Do Californians Have Seasons?

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?

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.

It is not quite right, however, to say that Californians look for these blossoms. In fact, the blossoms themselves are rather nondescript - round swells of narrow yellow flowers, hiding among bowers of pale green leaves. What is astonishing is the fragrance - a thrilling sharpness, like the mingled scents of newly mown hay and fresh lemonade. You never have to look for this: It seeks you out almost everywhere, with that abundance so typical of acacias, so that on your way to work or to school you find yourself carried along on a wave of a rich olfactory happiness. As much as the browning grasses of the hills, the scent of the acacia promises brightness and vigor in the coming months. No matter how bleak the winter may have appeared, the acacia takes no notice of it: It simply wipes it out.

The seasonal movements of life in California can get under your skin until they become a great joy on their own terms. From my own experience as a transplanted Easterner, I know that this may seem hard to believe. Yet even people from lands with wild seasons - from the Soviet Union, for example - become attuned to the land called California, until they find themselves far more rooted than they ever expected to be.

IN the early 19th century, for example, a small contingent of Russians established the settlement of Fort Ross on the northern California coast. They hoped to raise and ship grain to their starving countrymen in Alaska, thus preserving the Alaskan colonies.

The venture was not ultimately a success; the last Russians left Fort Ross in 1841. Surely the appeal of home was strong in these settlers, and the journey back to Russia full of promise. Yet Alexander Rotchev, the last commandant of Fort Ross, would write in his diary, ``What an enchanting land California is! ... I spent the best years of my life there, and affectionately carry the memories of these days in my soul.''

This is high praise from the normally reserved commandant - but not too high. I don't think it's something as crass as territorial pride that makes so many other Californians share it as well. This is extraordinary country, not easy to leave behind - indeed, impossible to leave. Even now, having returned - for the time being - to live in the East, I find myself journeying back to California whenever the opportunity arises; and beyond that physical travel, I find myself transported in a matter of a moment's thought. I used to believe I could call anywhere home, but now I begin to see that home is a special place: It is the landscape that works its way around the heart like a cocoon, and shelters you and gives you hope.

``Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth,'' writes N. Scott Momaday. ``He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience.'' To set this process in motion is to know what home is. It is to know the springtime of the heart, when the acacia fragrance of hope leads the traveler back to his best self. About the Artist Marco Sassone, a native of Italy, has lived in the United States for 20 years. A self-desribed 'realist expressionist,' Sassone often explores the nature of light, particularly as it plays on water.

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