Gray Skies Happiness, and A Minor Rant or Two


For once the predictions were correct: they offered a 100% chance of rain, and now we have 2.25 inches in the rain gauge and rain barrels filled to overflowing. Joy!

It was touch and go last week, ever since the weather news started pointing to precipitation. Every Texas sage I scrutinized – young, old, mine, those in watered yards and those in the untended wild – was utterly devoid of flowers (Cf. “The Sage’s Widsom. Or Not,” July, 2013.) How could I hope that such a gifted predictor of rain would yield a false negative? I didn’t dare. This is the kind of thing I lose sleep over.

Then yesterday the strangling humidity finally gave way to a chilly wind and we fell asleep to the sounds of rain and low rumbles of thunder. Today feels like a good day.

In the tradition of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” it can be difficult to comprehend what rain means when you live in a place with enough and even more than enough. But my part of the country is in a catastrophic drought, and it seems to me that Texas is among the places run by people who blithely disregard environmental realities. This isn’t the time to invite a few million new people to move here, because all the corporate money in the world won’t provide enough water to sustain the population. Just my opinion.

Yesterday as our moderate drizzle was thinking about getting serious, I stopped into Bark ‘n Purr (, the best of Austin’s animal companion stores. Travis was out of those treats that really clean his tartar-collecting teeth (, and sorely in need of a new toy. As I was searching for something sturdy with a squeak, I overheard a young woman complain that the weather was terrible. 

I could have smacked her. Fortunately reason, and a need to keep my jobs, prevailed. 

I thought it must be nice to live a life so sheltered from harsh realities that you can expect to be rescued from any potential disaster that has the temerity to threaten your bubble-wrapped existence. Even I confront worsening drought from the perspective of a coddled citizen who might lose a few yard plants – hardly a tragedy. But when we start to complain about the prices of the many foods that originate in central and southern California, and this great agricultural state of Texas, I hope we remember what rain means, and what it means when there isn’t enough of it.

For me it means not enough flowers. For too many of my neighbors it means paying a lot of money to run your lawn sprinklers furtively in the middle of the night because who doesn’t love a lush green lawn? In the real world it means not enough food.

For today, here, gray skies and rain mean happiness.

I can’t even be upset about having missed the blooming of the great many cactus that make parts of the greenbelt so beautiful and so interesting to navigate on a rocky single track. (If I wipe out here, if I’m lucky I’ll get to choose between landing on a rock pile or one of the hundreds of prickly pears that graze my pedals as I go along blithely trying to ignore the ribbon of fear sweat traveling down my back. Guess I’ll try for a rock pile.) Floyd told me this morning that the fields beyond the Sendero bowl were amazing yesterday. I know the rain has probably taken a toll on them. But I just can’t complain.

If gray skies weren’t happiness enough, a few flowers offered for your consideration:

I spent part of last weekDSC_0003 paying attention to some prickly pear blossoms, and in our yard at least there are more to come. Elsewhere in the ‘hood, I stopped to appreciate vivid yellow against purplish cactus paddles: one of those color combinations you could never get away with on your own. This one stands at the entrance to our neighborhood against a  suitably attractive background of white stone.

Closer to home there are all kindsIMG_0068 of flowers distracting me from working on my summer syllabus. I’ve taken a zen position on the few day lilies I’ve placed here and there in the landscape; I always figure the deer will eat them, so it seems best not to get too excited about the buds. The deer must be finding enough to eat elsewhere, however, and the stalks are too tall for the bunnies who are eating their fill of parsley anyway. So just about every morning I have a new lily to fuss over, which is nice.

I just need to watch out for every gardener’s most insidious fiscal malady, Plant Acquisition Fever. (If a few day lilies are nice, a few more would be nicer by simple principles of mathematics. Maybe we could take a drive down to Houston to that day lily place…)

Right behind that golden beauty, in the upper left corner of that photo, you can see the stalks dark red poppies left behind. They’ve made me most unhappy about my lack of photographic skills, but I’m going to foist a few of my efforts on you anyway because what I saw through the lens astonished me.

I hope you’ll take a second to enlarge these images, because the ceramic forms of these garden residents are amazing. These are the poppies’ pistils, as far as I can determine; and larger versions really ought to be formed out of clay and placed throughout the world as monuments to sheer gratuitous beauty. 

Speaking of pistils, as a gesture of dedicationIMG_0064 to my blog, unruly as my approach to gardening may be, I spent some time last week trying to learn the basic anatomy of a flower. All I can say is, the #1 absolute unequivocal best thing about having a Ph.D. is that I never have to go to school again, or memorize another thing if I don’t want to. Which is fortunate, because I am reasonably sure that I cannot memorize anything any more. That part of my brain is all used up. However, if school could consist strictly of drawing pictures and labeling them, I might give it some consideration. Colored pencils and chocolate milk for everyone!

One of the sustaining things about a DSC_0034garden is that every year it brings something back to you. Sometimes it’s just a round of familiar backbreaking tasks (I’m thinking of all the wondrous people who grow food, and their neatly turned plots of rich soil awaiting seeds); sometimes it’s a perennial you forgot all about during the long winter. This is a cluster of bright orange flowers on the butterfly weed – one of those milkweed types that ends its blooming cycle by sending seeds out on the wind on fluffy plumes. I had just one for a couple of years, and now they’re turning up in all kinds of places.

Even the weeds, if you can think of DSC_0005spiderwort that way, bring back flowers that are appreciated by bees and therefore by unruly gardeners – despite their weedy inclination to take over every square inch of the yard if given half a chance. I dug up a platoon of them during the winter, as you no doubt recall. New platoons keep rolling in. But how can you resist that little face?

I can’t really say pink gaura is back, DSC_0009because I lost mine in the dead days of last summer and just put a couple new ones in recently. Now they live at the corner of the house near the fancy urn-looking rain collector. Wherever they live, gaura are a welcome sight because of those delicate blossoms that perch atop thin stalks, waving in the slightest hint of a breeze and making it look from a distance as if tiny butterflies were hovering over the plants.

I’m realizing as I write this that we reallyDSC_0005 do have quite a vivid array of colors going on around us. It’s another happy aspect of gardening that the monochromatic stretches of winter give way every year to a palate that can’t help but cheer you up. I can’t aspire to acres of flowers that would permit me to carry armloads into the house to enhance every room, but most of us can indulge that need with a bouquet picked up on impulse at the grocery or the farmer’s market. That’s what my sister-in-law did last weekend, and we all drew some happiness from the spray of tulips that shimmered in the steady breeze blowing through the house on a day of halcyon weather.

Sylvia Plath wrote of vivid colors as a “tonic” that flooded her senses and healed her spirit when life was difficult, as it so often was for her. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see that this is a difficult world we inhabit, and I think a frequent immersion in nature’s colors is a basic requirement for survival. When I end up bedridden, you can bet your lunch money my bed will be right up against a window or my caregivers won’t hear the end of it. (Are you listening, offspring?)

Yesterday as Travis and I were checking out what had happened in the sidewalk garden while we’d been going about our daily business elsewhere, a little girl came walking by with her mother and little sister. As we headed in one direction and they strolled away in the other, I heard her exclaim, THIS IS MY FAVORITE FLOWER! 

I don’t even know which one she meant, but I know I feel the exact same way.

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