Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Songs of praise

Oh, wow. I woke up this morning, and the marine layer was back. It didn't last long, but I actually needed to pull up the sheet last night because with the fans on, I was a bit chilly. This, after the weather we've had, is nothing less than a miracle. Now, don't get me wrong, the overcast didn't last long, but it's not supposed to this time of year. It is, however, supposed to be there of an evening, and it has been tremendously disturbing to my equanimity that it hasn't been.

I'm good with extreme weather. I grew up here in California, and I've lived in the San Joaquin Valley, in L.A., in the Bay Area, and here in north San Diego county. I've spent stretches of time in Lake County and in the Trinity Alps. I get changeable weather. Over the year in Sacramento, it goes from over 115 in August to below freezing in the winter. Now, I know that 115 doesn't seem too bad to those folks out in Tucson, and freezing is nothing to everyone who lives in points north, but remember, you've got to have closet space to cover what you need for both kinds of weather; this requires planning. As a child, we used to go to San Francisco sometimes from Sacramento, and I'd remember leaving, the sun pinning us to the driveway like helpless bugs, and my mother would say, "Take a sweater." We'd look at her like she had sprouted a spare eye in some unsightly place and refuse. Two hours later, we'd be freezing in fog-bound SF, wearing summer clothes on a 50-degree day. (Later, when I lived there, we laughed at tourists who did that.)

I must confess here to a love of fog. Maybe it's the memory of the relief I felt at stepping out of the car and feeling the cold, instead of unremitting heat and sun. Maybe (as my husband firmly believes after seeing how happy I was the first time I went to Ireland and it rained on us for days) it's some remnant of my Irish genetic past, telling me to seek cooler climes. All I know is that the weather that makes me happiest is brisk. Some (such as my dear friend from Hawai'i), might even call it cold. I honestly would far rather spend the day in jeans and a wool sweater, walking along a beach in 50-degree weather, the wind making my cheeks cold and red, than lie on a towel on the sand on a 90-degree day with the sun making my skin hot and red. Hiking in a raging wind makes me happier than anything in the world. I stand on a ridge, and with the wind in my face I am sure I could just lift my arms and fly. (This is, perhaps, the largest part of my fear of exposed precipitous heights. There is this small part of me that wonders how it would feel to free-fall through the air; I'm sure it would be great right up until the landing, and I hate to imagine the second thoughts I'd have for about 10 seconds if I ever tried it.)

In spite of that preference for cold that draws me north just as often as I can get there, I love California in the sun, too. In spite of the snide comments of those in other parts of the nation that we have no seasons here, we do. They are just off-kilter from traditional seasons, and sometimes tremendously subtle. Far from the usual white winter, muddy spring, green summer, and red fall that story books show, we've got green winters. The rains come, and like some kind of miracle in December, little sprouts of grass show up all over the hills. Plants get tremendously excited by the chance to reproduce and wildflowers cover the hillsides by March. Sage grows rampantly, as does the poison oak, and in some places, if you know where to look, you can begin to stake out claims on blackberry futures (always knowing that you will pay a price in poison oak to get there). By May, the grass is turning brown, and summer is starting; this is the season when the hills take on the aspect of sleeping lions, brown and lazy in the sun, looking as soft as velvet. The sage and fennel bake in the heat, and hiking at this time of year means coming home smelling like a Thanksgiving turkey. If you're lucky enough to live in a fog belt area, you can walk the hills under bay laurel trees, and come home with leaves that make your hands smell of far-away places. Fall here is fire season, and the color in the foliage comes not from our oaks, but from the poison oak, which shows off its hiding places with bright red flags, laughing that you didn't know it was there earlier. All the other colors at this time are in sepia tones: olive, brown, sage, grey; they are subtle and lovely, and it is texture that gives the landscape depth.

I went to the LA County Museum of Art with the girls this past spring, where there was an exhibit of art depicting California. There were two huge paintings by an artist whose name (alas) I cannot remember; but the paintings are burned in my memory. They are my state as I see it. One was entitled simply "The Ocean", the other "Hills". The ocean is all shades of greys and blues; not the bright turquoise of a Mediterranean sea, or of the Caribbean, but quiet tones, blending into the sky; the horizon line blending in almost seamlessly. The hills are the velvet browns of fall, sleeping, and waiting for rain to bring them to life with grass and landslides; these are the hills that Native Californians called the walking hills because they move each winter as water undermines them. There was a quote from the artist. Someone had asked him if he had a religion, and he replied, "I think it is California". I get that.

