Nature’s a language, can’t you read? — Seasons in the Southland

A FEW GENERALIZATIONS ABOUT ANGELENOS

While I caution anyone attempting to make generalizations about a group as diverse and large as the 13 million or so people known as “Angelenos,” I have nonetheless made a couple of observations about a much smaller subsection, my Los Angeles friends, that I have to assume share more widely-held views with Angelenos with whom I’m not personally acquainted. Just one example; as far as I can tell, only in Los Angeles do people say things like “only in LA” about things that happen pritnear everywhere.

In this entry I’d like to address and reflect upon another completely nonsensical but widely held view – that Los Angeles (and presumably at least the entire Southland and possibly all of SoCal) has no seasons or weather.

Los Angeles’s The Byrds weighing in on seasons…

IN ONE CORNER — THE SPOILED BABIES

View of Griffith Observatory and Downtown Los Angeles

As far as most people are concerned, temperatures in Los Angeles are usually quite pleasant. The daytime average is 24 °C. The warmest days rarely exceed 32 °C and rarely dip below 15°C . When temperatures deviate from this narrow comfort zone, legions of thoroughly-spoiled (and acclimated) complainers express their indignation on various social media and to their friends. As someone who has truly suffered through 48 °C heat and -42 °C I have little sympathy for our weather whiners — we have it so easy!

IN THE OTHER CORNER — THE BLIND HATERS

Sun over Los Angeles

The other camp express the exact opposite opinion. They complain about the lack of seasons and weather (to which they are seemingly either willfully blind and/or ecologically monolingual). When it’s hot in November, for example, they typically post things on Facebook like “Really LA? 85 [F] degrees in November?! I’m so over this city!” They’re continually threatening to relocate (or move back) to London, New York, Portland, or San Francisco but never seem to leave Los Angeles, instead remaining and inflicting complaints upon their friends year after pleasant year. This group whiners concerns me more than the former because it’s a bit like a monolinguist dismissing all languages other than theirs as meaningless noises. Both groups of fools need to get wise…

TIME OF THE SEASON 

California Coast
Image from Matt Jaffe

There are all kinds of indicators of seasons to those with open eyes, ears, minds, mouths and noses. What vegetables are at the farmers’ markets, what sorts of parties are being thrown, what type of movies are in theaters, what plants are in bloom, what are people wearing, how long are the days and nights, &c. There are also, of course, meteorological indicators but many people are maddeningly unable to recognize them.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was often asked by friends back home if I “missed having seasons.” Sure, I miss breezy, cool spring days with snowdrops popping up through the fragrant, soggy, thawing soil and swimming in the frigidly cold pond. I even miss sticky, sweltering summer nights spent drinking on a porch with a fan in the window, watching fireflies and heat lightning – and swatting mosquitoes. I miss the Rivendell-vibe of autumn twilights, when gentle winds rustle dead leaves and carry the comforting smell of fireplaces. I even miss the brittle, arctic chill of icy winters when I used to take deep breaths, play hockey, go camping, or go ice diving in frozen lakes. Despite all of that (and the fact that I rarely experience anything similar in Los Angeles) I never “miss seasons.” Mainly this is because I still have them. Thanks to our wobble wobble, everyone in every climate experiences seasons — except for the Tropics, and despite those imported palms, Southern California is not in the Tropics.

LEARNING TO READ

Typical Residential drive in Los Angeles

When people visit California for the first time (including yours truly), they often remark with surprise that it’s a desert. The popular tropical icons of the region – palm trees – suggested to me that it would be more like the city in Florida where I briefly lived than the town in Languedoc where I did for an even shorter period. I was pleasantly surprised, mind you, by this surprise. I had no interest in living in the glamorous, celebrity-obsessed, semi-tropical (or alternately gang-plagued war zone) that I’d seen depicted in film after film. I was pleasantly surprised that Los Angeles was more Latino, more Asian, more varied, more diverse, more cultured, and all around more interesting than I’d expected. I was also surprised that it was less black and less white than I’d expected, based on my previous experiences with other cities. I was absolutely grateful that it was less plastic, less violent… and not semi-tropical at all.

Santa Claus Lane

Having grown up in the South and Midwest, I didn’t arrive to Southern California fluent in the language of its chaparral seasons. I arrived in the summer and my first Los Angeles Christmas caught me completely off guard — I hadn’t noticed any snowstorms. When it started raining heavily almost every day I made an effort to learn the  native language.

