Monday, January 31, 2011

Veggie Garden Groundbreaking

Yesterday, we finally broke ground on our sunken veggie beds! This is the first in a whole series of permaculture/urban homesteading/water harvesting projects we're planning to do around the house. With new pickax in hand, we took to the yard with plans to dig two sunken rows.

Sunken veggie beds make more sense than raised beds in arid climates, because they capture rainwater as well as make better use of the water that irrigates them, because they retain it longer. The sunken beds also create a small microclimate that protects plants from the wind and hot sun, forces that become especially brutal during the summer. (For more information on drylands gardening and water harvesting, check out local guru Brad Lancaster's website and books, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volumes 1 and 2.) We are just starting to apply these principles around our home (which we hope to transition into a homestead), and I use them all the time at work.

We finished digging the first row yesterday, and made a plan to finish the next one today. After a leisurely morning, we meandered out to the yard, and no sooner had we swung the pickax than the unthinkable happened: it started to rain. J had just read yesterday that, assuming we didn't get any rain today, Tucson would have gone the entire month of January without it, and apparently the winter rain gods were listening, because a downpour commenced. Not that I'm complaining - we'll take it whenever we can get it - but it was pretty funny that we hadn't even considered the possibility that it might rain - even when we looked outside and saw black storm clouds gathering over the western mountains.

So we made a trip to the nursery and hardware store instead, and by the time we got home, the sun was shining and we were ready to go. We had lunch, relaxed a bit, and headed back outside, where the clouds had once again gathered and it proceeded to rain some more! Sometimes what nature is telling you is that actually, it's a really good day to go inside, change into your pajama pants, drink tea, and watch multiple episodes of Dexter while snuggled on the couch with the kitties, and that your gardening plans, however noble, will have to wait.

To be continued...

Disclaimer: It didn't take long during the excavation of our first sunken bed for me to realize that it was not a good idea to proceed without having the property Blue Staked - that is, marked for all utilities. I have a tendency to jump headlong into these things without really thinking, but in this case, I don't recommend doing that! We did hit an old clay pipe of some kind, but luckily it doesn't appear to be in use anymore. When we hit what I believe is probably a water line while digging out the second bed, we decided to hold off on digging until we get the utilities marked.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Things I'm loving right now...

The only relationship among the following things is that I'm thinking about them. Stream-of-consciousness, not quite Faulkner style, but fun nonetheless. (And not nearly as much work, I hope, for the readers, or for the writer!)

1) Getting rid of asphalt and planting trees. I have an awesome job at Watershed Management Group, and yesterday we installed stormwater harvesting basins (actually, we used underground infiltration chambers fed by round "cores" cut in the side of the curb, so that stormwater will flow in as it goes down the street). Someday I'll write about the technical details of this, but the bottom line is, we got to plant native trees and grasses where there used to be only asphalt, and those plants will be fed by the stormwater that is normally treated as a waste product. Bringing nature back into cities is one of the major reasons I went into urban planning, and I feel so lucky that I get to do it in my work.

2) Blind Descent, by James M. Tabor, about the exploration of "supercaves" - really big caves that people spend days (and weeks of in-and-out expeditions) exploring. It's truly unimaginable. As a scuba diver, sometime-canyoneer, and sporadic rock climber, I can relate to a lot of the things these cavers are doing - except I think that's a little like saying that because you've run a mile, you can relate to what it would be like to run in the Olympics. They are climbing, backpacking, diving, rappelling, sleeping on Porta-ledges... in the cold, wet, and dark. Not just dark, but in the absolute absence of light. Oh yeah, and in the constantly gusting wind creating by these huge caves. If you're into reading about the limits of the human experience, I highly recommend it.

While on the topic of books, I also just finished Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card. I don't consider myself much of science fiction person, but these books transcend the genre. Card is a master of plot and pacing, and I once again found myself astonished at how people can sit down and write fiction.

3) The fact that the hubs has started homebrewing again, filling the house with the warm smell of yeast and the promise of delicious beer in a few short weeks.

4) The hummingbirds that I've been seeing around town (they're back, I guess?), as well as the resident vermilion flycatcher we spotted this morning in the park across the street. Just the name vermilion flycatcher makes me happy.

5) Our plans to check out the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area and the sandhill cranes tomorrow - pictures soon, I hope!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2011: The Year of Living Locally

Mountain biking under the desert moon near Colossal Cave, AZ.

Things have been a bit serious over here at the Porch Swing lately, and for good reason. Strangely, I started this blog on the morning of the Tucson shootings (before they happened), and that event has occupied my consciousness, and therefore my writing, quite a bit in the last week and a half. And while I intend to try to post some serious writing here, I also intend to have fun. So here's something on a lighter note.

