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Nature's a language, can't you read? -- Seasons in the Southland

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 20, 2012 03:45pm | Post a Comment
A FEW GENERALIZATIONS ABOUT ANGELENOS

While I caution anyone attempting to make generalizations about a group as diverse and large as the 13 million or so people known as “Angelenos,” I have nonetheless made a couple of observations about a much smaller subsection, my Los Angeles friends, that I have to assume share more widely-held views with Angelenos with whom I'm not personally acquainted. Just one example; as far as I can tell, only in Los Angeles do people say things like “only in LA” about things that happen pritnear everywhere.

In this entry I'd like to address and reflect upon another completely nonsensical but widely held view – that Los Angeles (and presumably at least the entire Southland and possibly all of SoCal) has no seasons or weather.


Los Angeles's The Byrds weighing in on seasons...


IN ONE CORNER -- THE SPOILED BABIES


As far as most people are concerned, temperatures in Los Angeles are usually quite pleasant. The daytime average is 24 °C (75 °F). The warmest days rarely exceed 32 °C (90 °F) and rarely dip below 15°C (59 °F). When temperatures deviate from this narrow comfort zone, legions of thoroughly-spoiled (and acclimated) complainers express their indignation on various social media and to their friends. As someone who has truly suffered through 48 °C (118 °F) heat and -42 °C (-44 °F) I have little sympathy for our weather whiners -- we have it so easy!



IN THE OTHER CORNER -- THE BLIND HATERS 


The other camp express the exact opposite opinion. They complain about the lack of seasons and weather (to which they are seemingly either willfully blind and/or ecologically monolingual). When it’s hot in November, for example, they typically post things on Facebook like “Really LA? 85 degrees in November?! I’m so over this city!” They're continually threatening to relocate (or move back) to London, New York, Portland, or San Francisco but never seem to leave Los Angeles, instead remaining and inflicting complaints upon their friends year after pleasant year. This group whiners concerns me even more than the former because it's a bit like a monolinguist dismissing all languages other than theirs as meaningless noises. Both groups of fools need to get wise...



TIME OF THE SEASON 


Image from Matt Jaffe


There are all kinds of indicators of seasons to those with open eyes, ears, minds, mouths and noses. What vegetables are at the farmers' market, what sort of parties are happening, what type of movies are in theaters, what people are wearing, &c. There are also, of course, meteorological indicators but many people are maddeningly unable to recognize them.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was often asked by friends back home if I “missed having seasons.” Sure, I miss breezy, cool spring days with flowers popping up through the fragrant, soggy, thawing soil and swimming in the just-thawed pond. I even miss sticky, sweltering summer nights spent drinking on a porch with a fan in the window and watching fireflies and heat lightning – and swatting mosquitoes. I miss the Rivendell-vibe of Autumn twilights, when cool winds carry dead leaves and the comforting smell of fireplaces -- perhaps following a visit to an apple orchard. I even miss the brittle, arctic chill of icy winters when I used to take deep breaths, play hockey, go camping, and go ice diving. Despite all of that and the fact that I rarely experience anything similar in Los Angeles, I don’t miss seasons. Mainly because I still have them. For that matter, everyone in every climate on Earth does. 


LEARNING TO READ 


When people visit California for the first time (including yours truly), they often remark with surprise that it’s a desert. The popular tropical icons of the region – palm trees – suggested to me that it would be more like the city in Florida where I briefly lived than the town in Languedoc where I did for an even shorter period. I was pleasantly surprised, mind you, by this surprise.

I had no interest in living in the glamorous, celebrity-obsessed, semi-tropical (or alternately gang-plagued war zone) that I’d seen depicted in film after film. I was pleasantly surprised that Los Angeles was more Latino, more Asian, more varied, more diverse, more cultured, and all around more interesting than I’d expected. I was also surprised that it was less black, less white, and less vertical than I’d expected, based on my experiences with other cities. I was absolutely grateful that it was less plastic, less violent... and not semi-tropical.


Having grown up in the South and Midwest, I didn’t arrive to Southern California fluent in the language of its seasons. I arrived in the summer and Christmas caught me off guard -- I hadn't noticed any snowstorms. When it started raining heavily almost every day I made an effort to learn the  native language.


CHAPARRAL

Image source: Larisa Stow


The lingua franca of the Southland is Chaparral (or Mediterranean). I’ve never really liked the term “Mediterranean” because it suggests to me that the climate found in parts of Southern California, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and Mexico is somehow a version of that found in sea between Europe, the Levant, and North Africa (as if Europe's climate is the original) rather than an indigenous phenomenon. It also suggests the kind of Eurocentrism that's gotten the region into serious trouble.



