Early November The resident hawk Repeats its urgent calls. Where is the rain? The temperature is above eighty. Night falls with red skies Color caught by the high cirrus clouds Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes The cricket stridulations, The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch, Looking high to the south. Orion waits, trailed by Sirius, The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun And before month’s end will shine alone In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years In the town where I was born In a tiny house of my own design One room only With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea A steep roof with a skylight or two A generous porch under a sheltering eave High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years Will be spent in Santa Barbara in a spacious apartment One of many apartments For elders like myself, Close to family, a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me Wants to tell you That Santa Barbara is located At the southern end of central California. Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception Where the coast bends inland Thanks to the San Andreas Fault Flexing its muscles. So now the coastal mountains run From east to west, and most confusing of all You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west, And the direction of the setting sun Where if you sail far enough You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North shield the town from certain cold draughts. But in downpours, the mountains Shed all manner of debris From silt to sandstone boulders As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist, I’ll tell you that this knoll I call home, is surrounded By flatter land referred to As an alluvial fan, Crossed by creeks that Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate Forgetting about those vehement moments Of gale-force winds Called sundowners. Or what about the microbursts Which have been known to knock a plane Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape. Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks. Worse, it is said that all the commotion Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea With dinosaurs wandering the shallows. Later mountains rose up, Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows Down into Oak Park with its Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park With mariachis on the weekend Shouting children, Birthdays with piñatas Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge To St. Anthony’s towers And to the two rosy domes Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk Of the Santa Ynez mountains and the conical shape Of my mountain – Montecito Peak See how the angled sun Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways To where the mountains Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south Over our native garden Bordered oaks from the park To the silent creek bed. I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa Holds off the fog Until after dark, when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door The narrow porch of a garden, Hung with red geraniums And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows Hoping for wind to move the chimes. I lift my head at dawn. Do I see the silhouette of the mountains Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog That drips from trees Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning? The clink of the towhee The querulous wren The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder Leaning on every song In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker With strong beak and loud call, Or the relentless caw of the black crow, Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough To have an owl’s hoot rouse me In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest With a down comforter Books, Bouquets of pungent sage, Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale? A day ending, I suppose. With the dark coming on by five A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast Testing itself.
In the early morning hours Between midnight and dawn The rain falls I smell it first And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be The beginning of a season Of abundant rains Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
To most people, forest means stands of pines and fires or at least deciduous trees like maples, beech and possible aspen. Entering The Los Padres National Forest, just above Santa Barbara, what do you see? Steep slopes clothed with brush we call chaparral.
Chaparral is the name for that tough assemblage of mostly head-high drought-tolerant, evergreen shrubs that grow where heat and dryness is even too much for grasslands, and the soils are too thin for “real” forest. Chaparral plants are superbly adapted to our region of cool, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers. Growth and blooming occur at the end of the wet season, in early spring. Once the rains end and the heat increases, chaparral plants shut down. Tough, usually small leaves resist the desiccating sun, while roots reach ever deeper into the sandstone in search of remaining moisture.
You might call chaparral the quintessential California plant, appearing the length of the state from the Oregon border to a short distance into Mexico. Chaparral finds its most perfect expression in the mountains of Southern California where chaparral often extends from horizon to horizon.
Chaparral is associated with the Mediterranean climate which is characterized by short, sometimes wet, mild winters, and a long, often hot summer. Less than three percent of the earth’s surface shares this particular climate – most often on the west coast of a continent between 30 to 40 degrees latitude, facing on a cold ocean, with its large high-pressure air mass. The shrubs in each of these regions have their own distinctive species and go by the names maquis, garrigue, matorral, fynbos, or heath.
The manzanitas are typical of our chaparral plants. To save moisture, they turn their leaves sideways to the punishing sun. Companions are other chaparral plants like toyons, ceonothus, and scrub oak.
To ride through the unyielding and sometimes spiny vegetation in pursuit of wayward cattle, Spanish vaqueros wore leather leggings called chaps, short for chaparro, the Spanish name for scrub oak, thus the name chaparral.
Chaparral plants grow in such close association that their tops are often interwoven, creating dense canopies which protect chaparral-loving animals like the shy wrentit and certain reptiles from view.
