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Color Explosion

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Color everywhere! From the garden to the skies. Last weekend was the Crawford Pioneer Days fireworks display, possibly the only one in the state for the rest of the summer. Through the year, the Crawford Fire Department, a dedicated volunteer corps, keeps boots out on cashier counters everywhere, and people drop in change or a larger donation. They shoot off a spectacular long display from the peninsula in the middle of Crawford State Park reservoir, so there is no danger of sparking a wildfire.

Everyone in my house seemed a little wigged out when I got home. They haven’t seemed to mind fireworks before now. The dogs rushed outside and one was reluctant to come back in, and one of the cats streaked through the house from door to door as though she couldn’t wait to get out. A little more active energy than has greeted me in previous years when I returned home from fireworks. But everyone settled down quickly. I’m glad I’m not home for the fireworks, so I can imagine it doesn’t bother my dogs. Rocky trembled in our arms for awhile, but then he settled down when we kept his ears covered.

They are routinely among the best fireworks displays I’ve seen in my life, and that includes Manitou Springs 4th of July, and the 1976 US Bicentennial fireworks over the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in DC. Those were both spectacular in their own way, but never in my life would I have ever imagined that I would sit in a small group of good friends year after year enjoying the best fireworks ever in our own back yard.

This year we watched from the yard of a Reluctant Host at the north end of the reservoir. Here, in the shallow V formed by the valley, fireworks filled the sky, sometimes startling us with how high they blew up, or their size, or color and intensity, the largest blooms filling the entire night sky. Patterns, colors, trajectories, subtleties, each firework is its own one-time moment, taking up our attention completely as we watch its trajectory.

Our host was reluctant because for years his dogs were undone by the explosions. Also his tender heart knows the terror that numerous other pets and wildlife feel with that horrendous violent noise. It’s been a few years since his sweet old dog died, the one he hid in the closet with to comfort during every fireworks, while the rest of us partied and watched from across the reservoir. I persuaded him, bribed him actually, to let us watch from their house this year; promised they wouldn’t have to host anything else for five years. Silly me. Because (despite having some grim thoughts about “rockets red glare” and our increasingly militaristic society) after that display I want to watch from there every year.

And then the next morning, at the top of the driveway as I was heading out, a small white dog, some smooth-coated terrier, ran in from the road. I stopped and got out and crooned to it but it ran on past the car too fast for me to catch, clearly running from something, likely the previous night’s fireworks. He wore a collar and was panting hard but not close to stopping as he trotted on over the hill through the sage flat toward the neighbors’ fence. I hope he was on his way home, but he looked disoriented and lost. I notified a few neighbors to the south, and hope someone was able to stop him. It made me so sad.

The tracks my mind goes down sometimes. I let my feelings turn into thoughts and pass through me, but still sorrow lingers when I let my speculation go again. Exactly the kind of heartbreak that’s made our Reluctant Host unfond of fireworks for years. 

Weights and measures. One night of fireworks, though, is nothing compared to the havoc the 416 Fire is wreaking on the San Juan National Forest north of Durango, well over 100 miles south as the crows fly, and flying they are now. We’ve waked to the smell of smoke several mornings this week, and I come inside off and on during the days depending on winds. I woke yesterday early and shut all the doors and windows to keep out the smoke, then lay back down and meditated on the ramifications.

The last known grizzly bear in Colorado was killed in the San Juans in 1979, but no one has been able to prove that no more survive. I imagined a grizzly mother with two cubs trying to outrun the rampant monstrous fire that has been devouring those mountain woods for the past two weeks, now up to 33,000 acres and unstoppable. Or a black bear mother with cubs. Or a herd of pregnant cow elk or mule deer does. Rabbits and foxes and coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, mice, and birds: hawks and eagles, songbirds, hummingbirds, all fleeing for their lives and getting incinerated as the fire creates its own erratic winds in what is known as extreme fire behavior. Access to the entire national forest has been closed for the foreseeable future, with some hikers and campers alleged to remain in the wilderness. More than 2000 homes north of Durango have been evacuated. The fire is not expected to be contained until at least the end of July.