REMAKING SOCAL IN ANOTHER'S IMAGE


Image Source: Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries


Today roughly 54% of Angelenos trace at least some of their ancestry to Europe. The largest European ethnicities in Los Angeles are SpanishGerman, Irish, English, Italian, and French. Of those, only two countries of ancestral origin (Spain and Italy) are dominated by a similar biome (whilst the southern parts of France have it too). In the past Los Angeles was even more European-American -- even sold as the implicitly Protestant "White Spot of America." European immigrants as well as American ones from the Midwest and the Northeast, often attempted to adapt the landscape to their tastes rather than adapt their tastes to their new home. Native plants were largely replaced by homeowners who desired thirsty, manicured, useless grass lawns and rose gardens like those of their temperate homelands. 


Image source: huval

Developers were crazy for palm trees -- only one species of which, Washingtonia filifera (the California fan palm) is actually native to California. Despite the fact that they further tax our already taxed water supply and provide little shade, they were popular as they gave the impression of Los Angeles being an "exotic" desert oasis or tamed bit of semi-tropics. The palm tree fad peaked in the 1930s and now many of the iconic trees are nearing the end of their lives (or being killed by weevils). Thankfully, the LADWP is now in the habit of replacing them not with more palms, but rather with more water-wise trees adapted to the chaparral.


THE NATURAL LANDSCAPE



The area occupied by the City of Los Angeles is not a desert although parts of Southern California and  the Los Angeles County are. The Mojave and Colorado Deserts are just over the hills. One of the reasons California is so-often miscategorized as a desert is because back in the day water barons wanted to justify their huge engineering projects that redirected water from other regions, casting themselves as the city's saviors in the process. Their projects did truly transform the environment. For example, the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys were mostly dry grasslands with trees mostly growing along the banks of streams and in the surrounding foothills -- although they'd by then been transformed by centuries of use by the Spanish as grazing pastures. Major transformation of the Southland's landscape began with the Spanish Conquest of not just the indigenous people but the indigenous environment. The Spaniards planted palms, eucalyptus, mustard and crops for both their animals, their slaves and themselves. 

The hills and much of the Los Angeles Basin are still dominated by sclerophyll shrublands. In other parts of the world this biome is referred to as fynbos, kwongan, mallee, maquis, and matorral. Although I'm thankful for the shade and water, they come at a cost. I'm even more thankful that (and hopeful because) many people are increasingly embracing native plants and at least water-wise xeriscaping which often utilizes non-natives but less thirsty specimens. And while I'm at it, why don't we have more extensive green roofs, permeable roads and river beds?

And now a look at the seasons of the Southland...


*****


CHAPARRAL WINTER


image source: Rodney Ramsey


There are several indicators of winter's arrival to SoCal. The year usually begins with a short but occasionally intense rainy season. A desert usually receives less than ten inches of rain whereas Los Angeles usually receives between fifteen and twenty. As a result of the rainfall, vegetation flourishes, the chaparral (and distant desert) blooms, and the pollen count rises – resulting in people with allergies becoming measurably crankier.

The air becomes amazingly clear and distant snow-capped mountains emerge. The nights are long and cold. Not inland cold, thank heavens, but legitimately cold -- especially if you don't have a proper coat in your possession. On average the temperature drops to about 9°C (48°F). The record low, −6 °C (21 °F), was recorded on 20 January, 1922.

Winter begins with the Winter Solstice, which comes between 21 and 22 December and the sun sinks beneath the horizon around 16:45. For the indigenous Chumash, Winter Solstice meant honoring the sun with several days of feasting and dancing and it was the biggest religious ritual of their people. Winter solstice also marked the beginning of the calendar of the Tongva, who arrived some 10,000 years later. 

California grows about 80% of the USA's vegetables and fruits. In winter, asparagus, avocados, blood oranges, cabbage, carambola, cardoons, collards, grapefruit, green peas, kale, kiwis, kumquats, leeks, lemons, lettuce, Medjool dates, mushrooms, mustard, navel oranges, passion fruit, pears, pommelos, rutabaga, satsumas, scallions (good year round), spinach, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tangelos, tangerines, treviso, and turnips are all in season.








