Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Away to California but Back to Mid-Continent - Refinding a Hardy Ephemeral

Better late than never--courtesy of generous friends I was recently able to visit the West Coast for my first time, spending a week in Sonoma County, California. For anyone who has never ridden Amtrak's Empire Builder westward or east along the Canadian border, skirting Glacier National Park in Montana, connecting at Portland, Oregon with the Coast Starlight which climbs up and over the Cascades to chug up or down Oregon and California, it's armchair travel worth the money and the time.

I had never been in California or any of the Pacific Northwest, and never seen a palm tree growing naturally out-of-doors. Occidental, California where we stayed, is in the thick of redwood country and within the hills of the Coast Range. Taking it for granted that in our time the landscape of most inhabited places would still be recognizable to our ancestors of, let's say, three hundred years ago, the look of north central California today, take away the grape and olive plantations, the estates and the towns with their ornamental groves of imported trees and flowers, would have been the color, texture and tree outline carried home by the European horseback travelers who first scoped it out as a paradise they would come back to. Most newly-beheld places must bear a surface resemblance to a few more familiar ones, but as I made my acquaintance with the definitive trees that make this landscape what it is, redwood and tan oak, California laurel, interior live oak and Pacific madrone, I knew beyond a daydream that I was on the other side of mountain ramparts distinctly separating me from the Midwest, Ontario and New England, the places I've walked the most. Redwood profiles do not resemble those of any other conifer so far in my experience.

At Powell's City of Books, the giant used-book store in Portland, Oregon I bought introductory manuals for the trees and wildflowers of California. Especially of service was the older book, the tree guide, Trees of California by Willis Linn Jepson, published by the University of California in 1923. The circular pattern of redwood shoots' maturation into a ring of full-size trees, the centrality of redwood lumber in the history of California's statehood, and the huge diversity of pines and firs to be found if a person traveled inland and northward from Sonoma County are all impressions I gained from that little book with its exquisite pen-and-ink illustrations of cones and foliage drawn to scale in an age before photography could adequately show the hallmarks of trees, herbs or other life forms.

We passed time along the fog-drenched and wind-whipped Pacific Coast, as cold as Duluth and Two Harbors, Minnesota--counter to my expectations for some reason drawn from stereotype. My most vivid plant encounter along those state-owned pull-outs and beaches near Bodega Bay was with the pink and lavender blossoms, their anatomy so much like the fleabane from Midwestern weed patches and roadsides but squat on the ground, the flowers as broad as a little girl's hand. The leaves were three-cornered and fleshy like exotic desert foliage, but I wanted to think of these plants, creeping on the ground in typical adaptation to a place of near-constant gales, as members of the composite family which includes the daisies, asters and sunflowers. With the other purchase from Powell's, The Wildflowers of California, Their Names, Haunts, and Habits by Mary Elizabeth Parsons (Dover Publications, Inc. of New York, 1966), but most of all with a tip from my host Barbara who called it ice-plant, and then the internet, I learned that these flowers were of a totally other family called fig-marigold, or Mesembryanthemum, most members of which strayed to America from southern Africa. Ms. Parsons, the handbook's author, speculated that the three species known along the California coast may have been introduced there without the direct help of human hands.

We car-traveled around the county between the towns of Occidental, Guerneville, Sebastopol, Jenner and Santa Rosa, allowing me the chance to walk and see twelve new species of birds, most of which I wouldn't reliably meet east of the Pacific seaboard. From the bus windows between Santa Rosa and Martinez, the train stop, I saw agricultural flatland, always with the hazy storm-cloud blue of the dry mountain chain that lends its special allure and must typify the Coastal Range, the land as a whole provoking impressions not new but familiar, gathered from book- and article-reading down the years, sealed by awareness of being nearly as far west as possible in the continental U.S.

Sun, as in sunny California gives this land its reputation for days on end here, baking and cracking mud into tiles irregularly shaped in a wildfowl refuge, nearly devoid of ducks, that we passed alongside. Fields adjoined streamside groves between dwellings fenced and tree-sheltered, the evening angle of the sun mellowing the daylight across all this semi-arid country full of anonymous settlers' westward dreams of space and a moderate climate, speaking to me of my own and others' nostalgia, a life either chosen or settled for, since the settler had run out of choices on meeting the coast. I was glad to have visited here firsthand, as a validation of all the amassed reading if forgotten particulars.

In the weeks just before this trek of two weeks total, back in northern Minnesota I had watched one of the most reluctant onsets of spring ever in my memory, snows arriving like sweepings from some overhead storage loft into the month of May. One significant Saturday hour by hour gave way to a parade of overlapping winter and spring weather drama, yielding everything but thunder and lightning. That day I was driving back roads north by east from the town of Aitkin--which the previous day had hosted a rare painted bunting that had blown this way from the Gulf Coast region but likely blown homeward in the night's frigid northerly--to the locality of Meadowlands. All this countryside is nearly as flat as river delta; some of it was prehistoric lake bed and contains peat bogs. Stopping at the home and work space of good friends I went wandering toward the St. Louis River where the prior week-end I had been startled by blue-violet petals on the woods floor like a rebellion, a freakish kind of blossoming in defiance of persistent freezing. This was the native perennial known as hepatica or, as foretold by its Latin name hepatica americana, a woodland harbinger of spring in the American heartland, modest like so many cold-tolerant plants, the leaves lobed and purple-splotched, a little bit suggestive of a liver.

As I stood over the isolated flowers they looked mostly the blue of the ever-amassing and scattering storm clouds of that early afternoon rather than lavender. Any effort to start a watercolor would grow speckled by the melting-spots of snow pellets so I just took photos and hurried back to the house, the whole mood of the day become one of hurry-hurry, gales from the north overhead roaring in the woods canopy, driving clouds, admitting sun, strewing snow that switched to rain and back to white pellets. Sometimes a deluge of pellets whitened out my view from the car between meadows but before I got back among the trees the sun would boom into clarity and raise the outside temperature on the car's readout by seven or eight degrees in the fewest of minutes.

Austere border country of a kind shared between the U.S. and Canada, unlike the fields, gardens or redwood sanctuaries of California, has its parallels in a nation of less diverse culture with fewer naturalized Eurasian trees and shrubs, a more raggedy, homogeneous bushland that resonates as the Canadian provinces, Minnesota and the Dakotas must with lands in Russia or Scandinavia. Inhospitable fens, cliffs and badlands beckon to some people with a fascination that might be akin to the aura of moldy basements, industrial ghettos or warehouses to people who play dungeons and dragons or make photos of failing architecture in all its glory of attempted perfection.

Accompanied fittingly all those driven miles by a CD on the car stereo, Nordic Roots, "An ideal introduction to the vibrant traditional music scene developing across the Nordic lands: incredible playing, catchy tunes, brilliant arrangements and strange instruments playing pre-medieval as well as modern compositions", produced by the label NorthSide in Minneapolis,  I was full of themes that deserved commingling, the hepatica or liverleaf at the center because it showed itself in the vanguard of the coming season of flowers. Infinite yearly cycles, with the yielding of winter into what may have seemed in its own time as a crippled, inadequate spring felt represented in that music and in that scene in front of my shoes, carried home in that vision that became this card image.