Present Perfect

Sunday, January 5th, 1986

[published in THE STANFORD MAGAZINE, Winter 1986]

Though it was Friday afternoon, I was in no hurry to get back to the yard.

This was the last day of my part-time employment with the Stanford tree-trimming crew, a job I’d taken during the summer of 1985 to help make ends meet on an English lecturer’s salary. I had enjoyed the job’s remoteness from my regular sedentary occupation, its involvement with the physical resources of the university, and the opportunity to work in exceptionally large, beautiful trees.

So my partner on the tree crew waited below, while I swung back and forth, suspended on the climbing rope, and stared up through the canopy of the tree we’d been working in all day.

When I finally came down, however, I got a reprieve: The foreman dispatched my partner and me to another “short job.” A large oak on the campus property of a Stanford professor was showing some rot at the base of its trunk; it needed to be cleaned and patched. “Marx,” the foreman said, “I think you’ll like this tree.”

The tree in question was hidden from the street by a thick hedge. We walked down a narrow driveway that tunneled though the hedge and came out on a sight that stopped me cold.

Near the edge of a sloping lawn rose a colossal creature with a massive trunk, serpentine limbs, and deliquescent twigs. Its gnarled and attenuated forms seemed to crouch, grope, and stretch, filling every inch of the hedge-enclosed yard.

I don’t know how long I stood, absorbed by the tree’s immense serenity, its pure, motionless life. As my thinking slowly returned, I walked warily around the perimeter of its branches. The tree was a valley oak, Quercus lobata , displaying features typical of the breed: an asymmetrical inclination, a wide lateral spread of limbs, an open scaffolding of convoluted branches. But this was a unique specimen.
The cyclopean trunk, about 25 feet around at its base, roiled in frozen turbid shapes. A few feet up, it split into two huge sections. One cantilevered at an impossible horizontal angle for about twelve feet before spiraling aloft to a six-story height. The other thickened to a diameter of six feet and rose at a slight backward lean, towering like a cliff face of congealed lava bands. The lowest limbs drooped over their 50-foot spans to within inches of the grass and then, in defiance of gravity and expectation, turned their heavily foliated ends upward to bob gently in the breeze.

Someone had counted 170 rings in a limb that had been amputated earlier; comparing its girth to that of the trunk, one could estimate the tree’s age at about 500 years. As I came nearer to the trunk, I felt the haunting quality of that longevity, a reverence for what John Fowles, in his book The Tree , calls ” . . . a time span humanity cannot conceive. A pastness, a presentness, a skill with tenses the writer in me knows he will never know; partly out of his own inadequacies, and partly because there are tenses human language has yet to invent.”

In this tree I recognized one of the tenses for which Fowles was searching: the present perfect. The treehas beenwhere it is since it was born. It manifests all of its past within its present as accretion or as scar. It responds to stimulus not by action, which disappears, but by growth, which remains.

One limb was resting on two vertical redwood crutches that had been put in place after removal of a damaged branch on which it had previously leaned. Since downward stress is needed to stimulate the growth of “reaction wood,” buttressing at the trunk that holds branches aloft in their outward and upward reach toward the sun, the long absence of the normal pull of gravity had rendered it unable to support itself. The sculptured masses of this tree’s central frame were indeed muscular, built up by the process of ongoing work.

The removed limb had been hit by a mail truck a few years back and protective callus was already beginning to creep around the edges of the recent surgical cut. A tree cannot run from harm or heal injured tissue, so it seals up, or “compartmentalizes,” the damaged area on all sides and continues to grow around it. Approaching the trunk, I noticed a round swelling about 30 inches in diameter bisected by a deep groove, the trace of a major branch it must have lost centuries ago.

Not only was this tree a unique individual, but it was one of the few healthy-looking members of its species in the area. For the past two years, an epidemic of leaf mildew and twig dieback had been decimating the blue oaks and the valley oaks on the campus and its environs. Most people were unaware of the epidemic because it had not affected the more common coast live oaks and because the deciduous blues and valley oaks were normally bare during part of the year.

