Winter Solstice 2020

Tomorrow, Monday the 21st will be the darkest day of our year. This is the day with the fewest hours of daylight, marking the start of astronomical winter. After this solstice, days will begin getting longer and nights shorter as spring approaches.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin word sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), because at the solstices, the Sun appears to stand still. The seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) pauses at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction.

The Winter Solstice in Human History

The winter solstice was a special moment in the annual cycle for most ancient cultures back to the neolithic. Astronomical events were often used to guide activities, such as the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter food reserves. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this.

This is attested to by physical remains in the layouts of some ancient archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and ceremonial structures in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The primary axis of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset at Stonehenge.

In the midst of gathering darkness, light becomes ever more valued…

The winter solstice was immensely important, because the Ancient ones were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months.” In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast, before deep winter began. Most domestic animals were slaughtered because they could not be fed during the winter, so it was the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready to drink at this time.

For me, this Winter Solstice has even more meaning, following one of the worst years in American history. This Solstice gives me hope that next year will be so much better in so many important ways! 🙂

Photos of building passive solar in Colorado in the winter: Deck the roof, not the halls!

My intuition told me to go back and look at some previous photos from six years ago, when we were building our passive solar home in the foothills of southern Colorado. Sure enough, December 17th six years ago was the day we put decking on our roof.

Unless you’ve built something yourself, you may not appreciate the idea of “drying in” your structure, but this is major, especially in the middle of winter in Colorado.

I remember when we drove up here, there were workmen all over the top of our house in very cold weather, working their asses off! Our contractor brought all his friends over to work on a Saturday to get this done. What was amazing was how comfortable they all seemed up on that roof! A snow storm came in later that day…

But the roof got covered and we were halfway to being dried in.

We got so excited about the smallest progress back then, after taking five months just to get approval from the county and our slab poured properly for passive solar heating! They forgot the insulation for the slab at first, but Mike got on them for that!

The windows came next! It was finally looking & feeling like a home!

But there were still a million more details to work out…

but we got her done and moved in on the first of August 2015.

Then we rested while staring out at our spectacular view, for months, none stop! We cannot get enough of this even years later. The silence is magnificent!

Surprise! I’m looking forward to Christmas!

This is the time of year I usually post my “I’m beginning to dread a lot about Christmas” post. Once those ubiquitous commercials begin, I start complaining. But this year feels different. I’m anxious to get our tree cut (from our own land!) and decorated, and I’ve ordered just a few small, special gifts online. I wonder why…

I think it’s because of the tough past few years. I know I was too depressed last Christmas to decorate the tree. My health has been a constant concern for a few years now. When you’ve been consistently healthy for most of your life up until around age 60, and then you keep having serious new ailments turn up, it’s disconcerting to say the least. The one I fought the hardest was going on fulltime oxygen. I simply could not believe it, and I also didn’t want to! It’s terribly cumbersome, expensive and irritating. Try fixing dinner while trailing around an O2 tube. But I did somehow adjust after a couple bad falls and much difficult breathing convinced me.

Funny how illness may help one appreciate things in whole new ways. When you are no longer so certain that you will be here for Christmas next year, you see things differently. Now I want to enjoy every little detail. Oxygen tube or not, I want to be present for every moment now.

What it looks & feels like to be SNOWED IN in the Colorado Foothills west of Walsenburg

As many of you already know, I am pretty obsessed with weather watching! I have been reporting daily precipitation to COCORAHS and the Weather Service since the Fort Collins Spring Creek flood in July 1997.

But last night was a lifetime record for me!

This morning I looked out at 23 inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!

Mike went out at 7 AM to measure it for me…

and get our overflowing rain gauge. Yep, 1.23 inches of precipitation!

Yep, it’s really 25 inches total!

Needless to say, Rasta and I have decided to stay in today…

The storm is over and the Juncos are HUNGRY!

Doo doo doo lookin’ out my back door

The history of human use of psychoactive plants: See “The Stoned Ages” and learn more!

Have you ever thought you would like to learn more about the history of the use of psychoactive plants and botanicals in world history? I just saw a GREAT film about this on the History Channel this week!

