The Award-Winning Ya
Or, The Grass Isn't Always Greener
In our old age my wife and I have returned to Southern California. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and my wife, born and raised in Denmark, is an honorary native, having fallen in love with the palm trees silhouetted against the red dawn when she flew into LAX about 50 years ago. Now, after almost 40 years of living in Ohio, we’re back, this time living in Redlands, in an unpretentious house in an ungated Homeowner Asociation, and stunned by how everything has changed. The population has burgeoned, likewise the building, and the greenness, and the freeways which streak the landscape like a Jackson Pollack painting. California and Californians -- how it has changed! To top it off, when we left for Ohio I could hear OK; I return as deaf as a coot.
The most visible change is in clustered valleys of Southern California and the adjacent extensive unnamed low-lying flatlands framed by the mountain ranges and foothills. The area is naturally arid. It does rain but only in the winter, occasionally and sometimes heavily causing flash floods, but for most of the year there are no real rivers, only dry riverbeds – arroyos. As a kid I would hear on the radio of all those summer baseball games in the East being “called on account of rain,” and would shout back at the sports announcer, “whudyamean! It doesn’t rain in summer!” Some of the mountains defining the valleys are high and in the winter always heavily snowcapped, with good, but brief, melt runoff. So the valleys are dry and dusty, and, in my day, barren of growth except for patches of lackadaisical sagebrush, half-hearted nondescript weeds, tumbleweeds in season, no redeeming features. There were scattered towns, reminiscent of Biblical villages, just fly spots on a map fifty shades of gray.
This is why, decades ago, California constructed a vast system of rain and runoff control, a network of massive and unbelievably extensive aqueducts, with at least a thousand reservoirs and large man-made lakes, such as Big Bear Lake, plus the famously imported water from real rivers in adjacent states, all together one of the engineering marvels of the world, the materialization of the unquenchable California spirit, all feeding innumerable Rain Bird sprinklers and garden hoses, and the innumerable lawns and bird-of-paradise flowers and agapanthuses. In those days folks were proud of such accomplishments; I was. So now these once vacant forlorn valleys have been transformed into one solid suburb with lush, profligate greenery of every sort known to the Monrovia Nurseries, Home Depot, and landscape designers.
Redlands, where we now live, is a pretty little town situated at the eastern extremity of this stretch, with the magnificent San Bernardino Mountains in the background, just across the valley. The town is old by California standards, and even in my day famous for its orange groves, green gold bringing to the little town genteel affluence and a fancy library and a university and a symphony and parks and tangles of roses and, lining wide streets, tall palms, memorable even when not seen as silhouettes against a dawn, interspersed with crimson crepe myrtles, almost as famous as the orange groves.
There are still surprisingly extensive residual orchards stretching from the un-developed east of town to the bare foothills, and the landscaping of not a few old veranda-Victorians or Spanish style tiled villas is not the usual Pittosporum tobira, Bird of Paradise, and roses, but thick blackish green ranks of orange trees, a residential landscaping scheme unique to Redlands.
But most of the groves in the town proper have been replaced by houses. Our smallish HOA, 3 minutes from downtown, was carved from an orange grove circa 1970, and instead of orange trees there are now camphor trees, liquid ambers, runs of African sumac, mature ash, 2 flowering magnolia trees, a jacaranda, a few mature Aleppo pines, some sycamores and 2 or 3 authentic California live oaks – not a single orange tree, or eucalyptus, or banana tree -- all scattered upon a continuous strip of lawn that separates individually owned properties, that legally is the association’s “common property.” To keep this belt of grass perfectly maintained and green, the association contracts with the ForeverGreen Landscaping Service, which employs only expert aliens and advanced irrigation technology, and likes to showcase our greenness as a demonstration of its expertise. Redlands, all of it, our little part of it, our neighborhood, is historically and currently lovely and green.
All, that is, except for one small yard, just one block south on Bienvenida Street, on the corner of El Famoso Blvd, the most conspicuous spot in the neighborhood. You drive by and cringe. Untended, unwatered, the stunted colorless long-dead grass and a few shreds of shriveled unidentifiable plants or pitiful weeds have remained mummified in the desiccated air. Treeless, totally treeless. When we moved here five years ago we were told that despite numerous complaints and threats to the occupants, whether senile or criminal no one seemed to know, and petitions to the city, the awful sight had been there for decades, as unchanged as the pyramids. On the plus side, this spot of blight sets off the greenness of the prosperous neighborhood.
But now, in 2015, The Great Drought has struck. Only token rain only for a minute or two, meager drizzle, subliminal dew. The winter-long snow that dependably covers the mountains, so picturesque, has not been seen for the last 2 winters. All of which is exactly what the massive California reservoir system was created for, to render the state sustainable in just such a drought, with hardly a faded petunia. But the petunias are fading. The city has imposed water restrictions. Our HOA watering timers have been accordingly set lower. Spreading out like lava flows are swaths of colorlessness defiling our ForeverGreen lawn.
Last night our HOA had an emergency meeting to deal with the catastrophe. Being as deaf as the lawn is dry, I caught only snatches of the spirited, and, as near as I could tell, dispirited discussion. Of the world-famous California water reserve system, the reservoirs, the aqueducts, not a peep. If I heard him right, old Greg, an ex-fireman, was moaning, “Our lawn is still getting too much water! We’ve got to demand that ForeverGreen turn the timers down even more.” Meanwhile Matt, an old retired pastor speaking in a tired, tremulous old ministerial tone I could hardly understand, seemed to be proclaiming, “California will be destroyed! … global warming! … doubters be damned! we all have got to realize that our old expectations have got to be lowered. For far too long we have indulged shameful extravagance …Oh, how thankful we should be to have leading us… [I expected the Biblical Joseph to be pointed to, and how he saved the Egyptians from the drought, or maybe Winston Churchill and WWII and victory gardens, no, strike the gardens] … Jerry Brown governor! ...compassion… compassion... even for the smelt.”
Then young Jeremy, a comic strip letterer, stood up and, gesticulating, proclaimed so clearly that I caught almost every bit of it : “But hey! Isn’t there an example of what everybody's lawns should be, just down the street, we drive by it all the time – at the corner of El Famoso and Bienvenida, isn’t it? I propose that an award – let’s call it the Governor’s Award -- be posted on that yard for all to see. The citation could read: ‘Presented in honor of the region’s most sustained and exemplary awareness of global disaster and compliance with restitutory regulatory measures, and for the most authentic restoration and virtual reincarnation of the original culture and soul of Southern California as it was before Big Industry, Big Walmart, Big Developers, and Big Artichoke and Big Almond moved in and corrupted the earth.’ Hey! It ought to be published in the Redlands Daily Orange and, why not, Sunset Magazine, …hey! the mayor could come, or, hey! Governor Brown! And …” Film crews? Did I hear "film crews"? Brian Williams? Moved, seconded, carried!
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