The next Monday, although I was no longer with the tree crew, I returned to see the tree again and to find out more of its history. Professor Hadley Kirkman and his wife, who have owned the property since 1950, told me that the tree may well have been responsible for the location of the university president’s house across the street and the faculty settlement in the area.

At the tum of the century Professor William Durand, the founder of Stanford’s Aeronautics Department, and his wife fell in love with the tree and its grassy hilltop location and declared, “Here we will build our house.” The house, completed in 1904, was designed by Arthur Clark, who went on to build, across the street from the Durands’ house, the Lou Henry Hoover House, home of the university’s president since 1944.

Over the years the Kirkmans have treasured their proximity to the noble tree, observed it closely, and made it accessible to whoever would appreciate it. They have offered it as a setting for university functions, weddings, and children’s parties. Art classes have often met there to sketch it, and a television production filled its limbs with actors for a large ensemble scene.

Thc Kirkmans and I persuaded the head of the university’s grounds department to accept responsibility for the tree’s maintenance and to officially name it the Durand Oak. (The university is normally not responsible for grounds maintenance on privately owned or leased properties on campus.) Two expert consultants determined that the decayed area was no cause for alarm and that all the tree needed was spraying and pruning.

To prune the Durand Oak! It was a tree trimmer’s chance of a lifetime. I asked to do it; my request was granted. Late on a Friday morning in early October, following my freshman English class, I returned to the tree. With saddle, steel-cored safety lariat, and braided climbing rope, I would climb to the top of the tree and work my way down.

As I ascended, the trunk narrowed, the bark smoothed out, the tree grew younger. In hollows along the way I scooped out raccoon and owl droppings and little piles of soil growing saplings and flowers. What an idyllic vocation, I thought to myself, above the roofs and streets of the world, heeding the call of simian ancestors, of childhood recollections, of poets’ fantasies:

Meanwhile in the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide
There like a bird, it sits and sings
Then whets and combs its silver wings.

(Andrew Marvell, “The Garden”)

The light brightened and the view widened. As I got higher and more exposed, I hugged the trunk tightly and felt my heart pound against the bark, as if it were pumping sap along with blood. At the topmost fork, I tied in my two ropes and relaxed. I was suspended by the waist, so both hands and feet could swing free.

At first, the work was not far removed from play, “our delightful task/To prune these growing Plants” says Adam in Milton’s Paradise. I slapped off the decayed wood that was dangerously ready to drop and hacked at heavy clumps of mistletoe that tore loose easily and tumbled down below. But when it came to removing live branches that had been diseased by the parasite, the going got rougher.

Hanging in a gravity-defying position for maximum extension and leverage, I had to find the angle of the cut that wouldn’t damage the branch-bark ridge, support the ten-foot pole saw’s weight while making the undercut, and push-pull endlessly through the top cut until the tenacious oak fibers would finally crack.

The unshaded sun was making me sweat. The twist of my waist, the bulge of my forearm took on the contorted shapes of the creature with which I felt locked in struggle. It was time to use the chainsaw.

Once the eye targets a cut, there is a fierce desire to carry it through and see the form it leaves. I welcomed the shrieking noise of the saw and its fifteen-pound weight in my hand. They provided the surge of power I needed to get on with the job. I had to restrain the rush of adrenalin with two memories from previous tree-trimming assignments: a sliced kneecap and the jagged edge of a climbing rope.

As I worked my way down the tree that afternoon, I pondered my experience at the top. Rather than pastoral gardening, it was a dangerous effort of creation. Like most artisans, arborists labor both for and against the media in which they work. While the dead wood and the overgrowth “seem to long for a change for more ordered forms,” the pruner’s “love for his arboreal element makes him, as all real lovers do, become merciless even to the point of hurting, wounding and amputating so as to help growth and give shape” (Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees ).

