, though, has become an important part of the daily routine. It is sometimes the only time outside until we emerge again after supper.
The result? My 3-year-old voluntarily practices the words “dove”, “hawk”, and “woodpecker”. My 6-year-old and I briefly speak the same language while checking on his sunflowers. I get my precious fresh air fix. Then, I can better manage myself and my kids inside during the day. My attention is less split while taking care of them or doing my own work. I still take myself outside for the satisfaction of gardening projects later in the morning, but I allow the kids a choice of whether to join me. Because we all got a good dose of “Vitamin N”, a pressure has been lifted from the rest of the day’s activities.
Modified from an essay submitted to Children & Nature Network in June 2016. Check out www.childrenandnature.org for lots more Vitamin N resources.
Through Nature to You, I teach lessons that help people enjoy the stuff of nature: soft soil, singing birds, tough plants, diverse insects. My plans do require some man-made materials: pots for planting, books for illustrating animals, pens for taking notes, bug houses for engaging kids. Imagine my delight at finding used pots in all sizes on the clearance table at Rillito Nursery! And what satisfaction to find the lizard book on my list at Bookman’s, right where I expected to find it. One of my first Nature to You students inquired about the variety of containers and manipulatives her son was enjoying for their water lesson – all were thrift store finds from a day I had spend supporting 4 different local non-profits.
Teaching about the desert environment is second nature to me. I confess, so is shopping. It took a while to realize my shopping habit conflicted with my sizable desire to live responsibly. My first change was to buy products not tested on animals – and some of those Junior High-era choices stick today. During a college internship, I learned the concept of local food, a kick I’m still on even if only part time. It wasn’t until planning my wedding and then preparing for my first baby that my love for second-hand shopping took hold. I wanted pretty things for the ceremony. I wanted a well-appointed nursery. I enjoyed the challenge of budgeting both money and material resources. Dream dress at a resale bridal shop? Check. Tiny star-patterned onesies, tough-to-this-day waterproof pads, and treasured toy boats from consignment shops? Check. Getting to shop and reducing reliance on new products and packaging? Double check.
When you pick your project at the end of a Nature to You lesson, you play a part in both re-use and re-sale. First, you get to pick whether to use your own stuff or use my supplies. What do you already have that can be re-used? Old pavers for a new path? An old box for a new garden bed? An old fence for a new trellis? Would you like to turn terra cotta pots into ollas, or take-out containers into seed starters?
Second, the materials I have on hand vary monthly depending on what’s growing in my own yard and on my latest re-sale finds. Say we add a pollinator-friendly plant to your own pot or to one I provide at no extra charge. The plant could be sweet allysum today or bluebells in a few weeks, and always something in season. I’ll see if Goodwill still has the colorful set of plastic pots I just spotted if I use up my earth-toned selection soon. Whatever the project, we’ll use what you already have or that which someone else has given a second chance. You get to learn about your backyard environment, improve your use and enjoyment of it, and channel your creativity through intentional re-use.
We got to use loppers. Chomping the moist flesh of African Sumac shoots had a satisfaction all its own. Weighing choices of which branches need to go and which should grow – that felt big. The tree was big, its two main limbs easily holding 3 of us cousins. The rough bark steadied our hold as we shimmied, stepped, sat, or straddled. Wispy leaves shrouded us slightly from our families below. Leaves became dolls, crowns, brooms. An overabundance of leaves, of branches, of growth, impeded our climbs and crowded the house we called ours. So we pinched off the newest shoots, feeling sticky with fluorescent green tree juice and sure in our work. And Granny lent us her loppers, the prize tool, for the older growth. We were blissfully recruited into trimming her tree.
Were it not for the weedy nature of that African Sumac tree, I may not have grown to love tending my landscape. I love weeds for nudging me to pay attention, be diligent, get outside. I love weeds for not being tidy, for giving me satisfying work to do. As a young teenager, I played regularly in a giant weed. It fed my imagination, my connection with my cousins, my pride in literally reaching new heights.
In 9th grade biology, I picked African Sumac about which to write a report on a favorite plant. The source available to me may have been a book about Arizona plants, or about North American landscape trees. It did not, I discovered, include my favorite tree. I switched subjects to a houseplant I admired instead. In which book might I locate African Sumac now? Of all my own plant books, of natives and not, I only find brief mention of my former favorite in a Sunset guide. The on-line resources I now have at my fingertips would have both satisfied my research and surprised my naïve enjoyment: objective database listings and recommendations for this easily grown shade tree, as well as admonitions against this invasive non-native: a plant to not plant, a plant to contend with.
Weeds come in all sizes and forms, as do children’s relationships with the outdoors. The hours upon months upon years I spent in my grandparents’ yard in central Phoenix, combined with the trusting relationships fostered there, helped me love stewardship of natural places. My own adult yard looks nothing like that green paradise – xeriscaped not irrigated, wildflowers not rose gardens. It’s a product of a different city, a different time, and different choices. But it has ample places for my kids to play and come up with their own favorite features. Some days they adopt brittlebush seedlings, and other days they beat back brittlebush armies with light sabers. And I enjoy pulling weeds within earshot of their imaginings.