Tuesday, December 25, 2007

All That the Rains Bring

It is finally starting to be mushroom season here. The rains come through, though still not often enough, and the air is chill. The grass is starting to sprout, and the acorns have ceased hammering down on everything. The need to water the garden has finally worn off, and the fear of fire. Socks have once again come on the scene, to my children's dismay. There is frost in the valley three mornings a week. We go musseling, and come back with reddened fingers and hot bodies from the walk along the beach.

I know this does not sound like winter to most people. To the majority of Americans and Europeans, winter means ice and the death of greenery. Green is for springtime, when the ground thaws, or summer, when thunderstorms roll through after a hot spell.

But here in Northern California, winters are chilly, not cold, and so this is the season when things come alive: the moss on the trunks of the oak trees goes emerald from the rain, the grass begins to grow like a mist over the hills, and the naked ladies poke their green up along the banks of roads. We walk in rubber boots through the lengthening grass, heavy with drops; we wear sweaters and rain ponchos. It may not be frozen, but it can be tiresome, being wet for a whole season; sometimes I envy people in the deep cold, who stay dry in their low temperatures. There is something about cold water trickling into your inner clothing, and the constant presence of mud, which can get to you after awhile.

We have a Mediterranean climate, which means really only two seasons, wet and cold, and warm/hot and dry (and by dry, I mean the grass goes blonde, then grey; your nose gets dried out inside; your plants all die if you don't water deeply twice a week - and there is no rain for between five and nine months: everything dies back, goes into stasis). Spring is simply the moment when the air gets warm but the ground has not yet dried out, and autumn is when the air begins to get cold but the rains haven't come yet. Those areas where there are actually four distinct seasons always find this odd, this "lack" of seasons.

It's true that it's weird, living in a place where the leaves don't turn in the fall and there is no snow in the winter - but it's not because we miss them. Not at all. It's weird because we are constantly barraged with images and words about what it's supposed to be like. Snowmen, vast swaths of turning leaves, crocuses; these have no meaning here. All the conventions of our culture are caught up in a Northeastern perspective, a prejudice toward the "norm", which seems to be somewhere in Massachussetts. Children's books represent an entirely inaccurate world to the Western children who are reading them; seasonal cards, gardening books, and magazines misrepresent was is likely or even possible in our climate. It is as if we are colonists on another planet, yet living according to the rhythms of the home planet, the home propaganda.

Still, though we don't fit the Home-world's view of normalcy, or even the Pagan idea of summer equaling life and winter equaling death, we do have our own rhythms, our own discreet seasonal characteristics. For example, this year, in our area, the chanterelle mushrooms are late (last year, they were nonexistent, but that's another story). The candy caps, another kind of mushroom, are sprinkled everywhere, and king boletes will follow soon after; toward the spring (or our version thereof), the horn-of-plentys will be hiding themselves among the detritus of the madrone trees. Mussels abound in the winter tides, and evil non-native crayfish continue to climb inside our traps. Miner's lettuce springs up everywhere; ferns uncurl their buds for us to pick. There are still baskets full of California hazelnuts, and if we wanted to eat the native acorn meal there would be a whole winters' worth of it available. Winter is a time of unfurling, of strange abundance, of cold and happy movement.

Summer, on the other hand, is nature's empty time here, a time of drought and fire peril and little native harvest. No flowers bloom, nothing lives without tending. Our small vegetable plots need constant attendance to keep them alive through the heat and the dryness. There are no walks in the woods looking for bounty, only looking for shade, watching for smoke. The red tides come and shellfish are forbidden. The ground is hard and unforgiving, so even looking for roots would be difficult. By October we are watching the endless parade of hot days anxiously, cocking a weather eye to the flame-fanning wind, crossing our fingers against arson.

I often wonder what it must be like for the other colonists, the ones on the planet Louisiana, for example, living with their swamps and their gardenias. Do they read the Home-world's books, listen to the Home-world's broadcasts? Give each other cards with snowmen on them at this time of year? How do they feel about their lack of seasons?

Or that far-orbiting Australia, world of Christmas barbecues? Do they tire of the messages coming in on the ansible, telling them they are backwards, wrong, out-of-step with the real seasons? Or do they simply ignore the Americans and Europeans telling them these things, and make their own cards, their own books?

To all my fellow-colonists, and to those of you on the Home-world who would like to become colonists: beware. For out here, the Home-world plants sicken and die; the children don't learn the arts of Home-world clothing; the old arts are lost. But there are wonders beyond imagining: the lightning-fire orange of the endless poppies at the break between Wet and Dry, the yellow-bellied newts migrating to some unknown place, the electric buzz of the hard summer sky around the edges of the trees. The first chanterelle, which I found today. If the Home-world abandoned us now, I think we could find our way, if we only looked around us at what is here.

How is it with you others, in your far-flung worlds?

As for us, we are on the verge of bounty.


Carinthia said...