I realized that the drama of my encounter with the Durand Oak did not contrast but instead connected with what I did in the classroom, the library, the study. For the perilous risks of going out on a limb and the “merciless love” that helps growth and gives shape are as much a part of teaching and writing as of trimming trees.

Fathers Day

Friday, June 14th, 2002

Atop the Citadel.  A perch on a flat piece of grassland 30 yards from the lone oak noticeable from all over poly canyon. Last time I was here a Yom Kippur years ago it was too windy to stay; now a gentle sea breeze in the oat grass, the last sun on my pants a weakening gold.  It will get chilly but I have a down vest, windbreaker and sleeping bag.  I’ve been snacking on cheese and gorp.

Fathers Day lunch was delicious barbeque.  I had to carry Oma up the stairs then her change her horrendously stinky diaper, but then she was fine and quietly watched the baby and ate with gusto.  Ian is the glowing center of joy for all the old and youngish folks, bringing us together in delight and concern.  Jan and I had a great Sunday morning and I phone Mary L. to discuss working on the book again.  Yesterday was graduation.  I felt (a little) honored rather than humiliated and invited to a party at the house of Bob and Sarah.  Afterwards Jan and I took a hike up a new trail in Reservoir Canyon where the flowers were splendid: yuccas, Obispo lilies, California fuschia, fairy bells, lizard tails, buckwheat and monkeyflower. Sun dropping to the horizon.

This morning I washed the windows.  I concluded that the poppy seeds are hurled as projectiles off those formerly pink launch pads.  I sat on the bench and planned to wait for the hurl.  I was thinking about sleeping out tonight when I heard a weird click, looked to my right and saw what I thought was a grasshopper leaping through the poppy patch. Click and leap.  Then I realized it was what I was waiting for: the poppy seed dispersal.  Sure enough, where the grasshopper landed, about five feet from the path, there was a split seed hull.  When Jan came home a few minutes later, I asked her to sit next to me and told her what happened.  She said, “that’s why they’re called poppies.”  Is all seed dispersal ejaculation?

9 PM  I’m awakened by the train whistle from a deep snooze.  Hollister’s top protrudes above the line of fog.

After I returned from taking Oma home from the party, a beautiful read haired woman came out on the neighbor’s new driveway and greeted me.  I said something about the weather.  She said Brian died a few days ago, under “special circumstances.” Turns out he drove up Cayucos dam road and shot himself because the rare form of liver cancer he was diagnosed with is incurable.

The train at Stenner is now very loud.  I look back at the spot by Rockslide Ridge where I watched and heard it a month ago.  The moon is a thick crescent and Venus is to the west.  I brought the star chart, but am sleepy.  No other stars.  My mission here is to get to Caballo and reshoot the central campus and Brizzolara drainage at dawn.

Backyard Solstice

Friday, June 21st, 2002

Things turning brown with no watering.  Not the holly-leaf cherry and the bamboo, which remains after the removal of the hot tub.  Too much noise, maintenance, energy.  But we’ll miss it too. The side yard with redwoods remains damp, the front yard still showy with native blooms.  Next door gardeners have been digging and planting for the last two days, talking cheerfully, playing the radio.  The grounds are being transformed from a wasteland of ivy to varied panoply of large shrubs and trees. Brian arranged for all of this before last Tuesday.  They become his memorial.  His widow doesn’t come out but her light is on at night.  They came here from San Jose, after he sold his lucrative business and she retired as police officer.  Planned to have children.  Another young widow joins Amena and Barbara B.

Kenton’s camera back arrived yesterday, the lens I ordered today.  Together they weigh five pounds.  The shutter action, the zoom lens, the image stabilizer.  I’ve been told by Mary I must shoot slides.