It’s on our minds. We can’t help it. We’re praying for rain, not only for the San Juans but for our own parched ground, our fields scorched and fraught with water wars. Blessed is standing in the rain this morning, a single three-minute sprinkle with the sun shining, wetting me no more than if I’d stepped through my garden sprinkler slowly. We have high hopes that remnant fringes of Hurricane Bud will saturate our sad land tomorrow. We are not concerned about new shoes or handbags or golf clubs, or where to go clubbing tonight. We country mice are praying for rain.

Meanwhile, while I have water I am spreading it liberally throughout my own little paradise, my refuge, my sanctuary, and sanctuary to birds and butterflies and bees, and any other wild creatures who pass this way; and I am breathing deeply the penstemon perfume, and thinning peaches, and cutting lettuce, and doing the best I can to cultivate some peaceful shred of mind in the midst of climate and constitutional chaos. Making these images soothes me, and may seeing them soothe you also.

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Western tiger swallowtails circle the yard in seemingly random loops that resolve into patterns when observed over a long enough afternoon. The ancestral butterfly bush, Buddleia alternifolia, attracts them as well as other butterflies and lots of bees.

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Penstemon palmeri, and hybrids, self-sow with abandon throughout my yard, and are buzzing now with Bombus borealis, huge yellow and black bumblebees, gentle giants.

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Yellow Bucket

 

Predators and Prey

IMG_4250-79-80The juniper titmice have a nest in the half-alive juniper in Biko’s round pen, not far from the patio. I set up the tripod by my lunch chair and played with various exposures and lens lengths. They, like most birds, are so acutely aware of any potential threat to their nest, that I had to pretend I wasn’t watching for a long time, with the camera aimed at the hole in the tree. Then I shot a few frames, a few times when there was no one around. After awhile, I waited til one of the parents flew to the tree, shot just a couple at a time, until they were coming and going without paying me too much mind. Above, one is taking food to quiet the tiny plaintive flutter of squeaks inside; below, removing a fecal pellet, I think. What else could it be? Like many (but not all) birds, they like to keep their nest clean.IMG_4232-86-87IMG_4312A rare visitor to the garden, this Bullock’s Oriole flew to the hummingbird feeder one morning and looked in the window, so I immediately sliced an orange in half and staked the pieces out in the yard for it. That’s what I’d heard they like, but he ignored the oranges and poked at a flower on the hummer feeder, licking leaking nectar. They prefer riparian habitat to more arid places like my yard, and are medium distance migrants, so I seem to only see them for about a week during late spring as they’re passing through in search of moister breeding grounds.IMG_4309IMG_4461Topaz is an incorrigible lizard hunter. Though it distresses me that she hunts lizards, at least she’s not going after birds… She comes to me with a particular yowl when she’s got one in her mouth, and then she drops it. The lizards freeze when she pounces and carries them, and it takes them a few minutes to liven up and try to run after she sets them down. In that moment I try to catch them, and carry them to a safe brush pile outside the fence. Not that the fence stops the cat, but that they have a chance to hide and live another day. Every now and then she plays with one long enough to kill it, but when I catch her first I can save it. This is one grateful Sceloporus. IMG_4465The irises have begun blooming earlier than usual. There is one true white iris, and one whitish-lavender iris, and both these light colored flowers attract these little yellow and black beetles. I watched for quite awhile trying to determine the nature of this behavior that looked like a vicious attack, but because time after time the smaller beetle emerged unhurt and came back for more, I suspect it was either breeding or just a territorial display. IMG_4080IMG_4082IMG_4085IMG_4091IMG_4094IMG_4497Though the beetles do have a little competition for their irises, like this Agapostemon, or green sweat bee. Below, a honeybee packs her pollen baskets to overflowing on the pink honeysuckle, which is now the bee magnet of the week, and smells almost as sweet as the fading lilacs. IMG_4424The garden roller coaster is in full swing now, and I can hardly keep up with the watering, much less photographing the abundant, diverse, and beautiful life that makes the ride into summer so raucous and delightful. Heirloom arugula is ready for picking for pesto, asparagus is winding down, lettuce is fresh and tender. The peach tree is loaded with small fruits, as are both apples, and I found about a dozen intrepid apricots on that tree that was hit so hard by several deep frosts during its prolific bloom. Late summer will be full of fruit!

Spring Feeding Frenzy

 

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Through the crabapple tree, Eurasian collared doves perch in the old feeder tree, with the West Elk Mountains beyond still white with recent snow.  

