It was the beginning of August and I was home for a hurried weekend before I rushed off once again to foreign lands. This time, I was traveling to LA. My family had rented a house up on the high bluff of Pacific Palasaides so we could spend time with my sister in her natural habit and hopefully get nice and leisurely on a beach somewhere.
I had been to LA several years ago when my sister first started college at UCLA. I remembered loving the beach, despising the driving, and giving the whole city an appraisal typical of my attitude towards all urban places: “interesting…can I leave now?” What I didn’t expect was to be so thoroughly, completely, shockingly blown away by the flora.
It was as if some magical ink vat had exploded in a swirl of neon and settled like confetti in every nook of the city. Fuchsia, tangerine, indigo, bright white and electric greens. I was transfixed, craning my head out of the back of our boat-like rental van, trying to identify anything and everything before I became seasick with the sway.
I cajoled the family to stop at a Barnes & Nobles so I could rifle through their botany section and find a guide that could unlock the mysteries of these maddeningly gorgeous plants. The selection was about as diverse and well-attended as a bible study at burning man. Apparently, most people shopping in Santa Monica aren’t necessarily looking for flora books. I settled on a guide to Western wildflowers, knowing full well it wouldn’t be able to cover the mind-altering array of succulents, blooming trees and exotic landscape imports, but it was better than nothin! Camera in hand, I just explored.
It was incredible. The curbs overflowing with zinnias, fennel growing wild inbetween cracked cement, the carefully placed shadows and sharp rivers of light. I never got over the succulents. The same aloe we grow as puny house plants towered as large as cars alongside the highway; the blooms of yucca hung from the sky like a chandelier of celestial bells. It was like living your whole life in the company of hills and suddenly being dropped at the foot of a mountain. My dad (who is an incredibly talented and devoted photographer) and I spent a lot of time lingering behind the rest of our caravan to capture it all. Everywhere I looked was a perfect picture.
One day we drove up the coast to Malibu. It was rugged, windy, and bright. The trail to the beach was threaded with cherries and sandbar willow. At the water surfers drifted like buoyant, brightly colored debris across the waves. I largely ignored the surf. Instead, I spent hours hopping rocks in the tide pools– peering at the hapless captivated sea creatures, watching anemones move as slight as branches in the wind and delighting in the rainbow of hermit crabs, which crawled like spiders between webs of richly colored seaweed. It was bliss.
Another day we drove out to Ojai a stunning valley Northwest of LA. Ojai, which comes from the Ventureño Chumash word ʼawhaý meaning “moon,” is one of those places you visit and then immediately begin to envision as a future home. You can’t help it, the idea of retiring there, in the golden years of some distinctly contended future, seems so perfect it’s almost palatable. The climate is Mediterranean: the summers are hot, the winters mild. Succulents grow in a tangle across front yards and the simple ranch-style houses sit cozily along rivers dotted with swimming holes. The valley is surrounded by clear blue mountains and the air just lifts you.
The land is full of white sage; its distinct smell seems to be embedded in the very rocks. As I wandered I carefully harvested small, precious bundles of this sacred smudge herb (and awesome topical antimicrobial remedy!). I also met Yerba Santa for the first time, a medicinal bush so sweetly aromatic and distinctly resinous it is almost erotic. Traditionally, Yerba Santa was used for bruises, sprains, achy joints, and rheumatism — the sticky leaves were employed as a kind of primitive band aid. It’s real notoriety, however, comes from its incredible ability to heal the respiratory system. It’s a popular remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and TB. I collected only a small handful (which promptly glommed onto one another like lollipops left on a hot tabletop).
We stopped to dip in the cold, clear water– a welcome refuge after the heat of the exposed valley. The silver of the day began to sharpen and diffuse. The later it became the more the colors of the landscape, borrowed by the high overhead sun, returned to grow heady in their own shadows. We lingered for hours, and then we finally left. Later, back on the coast and still smelling of sweet sage and desert air, I set the herbs out to dry. I had one more day and already I was thinking about my return trip. How I would tincture the small harvest of Yerba Santa and dry the sage in a crown of strings around my bedroom. The reality of my life was sifting back in, honeyed and familiar. Once again, I turned my attention as slow as a ship towards home.