Summer quiet back here.  Wind in the pines on top of the hill sound like ocean, finches like canaries.  There’s time to work on Polyland book

Backyard afternoon

Monday, November 21st, 2005

The furious bluster of this morning’s Santa Ana wind gave way to a whisper of breeze perceptible only in the flutter of mimosa leaves on the silk tree and the shimmer in the tall palms across the street. I suck in deep breaths of the soft dry air, shaded by the hillside from the hot November sun which lights up Poly Mountain across the valley and the treetops around me. The quiet is broken by a loud, scolding, mechanical noise, like a ratchet on a gearwheel. I get up for the binoculars and then remember: hummingbird.

Since no machinery can get in here, I hired a landscape architecture student and his crew to hand-excavate a 13 by 17 foot hole in the steep bank to make room for an addition to Jan’s home office. The day they were supposed to start, he emailed me to say it was too big a job. Our contractor friend said, “that’s alot of digging, it’ll be expensive to have my guys do it.” A couple of days later I realized that it would make a good project for me in the last few weeks of my early retirement recess. I could go at my own pace and enjoy a sense of steady progress, benefit from the exercise, test my newly strengthened back, and get acquainted with the dirt and rock I live on. Last Thursday I went to Home Depot with Ian and found a plastic cart with a scoop nose perfect for hauling spoil and a small spade with a handle we sawed to a length that would reach from the ground to his nose.

After ten minutes he decided he didnt like the work, but it suits me fine, especially during this week of dealing with the vagaries of my 89 year-old mother-in-law’s move into an assisted living facility as a result of a fall.

The top ten inches of ground are composed of adobe clay soil that breaks up into light chocolate brown pea gravel that turns to dark sticky mud when wet. I uncover buried irrigation pipe and roots to cut with loppers. Then comes the yellowish-tan hardpan, a dense but penetrable layer that grabs the point of the pickaxe and doesnt want to let go. Then blue-green or wine-brown chert, in some places yielding, like the hardpan, in others brittle and shattering into rock gravel when hit, and in others hard enough to clank, send a shock up my arm and knock the tip off the pick. When I hit this stuff, I look for fracture lines and feel triumph when it breaks.

I just got off the phone with a student who asked me to supervise a senior thesis in Natural Resource Management on the restoration project planned for a steep bank in Poly Canyon. Along with the preparation I’m doing occasionally for upcoming winter classes, this reminds me of the world I’ve been away from since June and makes me glad to return. Early retirement for more than one quarter would be too much, despite the luxury of free time. No part-time project is as compelling as teaching, whose steady stresss I retreat from and desire.

The light has changed, departed from the treetops here and weaker on the mountain, where the lengthening shadows increase contrast but reduce brightness. The large black one creeping over the Buena Vista neighborhood–could it be Bishop’s Peak?

Spring in December

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

The rains have been slow this year, only two since June. But the native garden I’ve been cultivating since 2001 has matured. Last spring I removed the drip irrigation system I’d used to get it established, and except for one ground soak, I refrained from watering during summer and fall. All 68 varieties survived and most have remained green, proving their adaptation to arid conditions, subsisting on fog, dew, and bits of moisture their roots capture deep in the parched clay soil. Buds were fattening on a buckeye I’d planted a couple of years ago and another had started to leaf.

But this made me nervous. With so little water in the ground, would they deplete their energy with premature growth? I checked my authority on California Natives, the website of Bert Wilson, proprietor of Las Pilitas nursery, and found that Aesculus californica is “tolerant to drought but needs regular water for the first few years.” Remembering Bert’s general abhorrence of watering, this warning seemed urgent. I hooked up the hose and gave the two little saplings a normal season’s worth of precipitation.