The first of these exotic (read invasive) birds arrived in Colorado in the mid-nineties, and twenty years later they now inhabit all 64 counties, with a recent Christmas Bird Count total of almost 20,000 individuals. Purist birders despair, hunters revel, and me, I just think about how fast our world is changing, how many species are going extinct, how arbitrary some of our values are, and how glad I am to have any doves at all in my yard. I don’t feel as tolerant of invasive exotic plant species, however, like cheatgrass, whitetop, tumbleweed… that list goes on and on, and is the bane of any gardener’s existence.

May just may be the sweetest month here. Mountain bluebirds perch on fenceposts, swooping on grasshoppers; house finches nesting in the gutter over the front door fledge in the dead juniper, and magpie babies squawk from their high nest north of the house. From inside yesterday I watched a fragile house wren flap its new wings like a butterfly, and got outside just in time to see the last one leave the nest in the adobe wall. Black-chinned hummingbirds court and feed in the yard. A large black and yellow bumblebee as big as my whole thumb circles the lilacs and leaves, a small fast hawk flaps and glides across the flat bright sky on this unusually cloudy humid day with no chance of rain.

It looks like I’ll have peaches and apples this year, as those trees transition from bloom to fruit. The mingled scents of newly flowering trees waft through the yard and into the house through open doors. I’ve stood with my face in the crabapple tree inhaling deeply, watching bees, who scatter if I exhale without turning my head away. Honeybees don’t like carbon dioxide, and who can blame them.

I can capture all the photographs and video and audio I could store and more, and never capture the scent of these flowering trees, this luscious pink crabapple, this effulgent lilac, or last month the almond tree at night. The fragrance seems to pulse, as though the trees themselves inhale and exhale at their own extended respiratory rate, slower than we notice, mostly. Certain times of days the bees will flock to one or another.  

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The crabapple has never been more beautiful than it is this year, and never had more bees.

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Possibly Bombus griseocollis, the brown-belted bumblebee.

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For a few days this ornamental plum shrub was full of bees and other bugs.

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Get your nose out of our business! cried the little bugs to the honeybee, all pollinating the apple tree.

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A tiny sweat bee drunk in a tulip cup.

My bumblebee anxiety has dissolved even further this past week, with scores of them on NepetaAjuga, and the mind-bending lilac, another tree that’s never been more full of flower and fragrance. I sit with it an hour a day all told this time of year if I can, breathing its cleansing, intoxicating scent. So moved by its power over me, I sought lilac essential oil online with mixed and disappointing results. Many sources say essential oil can’t be derived from lilac for various reasons, and there are many brands of lilac ‘fragrance’ oil for sale, but I did find a few sites with directions for infusing lilac flowers in oil or water.

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This is me, these days, wallowing in lilac like this Bombus huntii.

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Fat red Anthophora bomboides, or digger bee, and below, a moth.

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So I’ve ordered a bottle of grapeseed oil, and trust the deep purple lilacs on the north side of the lilac patch will be in perfect bloom by the time it arrives. Meanwhile, I’ll make lilac scones again this weekend. Last year Chef Gabrielle and I candied lilac flowers, and that was a lot of work for a lovely but minuscule result. The lilac scones provided much more gratification for significantly less work. The lilac, by the way, is also a non-native species, though not aggressive enough to be considered a weed…

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In other spring food news, I’m set for the next few weeks for my greens intake. I made a dandelion smoothie for breakfast the other day, with apple, flaxseed, nuts, yogurt, blueberries, and ginger root. Yum! There’s a nearly infinite supply of dandelions to share with the bees, and Biko the tortoise who relishes both flowers and leaves.

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Wild asparagus from along the neighbors’ driveway, and a secret place in the woods, chopped small for Cream of Asparagus soup: vegetable stock, sautéed onion, asparagus, and fresh cow’s milk blended with a dash each of salt, pepper, and homemade paprika, garnished with a dab of yogurt mixed with parmesan cheese and lemon zest, topped with nutmeg. 

