The Fifth Season

Sent to me via email from Jake Sigg.  I think this is an eloquent restatement.

The old complaint about California not having seasons is, of course, wrong.  The dry season is California's winter, its plant dormancy period.  For some reason, though, our culture doesn't really want to acknowledge the dry season.  Millions of people swear by cold winters, and like nothing better than to put on down parkas and romp in the snow.  Very few revel in cavorting through the chaparral and dry grass on a blazing California August day.  The very idea seems perverse, although dry-grass cavorting is actually the more "natural" of the two pursuits according to generally held theories of human origins.  A biped ape of the African savannah would certainly be happier in a California August than in an Ohio January.  Perhaps modern humans are repelled by the dry hills because it reminds some forgotten corner of their brains of a time when there were leopards and baboons in the tall grass.

Californians tend to treat their dry summers as though they were embarrassing lapses of taste.  They cover them up, sweep them under the rug.  Cities are full of evergreen plantings and painstakingly watered lawns.  For every garden of native grasses, chaparral plants, and oaks, there are thousands of artificial edens of hibiscus, banana trees, and tree ferns.  Freeway borders are carefully, almost obsessively, planted with evergreens--eucalyptus, oleander, redwood, pine--anything to avoid showing the traveler a bare branch or a patch of dead grass.  Somehow the barrenness of a snowscape is considered pretty, that of a bare landscape ugly.

I think we lose something important by covering up the dry season--the element of change.  Change is the one universal attribute of life, and it is often very frightening; but attempts to avoid it usually turn out worse than letting it happen.  The green and white California cities look a little like cemeteries during the dry season.  There is a similar preoccupation with an eternal springtime.  Like most easterners (I grew up in Connecticut), I was favorably impressed with eternal springtime when I first came to California in 1968, but I've since come to view it with suspicion.  There's something embalmed about it.  The wrinkled body of the old, unwatered California may be a little scary, but it is the true source of renewal here.

There are difficulties about coming to terms with the dry season and giving it an honored place beside the four traditional Anglo seasons.  For all its harshness, the California dry season is actually quite fragile.  It very quickly shows the marks of mistreatment or neglect.  A golden meadow of dry grass and tarweeds turns into a dusty trash heap when subjected to any degree of trampling or littering.  The native perennial grasses are beautiful plants perfectly adapted to living through dry summers, but they've been largely wiped out by livestock grazing and competition from introduced annual grasses.  The native oak trees seem to be headed in the same direction, since the heavy grazing that goes on in most areas makes it difficult for them to reproduce.

David Rains Wallace, The Untamed Garden

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