The Winter's Tale

It's winter in the chaparral.The subversion of the customary seasons is a typical characteristic of the Mediterranean climate which rules southern California and, in total, less than three percent of the earth's land surface. Fall arrives in June and Spring in November. The hot months of drought are winter for the  chaparral plant community.

This year's California summer has been uncharacteristically cool while the East coast broils. But arriving back from our sojourn in Pennsylvania and Ontario in the middle two weeks of July I could see that the season's first sustained period of heat (which we missed) had fried the mimulus and browned the tops of the creamy chamise blossoms. The heart-leaved penstemon which still sported red blossoms when we left has lost its battle with the heat and its leaves are burnt an orangey-brown. The black sage and buck wheat sport dried buttons of seed. Only the laurel sumac, drawing its moisture from 20 feet and more into the soil remains apparently impervious to the season - its fruited blossom bracts still looking like the rarest caviar swirled with cream.

The bio-mass is now in a crouched defensive posture - waiting out the heat, playing rope-a-dope with the sun. A sanguinary flush has suffused the deer weed, the green long gone its yellow blossoms a memory, its stems are now brown, orange and carmine: the bowl behind the house a field of rust. The tar-weed is dessicated, its skeleton fragile but still with a fringe of yellow flowers. The bunch grasses on the front lawn: plugs of thinning straw hair on a dry, over-tanned scalp. Eeuww.

The season has its charms. On the morning after our late night return from the East coast, I was coming back from my run and at the top of the rise above the house site, having just passed through the oak grove which serves as the property's northern portal, I breathed deeply of the resinous perfume of the chaparral - it is a scent like no other, sage, sumac and chamise with top notes of toyon - or so I imagined. It was good to be back!

Later in the week we saw The Winter's Tale - Theater 150's attempt at reviving the Ojai tradition of Shakespeare in the Park. It's a perennially problematic play that is weirdly bifurcated by a sixteen year time lapse at its core. The tone of the play shifts from tragedy to pastoral comedy and then to magic realism. There have been many attempts to imbue the play with meaning beyond the story-line of its pilfered narrative (it is based on an earlier romance, Pandosto or TheTriumph of Time, Richard Greene, 1588). The director, Cal Arts grad Jessica Kubzansky decided that it really is about the nature of time and the time-keeper chorus figure is given dramatic centrality. This conceit was elaborated by the score which features ticking clocks and the stage rendered as an astrolabe cum sun-dial.

It seems to me that it is as least as much about Winter - the meaning hiding in plain sight, in the title, all this time. At the opening of the play, summer is alluded to in the boyhood friendship of Leontes and Polixines before fall descends in the form of a livid jealousy when Leontes, certain that he has been cuckolded by his old friend, imprisons his wife where she dies (or not), their young son Maximilimus wastes away for love of his mother and the newborn Perdita is banished to Bohemia for a long winter of sixteen years.

Scholarship has established that it is upon the Mediterranean coast that Shakespeare imagines Perdita to be cast out and her protracted winter of estrangement from her family becomes, in the play, a pastoral interlude of shepherds and cut-purses, princes and paupers: a time of endless Mediterranean summer (botanically winter) contrasting (or aligning) across the water in Sicilia, with a bitter (emotional) winter for Leontes and gang. Seasonal confusion thus replaces the more usual sexual misaprehensions of Shakespearean schtick. I could go on.... but here was The Winter's Tale performed mid-summer in the depths of the chaparral winter (in the grounds of Chaparral High School).

The chaparralian winter is an interegnum where fruits like coffee berry and holly leafed cherries mature, the feathered seed plumes of the mountain mahogany shroud it in a soft veil of fecundity, the solanum berries darken and ceonothus seed capsules crack open in the dry air - a kind of winter of early morning mists and mellow fruitfulness alongside dessication and blazing heat. The chaparral may die a little above ground but much of its bio-mass exists below the soil. As Rick Halsey points out, the stuff we see is mostly plant sex organs.

Come November, the first winter rains will have greened things up a little and spring will presage the growing season - the wet months of winter. The wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) is an early indicator of spring as it sends long tendrils up over and around the shrubland. The western slope of the enfolding hills to the east of the house are draped in these ragged fringes of bright green as the chaparral emerges from hibernation. The cucumber survives the heat by virtue of its massive storage tuber, a characteristic that has given rise to its other common name, man-root. We rely on a fridge well stocked with Pellegrino, ice and pomegranate juice and the pool.

When we first bought land in Ojai six years ago Jerry Michaels, our real estate agent, extolled the climate but mentioned that August and September were best spent at the beach. I knew then that the months to spend by the waves were October and November when the autumn swells roll up from Baja. Jerry is not of the surfing fraternity. But his advice reflects a common view in Ojai.

I arrived in California  in September, thirty years ago, directly from Sydney's winter. My stay in the antipodes had begun in October eleven years before and in 1969-70 I thus enjoyed a full year of summer. I began my time in California, 1980-81 with almost a full year of winter. I remember the beautiful Topanga days of September and October before, quite suddenly, it seemed, I was back in winter. Seasonal Confusion Disorder comes naturally to me. My dyslexia embraces it.

A love of the wild storms of Sydney's winter stays with me. August and September were beauts - as the Aussies would put it. With minor mental adjustments here too, in the chaparral winter, these two maligned months can entrance.......and spring is right around the corner!