"He had never liked California; he missed the winter. He hated his stepfather's garden in
Berkeley with rose and daffodils and tulips and irises all blooming at the same time, so that there was never anything to look forward to."
Birds of America
, Mary McCarthy, p. 10
They don't realize how dumb they sound. I know it's unkind, but somebody has to shine a light. Saying "the seasons don't change in California" is a pronouncement dear to every newcomer's heart, and thus absolutely vital to share with people who already live here. We locals wonder: Did they think the weather was going to be the same as is in Iowa? My conclusion can only be yes, they did think the weather was going to be the same as it is in Iowa. Best of all is the implication that our seasons are some kind of moral failing— aren't we ashamed of our winter's failure to snow? Real seasons change harder; none of this louche pussy sunshine and cold summer nights. Widely hated tech guy and vocal critic of San Francisco Peter Shih put it predictably: "I hate how the weather here is like a woman who is constantly PMSing. I hate how I can't tell the difference between August and February. I hate having to always carry a jacket because of the 20 degree swings between day and night." Although Shih himself later said his complaints had been "idiotic and childish," they remain representative. Emphasis his.
I grew up weeding a garden next to a redwood forest, so local seasons have always been obvious to me, often via their ability to be much colder than expected, see disputed Twain quote about San Francisco summers. And I understand that most people don't learn about planting cycles until later in life, nor do they usually know at age seven exactly how old chickens are when we eat them (Two seasons from puffy chick to "fryer.") Naturally all that affected how attuned I am to changes in the weather; I know when spring is coming, because the wild iris fattens up on the sea-side of hills, among other things. I also grew up in a single-wide mobile home, meaning the weather was never more than six feet away from me, and the walls were thin. My father thought it was funny to describe what lightning would do to "this little tin can" if it ever hit; large branches fell loudly in the night, often stabbing houses during rainstorms that flooded the valley hollows. Common winter sight, to this day: Family wagons stopped pensively in front of overflown routes, a head poked out of every window to assess the water's depth— "Think we can make it, kids?" Every winter whole trees come down, crushing cars as they try to flee along the narrow roads. And I took the bus to school (the yellow one then owned by the public school, imagine) so I could tell the difference between August and February easy, because only one of them meant I was at the bus stop early a.m., breaking puddle ice.
So I'll let you in on something— Northern California seasons flash signals which I concede are quiet next to crass, Peak Season showboating. Two such signals are my favorites: First the neon spring green tips of redwoods and later, the high shallow arc described in the air when underbranches turn bright rust and name the calendar quadrant: Fall.
I see the spring come as soon as the old conifers sprout that bright new manicure. Needles are well-named and tough; you don't want to grab at them with bare hands, for example. Redwood needles are small spikes compared to a big shaggy pine in the mountains; still, the mature dark green ones will poke you. But the spring green tips are soft because they're babies, soft like feathers, and people have been known to draw them across their cheek just to feel how new they are. They're edible, too, and you'd guess a piney taste but they're sour and chalky, like most quick growth. Over the summer they darken and stiffen. Some hang on, while others prepare to jump.
In school in Northern California, students are made to draw the same snowflakes, turning leaves, and deciduous trees as students do in other places— where exactly are holly berries, White Christmases, and spring egg hunt days on which it doesn't rain? Not the South. Not Utah. Not Montana. Not Maine. Iowa, I guess? But in this country we're all trained to see seasons using only the signals of this boring ur-place; of course it makes us blind to the "secrets" right in front of us. I learned to see my own place, specifically to see the wind arc of autumn redwoods thanks to a book of fairy tales. I don't know who gave it to me, but California Fairy Tales by Monica Shannon, illustrated by C.E. Millard, bears my name, address, and phone number in penciled handwriting so awkward I couldn't have been more than ten when I got it. It has an Art-Deco style cactus on the front. Typical bit:
Then the Sprite described his redwood stump house to the Handmaiden, telling her, too, about the pink phlox that goes gadding over the forest.
"And just now," said the Sprite, munching tender water cress, "the alumroot and redwood sorrel are in bloom."
"Do let us go," said the Handmaiden. "I have never seen a redwood stump house with a chimney that doesn't smoke!" pp. 70-71
The book is full of Valencia oranges, Joshua trees, tortillas, desert moonstones. In addition to talking pigs and Princesses Gaviota, its characters are Irish, Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, and Native American. I wish I could tell you they all get treated respectfully, but the book was published in 1927 and its intentions are good but its language is sometimes awful. Not worse than lots of things you could see in a children's book published today, but even as a child I chose to read certain stories only once, while I repeated others many times and to this day.
And having been so encouraged to think of the forest as an art deco experience, one day I could see the arc. Wind from the coast blows west to east, coming into western Sonoma County high over ridgetops, huge gusts just in time to relieve the trees of the rusty branchlets they don't need or want anymore. The uprightness of the trees acts as a secant to show off the shallow curve of the tips' path as they descend. They're not in a hurry, and they don't flutter. They look like they're floating down in water. Often they're freighted with a small cone; these go faster. From a vantage point in the meadow next door, the release can be seen repeating and repeating. It tells you the gourds are almost ripe, you'd better can the tomatoes now, and there's no more miner's lettuce this year. It tells you rain's on the way, but in the meantime there are going to be some nice hot days for hiking.
Provided you're not Peter Shih— the seasons hide from him, as do I. But we can only stay hidden for so long, and the funny thing is that newcomers, even angry ones, tend to stop complaining pretty quickly. They join us in shoveling down our good food, munching tender water cress. They take up walking outdoors. They live through a winter, realizing that because the seasons don't change hard enough, because there is no snow, a lot of housing is built without adequate insulation or heating. And they become more aware of the seasons. I don't know if they'll ever see the spring green tips of redwood trees or the arc of them falling, after all, I've always lived here and it took me years and a fairy tale to see them.
is a San Francisco based writer. She was born in Moffitt Hospital at the UCSF Medical Center, but grew up in a mobile home on a farm in hippie country, now called wine country. Some people think this makes her a San Francisco native, and some don't.