I lived in the same apartment in Albuquerque for four years. It became my home, and I found things to love about the city by interacting with my neighbors and by employing the time-honored tradition of front porch sitting. In the Deep South, as in other places and times, this is something of an Olympic sport, and there are forms that must be observed. But that is a segment all its own, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
Sitting Among the Plants
I had a garden in that desert place–at least, what passed for one, a collection of planters. It formed a green barrier between myself and the sidewalk. Since there was so little actual privacy, my apartment being on the first floor right next to the entrance, it was important to foster the illusion of it. For those of you who’ve never stopped to notice, it’s amazing the effect a few plants and some colorful flowers can have. While people would often pause to look at them as they walked past, they never looked farther. We’ll investigate this phenomenon in that other segment, but for now, you may take the understanding that I felt comfortable sitting on my porch–there was no feeling of exposure that might accompany a truly public space.
I would sit there in every season, and in all weather, with exception of the rare occasion that hail fell. In which case, I beat a prudent and hasty retreat indoors. But on the whole, it was an ideal space for contemplation, for writing, for watching the moods of the Sandias as they shifted color in the changeable light. Most days would find me, at one point or another, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, and scribbling in my journal. I would tend my plants–deadheading the day lilies and dianthus, pinching back the herbs, trimming spent flower crowns from the deep pink geraniums.
You’d think I had a regular Victory Garden, with all the time I spent hunkered in front of my planters, trimming back, whispering encouragement to the deep purple clematis that struggled with the arid climate, or smiling into the face of a stela d’oro day lily. But my plants were beautiful, and I made friends with a number of my neighbors exchanging garden stories over the peeling blue paint of the metal railing.
The apartment complex didn’t permit us to keep dogs, and while I have nothing in particular against cats, my opinions about them do not extend to intentionally adopting one. I’ve always felt that if one selected me, I would be content and yield to fate. Until then, I’m content to be a dog person. But I was lonely without the companionship having an animal in my home provided. You have no idea how empty a house can feel without a dog (or some other pet) displacing air with their presence, deciding to look out a window, or keeping your bed nice for you.
So, I took to watching birds. There are several varieties that fall into what I call City Birds–pigeons, crows, sparrows and some sort of house finch. I even had a few Lesser Goldfinches visit my cone flowers. They are smaller and more green than regular goldfinches. Then, there are the robins, which are a little bigger and grayer than the ones in the South–and they have an ashy ring of feathers circling their eyes, which makes them look rather pert as they hop and run. Roadrunners were a novelty for me. I’d never seen them before I moved to Albuquerque. I’ll never forget the first time one crossed paths with me–rather than fleeing, it stopped and shat defiantly on the path right in front of me.
Gods of War
But of all the avian species I became acquainted with over the years, there is one that forever captivated me. Each year in late spring, the hummingbirds would return to build their nests in the great tree across the driveway from my porch. While there were other trees nearby–Bradford pear trees and Yoshino cherry trees–this large oak was preferred territory. At some point in March, the turf duels would begin among the males. The warming air would be filled with the sound of their clashes, as they flew through the air like brightly clad warriors in silk and painted wicker armor. They were my Samurai.
The Aztecs used the hummingbird as a symbol of their god of war. Knowing that, alone, should discourage any coos or simpering statements about how adorable these small birds are. They are fierce and bellicose. They guard their territory with intense jealousy, challenging any perceived intruders. Any, mind you. They came for the rich trumpet vines and zinnias, the red honeysuckle and the jasmine. They came every year, setting up house, tending the wondrous Eggs with devotion until they hatched. Sometime in early August, they would teach their young to fly.
I remember the first time I saw baby hummingbirds. I thought they were exceptionally large insects. They certainly didn’t fly like hummingbirds, drunkenly weaving about in a bumbling fashion. Then I saw the older hummingbirds herding them into formation–not attacking them, but showing them how it was done. Every year after that, I looked for them, watched them settle in, have families, and teach their young what they knew. It became a part of my life in that city, a yearly ritual, like marking the swing of the sun back to True East along the horizon.
My mother has filled a hummingbird feeder and put it in a good spot to catch sight of visitors to it. True, there are plenty of hummingbirds in the South, but they will always hold a special place in my remembrance of the Southwest. It was the place where I came to know them best, saw them most clearly. For me, they belong to that part of my Self still in that High Desert valley, watching the sun rise and set, the seasons change, the progression of time.