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My California

I imagine that people who have never visited California picture it as beaches and palm trees. California = beaches and palm trees. It is true that the state has an abundance of both when compared to most of the rest of the world, but for me those are not the things which make the place feel like California. I suspect that every person who has visited there will have their own list and those lists will vary greatly depending on which part of the state they went to and what interests them. I lived in California for the first eighteen years of my life and this is a photo tour of my California.

The first thing I wish I could share is not photographable. It is the feeling of the air. I can sense the ocean in the humidity and mildness of the air even in the parts which are hot and dry. It is like a blanket, mostly comforting though occasionally stifling. When you get within a few miles of the ocean you can smell it and taste it in the air too, but further inland it just gives a feel to the air that is gone once you cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. That air makes me want to wear light clothes and put on sandals, even if I’m there in January.

Of course we must start with a palm tree. They definitely feature in my California.

But for me palm trees probably mean something different than most of the world. This particular palm sits in the middle of the next-door neighbor’s lawn. It used to be much shorter and there used to be two of them. They were constantly full of the sound of cooing pigeons, burbling, nesting, flapping as they flew in and out. I know my neighbor thought of them as a huge nuisance, but I liked them. There were other birds too. Sometimes we’d find baby birds that had fallen out of the nest and attempt to save them. It never worked well, but we tried. One year a pair of kestrals decided that the palm was a good nesting place. We got to watch them teaching the fledglings. The neighbor kids caught some of the fledglings and kept them in a cage for a few days before they were informed that holding birds of prey is illegal. The parents came and retrieved the fledgelings as soon as they were freed. But the coolest of all was the pair of barn owls who lived up there, one per tree. We’d see them fly out in the evenings and sometimes heard them. We sometimes searched for, and found, their owl pellets on the ground. I loved knowing that owls lived in the palm next door.

So for me a palm tree is a bird sanctuary. I love them for that, though they are, sadly, not easy to climb. Some time in the past fifteen years squirrels moved into the neighborhood and took over the palm tree. This did not please my neighbor, who put a metal sheath around the trunk to keep them out. So now the squirrels nest everywhere else instead. Once chased out, the pigeons have not come back. The palm tree is quiet now.

While I’m talking about trees, this is a pepper tree.

You see them all around the bay area (surrounding San Francisco bay.) They’re like willow trees in that the branches droop and trail. This one has been trimmed. By preference the branches will trail all the way to the ground. We had two of these next door as well. I loved the spicy smell of the leaves, it was particularly sharp when they were crushed. This meant that pepper tree leaves were part of many childhood potions. As pepper trees age, they hollow out in the middle. Old ones become something of a hazard because they split open or branches fall off. We knew that one of them was hollow because it was filled with a beehive. We called it the Bee Tree and stayed away from it. I have many bee tree stories, but that would be too long a digression for this tour.

This same neighbor (she had all the interesting plants) had cactus.

There were century plants, prickly pear, and that tall one. We used to go pick spines off the cactus for part of our games and she used to scold us and tell us not to. About four years ago one of her century plants finally sent up a tall spike and bloomed. Supposedly they only do that once per century, so I guess the cacti had been there for a while.

Further out than my neighbors yard, I have fond memories of these juniper bushes.

They have the weirdest looking berries.

People always complained when we picked things off their decorative plants. So we only picked a very few when they weren’t looking.

In our front yard we had a bed full of ivy just like this.

I think someone planted it picturing it climbing up the brick of the house. Instead it wanted to take over the ground. We didn’t like the ivy much, but the big snails who lived in it were pretty cool. We liked them. I think my parents finally got rid of the ivy on their third major eradication effort. The stuff was hard to kill.

The neighbor across the street had a bottlebrush plant.

She was a second mother to me and didn’t mind when we picked stuff in her yard.

So now it sounds like I spent my entire childhood filching plant matter from the neighbors and making potions with it, which is possibly true. Also I can see that this tour perpetuates the idea that California is filled with green and growing things. It is, so long as humans are willing to throw water around. The untended areas all look like this.

Rolling hills of yellow dry grass. (That row of trees in front is human planted.) It is lovely when seen from a distance, particularly when the wind makes the grass wave. It is also a significant fire risk, so most of the hills have fire breaks mown across them. There are also scraggly trees.

