Last night at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Instructors’ Reading at the Skirball Center, I read a version of my Southern California Seasons piece (yes, we do have them, but it’s complicated), which first appeared in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Op-Ed pages on October 18, 2009. For all who enjoyed and were looking to read it in print, many thanks for your enthusiasm and interest. This post is for you.


It’s October, the mid-1990s, I’m driving north on the 5. The hillsides are dressed in summer’s dead grasses, rusted-buckwheat and silver sage. The sky is a pearl haze with scraps of blue bleeding through. Then, sudden as brake lights in a carpool lane, it hits me: It must be fall in Southern California.

It took more than a decade living here before I sensed this change of seasons. Was that because most folks insist we don’t have them? Yes, we don’t have the color-coded, quarterly system Easterners boast, that endless loop of dropped leaves in last year’s colors, soon buried by months of snow melting into spring’s floral cliché–cue the summer heat, humidity and bugs.

L.A. doesn’t play by this weathered script. Non-native-crybaby-losers love to blame The Weather. You can’t get anything done with all this sunshine!

Some folks need a blizzard blowing at their backs to stay indoors, settle down and work their tails off. Give them the shriveling demands of an incendiary Santa Ana and they get confused, anxious and depressed — especially if they bought a house with a wood shingle roof.

Conventional climate refugees who prosper despite our relentless sunshine need to find flaws to keep others from crowding paradise. “Yeah, but we don’t have seasons here!” they assure their Minnesota guests, while slapping on the sun block New Year’s Day.

Many who do believe in the existence of our local seasons, differ defining them. Some say there are just two — one of fire and one of flood — held apart by mind numbing stretches of sunshine.

Author Carey McWilliams’ was more nuanced in his 1946 history, “Southern California, An Island on the Land.” He called our region “a freak of nature — a semi-arid desert … insulated, shut off from the rest of the continent,” with no less than five overlapping seasons–-two springs, two summers and one I’ll call Rain.

They start when late fall’s light rains end the long dry season I like to call Fire. The hills turn verdant, what McWilliams called our “false spring.” The true rainy season comes between January and March, with downpours that swell the rivers and frighten the populace, put roofs and hillsides to the test and flood the television newscasts with apocalyptic footage.

That’s a good year.

April’s lighter showers announce our second, real spring, what McWilliams called an “aborted summer.” By late May, it is McWilliams’ fall, with emerald grasses fading to summer’s tawny earth tones and June’s flower-lined paths dead ending in months of brutal, but dry, heat.

I’m a fan of our extremes, the awe-inspiring winds and terrifying rains and the becalmed times between that delicately “season” our days.

Our falls are discreet, with changes in the air and light so minor that experiencing them requires slowing down and paying attention. I’m first struck by the vague feeling that it’s time to switch from ice-blended Frappuccinos to hot lattes before I notice how short the days have become and how cool the nights are.

Once Summer’s deadly heat has passed and it’s safe to go outside, I gather my sense of the changing season on the local mountain trails, where poison oak provides the necessary note of autumn red, reinforcing the beloved clichés about Southern California’s sinister landscape. Beyond this are silvered thistles, grasses that look kiln-dried from the sun, and the last, dying traces of orange mimulus: “monkey flowers” still clinging to the rocks, their jade stems fading to umber.

This year, at the top of the mountain, the residue of a recent wild fire bleeds in from over the ridge, gray, black and sepia,infusing the air with a cold charcoal smell. I look down on the mountain’s dizzying drop of steep folds, the slopes appear ready to melt into an ash avalanche. Will the winter rains wash them away? If they hold, they may erupt in snapdragons and whispering bells, their germinated seeds the fire’s gift.

Southern California is full of such surprising possibilities. It’s best, I’ve decided after my share of seasons here, to learn to live with the inability of predicting them.

At the bottom of the trail, the day has picked up heat. At the nearest Starbucks, I order a Frappuccino. It may be fall, but it is still just too hot for anything else.

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