Due to various school, work, and life overlaps and obligations, it looks like we won't be traveling abroad this year, which is something that I really wanted to do before my husband starts graduate school (which will hopefully be soon). We love to travel, and I tend to have an unbearable sense of urgency about it - if we don't do it NOW, we'll never do it! - whatever adventure "it" may be. But the other night, we sat down and looked at the calendar and realized that an extended trip abroad just isn't in the cards this year. So rather than dramatically lament our fate - "we'll end up having kids and then never doing anything" (ok, I might have said that) - I have dubbed 2011 our year of living locally.

Granted, we will still be leaving Tucson, and Arizona, plenty - a Colorado backpacking trip and my sister's wedding in Door County, Wisconsin, for starters, and knowing us we'll squeeze something else in there. So don't feel too sorry for us. But this attitude is about more than staying home. In fact, it's not really about staying home at all, but about exploring all the amazing things our region has to offer. Jason and I have both lived in Tucson for six years, and while we often get out and about, there are still so many canyons unexplored, so many creeks un-birded, peaks un-summited, mountain bike trails un-shredded. It's time to get out there.

I think as a culture, we tend to sacrifice short trips and weekend adventures in the name of one long, glorious, two-week vacation in paradise, and I'm not sure the one is really worth the sacrifice of the other. (I'm all for nice, long vacations - I think two weeks of vacation a year is a crime - I'm just saying that shouldn't be it.) Work fifty weeks and play for only two? Life is way too short for that. This, of course, speaks to a larger cultural issue of workaholism, but that's a rant for another post. The point is, we can have adventures, travel to places we've never been, learn something about our own culture or the natural environment or ourselves - all in a local day's play. Sometimes, we get so focused on the big plans that we forget the small ones, which can be just as rewarding and can happen every weekend: little shots of adventure, of novelty, reminders that the grand world is actually right outside our door.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Several years ago, I was backpacking off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when my party came across another group. It was one of the hottest among many hot days I have spent in that canyon, and the heat radiated off the ancient, black Vishnu Schist with what seemed to be a special ferocity. Sweat dripped like water as we made our way along the beach, bodies hunched beneath our backpacks, next to the booming Colorado.

We met the other party shortly after we had left the river and started up a side canyon. They told us they had separated from the rest of their group, that one of the others was struggling and moving very slowly. This first party was heading to the river for water. We wished them luck, said we'd keep an eye out for their friends, and moved on.

We never did come across the struggling hikers that day. We made our camp up the side canyon, next to the creek, beneath the cottonwood trees. The North Rim is famously remote - far fewer people visit or hike there than the more populated South Rim. We had driven an hour on a dirt road off a basically deserted highway to get to the trailhead. And so we speculated: perhaps they'd turned around to attempt to hike out? Maybe they were camped somewhere above us? But there was nothing, really, for us to do about it.

We sat in the shade and played cards into the afternoon, the encounter largely forgotten. But toward sunset, suddenly, we heard it: the unmistakable rhythm of a helicopter, the sound reverberating off the canyon walls. We stopped what we were doing, looked at each other. This part of the Grand Canyon is one of those treasured places our constant human ruckus has not reached, and for days we had heard nothing but birdsong, rushing water, and our own voices. But now this, all too familiar: the sound of trouble. It was distant and low and distinctly human. And to us, with no way of communicating with the outside world and the acute knowledge of our own isolation, it was foreboding. To the man being rescued (we found out later he was evacuated from the canyon, severely dehydrated, but fine), that sound was no doubt a symbol of safety and rescue. But to us it had the tenor of human affairs gone deeply awry - of rescue, yes, but also of combat, of emergency, of something being ushered away.

For five days now, helicopters have gathered over my hometown. They are amassing at the site of a great rift - a lurch, it seems, in the quiet way of things. They hover above the hospital where the victims of Saturday's shooting lie recovering, where the rows of news trucks, satellites aimed at some distant orbit, broadcast Tucson's tragedy across the world, and where the shrine to the victims every day grows larger, the entire scene more surreal. They wasp above the University of Arizona, where, as I write this, people are gathering by the thousands, twisting in lines across the campus, to hear the President of the United States speak some comfort to a shocked community.

The world has cleaved open a bit, and the helicopters are here, not so much to tend, as to record, the wound. Perhaps we long for them to carry us away, to bear rescue and hope rather than sorrow. But really, though it will take time, I think what we long for is silence, for a clear, blue Arizona sky, punctuated every so often with something both mundane and magical, something to remind us that the world is, once again, as it should be. Something clear and ordinary, like birdsong.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Heal America? Let's start with our local communities.

