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Anza-Borrego in May

Anza-Borrego in May

Today finally starts to feel like fall. It’s overcast this morning –not just coastal fog, but truly overcast – and I had to put on something with long sleeves! Fall always feels more like “spring” to me – new beginnings (back to school time), a collective sigh of relief in the first temperate days after a season of extreme temperatures.

But to backtrack –

In the spring I took a Field Botany class at a community college. It was the first time I’ve been back in a real classroom in over 12 years. With real school chairs. And Scantrons! And new teenage lingo!

The first day of class we went out on campus and collected leaves from different plants around us to study leaf structures and terms. Having a lapful of extremely different leaves – tiny, gigantic, round, pointy, hairy, arranged in every possible way – I was actually a little scared by the sheer overwhelming variety of plants that exist.

And the vocabulary! The words used to describe plant traits sound more suited to literature than science – fugacious, caducous, scurfy, floccose. Sort of baroque and luxurious.

There was a New Yorker article that if you haven’t read, go read it now: here. It’s about plants – how they’ve adapted in much more strange and wonderful ways than we’ve given them credit for, and perhaps even more than animals. After reading it, I felt like plants own this world.

Each Friday for class, we went afield around LA – to the Santa Monica mountains and canyons, to the tide pools, the poppy preserve, the wetlands, the coastal prairies. In elementary school, whenever we went on a field trip, I always took my family back there as soon as possible. I wanted to do that this time too. I felt like a third grader who has just learned fun facts about the world and needs to tell everyone about them. Did you know that when one redwood tree dies, a ring of clones spring up around it? Did you know about alternation of generations? Imagine if two people had a kid, but the kid looked like an apple, and then the apple reproduced, and had humans? And seaweed! Seaweed deserves its own post.

It was the first time I had been surrounded by scientists – not architects, artists, writers, etc. Feels different, but I can’t articulate how. The professor and speakers were all so knowledgeable and just so excited about what they were doing and wanting to share that with everyone. Science does seem to me the one thing worth studying/working on – how/what the physical world is. Of course, science was my worst subject in high school.

One class trip was to the Anza-Borrego desert – we hiked to an oasis of palms (Washingtonia filifera, the only palm native to LA) that was completely hidden in a desert canyon. When the palms start growing, they just have the fronds sticking out right at the ground – this can stay like this for years - and then something sometime triggers them to shoot up into the iconic palm trees that you imagine. No one knows why. Our teacher told us to keep a look out for the endangered bighorn sheep – they are rarely seen and blend in so well that you may be looking at one and not notice until it moves. We saw fish in a free-standing pool in the desert. We saw chupparosa, hummingbird bush, with its firecracker red flowers (it is dehiscent – the fruits open up and catapult the seeds) and ocotillo, holding bright orange flowers at its very tips. Our professor described flowers as the plants’ way of waving their arms and shouting “I’m here!” Now I can’t help but think of that whenever I see flowers. The desert lavender smelled amazing – dry and minty – and was golden glowing and buzzing with bees. When we were almost at the oasis, the canyon walls starting to tower above, a few of us glanced up and saw a bighorn sheep silhouetted against the sky, looking down at us silently. When too many people noticed and started pointing at it, it disappeared. It felt like something ancient had observed us.

Well, it’s mid-morning and the sun’s out again. Will have to wait a little longer for true fall.

Driving home from the desert

Driving home from the desert