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Mourning Cloak

IMG_2690The first butterfly I see in spring is the mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. The species ranges throughout the northern hemisphere, and is called mourning cloak in many other languages, though in Britain it’s called Camberwell beauty, white petticoat, or grand surprise. It gets a jump on other species because it doesn’t migrate long distances, instead overwintering in suitable habitat tucked into tree cavities or under loose bark, emerging in early spring to begin its reproductive cycle. After mating, females lay their eggs around twigs of host trees upon which their caterpillars feed, including various species of willow, cottonwood and birch, and in American elm, hackberries, wild rose, and poplars among others.

The slightly worn wings of the mourning cloak above attest to his long life, having metamorphosed mid-summer last year and overwintered nearby (maybe in my birch tree, or wild rose). This week he is out searching for females, and after breeding he will live only another month or two. Sources say mourning cloak adults prefer to feed on tree sap and decaying fruit and rarely flower nectar, though I always see them in the flowering fruit trees. Not in the compost pile!

In my quest for bumblebees, I’ve been grudgingly rewarded this week. I caught one a few times in the mystery tree, saw one last night on the Nepeta in the south border, and this morning one in the peach tree. Frequency of sightings is increasing, though I still think there should be many more by now than I’m seeing. IMG_2626IMG_3042IMG_3046.jpg

Frozen

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Ojo loses his footing in the apricot tree, full of frozen blooms. We had a few nights around 20 degrees just at its peak bloom. Then it snowed three inches a couple of nights in a row last week, which brought much-needed moisture and melted beautifully by afternoon each day.

 

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So while the early tulips on the southwest corner pull back their energy from flowers to foliage and bulbs, these later tulips on the southeast corner are just coming into their glory.

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Meanwhile in Bees: I finally caught one bumblebee on the almond tree before its flowers also froze, and another in the mystery tree who has just come into full bloom. The best guess is this is a wild plum, but nobody knows for certain. I dug up a sucker from the roots of the almond tree some years ago and planted it, and this magnificent being came to pass. When it flowers it is a crazy bee magnet, and draws more fast little native bees than any other plant in the garden. When you think you’ve got spots before your eyes watching this video, those are bees.

 

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The one elusive bumblebee (Bombus huntii I think) on the last gasp of the almond tree.

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Also making the most of the flowering trees, this glossy black creature which resembles a wasp more than a bee. There are a couple of native bee genera that are black and largely hairless, but as far as I can tell, they are all smaller than half an inch, and this one is about an inch long.

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Anthophora, I think. I’m open to expert ID on any of these.

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And a little mason bee, all on the peach tree last week before it froze so hard.

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Another Andrena in the Tulipa tarda, along with a very tiny native bee. Notice her mouthparts in the photo below, and her companion below that.

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Those were last week’s bees. Below are this weeks picks so far. But I’m not going to try to ID them because frankly I am fried. First world problems all, but the past five days have been pretty challenging. On the phone with Apple support today I almost had a panic attack. It all started Friday morning, when the plumber came to replace a faucet that he had installed last week but it was defective, so I spent a week turning off the hot water between using the sink. He got the new faucet in but it required non-standard fittings which he didn’t have, so I spent the weekend washing dishes in the bathroom sink and eating take-out pizza.

That afternoon I discovered all the contacts on my laptop had disappeared, which turned out would have been a simple fix if I’d known how, but instead I tried to restart the computer. After that, 24 hours with Apple support and the conclusion was a fatal software corruption: the computer has to be wiped clean to even think about making it work again. ACK! I kept my cool. I’ve got backups for most of the photos and all but the last three months of everything else. Oh well, meditation seems to be helping as I really didn’t wig out, though I may if it turns out nothing can be salvaged. And really, Apple support could not have been more pleasant nor tried any harder to help, all nine people I’ve spoken with since Friday.

Overnight Friday a log smoldered in the woodstove, filling the house with smoke, but I’d been to such a good party the night before that I slept right through it until morning and the house reeked like a stale campfire all day while I kept the fire roaring and doors and windows open. Everything was still ok, and this morning the plumber came and fixed the faucet, and then… the Mail app on my desktop quit functioning. Another four hours on the phone with tech support, and it’s still not back. This is the universe telling me to stay away from machines for awhile and spend even more time out in the yard!

