Monday, September 05, 2011

Growing Old Disgracefully

"Sun smudge on
the smoky water."
Archibald MacLeish, Autumn

Autumn is in the air, finally. Because the air is shifting more onshore, blowing the eastern metropolitan San Diego smog up against the mountains, I can see the smog trapped across the valley that is the eastern border of the El Cajon valley. My front window faces north, looking down from halfway up the old mountains on the western side of the El Cajon valley. The valley slope of the northern side of the valley forms a cup, now half filed with brown fuzzy smog below. Above the skyline of these low mountains, is the clear blue sky highlighted with brightly lit cumulus clouds that tantalize us with their promise of cooling rain on parched summer ground. I heard thunder rumble as I was making my morning coffee.

My small town orbits like a satellite a typical American city in SoCal. El Cajon is a former frontier town, one that ruthlessly vanquished the “primitive” natives barely three generations ago. As the culture of our big city oozes out to us, we become another cookie cutter suburb. This is the place where Tom Petty said there’s a freeway running through our yard.  Our public landscapes are designed mostly by gringos now.

Everywhere, the crepe myrtle blossom effortlessly. I remember only the almost salmon red ones from my east coast childhood. Here and now, they seem mostly the softer and cleaner pink, delicate lace-white, and my favorite lavender ice.

Here and now, crepe myrtles come in two basic styles. First, are the rustic unpruned tall bushes with multiple graceful trunks tall open shrubs you see in peoples’ yards.  

The second landscape style could be called Early Twenty-first Century Urban Street Island Low Bid. This version features slightly embarrassed and pretentious plantings grown into standards – single-trunked bushes striving to be tiny trees. They are all more-or-less pruned into bloated baloons and lowish lollipops that would offer scant shade to a goat.  

 Either way, their lovely trunks thrive in our auto-centric urban environment, bathed in smog and auto pollution. Crepe mytrle bark sloughs off in smooth strips leaving behind hundreds of shades of brown and grey in a changing mosaic pattern. The bark would make lovely paper.

These small standards are often alternated with bright pastel varieties of oleander - that go-to barrier strip bush that seemingly evolved to stop a crashing car going 65. Another companion planting are Natal Plum bushes, with stars of fragrant flowers winking whitely amid the shiny dark foliage. These rigorously clipped hedges surround strip malls, seeming to try with their thorny limbs to contain the despair leaking out from the vacant storefronts.

Typically, within blocks of freeway exits, my neighborhood is still mostly suburban roadside and choked drainage ditches beneath dry and crumbling banks and hillsides covered with flammable dead undergrowth. Here often grow ubiquitous naked lady flowers who have, unfortunately, lost their virginal pink glow. They are growing old, and seriously, who wants to see their anorexic beauty that has withered them into naked old ladies.

Despite these borderline relentless flowers, every small garden bush, summer annual, and most of the background landscape seems to me to be accepting that it isn’t growing gracefully like grandma did. This isn’t where my grandmas lived and died.

The world has changed around me. In the half-life of my time here in Zone 9, a mere 30 years, it has become hotter and drier.  Even the allegedly low-water plants like Sonoran Desert natives and similar Mediterranean Climate plants (natives of west-facing coastal climates in earth's plump midsection, like South Africa, South America and Western Australia) - all are fatigued having spent their summer energy. But all are still here. All of us seem to be entering late middle age and seem, in this dry autumn season before our rains begin, to be growing old disgracefully. 


Esther Montgomery said...

The world you describe is an odd one; almost nightmarish with its smogs and (sometimes) fires, yet with this beauty laced into the urban awfulness.


Les said...

The Crape Myrtle is my city's street tree of choice. My favorite thing about them is the way they festoon the sidewalks, streets, gutters and cars with pink and purple petals after a storm, like a parade just went by. As for growing old, disgracefully or otherwise, I prefer it to not having the opportunity.

Martha in Michigan said...

Ah, a return to philosophical musings using nature metaphors. Did not realize how much I missed it. Hope it implies some regained equilibrium after a year of challenges.