Yes, I live here: USDA today

If there’s one person in the world I don’t want to disappoint, it’s Will Juett, our USDA soil conservation technician and range management specialist. When the USDA office and my gallery were on the same block on East El Paso Street, and Marfa had just become my home, I was in there all the time with endless questions. 

 Who else was going to tell me the animal I saw while walking my dogs on Pinto Canyon Road was a badger? Who but Dr. Lynn Loomis, soil scientist, would tell me that the Davis Mountains are in fact high hills, (they need to be 1,000 feet to qualify as mountains). Who else would take time out of their important and pressing tasks to let me know if a plant I brought in was safe to eat? Dr. Loomis once took a bite and told me to check back the next day.

 They take their jobs seriously, have a daunting workload and yet still know when to punk the newcomer. The staff shared their homegrown tomatoes with me, left me alone to study the native grass specimens mounted on the wall in a display I coveted and secretly wished they would leave behind when the office moved out far west on Oak Street.

 Over the years, Will has shown incredible patience and magnanimity. He explained to me, in a way I was able to hear, why ranchers might not have any interest in documenting a rare or endangered species on their properties, even if it prohibited the taking by eminent domain and forced the rerouting of the proposed gas and oil pipeline that I was working with others to derail. For ranchers, in certain instances the restrictions became a burden they would prefer to live without. He never once belied his neutral position, in spite of my fervor and annoyance.

 Our recent correspondence all began as an effort to salvage my backyard from bare dirt left behind by recent trenching to move the water line. I had sent a text photo of a plant that came up in my yard to Will, asking, “Do you know what this grass might be?” 

 His response, “Looks like little barley, (Hordeum pusillum). A cool-season annual grass.”

 “Would this be considered bad news?”

 “No, it’s just an annual. Not bad news at all. Won’t ever be a problem and actually performs an important function by getting something started on disturbed ground.”

 Disturbed ground was pretty much my entire backyard. After attempts with flax, dandelions and different native grasses and ground covers, I settled on buffalo grass as the answer to my quest.

 Will had given me directions with the buffalo grass seed in his serious voice, “You’ll need to water in the beginning.”

I assured him the recent purchase of a sprinkler was a clear sign of my commitment and my every intention of success. Not to mention the rusted bedsprings I salvaged to put on top of the mulch to keep the dogs from running over and tearing up the sprouting seed.

 So, the recent text from Will asking about how my buffalo grass was doing struck at the very center of my heart. The terse, “I’m not ready to talk about my buffalo grass,” was all I could muster as a response. 

 I’ve been over here going all Goldilocks. First, the pine needle mulch was too thin and washed away with watering. Then, the mulch was too thick and only unsavory plants got through. And, in what I can only assume was a perfect amount of mulch, in this third attempt what came up looks nothing like my neighbor’s buffalo grass. So, in what can only be described as an executive decision, I quit.

 The winter freeze storm that left me without electricity and feeling somehow broken also took my lavender, cenizo, lilies and iris. On top of that, my failure at buffalo grass was the last straw, and I literally let the yard go to seed. I put the birds with their random plantings in charge. Now the yard has a narrow soft dirt path from the back door to the back gate, with a splinter path off to the compost; the rest of the yard is a tangle 3 to 6 feet tall of whatever felt like coming up. It’s joined by the brush pile AEP left after trimming the tree branches away from the power line as a focal point, if you will. I couldn’t walk across my yard in a straight line if I tried.

 There’s one part of the yard that was designated as my “secret garden” because it’s walled off on three sides, and I made a blockade fence of sorts to keep the dogs out on the remaining side. I planted yarrow, brought my succulents out to get their summer color and had hopes for many other flower seeds. What happened instead was an explosion of volunteer sunflowers. 

 Last summer, I brought home an injured sunflower plant from Pinto Canyon Road that was growing right at the edge of the tarmac and had been run over by a car. A friend laughed when I pointed out my secret garden and scoffed at the one lone small sunflower–– that sunflower got revenge. The stand of volunteer sunflowers covers an area approximately 10 by 20 feet, some an impressive 15 feet tall. It’s absolutely impassable. My attempts have left me with my hair pulled and stem burns from their rough exteriors. Now the good news about these sunflowers is the mesmerizing view from the house; watching birds, bees and all manner of flying, flitting and hovering things help themselves to the flowers and seeds in the tall thicket leaves me in a happy trance. 

 I look at the tangle of plants out my back door with mixed emotions. Wherever and whatever seeds the birds dropped determined the current design. My best efforts didn’t really take me where I wanted to go, and this new inaction on my part has proved very entertaining. The yard is rife with birds like it’s never been before. The birdbath has seen serious action this summer. It’s been the best entertainment to sit at my kitchen table and watch from the window how well the backyard world works without any effort on my part.

 Then, along comes an email from Martha Stewart to break my reverie with these “for real” suggestions. 

 “Ten beautiful outdoor spaces that will make you rethink your backyard,”

 and

 “Six things you can do to make your backyard more dog friendly.”

 No way am I clicking on either one of those. I do laugh though. I’ll go ahead and delete the home and garden tips from Martha. I’m living in this world, watching the hordes of birds swaying on tall gangly weeds from my palace of dog hair and dust, learning to relax into the respite of growing buffalo grass. 

 I’ll be back at it before long, and next summer will be different, whatever unfolds. Luckily, Will is far too kind to give me a hard time. Part of the hard work the USDA office staff does is to educate a rube, and then the willingness to do it again when necessary. I’m a huge fan of their efforts.


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