Happy, Eerie Days


This is about as much as I can tell you about the garden life here in Austin, Texas over the past many weeks. It’s as good a place as any to start.

Some time in May, when the lakes that form the bulk of our city’s water supply had hit an unprecedented 33% of capacity, and Sometimes Island was starting to look like a permanent fixture, el Niño came to town.

It was right around the time my niece Chris came to town, too, and that evening just as we were supposed to be headed to the airport to pick her up, the electronics in the house blared out every kind of warning they can blast. Storms, floods, tornados – every warning but earthquakes. On the TV, we were shown a triangle of high tornado potential. We were in it. Literally, and you can look this up, we were having hundreds of lightning strikes per hour. Travis, naturally, was beside himself.

Come on, we told him in the mad way parents have, let’s go for a ride in the car! 

He looked at us as if we had taken leave of our senses, walking out the door between us as if we were taking him to the death chamber for sure this time. We had to laugh. We sat in the cell phone lot at the airport as floods fell, lightning flashed steadily, and thunder emphasized the madness of the whole excursion. Meanwhile, Chrissie’s plane circled and circled, waiting for its opportunity to land. It was one of those landings passengers applaud.

We had a wonderful visit as always despite the weather, doing touristy things and even taking on a couple of sewing projects together. As it tends to happen under such meteorological circumstances, we had always in the back of our minds the terrible fates families had suffered because of the storm, including the tragic loss of loved ones. It was a storm that brought back memories of the Memorial Day Flood of 1982, which devastated Austin just before my arrival here.

As the week progressed, the sun put forth some DSC_0176effort, and we hurried to check things off Chrissie’s to-do list. South Congress was definitely a priority for her, and we spent a happy afternoon shopping and fancy-lunching.

I used to live right off SoCo as it is now hiply called, but rarely get back there any more. It’s a bustling area for sure, lots of changes every time I see it, but with some of the old landmarks still in place. Very, very gentrified. Funky gentrified? Is that a thing?

It seems that it rained nearly every day, kind of like a monsoon season. Warm humid days and then a cloudburst. For months I’d been reading up on el Niño predictions, which seemed to waffle, keeping my fingers crossed that this might be the year when the lake levels quit moving toward absolute zero.

While we didn’t have any more weather quite at the treacherous level that had heralded Chrissie’s arrival, it seems we have continued to experience one storm after another long after her departure. It’s been about ten years since I can recall a stretch of good, healing rain; and this was our rainiest May on record. Best of all, the lakes are well over half full!

In the neighborhood, flowers came and DSC_0168flourished and were pounded into the ground. Creeks that are most often long pathways of rock have at times been treacherous raging rivers to be avoided. The little feeder creeks all through the ‘hood came to life, offering lovely vistas in a solidly green landscape. This is one of my favorite views from a sidewalk Travis and I traverse nearly every day – since I don’t venture into the greenbelt much in summer.

Of course this weather sends snakes up and out, and there have been many rattlesnake sightings. Travis and I encountered one poor dead fellow in the road. It was sad to see on the neighborhood list serve that a coral snake had also been run over; the photo was of a real beauty, dark in its stripes and of an impressive size. Despite their notoriously super-toxic venom, I would much rather encounter a coral snake than a rattler or a copperhead, as the former truly deeply prefer to hustle away from you and must rather gnaw on you quite a bit if they want you dead. I feel like rattlers and copperheads can be of a more, um, grouchy nature and will only try to avoid people for just so long before they lose their tempers about human shenanigans and take it out on the next person who happens by.

There certainly hasn’t been much gardening going on in my world. Dislodge any soil and you end up with handfuls of sculptor’s clay. (Note to self: time for another truckload of compost to be worked into the soil once this season has wound down.) All I’ve been doing is some trimming and removal of messy garden citizens.

It’s been a wonderful spring for flowers, IMG_1037though, if you could catch them between downpours. The magnolias, lilies, zinnias, every wildflower imaginable, gladioli, freesia; the vitex, salvia, sage, rock roses – too many to name. Flowers everywhere. These little pink guys live outside the gate at the Community Garden, covered with netting to keep the wild animals from consuming every one. Inside the gate, the talented growers of food are nurturing everything from squash to tomatoes to artichokes.

I’ve had the deer come through a few times, although there is plenty for them to eat in the woods this year. We have many cottontails on our street, and they have found plenty to eat in the sidewalk garden. But just as I suppose it is in the rain forest, a beheaded flower stalk will present with another bud in a day or two, and gaps in the foliage are quick to fill.

The crape myrtles in our yard are blooming DSC_0165one by one, light pink, dark pink, darker pink. The one just outside our bedroom is so heavy with flowers that the rain bent it low, so you can’t walk under the branches without taking a few blossoms in your hair. After a rain that end of the patio is a carpet of pink.

These can be oddly difficult days to be outdoors, which is a dilemma for someone like myself who loves to play outside. Apart from the fact that the air feels like a hot wet towel pressed against your face, with weather like this we have mosquitoes like the jungle has mosquitoes. Like Alaska has mosquitoes (“if there were any more of them, they’d have to be smaller”). So even pulling weeds or doing a quick trim of whatever is sprawling across the sidewalk requires mosquito spray. Which stinks. So any trip into the house that will last any length of time at all requires at least a quick shower, or there would be that oily stinky stuff all over every piece of furniture.

Then too, taking any more than fifteen steps outdoors results in immediate sweat saturation: you are soaked, your clothes are soaked, your feet squeak in your sandals. Sweat is trickling out of your hair and beading attractively on the end of your nose. The first time Chris visited from Connecticut she said she had gained a real understanding of how people could possibly take three showers a day. Yup.

Summer school is well under way, its main redeeming feature being the speed with which it travels. Since I am a habitual early riser, it is just as easy for me to avoid traffic by driving in before 7 a.m., which leaves me plenty of peace and quiet in my office to fritter away the time exactly as I am doing right now.

Or to take a walk around campus, seeking out IMG_1023odd nooks and crannies that you might not expect to encounter at a big fancy university. I like to make my way past the tower to check out a couple of greenhouses that never fail to stir my curiosity. On a nearly deserted campus, on a hot morning heavy with humidity, it is ridiculously easy for me to get a major case of the creeps. Insects, fungi of every stripe, snakes in the streets, massive spider webs strung hopefully between every branch and stem – if a strand of my own clothing brushes me wrong, I jump a mile.

In 31 years I have never once seen a human inside either of the greenhouses. I like to imagine they are completely self-sustained, forgotten decades ago by the Botany Department. If you went and asked for a key, no one on campus would even be able to remember who ever had one.

Nobody’s stepped foot in those buildings since the ’50s, you’d be told. And you’d have no trouble believing it.

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