Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Datura flowers, perfuming the night for love

This morning, Richard and I went out to the garden before the sun rose over the hills to check on the datura flowers. These night-blooming plants, also called Jimsonweed, sprout tall buds that stick straight up above their leafy, blue-green canopy like fat green fingers. Over several days, a bud case splits at the top in a star-shaped pattern and a pale yellow-green and tightly pleated datura flower grows its way out, pushing above the green case.

On the day that flower, still tightly closed, gradually turns white, it is ready to bloom. That evening it unfurls, the pleats opening and flexing back into a moon-white flower shaped like a funnel rising from a narrow throat and flaring as wide as twirling circle skirt at the top.

As the datura flower opens, the day fades. The blossom, sometimes tinged with purple, shimmers in the dusk. It emits a sweet lemon and vanilla scent on the cooling air, a fragrant advertisement of its treasure, the sugary nectar produced in glands at the base of its narrow throat. Night-flying moths follow that intoxicating scent right to the datura blossom, hovering on wide wings above the shimmering skirt.

As a moth hovers over a datura blossom, it unfurls its long tongue, like a wire-thin straw with a brushy tip. The moth lowers itself, still hovering, toward that shadowy throat, and its furry body, dusted with pollen from other datura flowers it has visited, brushes this flower's pistil. The pistil's sticky surface catches pollen grains from the moth's body. Lower still, the moth's tongue begins sipping nectar from the glands deep inside the blossom, and the moth now picks up pollen from this flower's anthers, a yellow dusting which it will carry on as it flies away into the night, a sexual messenger traveling from datura plant to datura plant, laden with genetic material.

Once those pollen grains adhere to the sticky stigma surface, each one grows a tube down the inside of the fleshy pistil all the way to the ovary, where it fertilizes the plant's ovules. That's pollination: the datura plant, rooted in place and unable to wander around and chose its sex partners, depends on a mobile courier like the hovering moth to bring sex to it, by transporting genes from other plants of the same species.

The whole point of flowers, especially large and scented ones like datura, is pollination with another plant's genes. The pollinator brushes first past the sticky stigma, depositing pollen from other flowers it has visited before picking up a new dusting of this flower's genetic material. The flower's aim is to infuse its seeds, the next generation, with new genetic tools. It's all about survival.

When I watered the kitchen garden the previous morning, I had noticed the datura plant that grows at the end of the winter squash bed had four buds that looked like they might open that very evening. I intended to go out and see them that night, but I forgot. So when I woke the next morning and looked at the sky, still pale blue before dawn, I remembered the datura flowers. After doing yoga, when the sun had not yet crested the hills to the east, Richard and I went out to the kitchen garden and looked over the wall. There were four huge, moon-white flowers, still open wide, still emitting a trace of the night's perfume.

I looked at each one closely, but their pristine appearance betrayed nothing of the night's activities. Whether they were visited by their moth partners or not, I won't know for several weeks, until long after those shimmering blossoms faded with the morning sunlight. If their ovaries swell into capsules the size of small, green apples armored with hooked prickles, I'll know they were successful in their one night of perfuming the air to attract a partner.

(The photo are mine, from my garden. Note that datura, while ethereally beautiful, is also poisonous. The plants protect themselves - especially their flowers - from being eaten by flooding their tissues with powerful psychoactive compounds. I allow them to flourish only in the parts of our yard out of reach of children and pets.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Signing books for Hillary and Barack

Yesterday I signed copies of Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, my new book with photographer Jim Steinberg for Hillary and Bill Clinton and Barack and Michelle Obama. No, not in person. Still, it's exciting to write those names on a fresh copy of a book I've written and know that it'll be in their hands next week.

How did I get to sign books for Hillary and Bill and Barack and Michelle? Colorado's Governor Bill Ritter picked Colorado Scenic Byways as his personal gift to "selected" attendees of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (That he and his staff knew about the book is a tribute to Jim's persistence and vision, and to his pr team, Regan Petersen and Debbie Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Petersen Communications.)

The Governor's Office ordered copies of the book before it was even delivered from the printer in Korea (it's not out officially until September 3), which they planned to give to the governors of other states attending the DNC and other dignitaries. At the last minute, they decided to give one each for Hillary and Bill and Barack and Michelle. (For you trivia fans out there, etiquette requires that they be addressed in writing as "President Bill and Senator Hillary Clinton," and "Senator and Mrs. Barack Obama." If I were Michelle, I would hate that!)

Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road is a book I'm proud to have written. The slip-cased, two-volume set pairs Jim's gorgeous photographs and my words to portray the heart of the state through its 25 designated scenic byways. The pair of books--a coffee table book of full-bleed photos and lyrical essays and an atlas & road guide--explores Colorado's sights and stories from the wide-open plains to the nosebleed heights of the high peaks and the technicolor canyons of the plateau country. It's an invitation to take to the road and see the real Colorado--taste a peach ripe off the tree, smell the prairie in spring, hear the marmots whistle from alpine ridges, and watch the stars wink on in the evening sky.

And yesterday, I got to sign a copy each for Hillary and Bill Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama. How cool is that?!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Taking notice of a heavenly fireball

Last week when we were out yurt-camping with my parents, I scanned the dark skies over the Never Summer Range each night for meteors from the annual August Perseid showers. I saw one streak across the sky in the wee hours after a sprinkle of rain, but that was all.

Then last night, after having guests for dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and watched the moon sail high into the night sky.

"Let's go outside and watch for meteors," Richard said.

We went out into the kitchen garden and sat on the edge of the asparagus bed, where we could look toward the northeast, where the greatest concentrations of Perseid meteors seem to originate. We had just sat down when Richard spotted the first one, a bright white star streaking past us before burning out.

