Unlike San Luis Obispo, which is sometimes jokingly described as having two seasons: “day” and “night,” Atascadero – over the Cuesta Grade and out of reach of coastal temperance – can boast of at least three and a half. Every decade or so it is even graced with a peek at four, when an extreme cold front blows through and deposits snow that lasts for a few hours in the lowlands and as much as a week dusted on the hills.
Though temperature is the primary indicator of seasonal shifts in this stretch of California, subtle changes in the landscape are visible to a watchful eye. Winter is the silhouette season, when the valley oaks, sycamores, liquid ambers and purple robe locusts have shed their leaves and trace black outlines against still leafy live oaks and the sky.
In San Luis Obispo to the south and Paso Robles to the north these silhouettes invert as the hillsides soak up winter precipitation and sprout a dizzying emerald carpet of wild grasses that coal black beef cattle roam for sustenance. But in Atascadero the oaks own the land, and what grasses dare to sprout struggle in their shade and acid leaf fall. Color may be glimpsed in occasional bursts of bright berries clustered in nandina or firethorn but otherwise the region cloaks itself in subdued greens and greys. If it hasn’t been a drought year everything has been washed clean by the rains, but the cleansing is a prelude to stasis rather than growth. The acorns have fallen, the maple samaras have fluttered away, the last dusty blue rosemary blossoms have withered, and so it will remain until March.
Spring usually sneaks up on me. The apricot tree blossoms and I find myself thinking, Oh, it did that too soon, then realize it isn’t too soon at all. Not to be outdone the locust trees follow suit, unspooling luxuriant clusters of periwinkle-colored blooms. Soon the whole yard is awash in purple and orange and bright fuchsia as society garlic, day lilies and the sizzling pink fringe flowers bedeck the beds. As soon as the blooming begins the hummingbirds go about the business of raising new families, filling the yard with the buzzing of vibrating wings. As the purple robe unfolds its leaves the aphids swarm, followed by the bushtits descending in a twittering flock to dine at the greenfly buffet.
Early spring is a riot of color and sound delightful to the soul after the starkness and sobriety of a winter where perhaps a pair of owls hooted to one another across the yard at night, or a disconsolate toad croaked alone for an evening or two before realizing he had emerged too soon and dying in a sudden cold snap. When the first blooming is done the spring zephyrs blow through, and the catkins that have been quietly gathering among the oaks drift along their currents and down to the ground, turning the yard’s vibrant palette to sepia tones and driving the humans to the medicine cabinet for allergy medication. But from the pollen acorns grow, so we sneeze and endure.
Summer is…the difficult season, and growing more so with every passing year as climate change sinks its talons into the region. It’s difficult to pretend that one could survive – certainly comfortably, if at all – without the accoutrements of civilization. Water is always a problem in the summer. When we moved here twenty years ago the property was supported by both a well and city water – a rather illegal state of affairs that we retained for a time because drawing from the well for irrigation kept our water bills down.
But then the pump died, and much sooner than it should have the new one followed suit, and the drilling company told us that we were mostly pulling up sand. Learning that we were going to have to dig deeper if we wanted to keep the well, we decided to make honest citizens of ourselves and shut it down. But tight bonding to the water company means restrictions during drought, and though we were never the sort to have lawns in the land of seemingly infinite ground squirrels and 110℉/43ºC days, we contemplate ripping out all the landscaping and replacing it with rosemary and privets, and fret about the oaks that grow more prone to disease and infestation without adequate water.
And the heat means it’s difficult if not impossible to manage without air conditioning. Wikipedia claims that Atascadero’s climate, like San Luis Obispo’s, is Mediterranean, but given the often twenty degree difference in maximum temperatures the devil must be in the details of “warm Mediterranean” versus “cool.” As demand for artificial cooling grows so does the strain on the electrical grid, and brownouts or blackouts have become increasingly common over the years, sometimes shooting the temperature in the house from 77ºF/25ºC to 89ºF/31ºC in the space of half an hour. And though the span of days requiring air conditioning has increased PG&E’s home energy allotments have not, raising the specter of high usage fees just to keep the house tolerable.