CHAPARRAL SPRING


image source: LA Observed

As winter transitions into spring, the days begin to grow warmer, longer, and usually drier with most rainfall ending around April. The first day of spring is the Vernal Equinox, which occurs around the 20th of March. Like autumn leaves elsewhere, in Los Angeles we get colorful, falling spring flowers (and flower-like spring leaves) from Bottle BrushesBougainvilleas, and Jacarandas which add a pastel beauty to the landscape yet are received with moaning from haters of beauty for the "mess" they make... on the ground... in nature. 

Around the middle of the year, in late spring, the cold waters of the Pacific current known as the California Current meet a high pressure formation known as the California High. The result is a thick, sticky marine layer known colloquially as June Gloom (as well as, depending on the month: GrayprilMay GrayNo-SkyJuly, or Fogust). The weather is typically hot but the sky is overcast although rain is fairly uncommon. Instead, the thick marine layer usually burns off later in the day.

Many crops remain in season but are joined at the market by newly seasonal apricots, Asian pears, artichokes, arugula, basil, black-eyed peas, cherries, cucumbers, fava beans, fennel, fiddle heads, figs, grapes, green beans, green garlic, maize, melons, mint, morels,  nectarines, nettles, new potatoes, okra, parsley, peaches,  peppers, radishes, ramps, raspberries, rhubarb, snap peas, snow peas, spring onions, strawberries, summer squash, sweet onions, tomatoes, and Valencia oranges.

 







CHAPARRAL SUMMER


image source: Ricardo DeAratanha for the Los Angeles Times

Summer begins on the Summer Solstice, which falls between the 20th and 21st of June. At Burro Flats in the Simi Hills is a painted cave that served as a gathering place for the Chumash, Tataviam, and Tongva. As the sun moves across the sky on the longest day of the year, a notched sandstone peak casts a shadow across a carving of a bear claw surrounded by carved indentations. To the south, the Acagchemem looked to the stars of Orion's belt and the Pleiades to forecast summer's return. 

Summers tend to be long, dry and hot… hot but usually not that hot. Summer highs average in the high 20s  low 80s °F) although the inland areas and valleys especially are usually quite a bit warmer than the coastal areas. At night it can be surprisingly cold -- well, cold if you've acclimated to a climate where high teens (low 60s °F) counts as "surprisingly cold." Not too bad really and probably the reason a large percentage of the population has chosen to live here for thousands of years.

The days are sunny and long, ending in some beautiful sunsets and moonrises. Under those long sunny days, bell peppers, blackberries, boysenberries, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupes, carrots, cherries, chickpeas, chili peppers, cilantro, figs, eggplant, garlic, gooseberries, limes, marionberries, onions parsnips, pineapple guava, Plums, pluots, radicchio, ramps, sapote, shallots, shelling beans, soybeans, sweet peppers, tomatillos, and zucchini (and zucchini blossoms) flourish.







CHAPARRAL AUTUMN



Fall begins with the autumnal equinox, which occurs on the 22nd or 23rd of September. For the Chumash it fell during the month of Hutash, and was observed with a harvest ceremony which seems to have been marked with a degree of solemnity. 

In autumn, the dry, hot, violent Santa Ana Winds sweep across Los Angeles as the nights grow longer and more orange. Fires are common – caused by both lightning and firebugs. Some years the hillsides burn on all sides, the sky turns ashy and it begins to feel like something from the imagination of  Dante Alighieri or Hieronymus Bosch. When the winds finally subside, the less-feared Santa Ana Fog often replaces them.

Although many are available in other times of the year, Autumn is when apples, a second crop of artichokes, Belgian endive, broccoli, carambola, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, chard, cherimoyas, daikon, escarole, fennel, a second crop of figs, frisée, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, lemongrass, persimmons, pomegranates, potatoes, pumpkins, quinces, and rapini are all at their best. 



Tom Russell - "Santa Ana Winds" (live)








...and, as seasons are cyclical, winter returns. So to repeat my earlier statement, I do miss the seasons of my youth but I don't miss seasons. I'm enjoying them every day.

*****

(Wherein we eagerly anticipate the death of leaves.)

Posted by Job O Brother, September 28, 2011 11:04am | Post a Comment



Fairfax & Melrose

I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough now to notice a two-degree temperature drop and the standard grey, morning haze lasting an extra hour and excitedly exclaim, “Fall is in the air!” It’s what I have to work with down here.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. I’m eager to cuddle up in coats, drink steamy brews, over-do holiday cooking, celebrate Walrus Day, and frankly, I like the melancholic pallor it casts o’er humanity – makes my fellow man seem more relatable than when they’re sweating and spiking balls over nets, behavior which makes me skittish and distrustful.