I reached for his hand, and we grinned at each other in the silvery moonlight.

We picked out the constellations we could see over the house: the large ladle shape of the Big Dipper, and following the curve of its handle, Arcturus, the bright orange star in Bootes. We picked out the three bright stars that form the Summer Triangle, Altair in Aquila, the Eagle, on one side of the Milky Way, Vega in Lyra across the way, and Deneb, the tail star in Cygnus, the swan that flies along the Milky Way.

I had just located Polaris, the pole star in the Little Dipper when a brilliant meteor appeared in the black sky just over the roof of the house. I pointed, and Richard swung his head in that direction. As it sped by us in the western sky, it flared magenta, brighter than any falling star I have ever seen.

Richard uttered some exclamation, but I was stunned speechless.

The meteor streaked by, the magenta blazing into white, and then brilliant emerald green before disappearing into the dark sky, trailed by a shimmering tail that lasted what seemed like forever, but was probably only two or three seconds.

Meteors, astronomers say, are debris left behind as comets whiz through our solar system. As earth passes through these plumes of detritus, like dust clouds trailing after traffic on dirt roads, the bits of debris collide with our atmosphere and ignite instantly as they streak across the sky tens of miles above Earth's surface before burning out. The brightest of meteors rival bright stars, those that surpass them are fireballs. Most meteors are the size of grains of sand; only larger bits of debris form fireballs.

It was a fireball we saw last night, a meteor flaring magenta, hot-white, and then cool green before it incinerated in the friction generated by its trip through our upper atmosphere. Its shimmering tail lasted long enough for us to burn the sight of that spectacular falling star into our memories.

When I was a child and saw a meteor, we always made a wish - quickly, before the ephemeral bit of flaming debris burned out. Last night, I was too dazzled by the streak of color burned across the dark sky by that Perseid fireball to make a wish.

If I were to wish though, it would simply be that I never lose the desire to stop and look for meteors, and to be rendered speechless when one streaks across the sky overhead. And to wish that we all have the wonder of shooting stars - those miracles of ephemeral light created as our planet crosses the dusty trails of comets orbiting our solar system. For a moment, meteors streak across the heavens and into our consciousness, pulling us with them as they break through the routines that dominate our daily lives.

(The photograph of elegant asters comes from our yurt-camping trip. I don't have a photograph of meteors - I can't think that fast!)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Preparing for the 80th-birthday camping trip

Today was a frenzied day in a rushed weekend. We're taking my parents yurt-camping tomorrow for two nights, as part of our extended celebration of my Dad's 80th birthday. We'll drive to Denver in the morning, pick up my folks, and then drive 2.5 more hours to the hamlet of Gould, in North Park, on the edge of the Colorado State Forest State Park (no, that's not a typo, it's the cumbersome name of the place!). The park takes in the whole west slope of the Never Summer Range, from glacier-sculpted and snow-spotted peaks to the swath of forest at their base, and the streams that pour off the high elevations, running down through aspen groves and meadows.

We're headed to one of those meadows that slopes from aspen grove to creek, to stay in a yurt owned by Never Summer Nordic. (For those who have never seen a yurt, they're circular canvas dwellings with conical tops and, in this case, wood floors and expansive decks.) Each yurt in the Never Summer system has basic furnishings, a propane stove, cookware, and an outhouse nearby. It's luxury camping, and I hope it'll be perfect for a family gathering (my brother Bill and my youngest niece, Alice, are driving in from Washington state to join us). The yurt is about 1.5 miles from the gate at the end of the road, so we'll be far enough in to have peace and quiet, but not so far that it's too challenging for my 78-year-old mom and 80-year-old dad. (I should point out here that they belong to a ramblers group that goes hiking every week in good weather.)

So my day has been full of preparation for the trip, including the making of long lists of things to bring (including water and our water purifier), and preparing meals in advance for six. Tomorrow night's dinner is already cooked and will just need to be reheated when we get there. We're having shrimp and steamed garden vegetables over rice with basil pesto--I picked the basil yesterday--plus Richard's rustic sourdough whole wheat bread. For dessert, I've marianted fresh Colorado peach slices in port; I'll top each with a dollop of creme fraiche. Since the nice Never Summer Nordic folks are hauling our gear and water and food in for us, I can afford to go deluxe with the meals.

I knew that the day would get crazy, so this morning I did something just for me. I went out into our kitchen garden and snipped a dozen or so stalks of blooming lavender. Right now, the plants are mounds in full pale purple flower and this morning they were also full of bees, a few European honeybees from the hives a few blocks away but mostly native North American bees in all sizes and colors. Fortunately there weren't many of the often-cranky honeybees, and the native bees were courteous and didn't protest my removing some of "their" flowers.

I brought the lavender stalks inside, and then got out a few clean, tall bottles that once held olive oil. Then I gathered several part-bottles of white wine I've been saving for just this task. I mixed the white wine with white vinegar (using 1.5 times as much wine as vinegar) and put several lavender stalks, flower end down, in each bottle. Then I carefully poured in the wine-vinegar mix and inserted a cork. In about a month, I'll have lavender wine vinegar, the perfect fruity blend to use on fruit salads, for marinating chicken to grill, or to give a delicate richness to white sauces and quick breads.

I took a moment to admire the bottles--and to shoot this photograph--and then went back to my lists and my chopping and bagging and sorting into piles. . . . And tomorrow, we're off on the great yurt adventure. Happy 80th, Dad!

(And thanks to Sherrie York, artist extraordinaire, for suggesting I put up the photos of the lavender wine vinegar bottles. As always, you have great taste. . . .)