Fall is a beautiful season here in Sonoma County. Being a California native, I have taken umbrage at those who claim that California doesn’t have proper seasons. These people can only see two: rainy and dry—and they usually complain about the rain. Yet to me, the four seasons fit perfectly with what I see, feel, smell, and experience through the year here.
Fall begins hinting in mid-July when the acorns start dropping from the oak trees. Then around early August the oak leaves start to turn brown—slowly at first, but by September when the heat comes in waves and the whole region is baked by the harvest sun the oaks are joined by the fruit trees, the grape vines, and lastly by the maples which need a good cold snap to really turn.
At the Fall Equinox, the season has been around for about six weeks by my calendar. Then comes the browning of the earth, one of the most difficult points of the year for me. The chickory, which blooms by the roadside in brilliant blue late into August, has finished its flowering and turned to seed. The grasses are long since harvested, the cows have trampled the golden hills so even the pastoral vistas look tired, overused. Taking a walk through nearby Ragle Park into the seasonal wetland around Atascadero Creek, the ground which stays damp so long into the summer is baked dry. The foliage is not only dry and brown but sparse, as though picked over far too many times by hungry critters. Even the birds are brown, fat little nondescript birds the color of mud, with no song of brilliance to offer the day, only monotone chirps as they go over every stalk once again on their rounds.
The land, the animals, the people, all wait for the rain. It is a wait with an edge of pleading to it: many of us remember the seven years of drought within the last decade, when the rains started hopeful but soon petered out, leaving the hills a delicate green that barely lasted through mid-spring. But even without the rains the air changes in late fall, dropping its pollens and the dust from harvest’s tractors, stripped down to some essence of fall-turning-to-winter. As the air changes, the browning of the year starts to feel less like fall and more like winter. It still can be hot during the day but the air is crisp and cold at night, and even the fog rolling in from the ocean has a stinging bite that is characteristic of winter.
Finally, the rains begin. The earth opens her pores, everyone tilts their heads up to wet their faces. The trampled grass of the fall turns to wet straw, and finally to a mat of mulch which helps the land conserve the water that is falling. The dirt-brown birds go away somewhere and their hapless cheeping is replaced by the erotic sound of frogs in the wetlands. Frog singing is a very wet sound, like slick skin enveloping yours. It comes from all around, not a single source, and if you time it right you can walk through the deafening sound and be completely transported to the Dreamtime.
The frogs bring winter but it’s a bebop winter, full of wild syncopation, surges and silences that catch your attention and keep it enthralled. The dampness freshens the air, plumping it up and making it feel so good in the lungs. It’s as though with every breath we re-hydrate ourselves after the long waiting spell. Rather than causing the air to lose its clarity, the rain makes the air crystalline, brilliant. Standing on a hillside after a rain, there is such an incisiveness to the air that one feels capable of seeing with perfect acuity well beyond the horizon.
That is the weather I love the best here: the kind that finally warrants pulling out the wool sweaters and dressing in layers. Sure, it rarely snows in the coastal foothills, but an arctic storm is an arctic storm no matter what temperature it is. I love it when the wind howls and the rain pounds and finally sunny California is forced to batten down the hatches and cease activity, if only for a long night. Maybe it’s the revenge of the introverts, this love of winter in a sunny clime. Inwardly I sneer and scoff at those who complain of the cold and damp. I can be tipped into road rage upon hearing one too many radio djs refer to winter storms as “bad weather” and sunny December days as “good weather.” For heaven’s sake, didn’t we learn anything from the drought?! Seasonally-appropriate weather is good weather.
The kneejerk prejudices of news anchors and commentators towards the weather also shows up in their near total lack of understanding of the seasons. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter. Here in California, Midwinter means exactly what it says: it’s the middle of winter. Not the beginning of winter, as you will hear everywhere. Winter begins here with the rains and the turning of the air around Samhain, or the beginning of November—give or take. By the mid-winter holidays, it’s been around for quite a while.
I will write more about winter when we finally get there, but now we have entered the long waiting period, the browning of the earth, and the sun is beating down on us in great waves of inescapable heat and the dust rises in anticipation of each foot setting on the trail. The fall teaches a plodding patience, and is interspersed with moments of almost unbearable sweetness as a choice ripe fig or luscious pear comes within grasp. May we all bow to the lessons of the seasons, and come to ripeness in our own time.