The way of wild flowers

The Chambers of Commerce had an ad in the paper at the end of January announcing this spring's annual wildflower event in April. Oh no, you don't catch me turning up that weekend, I thought. You can schedule and plan and promote. You can open the fairgrounds and volunteers can hand out well-marked off-the-highway maps, but I'm not going to appear the weekend you say is the one for wildflowers. Because you don't know; no one does.

When I first came to California I pondered slick color photographs of poppy fields and wondered if it was possible to walk, like Dorothy on her way to Oz, ankle-deep in blossoms of brilliant orange with dark green leaves, over hillocks set against a cloudless azure sky. So I called the auto club travel department.

"Where are the wildflowers?" I asked, and obligingly, they told me.

On a Saturday, a friend and I packed a picnic lunch and took the freeway north out of town into the high desert country where a valley of ranches promised the most fertile fields. Arriving, we could hardly believe we were in the right place. There were poppies, yes, but just small clumps of them here and there, looking peaked, tight-budded, the leaves dusted with taupe soil, and the sky a mottled gray. We picnicked in the car, closed up tight against the desert wind. So much for wildflowers, I thought. I should have known. The Hollywood picture is always better than the real thing.

But there was another year when, on an early spring day that sparkled and glowed after a season of rain, I found them. Just off a lane with an RFD box market WILEY there was a carpet of poppies and purple thistle sage so thick and sturdy that it could not only be waded through but picnicked on without any visible damage to the blooms. The cloudless sky was interrupted only by a helicopter, circling and beckoning us to walk on to the next hilltop, where we could see yellow coreopsis stretched in patches of football-field size for miles into the distance. Those were wildflowers well worth the trip. And what's more they were there again the next year. Well, there, I thought, I'm satisfied. I've seen the wildflowers and I know when and where to look for them. After winter rains, on a perfect spring day they will be there on the lane where Mr. Wiley's mailbox stands.

And after a couple of years I went looking for them again, picnic hamper in the trunk, film in the camera and sunglasses on the dashboard. I found the lane , all right, but the RFD box was gone. No more Mr. Wiley. No more white horse.

However, there was a very large official sign. The fields were now a state wildflower reserve, and there were lesser signs indicating where there was room to park and where there was room to stand and where, in the euphemism of our day , there was room to rest. But there were no wildflowers. Oh, a poppy here and there, and a few straggling coreopsis, but nothing like they'd been. It must have been the weather, I thought. There wasn't enough rain. Or the sun hadn't shone bright enough or often enough. I drove on because there was no point in staying, although the state wildflower reserve was impressive and I was glad to see that someone important had taken notice of that lovely field and wanted to protect it.

Two or three miles down the highway there was a backup of traffic, and then I saw it -- the poppy field. There were thousands of them, blossming in profusion where I'd never seen them before. Campers and vans and cars were parked haphazardly in the dirt to the side of the road, and there seemed to be a special joy on every face that observed them.

Of course, I thought, the wind or the birds or the whim of nature has planted them here this year, as if to announce, "We can't be tamed. We can't be planned. We are, after all, wildflowers." It was a glorious field, better than any I'd ever seen.

I've been told the state wildflower reserve is doing well, and I'm glad of that. There was, after all, the announcement of the official wildflower days in April, so it's become quite a big thing for tourists. Perhaps they'll cooperate and arrive on the date and at the place as planned. But not necessarily, because that's not the way of wildflowers.

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