California Seasons

Illustrations by Keelin Sabel

CALIFORNIA HAS NO SEASONS,'' whine people transplanted to the Golden State from almost anywhere in the world. To these non-natives, seasons mean a foot of snow dumped in one night, followed six months later by sweltering, suffocating heat. California is more subtle. A born-and-bred Californian, I have always maintained that California has distinctive seasons. You just have to pay attention to notice them. Working as a naturalist last year in the central Coast Range between Silicon Valley and the ocean, I rooted myself in one place long enough to observe the seasonal shifts carefully and closely. I gathered more than enough evidence to prove my point to the doubting East Coasters who worked with me.

In September 1992 I arrived at Jones Gulch, an outdoor education site in the Santa Cruz Mountains where fifth and sixth graders visit for a week to learn about nature. Looking for spots to teach lessons, I explored my new terrain--thousands of acres of fir-topped ridges, cool stream valleys and open hillsides.

Years of drought had compounded the effects of the normally dry summers. The marks were evident: dusty trails, evergreens tinged with brown needles, footbridges suspended over dirt, weeds growing on the usually submerged margin of a shrinking, algae-covered pond. The hills were a uniform dry brown. Although I was wise to California's ways, and knew the winter rains would lavish new growth on the hills, a photograph of our site in March shocked me anyway: the ball field, now sparsely covered with dead grass, in the picture was cloaked in unbelievably thick green.

When the first kids arrived, I took them on the few paths I knew. One trail passes under towering redwoods, then widens into a well-lighted oval patch of bare dirt, surrounded by a split-wood fence. The eleven-year-olds, holding on to each other in a chain, stumbled blindfolded from the darkness of the redwood forest into the light. When they removed their blindfolds, sounds of unexpected wonder escaped their lips. Above them, a canopy of moss-covered branches filtered emerald sunlight onto their upturned faces. Just outside the fence, the bare dirt gave way to a tangle of wild plants, where buckeye trees sent up slender gray trunks that split into hundreds of branches, each bent away from the others to find its own place in the sun. On the ground, old ferns, yellow maple leaves, and buckeye nuts rested under the trees.

For me, buckeyes have become an emblem for California's coastal mountains. The nuts are chestnut brown, smooth and glossy, and too irregular to call spherical. A buckeye nut I've kept indoors for more than a year now has shriveled, adding ridges and valleys to its duller texture. In late summer the nuts are still on the trees, encased in fuzzy green skins. The thick skins split, revealing a slit of glossy brown. Their resemblance to deer's eyes gave them their name--buck eyes.

Beyond the fence, brown redwood needles provided a thick, spongy carpet for a scavenger hunt. I sent the kids looking for banana slugs, our mascot critter, which the East Coasters had never even heard of. Banana slugs are bright yellow, slimy, and decidedly larger than a garden-variety slug. In September, during the hot first weeks of outdoor education, even the seasoned naturalists couldn't find any. Where the slugs go in the dry summer weather is a mystery. The slugs emerged in October, as the fog from the ocean rolled the 12 miles to our gulch, to work their way slowly across the debris of the forest, devouring dead needles and leaves like mobile fungi.

The reappearance of the slugs was the most noticeable seasonal change in my first month at Jones Gulch. But it wasn't the only one: the maples and buckeyes dropped their yellow leaves. Still, the East Coasters on the staff pined for the dazzling fall colors of their home states.

In late October the rains came. Buckeye nuts sprouted on the ground. Mushrooms heaved up the earth, and the creeks started to run, making the footbridges useful again. Just after the November election, tiny blades of grass poked through the matted brown hay on the hills. ``It's a sign of hope, just like yesterday's election,'' said a precocious fifth grader and Clinton fan.

By December's holiday, rains soaked the gulch almost every day, ending the six-year drought. We hiked beneath the dripping trees, the damp forest our classroom. The trails turned to treacherous mud, and I slipped and broke my leg while jogging one morning.

