Wilder by Winter (updated)

© Vincent Hostak

Music of the Thaw

One October day this season, after a brief but heavy snow, I took an afternoon break to walk the Botanical Gardens.  The sun was back. The sun was invincible. I had thirty-five minutes before a meeting at a coffee shop.

Snow was sliding from the high treetops and it was almost treacherous to visitors at times. The trees here are towering giants and often have majestic names to match. Here is the Bigtooth Maple. There is the Nikko Fir, whose name is Japanese for “victory for the people.” A southern red oak stands ninety feet aside the Waring Mansion on the garden grounds. These trees, I’ve learned, are in a registry of things called “Champion Trees.”

I’m here for a dramatic moment I didn’t anticipate.

A thaw makes strange percussive music. One moment it’s wire brushes on a muted snare as a breeze wakes the branches at the crest…
…the next it’s the returns of soft mallets upon a tympani, as fragments of an aerial bound snowdrift pour and collect upon the pavement.

More rolls like these continue, slighty off cadence, like echoes of the first, the second, the third…until the slow moving avalanche is exhausted from tree to tree. A like chorus returns from trees hidden from sight on the opposite side of the Orangery and Tropical Conservatory.

There is a hissing as the crystals which fell from the crests sizzle on the pavement. There is soon a mist briefly obscuring mid to late-day walkers.

These are well kept acres, but winter makes them wilder. A forest which is rarely observed can actually be heard. At other times all senses are fastened to the show feet below your head near the concealed soil. The bees and sparrows may be awake and here, but can’t be heard above the music of the thaw.

The roses and dahlias are still abundant and full, but are also laden with snow. 

Many rebounded back to form, before my eyes, after the three o’clock sun steamed away the remnants of an overnight wintering.

Camus’ might be the only appropriate voice to accompany the moment: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

“And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes, against me, within me, there’s something stonger- something better pushing right back.”

My attention has returned to the garden level. I admire the rugged flexibility of these flowers. They bow their heads, but remain upright. I don’t mistake this for polite behavior. It is a show of something else: patience, tolerance, a vitality that won’t be suppressed.
They only appear impossibly fragile, as if their petals might fall with slight coercion. But they are holding more than their weight in snow. It’s like a carnival trick, rehearsed and performed over and over before mid-winter.

It’s only after the incremental punishment of multiple freezes will their forms wither, their petals contract, their hues pale from their native riot of colors to those of an observer’s flesh: bronze, coffee, or dull cream. But, then, there is “something stronger” within these “pushing right back.” The flowers are not eternal, but perhaps the closest thing we’ll see to the supernatural endurance of nature the poets attempt to teach us.

Instinctively I know they will emerge from the same plant in the Spring. They don’t incubate from seed. It will be like the return of a small caravan of circus performers springing from the root stock.

My 35 minutes are up.

My Friend, Huehuecóyotl


Music, Dance, Mischief & Rodent Control

“coyote_01”by Jethro Taylor is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Aztec called the divinity Huehuecóyotl (we we koj-tl), roughly “Very Old Coyote.”  “Very Old,” I understand to denote “to be respected,” like other divinities, and not specifically the character’s advanced age.  I like the way the Aztecs thought. I’ll resist “him” or “her” pronouns, also, as coyote in mythic form could often be gender changing. Just one from mythic coyote’s versatile arsenal of tricks, but perhaps one of the most amusing ones.  But the common thread that unifies all descriptions is that Huehuecóyotl liked to have fun.  Singer, dancer, musician, and often benign trickster, this coyote was a tonic for relief of boredom.

Aztec Huehuecóyotl
By Unknown – This image was created with Adobe Photoshop., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24700411

Should you encounter a less mythic coyote on your Wild, Abandoned route, you’ll experience said relief from boredom, albeit as a racing heartbeat and perhaps excessive perspiration.  That’s a fair response.  Generally not considered to be dangerous animals, you should still not approach a coyote.  But you also should not run away.  This makes you look too much like prey.  I mean, let’s face it, you ARE prey; but, why flaunt the fact?  Coyotes are now common to all urban regions across the lower forty-eight.  So, you should know the rules in addition to not making like Road Runner (you aren’t fast enough):

-Don’t approach or pick up pups. They are not abandoned, but on their way into the world. Also, they will bite you.
-If a coyote approaches you, yell loudly, look large, and stand your ground (make like Huehuecóyotl).  This works. I did it on a walk in my neighborhood when one came prancing (no other way to describe it) toward me.
-Keep those small pets (cats, dogs) indoors.  Really, all bets are off on keeping the larger one’s out all day, as well. Keep all dogs leashed when walking in coyote prone areas. By the way, are you actually leashing and walking a cat? The answer “yes” might indicate that we need another rule.
-Don’t leave food (dog chow, etc.) outside for any animals.

