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Watching the Trees Grow

Watching the Trees Grow

By Claire Wolfe

May 1, 2006

I volunteered to water the trees at the Desert Hermitage, a goodly ways south from Hardyville (where I’ve come for a long visit). I volunteered then I sighed a little sigh of penance. I wasn’t looking forward to this.

My fellow hermits have planted a baby orchard of baby trees as part of their survival gardening. Just eight in all. Apples. Pears. Apricots. Cherries. Walnuts.


These were all well-chosen for my friends’ needs. But anything will grow here, they say, if it gets enough water.

Enough water means someone goes down the hill and, while the generator operates a pump, that someone moves a hose from tree to tree for the next two hours and forty minutes. Twenty minutes and about 70 gallons per tree. The designated waterer can trudge back up the hill to do other things in between. But it’s a tiring trek, and what do you do for 10 minutes before you have to trudge right on back? So after filling up the first one or two wide earthen basins around the trees, I decided just to sit.

I figured I’d be bored out of my … er, tree.

I sat and watched a basin fill up. The water swirled, raising a dab of foam that traveled round and round. An advance guard of dampness seeped up each small berm ahead of the rising mini-lake. A dog loped up for a drink.


My fellow hermits do nothing by half measures. They did not use the easy method. Last winter, they planted each tree [PDF] in the center of its own rich pit of earth– five feet across and five feet deep, carved out by a backhoe. Into each hole went native soil and sand and a mix of compost. (You don’t always need the compost [PDF] and in many circumstances shouldn’t add it.)

I watched the water rise, knowing it was at the same time sinking almost as quickly into a huge subterranean patch of encouragement.

Three red-tail hawks glided overhead.

I got up, moved the hose, sat back down again.


The Desert Hermits have even more dogs than I do — and such a soft spot for all animals that they don’t dare get goats or pigs because “we’d probably invite them all in to watch DVDs with us.” With four-legged scavengers roving about, they’ve come up with a clever substitute for composting. Near the base of each tree, they sunk a foot-long section of four-inch PVC pipe. The bottom of each tube is open to the soil below, but the top is capped. Into these tubes go the same sort of table scraps you’d put into a compost heap — orange peels and potato skins, tea bags and rice, bread crusts and tomato ends.

Then my friends invited the earthworms in. Well, they bought the earthworms and invited them to snuggle into the earth, tunneling and carrying the nutrients from the tubes with them. We’ll see how it works.

But as I sat, watching the next basin fill with its share of the water, the trees seemed extraordinarily happy. Not at all what you might think an apple or pear tree might look like in the desert. Every tree was in blossom, a small riot of pink and white blowing in the breeze.


The day was hot and dry, the breeze as welcome to my sweaty skin as it seemed to be to the blossoms. I got up and moved the hose again, then laid back on the warm earth and gazed up at the sky.

Lying on the ground in April. In shirt sleeves. Trust me, this isn’t something we do much at home in Hardyville. July, maybe. But April? Only if you like the feel of left-over frost at the small of your back or mud squishing between your shoulder blades. But here in the Desert Hermitage the ground is deliciously warm and dry.

I watched a whisp of cloud drift overhead then dissipate.

I thought about Profound Things — thoughts that escaped my mind the instant they’d been thought, drifting and dissipating like a lonely little desert cloud.


I got up (it seemed like so much effort) and moved the hose again.

The dogs capered around the meadow. Well, meadow such as it is. The grass is yellow and sparse. The reddish earth between tufts is dotted with prickly pear and spiky cholla that my dogs haven’t yet learned how to avoid. Still, they leap happily through it, coming to me only for an occasional removal of needles from paw pads, coming to me more often for no better reason than a hug and a kiss. And what better reason could there be?

The sun began to lower toward the horizon, lengthening shadows and turning the red rocks of the Hermitage even redder. From where I sat, I could see juniper-patched hillsides and the wide expanse of a wash that (so they say) runs so fiercely when it rains that it can carry pickup trucks half a mile until they lodge against the cattle fences that cross the sand.


I know the washes can carry bigger things. Thousands of rocks and boulders attest to that. Quartz, marble, mica, sandstone, igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. They all tumble from somewhere to land for a while at the Desert Hermitage. No doubt they also move on in their own and Nature’s good time.

I sat and watched the sun falling, the wind rising, the branches wafting, and the rocks resting. And I felt like an overage southwestern Tom Sawyer.

Eventually, the basin around the last tree filled to the brim. I treked up the hill and turned off the hose. It seemed as if no time at all had passed.