The next morning, Sunday, I was gently awakened by the gurgle of rain in the downspout on the wall by my bed. I put on a wool sweater and hat and went out to enjoy it. I climbed the ladder to the roof and cleared the gutters of curled Eugenia leaves and spikey liquidambar seedpods. I rooted up dandelions that had sprouted in the front yard. I transplanted ten bunches of Idaho fescue stored in pots after I’d cleared them off the hillside I’ve been excavating with pick and shovel to make room for an extension of Jan’s office. I cut huge clumps of deergrass straw and spread the leaves and seed stalks on the muddy paths. I filled the wheelbarrow with raked leaves and sprinkled the crackling residue on the spoil I’d been dumping alongside the house to raise the ground level. The porous mixture absorbed the water puddled on the dense clay, protected my shoes, and made a deep-textured carpet of autumnal tweed.

I knew that the thirsty plants would respond quickly to the rain, and next morning I went out to look at the new growth.

This is ribes sanguineum glutinosum, or pink flowered currant. The specimen between the neighbors’ towering second story and our roof has grown 10 feet, as fast and as tall as the Redwood next to it. Another in total shade under the fence, which I planted to replace a vigorous non-native tree I cut down, has only reached two feet, but is also showing new leaves. The two in back, on the steep north facing slope where there’s very little soil, have reached about four feet. Bert says “This Ribes is more drought tolerant than most of the drought resistant plants of the trade, but in a native garden plant towards the wettest section… .”

Plants for a Future, a British permaculture site reminds me that sanguineum and glutinosum stem from the latin words for “bloody,” and “sticky,” and informs me that its fruits are edible though not tasty. From Native Plants of Montara Mountain I learn that this Ribes belongs to the Grossulariceae family, which contains currants and gooseberries. The vivid language invites a bit of rearrangement

Leaves: alternate, palmately-lobed, hand-like, soft, veined, with edges curving under.
Flowers: pink, five-petaled and stamened, funnel and star shaped, racemes in hanging cascades at ends of branches. Calyx fused to the pistil.
Fruit: Fleshy, red berries ripening to dark blue; developing below the calyx lobes in clusters, with tan seeds inside.

It includes two beautiful words I pursue in the Dictionary

Raceme: An inflorescence having stalked flowers arranged singly along an elongated unbranched axis, as in the lily of the valley…from Latin racemus, a bunch of grapes.

Calyx: the whorl of sepals…collectively forming the outer floral envelope…enclosing…the developing bud

Compared to these technical descriptions, how little of this plant have I described or perceived, even with the assistance of the camera. I need another look.

Another Look

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

“What is a course of history or philosophy or poetry no matter how well selected…compared to the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen,” says Thoreau. (Walden p. 105) I tried to exercise some of that discipline this morning. Instead of going Christmas shopping I returned to the raceme of pink-flowered currant that I had looked at earlier in the week, now again illuminated by a horizon-hugging sun.

I noticed that the five petals of each blossom split into two layers, a longer outside one arching back and curling at its edges, and a shorter inside one that remained erect. The splaying outside layers gave the blossom its star shape. The inside layers combined into an open tube surrounding its golden pistil and stamens. I also noticed some changes since the last look:

seven of the blossoms were open instead of four. Five pink closed blossoms cupped a cluster of immature green buds at the raceme’s tip. As each blossom opened, it diverged from the central axis on its own outward stretching stem. The higher on the raceme, the more mature the blossom and the the more shrunken and curled the sepal which had enclosed it as a bud.

My revisited raceme seemed to be the oldest one on the shrub, its location best placed to gather the sparse sunlight and attract me with my camera. On other twigs I found younger growing tips. They revealed that flowers and leaves are originally enclosed in a single germinal container springing from the battered remnants of last year’s growth.

The subtle fragrance of Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, more leathery than sweet, occasionally wafted past but dissipated before I could satisfy my hungry nostrils. I wanted to be smaller, faster and more sensitive–like the bug that buzzed by me and dove into one of the blossoms. Then I understood that they had evolved to entice it into spreading their red and sticky seed.

I’ve often discussed with students the lines of Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” that inspired Thoreau’s preference of Nature over Culture:

Come forth into the light of things
Let Nature be your teacher.