Chaparral and fire have always been closely associated. The recent view had been that chaparral depended on fire for renewal. But now, plant scientists, support the idea that mature chaparral can remain healthy indefinitely. And often near populated areas where fires are frequent enough to burn recovering chaparral, the once beautiful and life-filled plant community, may be replaced by non-native grasses and weeds.
Where there are infrequent fires, chaparral plants return healthy and vigorous, covering the charred remains in a few years with new growth. In the meantime, the first spring after a fire brings forth a beautiful display of wild flowers called poetically, “fire followers.” Their seeds may have laid dormant for decades, sometimes centuries, waiting for their moment, when the chaparral cover is burned in a fire. Whether it’s the heat itself, or possibly certain chemicals in the smoke, the seeds awaken and a new cycle begins.
After a fire, brilliant blue and rust-colored Lazuli Buntings arrive to sing from the tallest charred branches and Lawrence goldfinches salvage unsprouted seed. The wrentits, bushtits, and California Thrashers – the species living in mature chaparral – are weak fliers and often perish in the flames.
Some years ago, I remember driving up the San Marcos Pass and amongst the charred skeletons of manzanitas, twined white morning glories. Out of the ashes bloomed annual flowers in a multitude of colors – orange poppies, purple phaecelia, yellow goldfields. As the burned chaparral begins putting on new growth, certain small perennial shrubs like bush lupine appear until finally they, too, were shaded out, and mature chaparral once again takes over the mountain slopes in all shades of green.
In spite of the tough, doughty appearance of mature chaparral, in early spring comes an explosion of flowers. On the mountainsides above Santa Barbara, the white-flowered ceonothus begins blooming in February, frosting the slopes, followed by another species with purple-blue clouds of flowers, subtly fragrant.
In the late afternoon, I remember approaching the Santa Ynez Mountains from the north. The chaparral-covered mountains looked as if they were covered with a deep purple velvet, with even deeper color in the canyons. But the illusion is dispelled on close approach when you are confronted with a wall of stiff, unyielding vegetation, discouraging further investigation except possibly on hands and knees.
Close to the coast, often growing on the sand dunes, is another assemblage of plants sometimes called “soft chaparral.” The preferred name is coastal sage scrub. The plants are smaller, softer, pungently fragrant and unlike true evergreen chaparral are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry summer. It’s here you’ll find various sages, buckwheats, and California sagebrush. I often bring home a sprig of sagebrush in my pocket to tuck under my pillow.
A GIANT IN AN ELFIN FOREST
For a conventional wife and mother who helped with homework and had nourishing meals on the table by 6 pm, I harbored very unconventional thoughts. I was drawn to books by women who lived eccentric lives, often pursuing a passion for the natural world. Lately, I had been rereading the two books by Lester Rowntree who spent nine months of the year traveling the state of California in her old Ford touring car, specially adapted to carry tools and the necessary equipment for preserving plants and collecting seeds. In the high Sierra, she walked beside her faithful burro who carried her gear.
In the late fall, she returned to her mountainside home south of Carmel where she had built a cabin on a slope, surrounded by her native plant garden, overlooking the sea. Even in somewhat domesticated surroundings, she slept with windows and doors open to encourage visits from the foxes and to listen to the changing tides and the sound of pounding waves on the rocks below.
What Lester Rowntree especially loved was chaparral — that most California of all plant communities — which makes us sisters of sorts.
Maybe it was thinking of Rowntree that made me put on my boots, sturdiest trousers, gather up field guides and plenty of water. I planned on driving up over the top of the Berkeley Hills and head east for Mount Diablo in the inner coast range of Contra Costa County.
I needed to go inland for hard chaparral like the Manzanita and its companions. My Berkeley Hills are mostly open grasslands with a scattering of soft, but durable shrub called coyote bush. On a few isolated slopes, coyote bush teams up with fragrant sages, and becomes what we call “soft” chaparral, which prefers the moister hills near the ocean.
I was looking for a mature stand of chaparral tall enough for me to crawl under. I had read somewhere that this was the only way to penetrate the thickets. I found a promising hillside, parked my car along the edge of the road, hoping to find my way back after an hour or so. I looked both ways to be sure no one would witness me dropping to my knees and crawling into the brush.