Here’s few fun facts from this documentary:

From the beginning of the human race to the present, the human race has been using plants to feel better. From early man (& women), the Egyptians, and the Mayans (Pre-Columbian societies) there has been a constant search for medicinal plants. For example, the Mayans were quite familiar with plants in their environment. They regularly used tobacco in enemas, (bowel is blood rich) and ritual practices. Another example, their use of a solution with ayahuasca done in the presence of a Shaman. It’s purpose was to create a heightened perception of reality, creating a visionary state where one might commune with the gods. They believed these plant rituals gave them a unique gateway to the spiritual realm and the substances used were sacred tools to help them connect. They also used performance enhancing drugs in sports and many other pharmaceutical products.

The Ancient Greeks, especially the philosophers, used pharmaceuticals to create altered states, have out-of-body experiences and to journey to other worlds to meet their gods. Mushrooms and ergot (barley fungus) were used with no moral stigma, with the full realization that plants can heal and harm us. Drugs were about pleasure in the right circumstances and context, not about right and wrong. They felt, if the people were using plants to experience a union with God, what did they need with organized religion?

The Age of Religious Judgment: The Christians

After the Romans were converted to Christianity, their use of psychotropic substances became illegal. Early Christian history shows anxiety and suspicion when it came to pleasures of the body. According to them, faith in Christ is the only road to salvation, therefore an interest in alternative realities became a problem. The sense of puritanical self-denial was an important part of early Christian views. Denial of the pleasures of the body was essential in conversion to Christian spirituality, and this became the dominant value system in the West.

The Age of Discovery

Exploration of new worlds led to the discovery of new psychotropic substances, for example tobacco and cannibis. Since most drugs come from plants, international travel led to a confluence of drug products transferred to Europe in the early modern world. In addition, with the introduction of tobacco to the New World, came a new way to administer drugs, by smoking them… What did the term “patent medicines” mean in the 1800s in the USA? It meant they didn’t need to tell you what was in them. “Medicines” like morphine, cocaine, heroin, and aspirin.

Drink your Coca-Cola and you’ll feel so much better!

How has our society defined some psychoactive plants as “medicines” through the ages, and others as bad for you? Learn more by watching this documentary:

Just so there’s no global warming…

On Monday the 7th we broke a record with a high of 92 degrees here in southern Colorado…

On Tuesday we had a high of 35 with a record low for September and rain turning to sleet and then snow this afternoon. The forecast? Snow all night into tomorrow afternoon.

By Wednesday morning we had received six inches of snow on September 8th-9th! Amazing!

Thursday morning, September 10th, snow has returned to the Spanish Peaks!

HAPPY 15th ANNIVERSARY TO MIKE AND I!

This catmint flower is my definition of resilience!

What’s blooming in my Colorado Sky Garden?

After two inches of rain in the past few weeks (!) my garden is smiling every day now. It seems the worst is over from the critters eating everything that blooms.

First of all, we just fledged our second set of Rocky Mountain Blue Bird chicks this week!

My Russian Sage and Purple Hissup are in full bloom now…

And falling under the believe-it-or-not category, my Red Riding Hood Penstemon is blooming again after only being planted this May!

Everything else is smiling brightly, even the cholla cacti I transplanted here a couple years ago!

They’re not blooming yet, but I look forward to seeing them bloom next July!

My Portulacas are even smiling through their protective cage top. Be careful or the critters will climb up there and eat you!

And then there are our native Navajo sunflowers, volunteering again this July!

How Careful Observation, Writing, and Gardening Create New Meaning

One week ends another begins, but both seem the same. It’s that sameness that wears on us. The near term is the same, and the future seems clearly uncertain. It’s impossible to make travel plans, not just for now but for the fall and winter. Some people have started referring to 2020 as the “Lost Year.” Imagine how those in my family feel, having lost my Dad right before “the virus” took over our lives.

I am saddened to learn that COVID-19 may be taking a toll on Americans’ heart health even if we’re not infected with the virus. According to new research, cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ are on the rise among those without any specific illness. This occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively, preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.