Of course I know this new chill in the air may be a tease; there’s always opportunity for Mother Nature to Alan Funt the situation. I’m not boxing up my cargo shorts and ice cube collection just yet, but I am eager. To prepare, I’ve hand-selected the finest mini-marshmallows to serve in cocoa (I myself hate eating marshmallows – they’re like sugar-sweetened, antique erasers, but ironically I delight in judging and organizing them), I’ve begun psychologically manipulating the boyfriend with subliminal messages while he watches The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills to favor Douglas Firs over White Firs, and I’ve taught my cats to knit their own sweaters. (To be honest, this last effort has been a real power struggle, with both felines putting up a lot of resistance and excuses:

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Happy All Hallows' Even

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 30, 2008 08:05pm | Post a Comment

You know those grinches that, on Valentines Day say, "I don't need a holiday to tell me when to express my feelings for my loved one" or, on Mothers Day say "I don't need a stupid holiday to tell me when to call my mom?" Well, that's one reason I like Halloween --because those bias keep their yaps shut for once. After all, it's unlikely that those negative nancies are going to say, "I don't need a stupid holiday to tell me when I can dress like Boba Fett and go door-to-door begging for candy from strangers." Like so many holidays, most of the customs are under threat of disappearance due to the media standardizing, simplifying and corporatizing its observance.



Halloween origins

On Halloween, the boundary between the alive and deceased is erased or at least thin. It was observed as Samhain by the Celts and other Euros until 837 AD, when one of the popes decided to move All Souls Day from May 13 (previously chosen to capitalize on another pagan holiday -- The Feast of the Lemures -- on which day Romans would exorcise their homes of evil spirits) to its current date. Over time it has evolved from a harvest festival, to an opportunity to divine the future (in the 18th century), to an opportunity for children to obtain candy, to its current status as an excuse for drunken adults to dress like media figures or slutty versions of mythological beings.


Jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween trappings

The tradition of carving a jack-o-lantern comes from the tale of Stingy Jack, or Jack the Smith as he was also known. Jack was an Irish drunkard whose reputation for debauchery, scumminess and villainy reached the ears of the disbelieving Devil himself. When the Devil decided to take Jack's soul, Jack tricked him into transforming himself into a coin to pay for one last ale. Instead, Jack placed the coin in his pocket, next to a rood, and made a deal that the Devil wouldn't come back for another ten years. When the Devil showed up ten years later, Jack asked to have an apple. The Devil, displaying shocking gullibility, consented and Jack climbed a tree with a crucifix carved on the trunk. This time Jack struck a deal to never be taken to Hell. Upon Jack's death, he was denied entry into both Heaven and Hell so the Devil gave him a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip, cursing him to spend eternity wandering around with his strange lantern.

These jack-o-lanterns were formerly yielded by children to frighten off faeries, who aren't nearly as benevolent as Tinkerbell would have us believe. Of course, making them out of pumpkins instead of turnips made carrying them impossible for any kid beside Richard Sandrak so costumes have to do the trick. It is also customary to light candles and leave some treats so that the home will be spared.



Halloween games

Everyone knows of the prohibitively unhygienic practice of bobbing for apples but another, more disgusting game involves trying to eat a treacle-soaked scone, suspended on a line, without using one's hands. There's also the game of Puicini. In it, blindfolded participant places their hands into a saucer to divine their future based on the contents of the dish. Dirt = death, water = emigration, a ring = marriage, a rosary = taking Holy Orders, a coin = wealth, a bean = poverty.

Another form of Halloween divination is young women unleashing slugs on flour-sprinkled saucers or toss the peel of an apple over one's shoulder. The result is supposed to spell out, in both cases, the first letter of the future spouse's name. This is pretty much strictly a Hillbilly thing. More well known is the practice of a young woman gazing into a mirror. Either the image of their future husband or a skull signaling death before marriage is supposed to appear. 



Halloween food

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It's the Eve of St. Nicholas Day

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 5, 2007 01:08pm | Post a Comment
It's already December 5th again. Everyone knows that I'm obsessed with holidays and St. Nicholas Day is one of my favorites. Most people have heard David Sedaris' story about Santa Claus vs. St. Nicholas and maybe some of us know that he was a Greek bishop in present-day Turkey who became the patron saint of children by resurrecting their little corpses and paying off debts of the living to keep them out of child sex slavery.
 