Enough of Science and of Art
Close up those barren leaves
Come forth and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. Returning to the same flower after a few days and noticing some changes, spending enough time to really look at it and allow the bugs to show up, taking as long as I need to find the right words–that’s a start.

On the way to the back door to clean the mud off my shoes, I noticed a patch of sunlight on the wall of my excavation.

While digging I find the life of the seasons in the mineral as well as in the vegetable and animal. A few weeks ago, this same ground broke the tip off the steel pickaxe. Now my spade sinks into the damp earth like a scoop into ice cream.

February Garden

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

It was supposed to rain today, but we got wind and clouds instead. While grading papers, I’ve been taking vitamin C and Echinicea pills every couple of hours, humbly hoping to hold at bay the headache, cough and scratching in my lungs. I visited my mother in law at Assisted Living for a break, and seeing her and her companions in the rec room 20 minutes early for Bingo reinforced the winter mood.

But the overcast skies provided some good light for pictures of developments in the garden last week. After Spring in December, not much changed during January. The longer days of February have brought the early bloom of the volunteer almond tree, remnant of what must have been a local orchard before the 1950’s subdivision of this neighborhood.

On Friday I got a copy of his brand new book, Plants of San Luis Obispo: Their Lives and Stories from Matt Ritter who teaches in the Biology Department and is curator of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory. In addition to running the conservatory, teaching full time, and writing scholarly articles for tenure, he wrote the text, shot all the pictures, and did the layout for the book himself with Photoshop and Indesign.

His descriptions of the species in my garden help me see them up close: “Fuschia-flowered gooseberry is a bristly, evergren shrub with leathery, dark green, irrgularly toothed leaves. The beautiful, bright red, tubular flowers, which are pollinated by hummingbirds, hang from the stems. The stamens, which are twice as long as the rest of the flower, hang down with bright yellow tips. To ward off herbivores, there are three stout spines emanating from each node.” (p. 57)
This Ribes speciosum is another early bloomer. I’d describe the leaves as waxy rather than leathery, since they’re thin and they dry up in late spring, unlike the thick leaves of the holly-leafed cherry for example. Once flowers and leaves are gone the plants have a forbidding allure, like that of a cactus, but now they are all slender and delicate. At the Brizzolara Creek Committee we’ve talked about planting them as hedge to keep people out of the watercourse.

At the side of the house, by the compost and redwoods, the wild strawberries are back. Soft, matt, and pertly serrated, the leaves make a fresh bed for occasional yellow-centered white blossoms.

February Garden 2

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

It gets light now soon after the alarm goes off and its not dark until suppertime, but the plants in the gardens have remained at the same stage of development where I left them two weeks ago, when I broke off writing the last entry and abandoned my postings. So I’m going back to where we were.

Here is the growing tip of Heuchera maxima

This plant is as hardy as a weed, tolerating deep shade in front of the house and direct sun in back, no water or plenty of water, as when it grows under redwoods. One of its common names is Alum root. And yet it’s delicate as these velvety hairs on its leaf tips and stems, and therefore it’s also called, Coral Bells, for the lily-0f-the-valley-like blossoms that will spring from these buds.

The flowering time of Umbellularia californica has passed since this picture was taken; some of the tiny blossoms in the inflorescence were already dry then. That lilting scientific appelation is almost as melodious as “Bay Laurel,” its vernacular name, linked with the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls something I wrote twenty three years ago:

Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
With laurel.

Three bay laurels have been growing in the front for four or five years. They prefer sun and water–you can see them as the lighter-colored foliage in riparian corridors on the hillsides–but here on the north slope they are dry and shaded. One grows under a large liquidambar tree. It’s intended to replace that beautiful non-native if ever it gets tall enough, but that wont happen in my lifetime.

The old Fremontodendron grows dense and low on the steep bank above the wall in front. It turns into a burning bush of gold flowers from April to July. The one I planted recently with the early orange bud needs continuous pruning to keep the path clear.