Here is an example of more natural landscape.

The trees in this photo are big because there is an aroyo right behind them. Aroyo = stream, many things in California have Spanish-based names because of the settlement history of the state.

You can see some of that influence in the architecture.

There are lots of buildings featuring stucco and slate roofs. Those clay tiles work great for managing rain, they’re awful anywhere it freezes.

This next building I have always loved. It is a feature of my home town.

I don’t know the history of the building. I’ve never even been inside. I’m not Catholic and I feel shy about asking to tour someone else’s sacred space. Maybe someday. I understand they have beautiful stained glass windows. Sometimes I got to glimpse them from outside if the interior was lit after dark.

While I’m touring man made things:

Yes it is a mailbox, but this one is my neighborhood mailbox. I walked past it every day as I walked home from elementary school. I remember the day one kid put a dead mouse inside it and hid to see if the mail lady would scream. Then he was told he’d committed a federal crime. He was terrified the police would get him so he ran away. I’ve noticed that California has lot of neighborhood mailboxes. Utah does not and I miss them. I know I can leave letters out in my personal mailbox at the end of my driveway, but somehow that feels less official than taking a short walk and dropping a letter into a tardis-blue box. (Are they bigger on the inside? Do the letters travel through time and space to reach their destination? I like mailboxes.)

I suspect the difference has to do with the fact that most California houses have mail slots on the house rather than mailboxes near the street. It is a solution to a problem. I see other solutions to other problems everywhere, the landscaping of houses for instance.

Those rocks are not a gravel drive. They are small river stones in place of a lawn. Many yards do this, have spot plants with decorative rocks or pavement. Utah is all lawns, which is somewhat silly in a high desert, but we have a huge watershed to support them I guess. Also that round tree, they are everywhere. I don’t know what they are, but the round shape is created by periodically shearing off all of the branches until you have a trunk with two or three large branches off of it. Then the tree freaks out and grows long whippy branches off of the branch stumps. It is not my favorite treatment of trees. Though the leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn and they’re great for leaf jumping.

Here is another example of California landscaping.

This yard has looked exactly the same since I was seven years old. Sadly the yard across the street removed their little decorative wishing well. They probably got tired of kids sneaking into their yard to toss things in it. Not that I know anyone who would do that. Ahem.

This landscaping was new to me, but I really like it.

They put some effort into creating a lovely scene rather than just throwing down rocks and calling it good. They’re going to spend the next 10-15 years trying to keep kids from wandering off with all those lovely blue rocks.

I could probably keep going describing the California I knew growing up. Each memory I write trails a dozen more in its wake. Instead I leave you this.

It’s a bird on a telephone wire. There are poles and wires everywhere, at least in my home neighborhood. In more modern developments they probably buried the wires. Or maybe they can’t due to earthquakes. I just know that as a teenage birdwatcher I spent a lot of time staring at birds sitting on wires. This one is a mockingbird. They don’t live in Utah and I miss them. California has lots more birds in more varieties than Utah. I miss that too. But I particularly miss listening to mockingbirds outside my window. I wish I could convince them that Utah is a nice place to live.

I visited with a friend while I was in California. She caught me looking up at a palm tree and swinging my be-sandaled foot.
“You miss California! You should move back here.”
I do miss some of it, but not all of it. I’m glad to visit, but it isn’t home anymore. I can tell, because I go to California and write a tourist-type post pointing out all the interesting things. I’m not sure I could do the same for Utah. We have interesting things, they feel normal for me and I hardly notice them anymore. California is nice to visit, but Utah is home.

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2 comments to My California

  • Gwendollynn

    The unidentified tree is a fruitless mulberry tree. They seem to be all over California. We had one in the front yard of my childhood home and dotted throughout yards in the surrounding area.

    I grew up in southern California, about 20 minutes from the beach. The community I grew up had all the same plants that you pictured. I, too, remember making potions with juniper berries, red pepper berries and bottle brush needles. Our neighbors had the same ivy surrounding their house. The hills surrounding our house were a mix of green and a lot of brown (read dead). Thank you for sharing your California!

    • This makes sense. My backyard was the one that accidentally got a fruitful mulberry tree. Eleven months out of the year we loved it. One month it was really messy. But mulberries taste pretty good.