Everybody deals with this kind of stress differently. I think it’s easier for us gardeners. We have something in our lives that brings us daily joy. We can go outside each morning and enjoy the summer blooms! The fact that our plants need us, even marginally, also helps. Let’s face it, we all need to feel needed. This is why we all need to find positive distractions from this sad time in all of our lives.

I relate to these issues more than most. I sometimes pass out from lack of oxygen and am not certain if I will take my next breathe. I struggle daily to find the good in everything, like the 4th of July celebrations on TV last week. I want to feel good about my country again and positive about our future, but it isn’t easy if I watch the news too much.

So I go outside and walk around my garden. I hang out with the birds and bees, literally! I watch the birds taking a carousel ride on Mike’s great purple wind sculpture.

I sit quietly and observe the end to another glorious day, as the sun sets over Mount Mestas to our West.

Sometimes I take photos of the sunny still life developing on my bedroom wall as the sun comes up each morning. My appreciation of my eye sight is increased one hundred-fold as it diminishes with worsening cataracts.

These are the moments that sustain me… What are yours?

A Brief High Country Lesson in Lavenders

Lavandula (common name lavender) has 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint familyLamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India.

Certain cultivars of lavender do GREAT in my high (7,000 feet) and dry Colorado foothills garden. I believe they survive because they are woody plants and smell funny to critters who might want to eat them.

This is Lavendula angustifolia next to a flowering Stonecrop. This one is three years old now!

According to my favorite place to buy plants in Rye Colorado, that just quit selling retail 😦 there are two types of lavenders that are hardy in Colorado,

Lavandula angustifolia (the English lavenders-called English, but originally from the Mediterranean) and Lavandula x intermedia (the English hybrids). Other lavenders, like French, Spanish, and various cultivars you may find sold at Home Depot  are not hardy here! We have talked to so many customers who ask “Why does my lavender die?” and it turns out they planted a type that is not winter hardy.  Please don’t make that mistake. The ones we grow are all hardy to Zone 5, and some brave gardeners have had luck with them at 8000′ elevation.”

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’: Along with Munstead, Hidcote Blue tops the list of most hardy lavenders. Hidcote has a deeper violet blue flower and tighter flower clusters and more compact habit than other English lavenders, and it’s our go-to lavender for xeriscape and rock garden plantings. Winter hardy, deer resistant, drought tolerant– this lavender is a good choice for the Front Range. 18″ tall. Zone 5.”

I believe this one is Lavendula intermedia. It’s only two years old.

Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal’: Silver foliage is covered with a cloud of lavender blue flowers for most of the summer. It’s a very tough variety, even outperforming Hidcote and Munstead in many trials. Grows to 30″ tall and 3′ wide. If you want a lavender with landscape pizazz, this is the one for you. Edible, fragrant, deer resistant, xeric….we can’t say enough good things about this one. Zone 5.”

Most of the plants sold at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s will not survive the winter here! Those plants are grown in places like Arkansas. Also, be sure not to water lavender much. It can lead to brown flowers and root rot!

Note: Can you tell I was raised by a botanist? My Dad hopes so! Much more fun to think about than Covid-19!

Penstemons are my friends!

After five years of trying to get a Colorado foothills garden going, I have discovered how much I LOVE Penstemons!

First of all, I have a very early blooming native, I believe it is Penstemon buckleyi, that volunteers as one of the earliest blooms in my garden!

Then I started some Penstemon Strictus (Rocky Mountain Penstemon) four years ago and look at them now! They also bloom quite early, in mid-May. They spread nicely too!

This year I bought two new versions that are supposed to be red. My garden is almost all purple at this point in time.

Amazingly, the Red Riding Hood variety (Schmidel?) is already in full bloom!

I also bought two Penstemon pinifolius and put them in. According to my book exclusively on Penstemons, “Penstemon pinifolius is an attractive low-growing evergreen plant with showy, scarlet flowers in June to August.” Mine are just tiny this year. I hope they bloom next year!

My point is that these are the kind of plants to grow here because they are natives! The critters don’t eat them (at least not so far…). They spread nicely and fill up their space by a foot or two, and they love it here!

Want to learn lots more about penstemons? This is a wonderful book for that purpose: Penstemons: The Beautiful Beardtongues of New Mexico.