Hi Heather, greetings from planet Louisiana. I loved your description of winter in your part of the world, and I agree with you that the popular conception of the cold season has certainly been skewed to represent an idea that simply doesn't exist for many of us. Here in LA we experience winter as a time of cold and wet as well, although things are more in a state of hibernation overall. After the first freeze (usually in mid-December or so) most of the vegetation dies back,(excepting of course for the great forests of long-leaf pine), and the swamps exist as cypress bones and cold, dark waters. The snakes and alligators lie low, mosquitos die back (finally) and our landscape changes from a jungle garden to one of muted greys, browns, and quiet. It is beautiful, but in a different way, and allows you to see what is normally hidden behind layers of lush vegetation in the summertime. It only lasts for a short time, however - as March arrives the warm and the sun return with him. And although it is not unheard of to have snow in Louisiana (especially in the north) generally our snowmen DO only exist on Christmas cards. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a wonderful, evocative post! I grew up in the desert in Southern California, but went to college in Davis and lived afterwards in San Francisco before coming East. (I now live in that mythical home-world, Massachusetts.)

Oddly enough, of the seasons here winter reminds me most of the desert--the trees are bare and skeletal, so you can see the ground and the hills that are obscured by green much of the year. And the weather itself is dangerous. Having grown up in the desert, I'm ambivalent about moisture, and I do indeed prefer, if it's going to be cold and wet, that it be cold enough for the wet to be snow. 28 and snowing is preferable to 38 and rain--and far preferable to 33 and freezing rain!

I describe the seasons of Northern California to my friends as being three: Green, Gold, and Brown. Green, of course, is the season you so beautifully describe just beginning. Gold is the shortest season, but beautiful. And Brown is that dry and sometimes worrisome season when the reservoirs and the fires need an eagle eye.

Angelle Haney Gullett said...

Thanks for a really beautiful post.

This is my first winter spent away from the valley of the Miami River in Ohio; my first winter in the valley of Saint Ferdinand in sounthern California. And I am reveling in the strangeness of Christmas garlands over blooming roses, of strong wind that carries no thunder, and of red velvet cyclamen growing willy-nilly in the open rather than in fussy and carefully-husbanded pots.

I want to acclimate, to assimilate, but not to lose the wonder. I want the old norms to be the new strange, and this life to continue to make me laugh out loud in its sci-fi-ness.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a beautiful post and happy new year to you and yours. Greetings from Planet Wisconsin. For the first time in many a year it is truley winter in these parts. Nature's snowy blanket (a good foot deep) is keeping all her creatures warm and allowing the more adventurous among us to wander and explore. Imagine the delight in coming upon fresh four-legged tracks on the frozen shoreline of the Mississippi River, the flick of a deer's tail or the rust coloured blur of a shy fox. And always keeping watch, bald eagles perched in the tree tops or riding the thermals. Not many two-legged venture out into this magical landscape but for those of us who do, it is indeed a wonderland. With all this (and more), who needs snowmen and twinkling lights? Enjoy your season's wonders and its returning light.

Lisa Falzon said...

"It's weird because we are constantly barraged with images and words about what it's supposed to be like."

Was just thinking about that last week! I come from a little mediterranean island and as a child I always felt christmas cards represented an 'elsewhere' which I yearned to experience. I used to think it was synonymous with 'abroad'. Although now I've come to see very few place in the world look like Christmas cards do.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry you feel dictated to from afar. I had a curious conversation with a friend in Australia, about exactly this - the ideas of what comes with each season and how it is played out. She says they paint fake snow on the windows and cut down pine trees to emulate our winter weather (a guilty Massachusetts native cringes and apologizes). This year she decided to decorate a local tree with upside down lights, and celebrate on the back porch in the sun. Sounds lovely. I'd try the beach on Winter Solstice in a heartbeat.

I am always pleased to hear from other home planets. I had not realized we produced quite such an overwhelming image of what should be. Actually, I assumed it was northern European and we inherited it, along with the hair colors, eye colors and languages of our forebears.

D said...

Read a few novels by JC Oates between xmas and new year's, her language somehow flat (while very well written). Soothing to read this rich text, thank you.

In Sweden we usually get the very typical four seasons but with 8 months of barren cold. Not sure where to go to find the archetypical seasons of western culture. London?

I live on the south-west coast of Sweden since a few years. Wet and almost always above freezing all year round. Summer is bliss, sometimes a whole week without a full day of rain.

annie said...


Thanks for changing my view. Being from Southern California, I used to yearn for that "homeworld" and regularly express discontent the local climate. For the first time I honestly feel that it's a "grass is greener" situation. Not that I don't want to go try new thing and live different places, but until i can I'll enjoy what's special here more.

Lady Meerkat said...

I know this is an old entry but I thought I'd respond anyway. I'm in Melbourne Australia and we don't get snow though we sometimes get frost. While snowy portrayals of Christmas are the norm here (we do have snow in winter in some areas) there are exceptions with an Aussie spin. Santa wearing a broad hat and red shorts for example.