CHAPARRAL

Topanga Canyon
Image source: Larisa Stow

The lingua franca of the Southland is Chaparral (or “Mediterranean”). I’ve never really liked the term term “Mediterranean,” because it suggests to me that the climate found in parts of Southern California, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Mexico is somehow a version of an original found in sea between Europe, the Levant, and North Africa rather than an indigenous phenomenon. It’s also Eurocentric, and Eurocentric understandings of Southern California have gotten the region in quite a few ways.

REMAKING SOCAL IN ANOTHER’S IMAGE

Today roughly 54% of Angelenos trace at least some of their ancestry to Europe. The largest European ethnicities in Los Angele are Spanish, German, Irish, English, Italian, and French. Of those, only two countries of ancestral origin (Spain and Italy) are dominated by a similar biome (whilst the southern parts of France have it too). In the past Los Angeles was even more European-American — even sold as the implicitly ProtestantWhite Spot of America.” European immigrants as well as American ones from the Midwest and the Northeast, often attempted to adapt the landscape to their tastes rather than adapt their tastes to their new home. Native plants were largely replaced by homeowners who desired thirsty, manicured, useless grass lawns and rose gardens like those which typified their temperate homelands.

Palm Trees on Venice Beach
Image source: huval

Developers were crazy for palms — only one species of which, the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) is actually native to the state. Despite the fact that they further tax our already taxed water supply and provide little shade, palms were popular as they gave the impression of Los Angeles being an “exotic” desert oasis or tamed bit of semi-tropics. I actually have nothing against palms but even though most people think of them as an intrinsic part of Los Angeles’s iconography, to me they look out-of-place lining streets of the semi-arid landscape framed by mountainous and palm-less scrubland. Thankfully, the palm fad peaked in the 1930s and now many of the trees are nearing the end of their lives (or being killed by weevils). The LADWP is now in the habit of replacing them not with more palms, but rather with more water-wise trees adapted to the chaparral.

THE NATURAL LANDSCAPE

Point Mugu

The area occupied by the City of Los Angeles is not a desert although parts of Southern California and  the Los Angeles County are. The Mojave and Colorado Deserts are just over the hills. One of the reasons California is so-often miscategorized as a desert is because back in the day water barons wanted to justify their huge engineering projects that redirected water from other regions, casting themselves as the city’s saviors in the process. Their projects did truly transform the environment. For example, the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys were mostly dry grasslands with trees mostly growing along the banks of streams and in the surrounding foothills — although they’d by then been transformed by centuries of use by the Spanish as grazing pastures. Major transformation of the Southland’s landscape began with the Spanish Conquest of not just the indigenous people but the indigenous environment. The Spaniards planted palms, eucalyptus, mustard and crops for both their animals, their slaves and themselves.

The hills and much of the Los Angeles Basin are still dominated by sclerophyll shrublands. In other parts of the world this biome is referred to as fynbos, kwongan, mallee, maquis, and matorral. Although I’m thankful for the shade and water, they come at a cost. I’m even more thankful that (and hopeful because) many people are increasingly embracing native plants and at least water-wise xeriscaping which often utilizes non-natives but less thirsty specimens. And while I’m at it, why don’t we have more extensive green roofs, permeable roads and river beds?

And now a look at the seasons of the Southland…

*****

CHAPARRAL WINTER

Los Angeles in the rain
image source: Rodney Ramsey

There are several indicators of winter’s arrival in Southern California. The year usually begins with a short but occasionally intense rainy season. A desert usually receives less than ten inches of rain whereas Los Angeles usually receives between fifteen and twenty. As a result of the rainfall, vegetation flourishes, the chaparral (and distant desert) blooms, and the pollen count rises – resulting in people with allergies becoming measurably crankier.

The air becomes amazingly clear and distant snow-capped mountains emerge. The nights are long and cold. Not inland cold, thank heavens, but legitimately cold — especially if you don’t have a proper coat in your possession. On average the temperature drops to about 9°C. The record low, −6 °C , was recorded on 20 January, 1922.

Winter begins with the Winter Solstice, which comes between 21 and 22 December and the sun sinks beneath the horizon around 16:45. For the indigenous Chumash, Winter Solstice meant honoring the sun with several days of feasting and dancing and it was the biggest religious ritual of their people. Winter solstice also marked the beginning of the calendar of the Tongva, who arrived some 10,000 years later.