As I recuperated, the moon waxed and waned, and January brought leaf buds to the buckeyes. I knew the trails by now, and limped less as my leg bone knitted. It rained all January and most of February. The pond filled and overflowed the tiny dam into the creek bed. Ferns uncurled on decaying logs.

Frogs began croaking in the evening. Throughout the month we stopped by the plush green ball field after night hikes to listen to their lusty voices. With flashlights, we searched the shallow pools on the field, where tablespoon-sized frogs bellowed love calls for prospective mates.

Learning in the outdoors got rougher as the rainy winter wore on. Quiet creeks became swift, muddy torrents that sped out to sea. Storms churned up high tides, which made for bad tide-pooling. Huge ocean swells forced the harbor seals off the rocks where we had hoped to observe them with telescopes. Even the height of winter offered its eureka moments, though. Riding the bus to the beach one day, I saw, quite literally, how beaches form--the swollen rivers were carving away cliffs and depositing sand and mud at their mouths. Back under the redwoods, night fell before five o'clock. The gloomy light and wet weather dampened our enthusiasm. The East Coasters teased me when I shivered in fifty-degree drizzles. Yet, watching the buckeyes every day saved me from misery. The roadside trees, with the benefit of more light, had budded first. Their tender green leaves uncurled into many flat, veined fingers that stretched for sunlight.

As the winter moved toward a close, the clothed buckeye branches sported bottle-brush-like spines, anchors for imminent flowers. Some of the camp's naturalists came back from the beach with reports of whale sightings. Gradually, the wetness relented into occasional sunny days. Wildflowers sprouted on the hillsides while our organic garden burst into colors and sweetpea perfume.

The spring was worth every drop of rain and extra hour of darkness. At the beach, purple irises, golden yarrow, yellow bush lupine, mustard, and wild radish filled the upland marsh. In the hills, purple lupine, California poppies, and sunflowers blossomed. Poison oak and poison hemlock grew white flower clusters.

In late March, standing on the iris-covered bluffs with my group, I saw a pair of dolphins swimming parallel to the coast, their smooth gray backs gleaming in the sun. By April, humpback whales on their northerly migration were leaping into sight. One afternoon we watched a baby humpback throw itself into the air over and over again, in the wake of its sedate elders. I stood transfixed on the bluff, ignoring my young charges. Spouts and dark backs emerged from the blue Pacific several more times that day.

By then, clusters of creamy pink flowers covered the buckeyes. Under the buckeyes, on sun-dappled ground, pale blue forget-me-nots sprouted like weeds. One day my cabin group found pea-sized white balls littering the ground under the oaks. The girls searched without success for the origin of the aromatic balls. Finally, I spotted similar balls--they were actually flowers, heavy with nectar--high in a madrone tree. The madrone trees in the gulch, with their smooth burnt-sienna bark that peels off in curls, wafted sweet fragrances for weeks, dropping flowers like farmers scattering grain for chickens.

In the mornings, fog still crept up the river valleys from the ocean. In the warm spring afternoons, garter snakes and rubber boas crossed our paths more frequently. I learned not to handle the boa--it gave off a strong, foul sewage odor when disturbed. Surrounded by thriving life, I tried new activities and hikes. With a group of girls, I hiked to a small waterfall, splashing over moss-covered rocks. With a cabin of boys, I smelled delicate wild roses.

I left Jones Gulch at the end of May, just as the brown was spreading across the hills once again. The creeks were dwindling, soon to fade away to nothing. Hot air began to parch the open hills. Under the cooler redwoods, mosquitoes replaced the banana slugs.

I live on the coastal fringe of the Santa Cruz Mountains now. It's April as I write, and the buckeyes are blooming pink and cream again. They are signaling yet another change of California season, for those who know what to notice.

Science Notes / Winter 1994 / Science Communication Program / University of California, Santa Cruz