Dawn is breaking now by 5:30 on California’s central coast. I like to see the day start from high up in the hills, and don’t like the heat of the Sun, so I try to get my walking done early. [Photo 1: Ceanothus spinosus flower at dawn.] Besides I have children to send off to school and work to do. I go walking maybe 6 days a week. But this early light is new to me. Back in December, I walked by the light of a headlamp for much of the hour and a half or two hours that I was out.
Walking in dark canyons with sometimes rushing water and sometimes fog or mist can be unnerving. Deep down people are afraid of the dark. I am. It’s mainly the unknown, what lurks that cannot be seen in the darkness—our own fears. The Buddhists tap into fear by spending nights alone in the charnel grounds where people are cremated to appreciate the transience of life perhaps or to shock themselves to illumination.
I’m not afraid of ghosts; the face of my fear is large predators (mostly four legged, the two-legged ones less so). Really, I know there’s far more real danger in stumbling off a precipice. But in conversation, someone’s wife’s friend has always spotted a mountain lion while she was hiking; I have yet to meet anyone who has actually seen one for herself. But it must happen. And people are indeed attacked. The knowledge of the possibility is enough to give substance to the fear. But statistically I know too that the chances of being attacked by a mountain lion rival winning PowerBall or being hit by a meteor—it doesn’t happen.
The fear lives, though, and sometimes when my pack rubs against a branch or my footstep sounds more hollow than I expect, I turn off my light and stand motionless and listen, or I’ll turn to look behind me to see if I’m being followed. I know it’s silly and that I’ll find nothing, but I know also that a mountain lion would dispatch me before I knew it had happened. A bright flash of light deep behind the eyes as my neck snapped would be all.
French geomorphologist and ethnologist Jean Malaurie recounts hunting with Inuits in winter in western Greenland up by Elsmere Island before the U.S. airbase at Thule was built in 1950. The Inuits could see white-furred fox against the white snow in the dark of the moon well enough to shoot them. As far as Malaurie was concerned, the Inuits could see in the dark. I cannot and, at least part of the year, must live with the dark if I want to walk early. And, to be truthful, I love the dark; when I first see that the days are getting longer and the nights less, I feel a sharp pang of regret. Still, as the light of day breaks, I’m relieved. The canyons are just canyons and the chaparral is just itself. Usually, I’m high above the canyons by that time anyway. [Photo 2: Hills in early morning. Photo 3: High up. Photo 4: Looking down.]
These walks get me up in the morning and give me a chance to see the sequence of seasons through the lives of the plants in this area. Sometimes I take pictures.
Just now spring seems to me to be ended, but the colorfully named farewell-to-spring (Clarkia bottae) is pretty much at its peak. It is found in the chaparral where I walk along the margins of washes in somewhat protected spots. [Photos 5,6,7,8: Farewell-to-spring.]
Some plants like large-flowered phacelia (Phacelia grandeflora) and Frémont’s death camus (Zigadenus fremontii) that in mid-February were just beginning to flower are now looking a little shabby. [Photo 9,10: Large-flowered phacelia. Photos 11,12: Frémont's death camus. ]
The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) that until the last week looked as bright as ever is fading as the remnants of the last rains evaporate from the surface soil. Photo 13: California poppy.]
And the crimson pitcher sage (Salvia spathacea) that also began flowering in mid-February looks stately in its maturity [Photo 14: Young crimson pitcher sage. Photo 15: Mature crimson pitcher sage.]
An invasive, naturalized bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) aggressively colonizes burn areas, where shrubs such as toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) that are adapted to periodic wildfires grow up from rootstocks and begin to flower once again. [Photo 16: Bindweed close up. Photo 17: Bindweed covering a hillside. Photo 18: Toyon flower buds.]
Bush or sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) has begun to flower in the last few weeks. These are orange colored flowers that are supposed to look like grinning monkeys (I’m not sure I see it), and they attract hummingbirds. The genus name comes from the same root as that for the ancient Greek theater tradition in which everyday occurrences were extemporaneously mimicked (think mime). I see monkey flowers in a range of habitats from moist sheltered locations to shalely dry ones. [Photo 19,20: Bush monkey flower.] Mimulus is a big genus with lots of showy flowered plants. In this climate, they make good garden plants too.
Back down in the canyons, canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides) grows; it’s also found in moist, sheltered or north-facing spots higher up, generally below 3000 feet. It seems to flower virtually all year long, looking in January only somewhat duller than now. Another plant found ubiquitously (in canyons and chaparral) is poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). It grows well almost everywhere I see it, and I think it is far more vigorous than its eastern cousin poison ivy (T. radicans). [Photo 21,22,23.]
I’m usually hurrying, often partially running, by the time I get down to the canyons again. In the morning light, they’re lovely and cool, and there’s nothing unnerving about them [Photo 24: Water fall. Photo 25: Canyon floor at stream crossing.]
Enjoy the rest of spring.