California grows about 80% of the USA’s vegetables and fruits. In winter, asparagus, avocados, blood oranges, cabbage, carambola, cardoons, collards, grapefruit, green peas, kale, kiwis, kumquats, leeks, lemons, lettuce, Medjool dates, mushrooms, mustard, navel oranges, passion fruit, pears, pommelos, rutabaga, satsumas, scallions (good year round), spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tangelos, tangerines, treviso, and turnips are all in season.

CHAPARRAL SPRING

June Gloom in Malibu
image source: LA Observed

As winter transitions into spring, the days begin to grow warmer, longer, and usually drier with most rainfall ending around April. The first day of spring is the Vernal Equinox, which occurs around the 20th of March. Like autumn leaves elsewhere, in Los Angeles we get colorful, falling spring flowers (and flower-like spring leaves) from bottle brushes, bougainvilleas, pink trumpet trees, and jacarandas — the latter of which add a pastel beauty to the landscape yet are received with moaning from haters of beauty for the “mess” they make… on the ground… in nature.

Around the middle of the year, in late spring, the cold waters of the Pacific known as the California Current meet a high pressure formation known as the California High. The result is a thick, sticky marine layer known colloquially as June Gloom (as well as, depending on the month: Graypril, May Gray, No-Sky July, or Fogust). The weather is typically hot but the sky is overcast although rain is fairly uncommon. Instead, the thick marine layer usually burns off later in the day.

Many crops remain in season but are joined at the market by newly seasonal apricots, Asian pears, artichokes, arugula, basil, black-eyed peas, cherries, cucumbers, fava beans, fennel, fiddle heads, figs, grapes, green beans, green garlic, maize, melons, mint, morels,  nectarines, nettles, new potatoes, okra, parsley, peaches,  peppers, radishes, ramps, raspberries, rhubarb, snap peas, snow peas, spring onions, strawberries, summer squash, sweet onions, tomatoes, and Valencia oranges.

The Like

CHAPARRAL SUMMER

Charlie Turner Trailhead
image source: Ricardo DeAratanha for the Los Angeles Times

Summer begins on the Summer Solstice, which falls between the 20th and 21st of June. At Burro Flats in the Simi Hills is a painted cave that served as a gathering place for the Chumash, Tataviam, and Tongva. As the sun moves across the sky on the longest day of the year, a notched sandstone peak casts a shadow across a carving of a bear claw surrounded by carved indentations. To the south, the Acagchemem looked to the stars of Orion’s belt and the Pleiades to forecast summer’s return.

Summers tend to be long, dry and hot… hot but usually not that hot although the inland areas and valleys especially are usually quite a bit warmer than the coastal areas. At night it can be surprisingly cold — well, cold if you’ve acclimated to a climate where high teens  counts as “surprisingly cold.” Not too bad really and probably the reason a large percentage of the population has chosen to live here for thousands of years.

The days are sunny and long, ending in some beautiful sunsets and moonrises. Under those long sunny days, bell peppers, blackberries, boysenberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupes, carrots, cherries, chickpeas, chili peppers, cilantro, figs, eggplant, garlic, gooseberries, limes, marionberries, onions parsnips, pineapple guava, Plums, pluots, radicchio, ramps, sapote, shallots, shelling beans, soybeans, sweet peppers, tomatillos, and zucchini (and zucchini blossoms) flourish.


CHAPARRAL AUTUMN

Santa Ana Winds fire

Fall begins with the autumnal equinox, which occurs on the 22nd or 23rd of September. For the Chumash it fell during the month of Hutash, and was observed with a harvest ceremony which seems to have been marked with a degree of solemnity.

In autumn, the dry, hot, violent Santa Ana Winds sweep across Los Angeles as the nights grow longer and more orange. Fires are common – caused by both lightning and firebugs. Some years the hillsides burn on all sides, the sky turns ashy and it begins to feel like something from the imagination of  Dante Alighieri or Hieronymus Bosch. When the winds finally subside, the less-feared Santa Ana Fog often replaces them.

Although many are available in other times of the year, Autumn is when apples, a second crop of artichokes, Belgian endive, broccoli, carambola, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, cherimoyas, daikon, escarole, fennel, a second crop of figs, frisée, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, lemongrass, persimmons, pomegranates, potatoes, pumpkins, quinces, and rapini are all at their best.

Tom Russell – “Santa Ana Winds” (live)

…and, as seasons are cyclical, winter returns. So to repeat my earlier statement, I do miss the seasons of my youth but I don’t miss seasons. I’m enjoying them every day.

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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