The one with the large heart shaped yellow bud grows at the top of the hill in back.

These Flannelbush are showy and indestructible, perfect California natives for the garden. I like looking across the valley to Poly Mountain and seeing the clumps of Flannelbush growing there wild. But Flannel is a misnomer. Rather than stroked, their leaves, flowers and stems should be handled with gloves to protect you from their tiny hairs which want to embed themselves in skin.

Creeping mountain lilac or Ceonothus Joyce Coulter is another prolific bloomer, here just about to burst into a rich purple quilt. After the blossoms drop, the leaves remain almost as deep green and shiny all year round as they do here at first emergence.

The same is true for the other five or six other Ceonothuses that thrive in the yard, each different in leaf and growth.

Only one Red twigged Dogwood, Cornus sericea, grows here, cramped between the path and the wall in front. It seems to be capable of putting out new leaves all year long, whenever it rains. When it’s dry, the leaves, which are neither waxy, leathery nor hairy, go papery and fall off, exposing deep wine-colored stems.

The flowers remain packed in tight white bud-buttons during December and January and then burst into bloom lasting only a week or two.

Just uphill from the Dogwood stands a Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. Unusual for California plants, this one is winter deciduous, losing its leaves in early fall, blooming and regaining them in Spring. The dying leaves, slightly rubbery in texture, take on a touch of
Autumn coloring that reveals a veined and capillaried web on their circular surfaces.

Two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, I hadnt seen traces of regeneration on this tree for months, but since then tiny leaf and bright pink flower buds have started to pop all over the gray bark.

More dramatic suspense was created by the grapevine in the backyard, now about 12 years old and the centerpiece of the arbor on the mid-hill terrace that creates an elegant shady bower in summer and a rich harvest of grapes and raisins. I cut the canes back to old wood to promote new growth and fruiting in November, hesitantly following some website instructions. But when no buds appeared, well after the native California grape along the eastern wall in front had started to leaf, I thought I’d have to pull out the whole venerable stock. I checked and poked everyday for a month, and then the day of the last entry, February 2, I found, two tiny sprouts.

Now two weeks later, I still wait for more.

There’s no new growth yet on the old oaks, the ones I planted seventeen years ago. But several recent volunteer Quercus agrifolia have come into leaf. I marvel at the fragility and tenderness of these infants, knowing that within the next four months they will expand and curl into thick, hard, thorny surfaces. These are the only volunteer natives that have cropped up since I started cultivating natives, testimony I think, to the fact that this north facing slope wants only to be an oak woodland.

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathecea, has been blooming here since January, almost as early as the Red Currant. I love the delicious pink, magenta and purple colors of its flowers springing modestly, just a few at a time, from teardrop shaped sheaths of its bud clusters.

I love the sticky clear residue it leaves on the fingers when touched, smelling tart and sweet as grape soda. I love its velvety green foliage that returns every year and spreads by rhizomes, overwhelming the dark brittle remaining stalks of last year’s growth. And I love the way it draws the hummingbirds low to the ground under the oaks, where it hides in the shade.

April Sunrise

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

When I opened the curtain at 5:45 there was already a blue-gray glow in the western sky. We’re a third of the way to the solstice. I wont wake up in the dark anymore till August.

I sit in the green plastic Adirondack chair with the big camera beside me waiting for the sunrise over Cuesta Ridge. I’ve come back to it after noticing that the older plant photos on my screensaver have much more depth and brilliance than the ones I’ve taken recently with the point-and-shoot, even though it has higher resolution. It’s the lens stupid.

My perch is a new seat in the garden, three quarters of the way up the bank above the grape arbor at a switchback in the south trail. I decided to carve it out of the adobe clay on Saturday while sprucing up the yard to prepare for our big party this weekend.

Two rock doves clean up spilled seeds under the bird feeder, a hummingbird visits the hummingbird sage, a bee sips at the holly-leaf cherry flowers.

