It was dark when I got out of my rental car yesterday evening in Rancho Bernardo, north of San Diego. I couldn’t really see the place, but I could smell the tell-tale scent of eucalyptus. I slept with the window open. There was a eucalyptus outside my window. I slept well.
When I grew up in Upland, in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles, the eucalyptus was ubiquitous, planted as windbreaks along the edges of orange groves. That smell, the mix of eucalyptus and citrus, is my youth. It turns out the story we learned as children – that the tree’s presence was the result of a failed attempt by the railroads to grow a fast-growing tree for use as railroad ties – is close to bunk. As Nathan Masters wrote earlier this year, the railroad thing played only a minor role. The real story is much richer and more in keeping with Southern Californians’ peculiar penchant for self-invention. Here’s Abbot Kinney (as quoted by Masters), a 19th-century booster extolling the virtues of the fast-growing tree (also known as the “blue gum”):
The introduction of this tree has done more to change radically the appearance of wide ranges of country in California than any other one thing. In the reclamation of many arid plains of the central and southern parts of California the blue gum has worked almost like magic. It modifies the winds, breaks the lines of view all so quickly that one can scarcely realize that a valley of clustered woods and lines of trees was but a year or two before a brown parched expanse of shadeless summer dust.
On the grounds of the conference center/hotel place that I’m staying, there also are pepper trees, which lined Euclid Avenue in Upland when I was growing up, which were another signature tree of my childhood, and which Masters points out are also an import. So this trip is tinged with nostalgia for my youth. But it was fascinating when I snuck away this afternoon for a couple of hours from the conference I’m attending (beach trip, absolute necessity) to also see the chaparral hillsides as the freeway cut through the San Diego hills. They were dry, with no trees, and they also felt like old home week to me, like the foothills above our houses that my chums and I used to clamber up to get a better view.
The conference is about water, and my 54-year-old self can’t help but ponder the water needed to carry out Kinney’s vision of “the reclamation of many arid plains”, and the natural dry of those chaparral hillsides, notions of sustainability, that sort of thing. I’ve written before about my fascination with California’s great invention of itself, and about the sustainability of the results. The grand expanses of tile-roofed homes sprawling up San Diego’s hillsides, far above the high water mark the last time I was here, gives me pause.
But damn those eucalyptus smell good. I’ll leave the window open again tonight.