I know there are other beautiful places, and that other people find California appalling in its self-aggrandizement (so do I, sometimes), but that is not all there is. True, there is something about LA, its brashness, that appeals to me (for short periods of time). And I have always adored Berkeley, where no matter what I do, there are a dozen people within arm's reach who are weirder, more opinionated, more out there than I could ever hope to be; I love the concealing cover of their doings. The exuberance is worth valuing in its own right. But most people, who think of Hollywood as the epitome of this place, don't know its quieter beauties. They don't know that most of the state is rural, and conservative, and much of it is poor. Not just the urban poor who are noticed once a decade, when Oakland is crowned the murder capital again, or when LA riots, but those who live in places that are relatively untouched by urban woes. Who grow many of the crops that have made this such a rich state, including the illegal ones that are stashed away on federal lands in the mountains of the north; if you grow dope on federal property, the land can't be confiscated when the crop is found, right?

Working with Native Californians as I do, the point of most commonality for me is this attachment to place. Not to a movie California, but to a land of variety and subtlety. To the way the red clay mud sticks to your feet in the winter, making you slip and slide when you hike. To the smell of the air when rain falls on sage. To the blind feel of walking through tule fog, trying to breath cold, wet air. To coming over a rise and coming face-to-face with a kestral, hovering in hopes of flushing a ground squirrel; or meeting up with a coyote, who looks up with a wise, knowing smile; or seeing a heron rise from a marshland beside the freeway, wondering where the rest of its swamp went when it wasn't looking. That's a different kind of thing, more timeless, more about an attachment to an ecosystem, to the feeling of being one small but integral part in a seamless whole. Sitting on a beach, watching the land meet the sea, I have brief moments of feeling that unity that Buddhists seek. I feel it hiking through a sepia landscape, watching for the small changes that tell me it's going to be hot, or cool; seeing fog drip from live oaks. I could probably feel this in other places, but this is where I am, so this is where it happens most comfortably for me.

All this is by way of saying that it bothers me on a deep level when something is off-kilter in this ecosystem. And this weather is way off-kilter. I know heat. I know the Santa Anas that pour in from the desert, ionizing the air, driving up the temperature, and making everyone crazy. This past week has been weird, still, humid weather. Not at all normal, and frankly, not to my taste. I know people who say that they love humidity, but I figure either a) they've never experienced humidity, or b) they're lying. I mean, how is it possible to enjoy feeling sweat trickling down your back just because you're exerting yourself by breathing? I used to visit my Nana in Rhode Island in August, and man, that is some miserable weather. Like breathing through warm, wet wool (now, breathing through cold wet wool is called "damp", and I like that). Anyway, cold and grey at night, and warm during the day. That, my friends, is what September here is supposed to be like, and it had damned well better stay that way.


Anne said...

There's nothing like that sense of place! When I am being a lit person that's what I do--so the feelings you describe resonate for me with a number of the texts I've studied. Interestingly, too, you took me back to the feeling I had arriving in Montana for grad school. As a lifetime New Englander I felt that the top of my head had come off, or something. I had NO problem understanding why it's called Big Sky Country...

Between meetings and swim practice I knitted 80% of my swap pal's sock yesterday!

Fiberjoy said...

You've opened a window into a California not often noticed. I remember driving through the reaches of the hill country above Sacramento on the way to Diamond Springs and wishing I were crossing the land on a horse to really get a feel for it and to breath deeply its scents. California seems such a vast, varied land wanting to be slowly explored and experienced. I had a friend in college who called herself Sage for the sagebrush of her most favorite place in the world: Death Valley.
Thanks for sharing this thought provoking post.

PegF said...

Thanks so much for your "song of California." When conversations turn to discussions of ethnic or national heritage, I don't say that I'm of French, German, or Russian ancestry -- I tell people that after four generations, I'm "Californian" down deep in my soul. I identify more as a Californian, sometimes, than I do as an American. (especially when our idiot-in-chief does something particularly stupid and/or embarrassing)

Like you, I've lived many places in the Golden State: the Central Valley (my dad was an inspector on both I-5 and the Aquaduct), Orange County, San Luis Obispo, Davis, and now, Oakland. My first husband was a pilot in the Marine Corps, so we spent several years bouncing between Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Arizona -- which only made me appreciate "my" state even more when we returned.

Anyway, you're not alone in your love for -- and frustration with -- this wonderful place. Thanks.

And thanks, too, for your blog in general. Can't remember how I came across it, but I'm glad that I did.