Learning to “Tell Time” from Native Plants

Note:  I’m supplementing my “theology of place” series with this reflection on native plants. Above: a Matilija Poppy (photo by Ted Lyddon-hatten)
I RECENTLY DISCOVERED, in talking with my mentor Liz McAlister of the Jonah House community, that about twenty years ago she and I came independently to a similar and consequential conclusion.  Both of us—Liz in inner city Baltimore, I in east Los Angeles—had grown tired of reading Wendell Berry.  We needed to figure out in our respective contexts how to embody Berry’s vision that had so captured our spirits. 
As a result, Liz and her community of nonviolent resisters moved to an abandoned Catholic cemetery across town in Baltimore, and began reinhabiting it.  Today their ten acres of animal husbandry, gardening and orchards represents a virtual oasis in the ghetto.  Meanwhile, I began to search for some land on which to do something similar in California.  Though that search took much longer than I had anticipated, at last in 2005 Elaine and I landed on a quarter acre in Oak View, CA, and commenced the next (and hopefully culminating) phase of our lives.  Here in the Ventura River Watershed, proximate to some of the last relatively intact undeveloped stretches of coastal mountain chaparral and oak savannah in the southern California bioregion, we are slowly exploring how to craft a space devoted to native plant cultivation, intensive food growing, a sustainable lifestyle, and nurturing a movement toward what we are calling “watershed discipleship.” 
Over the last 6 years, I am not only learning how to practice some of Berry’s vision.  I am also finally beginning to investigate Jesus’ exhortation to pay serious attention to the local wildflowers (Lk 12:27; for my exposition of this trope see “Pay Attention to the Birds: A Bible study on Luke 12, Ecology, and Economics,” in Sojourners, Dec 2009, 38:11, pp. 28ff).  I offer here one example of what these flowers are teaching me. 
I HAVE LIVED the vast majority of my life attuned to clocks, calendars and their derivative commitments.  Nothing is more fundamental to our civilizational paradigm, as Ivan Illich pointed out in a remarkable reflection I heard him give years ago at the L.A. Catholic Worker on the function of medieval town clock towers.  Wildflowers, on the other hand, inhabit an entirely different temporal reality.  And according to Jesus, all we have to do to “see” this other dimension is to pay attention.  
Our efforts in Oak View to do just that has led us to cultivate in our yard various native plants of the local chaparral (some from nurseries, some from seed, some from cuttings).  Living with these plants affords us the opportunity to observe their rhythms close at hand.  
Today is October 27th, 2011 on the solar calendar; it is early fall here near the northern hemisphere’s  40th parallel.  Here are alternative ways I am learning to “tell time” from our native plants:

