Mr Chaparral Man

We have been invited to a summer solstice party - a bit early, since it is to be held five days before the astronomical event. When I first got the e-mail invitation, along with a request to wear white, I replied that it was winter in the chaparral (The Winters Tale) and, perhaps I could wear black?

OK - I'll play nice and wear a white shirt and khaki pants and scrounge up a fabulous selection of native flowers to stuff into my shirt pocket. The ladies will be sporting wreaths - I have the idea to pick yucca blossoms, yellow buckwheat and canyon sunflowers to help Lorrie make her's.

I intend be more chromatically indiscriminate in my pocket bouquet selection: elegant Clarkia, California everlasting, tarweed, deerweed, chamise blossoms, the last woolly blue curls of the season, sage, chaparral morning glory, popcorn flower, white eriogonum, poppy, mimulus and heart-leaved penstemon. A wander up Bear Canyon could produce more variety but I'm restricting myself to the easy-pickings. This profusion will already verge on the obnoxiously horticulturally prolix, but how often do I have an opportunity to be The Brand?

It all seems so simple to me, eradicate all non-natives and revel in the glory of the local plant community. In the event, as readers of this blog will have surmised, it takes a great deal of work to restore the broken crust, in areas of recent upheaval, to a pristine chaparral-ness. The perseverance required becomes, perforce, a radical act. The intolerance for the non-native an extreme act of biotic xenophobia.


Hey ! Mr Chaparral Man, play a song for me

I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to

Hey ! Mr Chaparral Man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you...

Many have followed Piet Oudolf (whose U.S. work includes the planting scheme along The High Line). He has, in my very truncated understanding of the history of twentieth century landscape design, picked up the mantle from Gertrude Jekyll (April Showers) in designing wild gardens.  Jekyll was a great colorist and typically designed in broad washes of texture and hue. Mindful of the local native plant communities she nevertheless worked with the available, global horticultural palette - much of which had been developed, in the previous couple of centuries, by British plant collectors. Piet, like Gertrude before him, is an avid propagator, always keen to develop varieties of plants that can simulate wildness within the narrow confines of the typical suburban garden.

The intellectual groundswell that drives The Dutch Wave, that loose confederation of landscape designers (formed around the protean Oudolf) characterized by a desire for 'wild' and 'natural' gardens, is the understanding that the wild places of Europe and their unique plant communities are under siege. Roadside verges are increasingly managed chemically and, in any case, are under constant assault from gas and diesel fumes. Urban development has impinged on the waste-lands and commons of the post-war era. Industrialized farming has decimated the small-holdings, the inefficiencies of which made room for wild ditches, ponds, hedgerows, tree circles and copses. Remaining wild places have now become recreational resources and are managed to facilitate human interaction rather than the unruly fecundity of nature.

In Oudolf's Planting the Natural Garden, Timber Press, Portland, OR., 2003, Henk Gerritsen, his co-author, bemoans the rapid disappearance of wild flowers:

"I remember cycling around Utrecht at the beginning of the sixties and seeing ditches filled with marsh lousewort and fields overgrown with sun spurge and scarlet pimpernel. The water meadows of the river Lek were covered with ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle and rough hawk's beard; ten years later all had disappeared."

He sees the desire for more nature in the garden as a direct corollary of its diminution outside of it; the need for wild flowers in the garden reflective of their scarcity in the natural setting. He suggests that the old plant selections are over-cultivated, and unnatural in appearance.

Here in the New World, in California in particular, the comparatively short history of agricultural and industrial development has left broad swathes of wildland. Take a plane ride anywhere in the U.S. and the preponderance of wilderness, observed from 30,000 feet, remains daunting (Red Smudge). Thus, atavistic memories of the wild frontier are perhaps still too fresh for most Californians to embrace the wild in their back yard. The divide between civilization and the natural world still represents a wound to be cauterized, the infection of the natural world quarantined: the libidinous wilderness contained and emasculated.

Not so on 20 or 40 acre residential parcels in Upper Ojai, where the chaparral, or oak meadowland inevitably predominate. To fetishize the primacy of the pre-1769 landscape as I have, is merely an extreme position in a community where taming the chaparral except in the immediate vicinity of residential, agricultural or equine development is not really a viable option. Its 'improvement' is an expensive and time consuming task. Left 'un-improved' the natural soil is too poor and dry (most of the year) for anything but its indigenous plant cover and the panoply of invasive weeds that I battle on a regular basis.

Alex departed at the end of May for a summer of stripping roofs in Lansing Michigan, so I now stand alone on the front line of eradicating the thistles, mustards and other european-invasives. Now is their time. While the chaparral snoozes (and the energetic Alex is away) the ancient vernal impulses of the European weeds are in full flood as they rise to celebrate the Summer solstice. The armies of Russian star-thistle are mobilizing while their native enemies sleep: only the vigilance of the biotic xenophobe stands in the way of their ultimate triumph.

The summer solstice is the star-thistle's Tet offensive, a holiday excuse to pulverize the locals into submission. I therefore consider it as a highly inappropriate occasion for celebration. Nevertheless, I will attempt to separate myself from the vegetal doom that this axial zenith portends and try not to cast too long a shadow over this evening's festivities.