And still I’m not nearly as freaked out as I might have been if I hadn’t started taking an anti-depressant last Tuesday. I had so much to write: about the garden, and meditation, and the forest coming back to spring life, and about why I’m finally taking a drug for my state of mind, before all this computer nonsense started, and now my brain is just numb. Time to try again another day, and go out in the garden with a gin gimlet, and watch the sunset light up the peach tree.

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What IS this gorgeous moth?

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At least four creatures feeding on they mystery tree in this image.

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Another species of Anthophora, on the peach tree. Unlike honeybees which have a pollen basket on their back legs, most native bees are equipped with a scopa, a brush of specialized hairs in which they collect pollen. Her exceptionally long tongue makes her adept at gathering nectar from long tubular flowers, though none of them are open yet so she’s working the trees.

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Fresh Snow on Mendicant Ridge

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The perfect apricot tree with junipers, and Mendicant Ridge in the background with fresh snow. We’ll see about fruit this year: We’ve already had two nights at 23 when the apricot buds first started to open, and Friday’s low is predicted to be 20.

It’s been a busy week. The past couple of days in particular, maybe because I ran out of decaf and drank full strength. The biggest news of the week was the storm that blew through here on Saturday night. It felt and sounded like a cloud unleashed itself fifteen feet over my metal roof, which jolted me from a sound sleep, and sent the black cat flying. Raven and Stellar just raised their heads. Wow! It only lasted a couple minutes, but it was the loudest rain I’ve ever heard (including a Florida thunderstorm over a quonset hut).IMG_0586Though the storm dumped a good amount of snow in the mountains, that won’t by itself protect us from extreme drought by midsummer, but it will help replenish the reservoirs. Still, a day after the storm, even the mud is dry.BQAV6086.JPGThe other big news is, at last a bumblebee on the almond tree! I’ve been most anxious, because usually there are bumblebees all over the almond tree, and I’ve not seen one until today. When I saw a bumblebee, so still not that reassuring, but better than nothing. Though by the time I got back outside with the camera, she was gone.

Meanwhile, the tree continues to buzz with all manner of bees and other insects.IMG_2178IMG_2273

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The adorable beefly, Bombylius, looks like a pussywillow with wings and legs.

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The first mason bees appeared today.

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Not sure whether this is murder or mating! But my money’s on mating.

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Clouds of these fast orange bees swarmed the tree a couple of days ago, and it took some extra patience to catch one still enough to try to ID…

 

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My best guess for this one is Andrena auricoma, another mining bee. Below, the same kind of bee faces off with a big black fly.

IMG_2168IMG_1958IMG_1960IMG_1962It’s charming to me that sometimes the honeybees open a bud, rather than land on an open flower. I’m sure there’s something special inside. She starts with her tongue, then pushes her face deep into the bud.

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Those leeks I mentioned last week, being inspected by Ojo. The shorter tops are the refrigerator leeks, while the taller overwintered in the raised bed.

 

 

 

Processing Peppers

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Summer’s BLTs melt into autumn’s grilled cheese. One tomato left!

I’ve come to cherish my garden peppers: shishitos, paprika, jalapeño. I’ve grown peppers before because they’re gratifying; easy to start, often prolific, but I haven’t really loved them until this summer. After a couple decades living in the southwest, I finally sometimes crave a bit of heat in my food; I’ve made friends with the jalapeño.

This summer I picked up a jalapeño seedling from Zephyros Farm, and started a dozen shishitos, some of which I traded for 3 Leutschauer paprika peppers that the Bad Dogs started.

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The jalapeño I planted in a patio pot, and it gave me dozens and dozens of bright green peppers through the summer. Grasshoppers hammered its foliage but that seemed to spur it to greater production. I froze three batches of chopped jalapeños in oil in an ice tray, then popped the cubes into freezer bags for cooking. After chopping the first batch without gloves, my fingertips caught fire. Since drinking milk helps with mouth burn, I thought, I soaked them in a splash of cold cream. It did help. And the plant continues to flower and fruit; before the big freeze I brought it into the sunroom, and it’s got half a dozen new peppers already.

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Shishito peppers provided buckets of delectable appetizers, for cocktails with neighbors…

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… or solo. Just a small batch flash-fried (blistered) in olive oil in a hot skillet, then sprinkled with fresh-ground salt, and served with an adult beverage.

