The ranch where my mom grew up backs onto Los Padres National Forest, nearly two million acres of oak, pine, redwood and chaparral, stretching from near Santa Barbara to Big Sur. While these mountains are older and softer than the recently glaciated peaks of my home in Nelson, British Columbia, they offer abundant beauty and wilderness — even in a golden state more typically known for its crowded cities and freeways.
Recently, one of my cousins and I left the low-lying ranch land my great-grandfather purchased back in the early 1900s near San Luis Obispo, California and drove high up a rutted, twisting mountain road to the appropriately named Hi Mountain Lookout.If you look with a little imagination, you might see the Pacific Ocean in the distance, between the last mountain range and the bottom edge of the clouds. There, we could contemplate both the spreading sky and the rippling, drought-toughened chaparral all around us. The chaparral is a landscape unique to California and northern Mexico. More of a shrub land than a forest, it features manzanita, scrub oak, ceanothis (a sort-0f California wild lilac), artemisia (a common sage brush), and my personal favourite, Californian milkweed. The blooms are long past on this healthy grove of the silver-leafed milkweed, but the memory of monarch butterflies still flutters in the air.
The latest drought in California’s cyclical dry periods is a pernicious one affecting not only the surface landscape but also the aquifer. Ranchers and vineyard owners (including my cousins, who operate both a winery, Vintage Cowboy, and a cattle ranch) worry and fret about water, hoping that this past year’s switch to a La Nina pattern will ease the thirst. The rain did spatter on us during our hike, but not for long. Everywhere in the chaparral, even the broad-leafed evergreens and scrub oaks that are conditioned to drought look like they have had about enough. Yet, the natural world is tireless in its hope and aspiration, as witnessed by these fresh blooms from a Manzanita bush, small white bells opening up just in time to ring in the holidays.