I found myself in a dim and silent world, out of the wind and the strong sun. The tight interweave of leaves, stems, and twigs made an almost impenetrable roof above. I had no difficulty skirting the leafless lower branches. With no under story plants, I had an almost unrestricted view in all directions. The going was easy. It occurred to me that I needed to surface now and then to determine my location. After pushing up through the tangle of abrasive leaves and punishing stems, I was relieved to see my car on the road below.
Submerging again, I felt more confident. I knew of the unique creatures that live in the chaparral. I’d hoped to see a stripped racer, head held high hurrying about on some secret mission, or a California Thrasher scything through the litter with its long curved bill. It appears that an unexpected presence like myself would be largely ignored. Even a shy bird like a wrentit might come close, cocking its head to fix me with its yellow eye.
But today, I had the chaparral world to myself. Remembering that I had to retrace my route downhill, I came out at the edge of the chaparral a few yards up the road from my car. My exhilaration had masked my fatigue. Tired, I stretched out on the back seat aware now of rich, redolent smell of wild plants clinging to my clothes.
SANTA BARBARA’S SUNDOWNERS
The publication “The Names of Winds” describes Sundowners as follows: “Warm downslope winds that periodically occur along a short segment of the Southern California coast in the vicinity of Santa Barbara. Their name refers to their typical onset in the late afternoon or early evening, though they can occur at any time of the day. In extreme cases, winds can be of gale force or higher, and temperatures over the coastal plain and even the coast itself can rise significantly above 100 degrees F.”
The more famous Santa Ana winds are a minor player in Santa Barbara. The Santa Anas affect the regions to the south – the Santa Clara Valley and the Los Angeles basin. Santa Anas form further inland over the Great Basin or the Mojave Desert, taking on the quality of that dry landscape. Under certain conditions, the dry air rushes through the passes of the Southern California mountains, the wind compresses and becomes hotter and drier as it descends.
Sundowners typically originate in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara where the heated air rising in the afternoon or early evening is pent up behind the Santa Ynez Mountains and rushes through the mountain passes toward the coast.
I experienced a sundowner last November when I was spending the evening at my family’s house in Mission Canyon. It was mild enough to sit outside with a light sweater. The air was calm and sweet smelling from the blooming citrus. Without warning, a violent gust of wind swept down upon us releasing a cascade of leaves from the tree above, slamming doors, and rising a swirl of dust from the path. And then another gust followed, and we scrambled to right the furniture before fleeing inside. The unrelenting, wrenching wind seemed to come from all directions. I was agitated, and dry mouthed. In less than an hour, the temperature went up 20 degrees.
The lights went out as we lost lost our power. What can be disconcerting when the lights are on, is terrifying in the dark. A thud on the roof told us a frond had no doubt been blown loose from the big palm behind us.
With no lights, and too dangerous to venture outside, we went to bed. Falling into a restless sleep, I woke up suddenly around 3:00 a.m. to silence. I waited for the next gust of wind, but none came. Even with doors and windows closed I could sense the air was now cool and moist, telling me that our normal onshore flow was back.
I knew daybreak would reveal what the wind had blown down. Even faced with a monumental cleanup ahead, we had escaped fire, which can be a companion of these sundowners.
Each Santa Barbara season has it own wind. In the winter, Pacific storms approaching the coast are carried on the south winds, sometimes reaching gale force. A passing storm, is most apt to be followed by cool winds from the north or west bringing sparkling clarity.
The prevailing northwest wind in the summer, passing over the colder off shore waters, often condenses into fog which is drawn inland by rising warm air in the valleys. The fog delivers a valuable gift of moisture. Droplets forming on leaves, drop to the ground like rainfall.
I love the wind. For me it’s the breath of life. If I lived in the high prairie of Wyoming where the wind never stops blowing, I would probably feel different. But in temperate Santa Barbara, wind brings the landscape to life. It sets the hillside grasses rippling. trees to murmur and sway, while palm fronds trash and clatter like a downpour on a tin roof. Without wind or a least a stiff breeze, the air grows stagnant and feels over breathed. Wind brings us our weather as high pressure rushes toward areas of low pressure.
Credits: Roger Bradfield for Crawling under chaparral cartoon and George Dumas, Webmaster