Learning to Love the BrownAugust 6th, 2009 © by Susan Swartz
We hear it every summer from visitors. “Why is it so brown here?” they ask, especially the ones who come from green summer places. They ask it almost accusingly, like there’s been a mistake. They point to the California hills as if we hadn’t noticed that they are not the standard color for the season.
The answer is that brown is our summer color. Our summers are dry. Nobody’s walking through our hills with a watering can. It doesn’t rain here like it does in the green summer places. If they want a green California they should come back in late winter or early spring, when their home ground is still hard and frozen and we are so green we squeak.
I sympathize. I grew up in places with humid green summers and for a long time the California brown looked alien. Wild west and untamed. Naked and brazen. And I can still get a longing for a leafy dripping landscape and extravagant rolling lawns. I came across a newspaper photo of a summer scene of upstate New York that was so drenched and verdant I wanted to do a scratch and sniff.
But I’m a Californian. This is my chosen turf. And in summer I accept that brown is our green.
My California daughter tells her frowning New York friends to think of the summer color as golden if brown turns them off. Golden sounds more lively and cheerful but there are ways to spin brown. The hills of summer look like a nice baguette. They are the shade of a rich café au lait. How about, the color of a used saddle? Or an old rumpled corduroy jacket?
I once described the California summer hills as looking like teddy bear tummies. Fuzzy brown and soft. Of course, they appear more soft than they actually are. Get up close and those grasses are prickly. Alive with slithery creatures. Dogs run through and come home full of foxtails. And there’s always a worry about fire because they look like they’re already half-scorched.
In summer, brown is our green
Last week I drove with friends through the dry back country to a party at a sheep farm in Petaluma. That all-beige backdrop makes it so much better to see stands of black cows and wild turkeys and the neon bright jerseys from a steady stream of bicyclists.
The party, a fundraiser for the upcoming Sonoma County Book Festival which happens on Sept. 19, was one of many summer celebrations of the good stuff that grows up and over and all around these hills. Author Jonah Raskin read from his new book “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.” We got dust in our sandals and ate all-local ratatouille and goat cheese pizza with syrupy sun-gold tomatoes.
As we drove home the fog started to come in. Visitors often don’t appreciate our fog either. How comes the nights are so cold, they grumble. The fog is our natural misting machine. And sometimes when the sun is dropping away and the fog is sliding in, those hills don’t look all that brown. They look kind of, well… some might call them mauve.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Pereira