I nurtured those little shishito peppers from seeds in a salad box, lovingly watching over their sprouting and first leaves, potting them up, bringing them in every night for weeks, waiting til late June to put them in the raised bed, wrapping them first with walls-o-water, then covering with row cloth. And finally, with trepidation because of the grasshopper infestation, opening their cover to give them full sun. They thrived.

I planted the paprika peppers at the south end of the same bed. They grew almost two feet tall and were covered in fruit which never ripened. I read somewhere that this particular Leutschauer variety ripened to a bright red by the end of August in Ontario, and made the mistake of assuming a shorter season than they actually require. At our altitude, with nights consistently in the 40s by September keeping the soil wet and cold, these peppers will need to be started much earlier next year; I’ll also plant them in pots so I can bring them inside to finish if need be. Apparently nights should remain above 50 for them to turn scarlet.

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The evening before the first deep freeze, I picked a huge bowl of green peppers, taking nearly all the fruits in hopes they’d ripen off the stalk. 

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Only a couple of them turned red. Most remained green, even those with blackened shoulders. 

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Baker Creek support suggested I could try drying them anyway to make paprika powder. The first batch I roasted at 350 for about twenty minutes, turning a few times, then turned the oven down to 200 and dried them for about five hours. After they cooled, I tried to powder them in the food processor, but that didn’t work. The blender did; I pulsed them, then sifted, then pulsed a few times, and made about a quarter cup of paprika powder. Seemed like an awful lot of trouble for what I got, until I tasted it.

Attempting to improve the result, I roasted the next batch at 400 for about 12 minutes, took them out and let the oven cool to 200, and cut out the seed cores before drying the peppers. It took only slightly less time for them to dry, though they were bigger peppers. For the amount of paprika I use in a year, I got plenty, with a decidedly richer flavor than store-bought.

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Roasted, dried green Leutschauer paprika peppers before grinding; kind of a muddy color…

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Two batches of paprika from a summer’s worth of water, TLC, and three pepper plants. Hmmm.

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My kitchen counter at the height of harvest season…. and below, after preserving.

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Green tomato pickles, roasted green tomato salsa, regular red salsa, paprika, and two types of tomato sauce, with a few stragglers in a bowl. Counting the bags of sauce in the freezer, I can have some kind of homegrown tomato treat almost every week til the next crop comes in!

Driving around the valley the past couple of weeks has been spectacular, and achingly poignant. On the way to town the other day, against a backdrop of dark grey raining clouds, the slopes of Saddle Mountain emerged in sunshine a rainbow themselves, yellow and green aspen, orange oak, blue and purple shadows down juniper green hills.

The road down Rodstrom Grade its own cascade of colors, sandstone cliffs frothing with wild clematis seedheads, spent blossoms of rabbit brush lining the road; russet, orange, red serviceberry, squawbush and apricot trees, cottonwoods turning the canyon gold, chartreuse and yellow. Always a chance on this road of bobcat, coyote, lion or bear. I turn on and off the radio as I drive.

In just the past month, this country, this world, has changed so much, multifarious threats escalating. I tune in and out of the “news” a dozen times a day, tracking the next climate chaos disaster: hurricanes, wildfires, famines, human migrations; shuddering at the latest lies and doublespeak from the current regime; weeping at the most recent man-made tragedy; gauging the latest threat of nuclear war.

Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, we unwittingly adapt to climbing tensions that will ultimately boil us alive; we are crashing toward some unforeseen finale. We might consider ourselves lucky if the Yellowstone supervolcano blows before our democracy does.

Driving home from town, a view never before seen, never this exact amalgamation of earth forms, rain light, autumn palette: Fresh snow on the north end of Mendicant Ridge as mist rises, exposing sunlit slopes through the shadowed gap between Saddle Mountain Lands End. Heavy grey rick-rack clouds lift to reveal a window deep into the West Elk mountains: caught in a beam of sunlight, silhouettes of ranges recede into lighter deeper blues and greys, pale rain falling lightly over layers of gold and deep green aspen-fir slopes. Exquisite wild world, each moment unique.

This is what’s real. This precious watershed, a pawn in the battle for our public lands, our lives and livelihoods that depend on the clean water, clear air, and healthy soil that provide the foods that sustain us. I pack the pantry and the freezer with peppers and tomatoes, and cherish each hazy day.

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The yard begins to give in to winter.