A horrific day in Tucson yesterday. Representative Gabrielle Giffords shot and severely injured, six others dead, thirteen wounded. Right up the road, on Ina and Oracle. So tragic for Tucson, and the whole country, really. Regardless of the motive (and, really, insanity was the motive, politics merely the channel through which it was funneled) this has become politicized, has become something to blame each other for, a talking point in the endless stream of "news." I do agree that the current hateful tenor of politics contributed to this, but clearly the individual responsible was seriously unhinged, and perhaps his rage would have been directed elsewhere if not here. Who knows what pushes people over the edge, but the bottom line remains: we must bring civility back to our political debates. We must stop the fear-mongering, the stunning lack of empathy, the scapegoating, the oversimplification of complex issues into vitriolic soundbites.

How do we go about doing that? How do we keep our politicians and media accountable for the way they frame things? (I conflate the two here because it's hard to know the difference anymore. They seem to be two sides of an equally toxic coin.) Are they a mirror, simply reflecting what we, the public, demands? Violence and hate sell, so that must be what we want?

I tend to think the contemporary media plays a more active role than that. There is a concerted effort to shape people's entire worldviews - to develop a mythology that can be applied to any situation and demonize any point of view labeled as "other." I frankly can't comment intelligently on much of this, since I never watch television news, but suffice it to say that's because it ceased to be news a while ago. So the question remains: what can we do about it?

My cynical side tells me: "nothing." But the earnest urban planner in me believes that most people really want something better for our country and for their communities. But how to fight propaganda? It can't be with more of the same.

Sometimes I think this country is just too big, that part of the problem is that we all feel so disconnected from each other, our communities, the politicians in Washington, and certainly from the rest of "the American public." What is that, anyway? How can we possibly refer to a group of 350 million people spread across thousands of miles of geography as a generalized or cohesive group? There is no "American public."

And so we must localize. It's the idea I come back to again and again when thinking about national- and global-scale problems. If the world is not how we think it should be, perhaps it's because of this disconnection from our local communities. At the very least, since we cannot change the world, the only way to feel any measure of empowerment is to start to work and connect locally. So turn off the mainstream media and go dig in a community garden, volunteer at a school, introduce yourself to your neighbors. We have more in common than the talking heads want us to think. It's so much easier to hate each other if we don't know each other, but it's nearly impossible if we do. That's the level at which we average citizens can have an impact. That's what would make Gabrielle Giffords proud.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Coming Home

The only time I miss real winter weather is when I snowshoe or cross-country ski. The snow-laced trees, the frozen world, the blue, blue sky that holds a sun amplified again and again over ridges of white. My breath heavy and released in visible puffs, the stinging of my hot cheeks as I move through the sharp, freezing air. Traipsing uphill with that ridiculous, splayed-ski waddle.

We started out the new year on cross-country skis, and it made me long for something different. For an adventure, a new life in a new place where I could cross-country ski every day. Surely my life would never become routine or boring if only I had snow over which to cross-country ski.

This slump of longing (which was only a few steps short of a full-on pity party, and which I knew all along to be founded upon false premises) lasted for a few days after I got home to Tucson. And then, of course, I remembered how much I love this city, the desert, and my life here. I remembered the water harvesting projects I've planned around the house, the garden I'll grow, the creative life I'll make. Having plans and ambitions for the future inspires me, invests me in this place as my home. But being fully aware of the present, with all its quirks and blessings -the cats on my lap, the fridge full of food, a Gila woodpecker outside the window - that will sustain me wherever I go.

So cheers to the new year (arbitrary though it may be), to the desert, and to coming home; but most of all, cheers to this moment, the one that none of us will ever quite experience again.


I often write from our front porch swing, on what is known among friends as "the best front porch in Tucson." We have certainly spent many a summer evening watching the sky gradually ignite with a famous Tucson sunset, cold beer bottles sweating in our hands, and the land singing with relief at the end of a long, hot day.

I also spend a fair amount of time there alone. The street is vibrant with pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and the park across the way is full of activity - both legal and illegal, and always amusing. From the porch swing, I can see everything, but, hidden as I am behind the mock orange tree, few passersby ever notice me. It is the perfect place to feel both connected and hidden, as I think most writers do.

So from the porch swing to the cloud, I hope to document my adventures here - urban and wild, foreign and domestic, real and meditative - and do some decent writing, with little revision and a fair bit of humor. Thanks for reading!