I know people still exchange gifts at least in parts of the Middle West. Fewer of us still stuff our shoes with carrots and hay for his white horse Amerigo (or in some places a donkey) with the expectation that tomorrow we'll find our initials in chocolate, chocolate coins or marzipan. Of course, if we've been bad there might be some salt or a bundle of sticks to get switched with.

In different parts of the world he's accompanied by different comrades.
 

Probably most well known is Zwarte Piet who is his companion in Flanders and the Netherlands. Originally Zwarte Piet was a nickname for the Devil and, after arriving from Spain, he threatened to stuff bad kids into his sack and take them back with him. In the 19th century, in typically misguided proto-Political Correctness, he was re-cast as a Moorish servant in blackface wearing colorful clothing from the Renaissance. Satan is too offensive, Moorish slavery is still unfortunately commonplace, so I guess it's not as tasteless. If you look up Sinterklaas on YouTube you will be shocked by the prevalence of blackface, which no one there seems to find remotely controversial. All the comments are in Dutch and I guess you don't see a lot of black people in Holland unless Urban Dance Squad is still around.

         
Also well-known is Knecht Ruprecht -- his companion in parts of Germany. By some accounts he was a farmhand who suffered an accident which accounts for his limp. By others he was a foundling raised by St. Nicholas. If you're bad, he'll take you back to his home in the Black Forest or just toss your body into a river. Sometimes he rides with the Christchild himself.

 

                 
My favorite, perhaps, is Père Fouettard, who is known in Wallonie and Lorraine. Père Fouettard butchered three children which St. Nicholas resurrected. Now he is taken along in chains but still allowed to switch the naughty.

    
The Krampus (or Krampusz) are demons that roam around with bells and chains, drunkenly and indiscriminately attacking onlookers. If you look for Krampus on youtube you'll find plenty of evidence of this from parades in Bavaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia.

          
In Switzerland we have Schmutzli. His name means "little schmutzy one" and his m.o. includes the expected child abuse, beat-downs and kidnapping. Unlike some of St. Nicholas' other homies, he also is said to eat bad children.

  
In Luxembourg we have Houseker, a creepy figure who wears a monk's habit and carries the requisite bundle of switches.


The first I heard of St. Nicholas' companions was Belzenickl (or Pelz Nichol, Belschnikel, Belsnichols &c). He's a drunken woodsmen clad in furs (sometimes a skunk fur cap) known primarily among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) who, if you were good, might throw nuts, cakes and treats across the carpet. If you were bad (you guessed it) -- switching. His name means Nicholas in Furs (or something like that) and he looks a lot like St. Nicholas, only wearing furs and carrying switches instead of gifts.


So, keep your eyes peeled and let me know who was riding with St. Nicholas in your neck of the woods.





If Zwarte Piet in his current Moorish guise leaves you curious about Moors and you desire someone with more firsthand knowledge of Moorish culture than Shakespeare, you could watch a popular Moorish movie on sale at Amoeba, Waiting For Happiness. I haven't yet seen it although comparisons to Michaelangelo Antonioni, Jafar Panahi and Yasujiro Ozu certainly tempt me.





Follow me at ericbrightwell.com

Happy Thanksgiving -- The evolution of Thanksgiving

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 22, 2007 12:05pm | Post a Comment
December 4, 1619. 38 Brits got together in Charles Cittie. Captain John Woodleaf spake,

"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god."

    Wahunsenacawhk                          Matoaka                                                       John Rolfe

They had reason to give thanks after rocky relations with the natives started to calm down. Previously, after Chief Wahunsenacawh's daughter Matoaka (nicknamed Pocahontas) married John Rolfe, relations between the two peoples had improved. In the spring, however, new leader Opechancanough's adviser and famed warrior/magician Nemattanew (derided as Jack of Feathers by the English for his feathered costume) was murdered by two Englishman disproving Nemattanew's claim that a magic oil made him immune to gunfire.

Opechananough

In revenge for the murder, the Powhatan Confederacy attacked the English, killing 347 (or roughly a third of the colonists) and taking 20 women as hostages. Opechancanough mistakenly thought the English would accept defeat and leave. Instead they retaliated and the Powhatan decided to negotiate. At what was meant to be a peace ceremony, the English (led by Captain William Tucker) served the Powhatan poisoned liquor (prepared by Dr. John Potts) which immediately killed about 200 of them whilst 50 more were killed by hand. Opechancanough escaped.

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