Week 4 of classes, Spring mind bursting with things to say and write and plan and execute.

I’ll be returning to this spot nestled between a Channel Island Ironwood and a Sugarbush.

A temperate dawn soothed by a wisp of breeze, disturbed by the barking dog next door and the hubbub of traffic.

Now the sun paints the east face of Caballo Peak, and now touches the grapevine and the belly of the goldfinch in the pine branch overhead. Now it casts shadows on the path. Now it’s 7:00 o’clock and time to get to work.

But first just a few more pictures.

Native Plants in the Garden

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

  1. Bracken Fern, Pteridium aquilinum pubescens
  2. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  3. Golden Current, Ribes aureum aureum
  4. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  5. Lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia
  6. Pink flowered currant, Ribes sanguineum glutinosum
  7. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  8. Manzanita, Arctostophylus morroensis
  9. Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica
  10. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  11. Fuchsia flowered gooseberry, Ribes speciosum
  12. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  13. Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis
  14. Point Reyes Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Point Reyes’
  15. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  16. Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens
  17. Manzanita, Arctostophylus morroensis
  18. Foothill Penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllus
  19. Calfiornia Fuchsia, Zeuschneria

22. Creeping Mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Joyce Coulter

  1. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  2. Coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica
  3. Shagbark Manzanita, Arctostophuylus rutis,
  4. Fremontia, Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron California Glory
  5. California Sagebrush, Artemesia californica
  6. Scarlet Bugler, Penstemon centranifolius
  7. Hoary leaf ceanothus, Ceanothus crassifolius
  8. Manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’
  9. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  10. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  11. Holly leaved California Mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Mills Glory
  12. Calfornia Goldenrod, Solidago californica
  13. Leather Oak, Quercus durata
  14. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  15. Manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’
  16. California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum foliolosum
  17. Coyote Mint, Monardella villosa obispoenis
  18. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  19. Western Alpine Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana platypetala
  20. Douglas Iris, Iris douglasiana
  21. Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  22. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus il15icifolia
  23. Deergrass, Muhlenbergia rigens
  24. Clustered Field Sedge, Carex praegracilis
  25. Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylla
  26. Coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica
  27. Foothill Penstemon, Penstemon heterophyllus
  28. Santa Susana Monkey flower, Diplacus rutilus
  29. Mountain Mahogony, Cercocarpus betuloides
  30. Big Leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum
  31. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  32. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  33. California Grape, Vitus californica
  34. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  35. Holly Leaf Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia
  36. Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica
  37. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  38. Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium
  39. California Mountain Lilac Ceanothus Concha
  40. Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia
  41. California Strawberry, Fragaria californica
  42. Douglas Iris, Iris Douglasiana
  43. Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus laevigatus
  44. Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens
  45. Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
  46. Blueblossom Ceanothus, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus
  47. Black Sage, Salvia mellifera
  48. California Pitcher Plant, Lepechinia calycina
  49. Creeping Black Sage, Salvia mellifera ripens
  50. Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea
  51. Coral Bells or Alum Root, Heuchera rubescens
  52. Western Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
  53. Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylla
  54. Purple Nightshade, Solanum xanti
  55. Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii
  56. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium californica
  57. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  58. Small leaf mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Julia Phelps
  59. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  60. Blue Oak, Quercus Douglasii
  61. Purple Needlegrass, Stipa pulchra
  62. California Mountain Lilac Ceanothus Concha
  63. Shagbark Manzanita, Arctostophuylus rutis
  64. Woolly Bluecurls, Trichostema lanatum
  65. Mugwort—Artemisia douglassiana
  66. Blue Elderberry, Sambucus Caerulea
  67. Catalina Ironwood, Leonusthamnus floribundus
  68. Small leaf mountain Lilac, Ceanothus Julia Phelps
  69. Spanish dagger/Our Lord’s Candle, Yucca whipplei
  70. Calfornia Buckeye, Aesculus californica