So we deploy more technology as a defense against a land that seems increasingly eager to slough us off. This past summer we replaced our leaky twenty-five-year old metal framed windows with vinyl framed, Low-E, double-paned windows with argon gas fills. The patio by the house sports a pair of giant umbrellas to minimize heat soaked up by the pavers.
Now we’re waiting to hear if Tesla was overly optimistic in their promise of technological advances making it feasible to have solar panels on our partially shaded roof. Since they commit to paying the differential in the electric bill if they misjudge they have some motivation to get it right, but if they come through with a proposal the strain of potential high usage fees should be relieved, and the addition of a Powerwall should enable us to stay up and running during a blackout.
All of these measures will hopefully stave off the annual summer doldrums, the feeling that I don’t belong here, that the summers are just too hostile and hard. Sometimes I even get as far as looking at real estate somewhere more clement, like Morro Bay. Then suddenly the temperature plummets, the sky turns from a washed out turquoise to a brilliant royal blue. The sycamores, liquid amber and maples turn ochre and russet and – if the magical alignment of bright days and cold nights has occurred – burgundy and crimson. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and stoves perfumes the neighborhood. And I remember that autumn in Atascadero is my favorite season of the year.
Fall – real fall – begins when what I think of as the “encluttering” happens. Laundry piles grow larger as socks and layers of clothing accumulate. The coat rack comes out of its box in the closet and perches on the sunken brick floor, holding coats and a towel for dog paws against the cold and frost and – hopefully – rain. Gloves, hats and shoes nest there as well – slip-ons for a quick dash outside, boots for a more serious trip. Piles of oak are stacked next to the wood burning stove, and a plastic trash can full of kindling stands just outside the door. As we slip into the holiday season colored lights are strung along the eaves, and the Christmas tree takes up residence in the living room.
Fall is root vegetable stews and homemade bread. It is stoking the wood burning stove until the living room is a temperature I’d complain about in the summer and then relishing the nip in the air when I walk down to get the mail or out to the shed for more wood. Its rituals are more leisurely than summer’s: the slow starting of a fire, the slow roasting of chicken and potatoes, the ambling walks at any time of day rather than rushing out before it’s too warm and the dog – with her brachycephalic boxer skull – overheats.
I cherish the dark mornings and evenings, and relish the days where the sun is cloaked behind grey clouds and makes no appearance at all. If the power goes out in a storm we lose our internet connection and our music, but more clothing and more wood in the stove restores comfort, and since we’re mole people who usually live by candlelight in the evenings anyway we barely notice the electricity’s loss.
Much as I wish autumn could linger forever, inevitably winter follows. The leaves fall, the yard grows more somber. And then the decluttering – or the “un-encluttering” – begins. The Christmas tree is chopped up for firewood and then – an eccentric number of weeks later because I love the points of color in the darkness – the outdoor lights come down. As winter gives way to spring it is too warm for fires, so the kindling goes back behind the shed and the wood returned to the woodpile or tucked under the chimenea for spring and summer nights. Last of all, if we’ve been fortunate, the coat rack is taken apart and returned to the closet as rain vanishes from the forecast, accompanied by the gloves and the hats and most of the shoes.
And while I don’t have the longing for spring, I feel a certain contentment at its arrival. Fall inevitably finds its way indoors, in mud and oak leaves, bark and twigs. I know when we take the Christmas tree down that I’ll be finding pine needles until summer. Spring invites us to abandon our increasingly messy nest against the cold, to come back outside. To witness renewal and regrowth – the budding apricot and magnolia, the berries on the privets, the frogs in their season croaking around the tiki fountain. To laze in the afternoon sun reading, or in Guinness’ case systematically crushing the society garlic looking for warmth in the gorilla hair. To pull the covers off the barbecues and celebrate the return of grilled pizza and pulled pork season with the clink of beer bottles.
Still my heart belongs to the autumn. It is the respite from the hard summers. It is the leafy piles I jumped in as a child. It is the chill to the mornings and the big cumulus clouds drifting across bright blue skies. It is a reminder that while endings are coming, there is still a little time, a little color left. And I suppose it is easy for my heart to find respite there, since that is where I’m at in my life. Not quite melancholy, not quite spent, but more aware than in my youth that I should savor the time that I have.