The native sunflowers (Helianthus californicus) outside our west-facing window are waning.  At this time of year, they are one of the only plants flowering in the chaparral.  This morning I pruned them back, careful to spread the deadheads in order to propagate next year’s hijos, and taking in the cut flowers to brighten our home.  Mid-summer is the time the sunflowers begin to bloom; by All Saints Day they are done.  Meanwhile, the agave and aloe are sending up bright flowering stalks that signal Advent is around the corner.  The Toyon (Heteromeles arbutofloa) berries are reddening, and the birds will soon begin feasting on them.  “Christmas Berry” is what early Euro-American settlers named it; they also called it “Holly Wood” because of its serrated leaves.  Toyon blanketed the hills that now host the famous epicenter of the culture industry, though few there would know the botanical origins of the name.   The Sticky Monkey Flower bushes (Diplacus aurantiacus) have turned brown after a magnificent early summer display of cream white and orange flowers.  They play possum this time of year, and it took us a couple of years to realize that it wasn’t dead; resurrection comes right after Easter, when it comes back twice as large.  As Andrea Ferich demonstrates, the temporal rhythms of plants analogically illumine our Christian liturgical seasons.
Across the swale, the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) is blooming.  During the summer browning of the chaparral, it’s always the greenest presence on the landscape, but now its tips are white and feathery.  Our various California Lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) too, remain green throughout the year; after their summer retreat I notice they are beginning to stretch their limbs, looking forward to the delicately sweet smelling flowering that is yet 5 months away.  Our Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata), Laurel Sumac (Rhus laurina), Coffee Berry (Rhamnus californica) and Snow Berry (Symphoricarpos albus) plants are similarly verdant year round.  Some stray flowers lurk on the Bush Snapdragon (Galvezia speciosa) and the Wooly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum), hiding out in the internal shade of the branches.  This seems to be the only time of year that the Chaparral Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) doesn’t bloom.
Along the western fence line the sages (white, black, purple; Salvias apiana, mellifera and leucophylla respectively) are beginning to leaf out again after the long dry summer, delighting in the unseasonably heavy rain we received three weeks ago.  Same with our three different Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos glandulosa spp.), the Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia), Sawtooth Golden Brush (Hazardia squarrosa), and Mugwort (Artemesia douglisiana).  For them it is time to awaken from dormancy, to anticipate the explosion of growth that will follow the winter rains.
We’ve pruned back the native bunch grasses and sedges, mulching the vegetable garden with the stalks.  As the summer wears on, the Matilija poppies (Romneya coulter) shrink into the scruffiest of the chaparral shrubs, yet their rhizomes have invisibly been spreading new life, and their leaves are now showing signs of stirring.  By May they will have transformed into the most magnificent sprawling, flowering shrub, decorated with a cacophony of fried-egg looking flowers the width of a handspan (see picture above).  The dried out stems of the Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa), Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) and Western Verbena (Verbena lasiotachys) are still powerfully aromatic.  The Goldenrod (Solidago californica), Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), Blue Elderberry (Sambucus caerulea) and Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum ascendens) slump in the same sorry shape at the moment, but with similar transformation to come, testifying to seasonal time. 
Ironically, however, in the chaparral, this “deadest” of times also brings an abundant wild harvest.  November will see the full ripening of the pomegranate fruit, both on our yard and among the many wild trees throughout this valley (the legacy of ranchers a century ago).  We’ve just finished harvesting the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, or “Indian Fig” (Opuntia ficus-indica), around the perimeter of our yard, laboriously processing the plentiful tunas into a smooth and subtle juice.  Above all, the Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) are beginning to rain down acorns, the manna that sustained the original Chumash tribes of this place.  It is surely a sign of our times that few humans in this bioregion eat acorns anymore, once the staple food here; we are so busy engineering scarcity that we are blind to this divine gift of natural abundance.
Finally, over the next two months the wild grape vine (Vitis californica) that functions as a “green screen” during hot summer on the south side of our house will lose its leaves to allow the thin winter sun in.  Also deciduous are the two Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) we’ve placed in the northwest and northeast corners; long after we are gone they will, God willing, tower over this yard.  And when the four, now two-story tall Western Sycamores (Platanus racemosa), the first trees we planted here, finally shed their leaves in January, our “autumn” will have arrived. 

Each and all of these native plants teach me an alternative way of telling time.  Their journey through the year embodies not the importunate, stressful chronos of clock and calendar, but the gentle kairos of the turning earth.  I am seeking to defect from the harsh regimen of one into the nurturing arms of the other.
WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, I found a card with a sort of Tree of Life image exhibiting all four seasons.  Beneath it was an unattributed quote: “The seasons come and go, and go and come, to teach men gratitude.”  For some reason the card spoke to me, and I kept it above my desk for years, until it eventually got lost in one of my many moves.  In the process of writing this reflection I thought again about that quote, and searched for its provenance.  It turns out to be from an anonymous poet cited in a reflection “On the Cultivation of Habits of Observation” in the July 1836 edition of The Mother’s Magazine (interestingly, the line was later also cited in an 1893 edition of The Manifesto, a journal of the New England Shakers). 
I close with the full verse, which appropriately reminds us, as Jesus did, of what else we might learn from the wildflowers, if we but pay attention:
The seasons come and go, and go and come To teach men gratitude; and, as they pass, Give warning of the lapse of time, that else Would steal unheeded by: the gentle flowers Retire, and, stooping o’er the wilderness Talk of humility, and peace, and love. The dews come down at evening tide, And silently their bounties shed, to teach Mankind unostentatious charity.