California Über Alles

I had breakfast this morning with a bunch of California expats.

California Bear Flag

It’s a weird label. We don’t normally think of ourselves that way. But I’ve been feeling nostalgic about the land of my birth lately. Not sure why, but it probably has something to do with seeing palm trees, citrus groves and bougainvillea last month on my sojourn to the deserts along the Arizona-California border.

My grandma had an elegant bougainvillea that grew out of a planter box on her San Bernardino house, framing her front door. Mom’s a San Bernardino native, making my sister, Lisa, and I second generation Californians. Lisa and I grew up among citrus groves along what was then, in the 1960s, the suburban fringe of the slowly expanding Los Angeles metro area.

Bougainvillea, courtesy Wikipedia

Bougainvillea, courtesy Wikipedia

Like much about California, grandma’s bougainvillea seemed effortless to me. I realize now that was a mistake, that the southern California of my youth was very much an invention. But when you’re a kid, you don’t think that way. Stuff just is, and you take that for granted. In fact, the bougainvillea is a South American import, and even its lovely red “flowers” are fake. They’re really leaves which evolved the color as a sort of faux flower to attract pollinators to a tiny little flower that sits within colored leaf clusters.

The proximate cause of this morning’s musings was Emily Green’s post about the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. It was just a few miles from my house, and Mom and Dad used to take my sister and I there all the time. I know now that Rancho Santa Ana is special, a haven for plants native to the semi-arid coast plain amid the wet climate imports that dominate the built environment of LA. But, as I said in a comment over at Emily’s, as a child I didn’t know that there was anything special about the place: “When I was a tyke, my sister and I used to shamble about gleefully in what we simply called ‘the botanic garden’. From the vantage point of childhood, there was no other.”

Claremont packing house orange crate label

As an adult, both when I lived there and especially now from the vantage point of 20 years away, I have come to view Southern California as one of humanity’s great creations. Gifted with tremendous natural bounty, it was then populated by people with what seems like a peculiarly self-selected inventive spirit. LA didn’t have a port, so they built one. It didn’t have water, so they built three great rivers. They grafted orange trees onto lemon root stocks and built an agricultural empire that gave way over time to one of the planet’s great supercities. I am a child of that. My grandfather drove a melon truck in the Imperial Valley in 1915 when he and grandma were first married, and went on to be the sort of real estate developing, water importing Republican who built the place.

This is, of course, nostalgia talking. It is not clear what the next steps in California’s invention might be. As Peter Raven points out in Emily’s LA Times piece:

“It makes sense that we’ll come to a point where we’re sustainable,” he said. “The question we must ask ourselves now is how long it will take and what we will lose in the process? What kind of a landing do we want to have? What kind of world do we want to live in? We need to put forth an enormous energy to keep the kind of world we really want.”


  1. My grandparents grew oranges in Covina. We used to be able to see across the valley to Pasadena. (That view vanished in the late 60s and the Dutch-run dairies are finally gone from Corona and the like). I love the foothills, which are suffering as vandalism, climate change and smog damage increase the frequency and severity of fires in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. I especially love Rancho; it’s almost unbearably beautiful.

  2. I agree with Emily. I loved the mountains of southern California, and lived for the weekends when we could go exploring the wild places only a stone’s throw from the city. I may spend some time in SoCal this summer to reacquaint myself with some of those memories. I wonder how much they have changed? I get the impression the smog isn’t quite as bad as it used to be, but traffic, well it’s traffic.

  3. What a pleasing post, John. One of the things I remember from growing up in California (northern) is the delicious smells — the bark of redwoods, dew evaporating off the soil in morning sun, grand oak trees on their golden grass hills, occasionally of jasmine or, if I was especially lucky, gardenia.

  4. Wonderfully written! I didn’t know you had connections to San Bernardino. I lived there from age 10 – 30. I’m glad my oldest son moved back there 13 years ago and that I get to visit several times a year. I get nostalgic every time I drive through an area that looks just like it did when I was a kid.

  5. Garry – Interestingly, around the breakfast table yesterday, traffic kept coming up. It’s become a shorthand explanation in the family for why we all, at separate times, left.

    Frances – The smells of the desert when I was down that way last month were one of my memory triggers.

    Emily – I remember those days when it was clear and you could see forever. There was a street up the hill from us called Ocean View Drive, and on the clearest days you could.

    Judy – What a fun connection! Are there very many of those places that look like they did when you were a kid?

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