I’ve seen groups of three or four move like electricity arcing over a stream in Goldsmith Gulch, Hutchison Park, South Denver.  I know, I know:  such quaint Western names.  Another lone coyote sun-bathed dead center in the Highline Canal bike path, not moving for anyone or anything.  I braked some thirty feet away and coyote just scanned me as I re-routed like a human navigation application.  “Coyote ahead, thirty feet, would you like to use this alternative route, re-routing, re-routing, re-routing.” I’ve seen them alone with prey in their jaws, leaping above high grass, burrowing in snow, in a parking garage (always tip your attendant), and perched on my backyard fence at 5 a.m.  I’ve seen them “here,” I’ve seen them “there”; hell, Sam, I’ve seen them “everywhere,” even “in a box ” (no lie, it was trap).  But never, never have I seen one “with a fox.” 

On that subject, I can say with some confidence that the abundance of rabbits and mice in fields and in our front and backyards here in Colorado have reduced tensions between the fox and coyote. There is no fierce competition for a food supply. Science says fox and coyote are changing their behaviors in the urban regions in which they are also thriving.  Maybe not cooperating, specifically, but not engaging in Battles Royale. I can attest, that coyote is forever entertaining.  Unless, of course, you own a poodle.  Coyote attacks on un-leashed poodles seem to be a thing in these parts.

So, when a few years ago a local suburban village hired a marksman to shoot a group breeding nearby, I was briefly saddened. But more so, amused.  Because taking them out doesn’t work.  Coyote are conditioned to something called “responsive reproduction” following a sudden population loss.  That’s right:  they will make more, “Huehue” more.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Pack litters also decline when food is scarce. This attribute is one of the reasons coyote are adapting so well to life in urban areas. Another, sadly, is that they are moving into areas of the eastern US where the poplulations of their primary competitor, wolves, have radically declined.

For us, the observers of the mystery of the natural world to which we are conditionally attached, let’s observe carefully and respectfully. Coyote, this very old, uninhibited entertainer is in our midst and is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Image attribution for banner photograph with appreciation to Jethro Taylor:

Full. Hollow. Canyonesque Postscript (revised)

the heart of a cactus

Here’s where I break the rules again, as promised. If the terrain you travel and the landscapes you wander don’t make you think of music then you haven’t been listening to any good music. Now it’s a music blog. I’m not sorry.

When Roberta Joan Anderson arrived in America in 1965 from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I think it’s very unlikely she ever saw a cactus other than in a window box garden. When Joni Mitchell (as she was later known) entered Sunset Sound in Hollywood in 1967, it would be to record her debut album “Song to a Seagull”. By this time she likely saw a cactus or two in California. Of the acres of standout songs on this underappreciated classic is the melancholy “Cactus Tree,” written by the performer.

The five achingly beautiful stanzas in this song-poem are a story told of a woman who traded the certitude of a conventionally described life for an existence pursuing her soul’s work. I may have that nearly correct–this is only an interpretation. By the final stanza, she speaks of both the price and the profits of her self-determined independence. Only in the final stanza do we encounter the magical metaphor of the song’s title: “And her heart is full and hollow. Like a cactus tree.” I interpret this as nature providing a moment of clarity to the protaganist. Call it the voice of the cactus, were it to declare: “You see, nature provides a model for a state that is neither full of what you think you must have to be happy nor regret in not having it.” You already have ‘it.’ That’s the Lorax-ian metaphysics, now on to the botany.

Trufula Tree?

I don’t know if she was contemplating the “cactus trees” of Galapagos with their tree-like trunks and crowns of prickly pear at their crests, the zig-zag gait of the Joshua Trees of California’s Mojave desert, or the Tree Aloes you can see in the cultivated sections of Balboa Park. But, it turns out that aside from the poetic sensibility of the phrase, she was also botanically correct. Cacti are often hollow if not full of highly porous pulp. But they are also full of water. They collect and store water while their durable outer skin allows the water to enrich their extremeties before evaporating. There is something poetic about that as well. Like the “she” in Mitchell’s song, who “was busy being free,” the cactus tree independently establishes and is nourished by her own life energy.

By the way, I read in the Purdue Agricultural News (geek alert), something that supports the application of either pronoun to describing cacti. I had this same question when I sat down the write this post: can cacti be described in varieties of male and female? Responding to a reader’s question, the author B. Rosie Lerner offerd that the answer is “yes,” however she added:  “Lack of flowering is not a gender issue” with cacti. She goes on to say that all cacti may flower. Although a scientific response, this also contains a poetic confirmation that we live in what could be described as wholly rational and egalitarian natural world.

Photographs by Vincent Hostak. Joshua Tree from a visit in 2016; Tree Aloe, Balboa Park, 2019; Prickly Pear, Florida Canyon, CA, 2019

*B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension-In the Grow, March 2012