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Do Californians Have Seasons?

By Tom Simmons / February 28, 1990

IN a way, California is fortunate never to have had a proto-poet laureate, a John Greenleaf Whittier or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to enshrine the pleasures of its seasons in popular memory. Instead, the ``bear flag'' state has bumbled along happily for decades under the weight of vast misconceptions, the sort one's friends and relations invoke whenever one stays East for any length of time. ``I guess it must be deep summer in California now, isn't that right?'' says one friend, smiling knowingly. It is February, and we are standing by a public transit sign in Boston, waiting for a bus. It is snowing. I smile back. How can I disabuse such people of these notions?

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In fact, on that day in February, it was snowing in California, depending on which part of the state you had in mind. The Sierras, both north and south, took some snow; on the northern coast, a storm with powerful winds lashed the grassy plains and sedimentary cliffs; in the Central Valley it rained; in Santa Barbara a cool haze hung over the bluffs all day.

To hope for deep summer weather in February in California is thus to nurse illusion. On the other hand, to hope for seasons imitating those of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania is also to succumb to illusions: California, land of a thousand microclimates, constantly evades the precise expectations of the rest of the world.

And yet - to lay at least one fondly held misconception to rest - there are seasons in California. Ask a Californian what autumn is like, and he will probably nod quietly while offering some koan like ``subtle, very subtle.'' Ask him what winter is like, and he will show you his rainproof Gore-tex parka.

Ask him what spring is like, and you get an earful. For, as in the Eastern states, spring in California is a spectacular affair. There is no easy slide from casual winter to carefree summer, as so many visitors allege. On the contrary, California springs have their own virtuoso heralds, the most important of which are also the most ubiquitous and ordinary.

Spring in California is considered to be under way when the green grass on the hills turns brown. To Westerners, the brown grass is a promise of a golden summer, when the commonest foliage of the fields almost rivals the sun in brightness, and a drive in the country will be a drive along a highway ringed in light. The green hills were good in their time, for green means rain and rain means rising reservoirs. Nevertheless, brown and gold rather than green are the colors of life here, for life in the West seems more akin to the sun than to the earth.

The other clear sign of spring, which often comes even before the grasses turn brown, is the blossoming of the acacia tree. In this sense, perhaps, Californians share more with their Eastern relatives than they like to admit.

As much as Easterners look for snowbells and the first tulips breaking through the grayish soil, Californians look for the blossoms of this one tree. It's not hard to find them, for the acacia is a weed: It springs up almost everywhere, the great democrat of the plant world, not unlike the grasses of the hills. It can even become a nuisance, showing up too often at the cracking edges of asphalt or around water pipes. But in the spring it is never a nuisance.