A few years ago I drove down to the Lancaster area to see the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in full bloom. It was one of those “wonder” wildflower years with precipitation and growing conditions setting the scene for poppy experts – wouldn’t it be fun to be a poppy expert? – to proclaim a banner viewing season.
The result was reliably grand. Entire hillsides seemed on “fire” in a blaze of color, the orange-yellow glow bright enough to require sunglasses. The flagrant hue of the flowers against the vivid blue of the sky drilled into my retinas. I was not the first (nor the last) to grasp for a lame comparison as I surveyed the scene, reflexively saying out loud, “It looks PhotoShopped.”
Tripod and DSLR in hand, I photographed the poppies from every angle and vantage point: wide shots, depth-of-field fun, macro views, down on the ground (while avoiding the rattlesnakes).
It was beautiful.
Yet it was almost too much for my senses to bear, as overwhelming as a too-big ice-cream sundae or a sudden day of leisure with three good books to read and indecision on which to tackle first. Perhaps the formality of the experience diminished it for me: planning the right weekend, hoping for good weather, booking the hotel, making the drive, tromping up to the preserve, battling the crowds. But it was more about the sheer volume of color. I surprised myself. I overdosed on poppies.
Or maybe I needed to think smaller. One flower at a time.
▪ ▪ ▪
I sometimes muse about flowers when I walk my dog, a precocious poodle named Tillie who struts around the block as if she owns not only the sidewalk but every residence fronting it. I’m smitten with my dog, as most dog owners (companions? servants? I’m never sure what the right word is these days) are, and many times I find myself looking at the world through her eyes.
Why do people love wildflowers so much? It’s an easy thing to do: Not only are they beautiful, they’re also independent-minded: They bloom when and where they want.
When we took Tillie to Santa Barbara for the first time, she romped on a beach that could have been on the cover of a travel magazine. We watched a sunset that was among the most glorious I’ve ever seen.
Did she care? Not that I could tell. She knew she was at the beach, but she was far more interested in chasing her orange Chuckit! ball and the bits of slimy seaweed she was able to sniff than the gorgeous views.
Dogs don’t gape at scenery. They’re all about the macro view. They get close to nature, much closer at times than I’d want my nose to get, and they relish it. Dogs don’t look at a single flower they happen upon and find it “pretty” – I’m sure they’re more interested in how many times it’s been peed upon – but however you want to term that interaction, it’s on an intimate scale. Tillie finds joy in the small.
I take note.
▪ ▪ ▪
My interest in wildflowers was sparked soon after I moved to Fresno a quarter century ago after growing up in the evergreen mountains of Santa Cruz, where, frankly, I didn’t much notice the seasons. (Maybe it was a kid thing.) In my younger flower-chaser days, I gravitated toward quantity. I’d drive up Tollhouse Road looking for the most enormous swaths of color I could find. I’d skulk about Pine Flat Lake, camera in hand, scouting out the biggest bursts of poppies. I’d hike the Hite Cove Trail, off Highway 140 near the El Portal entrance to Yosemite, hoping to find peak-bloom awe and splendor.
From the start, I was drawn to more than the big picture. I occasionally got up close and personal with individual flowers, too. I purchased a macro lens for my camera about 10 years ago, and every now and then I’d get caught up in the amazing miniature environment that is a flower’s anatomy. Remember those botany terms you had to learn in high-school science – the stamen and carpel, the boy and girl parts? It’s a weird, wonderful world in there. But I was more interested in hillsides of color.
Then, the year after I went to the Lancaster poppy preserve and had my semi-burn-out experience, I decided to take one of my favorite drives out of town, heading east as far as you can go on Ashlan Avenue, then taking a hard left when it becomes Watts Valley Road. I stopped in a field of blazing yellow mustard, which I’ve always loved for its ethereal glow. (And, yes, I know it’s an invasive bully.) With my macro lens and tripod at the ready, I started taking photos.
I found a beautiful caterpillar, a tiny little brightly colored guy, and I followed him with my lens. I’m not a professional photographer, but I know enough about shallow depth-of-field to realize I had to get him all in one plane, lined up perfectly parallel to my camera, to get him all in crisp focus. Easier said than done. He shimmied this way and that, all on just one flower, with the urgency of a creature without much time in his life cycle. I took shot after shot, changing my aperture and shutter speeds, hoping for the perfect one.
Lost in the moment, I eventually glanced at my watch. I’d been following the caterpillar for half an hour. I looked at my camera. I’d taken 800 shots. (Thank goodness for digital.)
The time had flown by. I’d been transported by just one flower.
▪ ▪ ▪
Why do people love wildflowers so much? It’s an easy thing to do: Not only are they beautiful, they’re also independent-minded: They bloom when and where they want. They remind us of the cycle of the seasons. They are tough yet amazingly tender. They blaze brightly, then are gone.
When I was younger, I loved the idea of being overwhelmed by thousands of wildflowers as soldiers in a massive army of color. As I’ve gotten older, perhaps my transition to the macro is inevitable. As you mature, you start to realize the world is far too big to absorb in one lifetime. So much to see, so much to read, so much to experience. You come to terms with not trying to do it all. You pick and choose. You extrapolate.
I’ve carried this philosophy through to other areas of my life. Instead of trying to cram in every gallery in a monumental art museum, I focus quality time on one exhibition or artist. Instead of one of those 10-countries-in-10-days whirlwind tours, I pick one city and explore it thoroughly. Instead of walking into Barnes and Noble and being confronted with that almost panicky feel of “too many books to read, not enough time,” I content myself with the carefully curated list of books I want to read I keep in a notebook.
Tillie is just fine exploring a tiny corner of her world, but doing it in a dog’s terms. The amount of real estate she covers is small, but every smell is important.
▪ ▪ ▪
I’m walking with my mom outside on Easter weekend through the retirement community in which she lives. I see a single poppy on our path. She sees me looking at it and nods.
“Reminds you of home, doesn’t it?” she asks.
And I remember: As a child, I picked one of these beautiful flowers in our yard, and then I’d been terrified because friends told me it was illegal because the poppy is the California state flower. (Turns out that’s not correct.) I swear I thought that the poppy police were going to show up any minute and haul me in.
I laugh. Yes, it does bring me back.
How could I overdose on poppies? They remind us that strength can come both from numbers – and from standing alone.