Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Signs of Winter

Slanders to the contrary, Silicon Valley does indeed have a change of seasons. Here’s how to tell that winter is coming:

  • Sometimes, now, there are clouds in the sky.

  • We’ve started using the woodstove in the evenings.

  • Gabriel has come back to my bed.

  • The freeway medians are vivid with bittersweet.

  • I’ve changed my cell phone ring to “Ode to Joy” from “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”

  • The hills are turning green.

Sometimes, now, there are clouds in the sky.

Yes, we really go months without seeing a cloud, except the occasional feather-light cirrus floating mindlessly in the empyrean. The towering cumulonimbus clouds, grand and imposing, don’t form here from late March through, say, September. We do sometimes get a morning overcast, known as the marine layer, but it always burns off, leaving skies of a deep, dazzling blue seen back home only in the first weeks of October.

Now, given the legendary cloudiness of my native climate—which is more overcast than Seattle—you can imagine how strange this relentless sunshine is to me. I love it when the clouds return, casting dappled shadows over the hills, melting sometimes into soft watercolor skies.

The rain comes back with the clouds. On September 18, I woke to discover that it was raining—a gentle, brief shower that dissolved into sunshine before long. Then a month passed without rain. By late October, though, rain was coming regularly, omce a week or so: drizzles, downpours, squalls, even a little thunder once.

Along with the clouds and rain, the wind comes back in winter. Summer has light breezes and predictable wind patterns: the evening breeze is consistent. In the winter, cool gusty winds rise, and so do my spirits.

We’ve started using the woodstove in the evenings.

Nights are always cool in Silicon Valley; even in the hottest weather, night-time temperatures fall into the sixties or fifties. But since our house was built without insulation, the only way to keep it cool in summer is an elaborate system devised by Sonja. Huge fans keep the air circulating round the clock. In the daytime, all the windows are closed and covered with curtains, black mesh fabric, and blinds, a system that keeps some of the heat out; nevertheless, on the very hottest days, the upstairs can hit an easy 95 degrees by 5PM. At night, the curtains are fastened back, the windows and skylight are opened, and the cool air pours in. By midnight, the house is cool and comfortable, and by 3AM, I’m pulling up extra covers.

In winter, night-time temperatures drop into the forties, sometimes below, and daytime temperatures range from the fifties to the seventies.

Gabriel has come back to my bed.

All summer long, Gabriel takes advantage of the long days and warm nights to go hunting. It’s like having a teenager; she comes in for meals and demands to go out again almost immediately. She doesn’t want to be petted, either—also like a teenager. She was a feral cat, and although she loves me, she is still at heart a wild animal.

In Jackson’s short, wet summers, there were plenty of days when she stayed in. Not that she dislikes wet or cold weather; she has always loved going out in the rain and snow, and her thick fur keeps her dry no matter what. But even feral cats have an instinct for comfort. Besides, in the rain there is no prey to hunt.

When winter comes, she sleeps on my bed at least part of every night. Every year I wonder if this time she’s ever coming back. So far she always has.

The freeway medians are brilliant with bittersweet.

At least, I’ve always assumed it’s bittersweet. It grows dense and beautiful here, thick vines and shrubs of red-orange berries that last through the winter. However, I suspect that they may be the native toyon—the false holly of Hollywood. Bittersweet is out of its range here.

Edit: No, it's pyracantha and cotoneaster. Neither one is native.

I’ve changed my cell phone ring to “Ode to Joy” from “Take Me out to the Ball Game.”

When the World Series is over, so is the song. Sometime between the first day of spring training and opening day, when the Phillies’ prospects look good, I’ll switch back from the “Ode to Joy” to the “Ode to Frustration,” AKA “Well, at Least This Year They Might Finish Above .500” or “Please, God, Please Don’t Make Us Stay in Last Place.”

The hills are turning green.

This is painfully counterintuitive for the Northeasterner in exile. I’m used to the hills changing color in response to the seasons, but not this change. Back home, summer green (emerald nearby, melting to slate blue in the distance) gives way to the incandescent scarlets and golds of October, thence to the quiet russets and browns of November, then the pencilled landscapes of winter—slate-grey, slate-purple, and blue-white. By April there is a haze of red on the grey hills, and by the end of May it’s all green again.

Of course the deciduous trees turn color here; in fact, this year for some reason they were particularly brilliant. Or perhaps I’m forgetting what fall is really like. (By the freeways of San Jose, there we sat down; there we wept, as we remembered Jackson. . . . If I forget thee, Pennsylvania, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.) But there are very few native deciduous trees in California. Many of the native oaks here are evergreen, and they have strange, narrow, blackish-green leaves like strips of leather.

All summer long, the grassy hills here stay the soft color of a palomino horse. They’re vividly alive, the grass so pale the hills seem to be outlined in light. Every fold and curve is emphasized by the short-growing grass, and the crevices where water collects are dense with brush.

By October, though, a tinge of green shows here and there. Then the hills look like ancient horsehair upholstery faded with sun. As the weeks progress, the folds and crevices of the upholstery begin to show hints of their original green. Now, in the beginning of December, the hills are more green than pale, and every rain makes them a little younger. Here winter is the season of new life.

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