Travelogue:In Which The U.S. Military Harbors Wildflowers, Mission Cats and Me

Headed south today to look for wildflowers and almost fell off the edge of the continent.....

One of my favorite spring rituals involves a phone call to a friend: it begins when the lupines first begin to appear along the side of the roads, and ends in a meadow somewhere, on our bellies with a camera in a flower, and then the frantic Checking For Ticks Dance.

We found the gorgeous and iconic Jolon Road just southwest of King City and took it into Fort Hunter-Liggett, a military base that is on land William Randolph Hearst sold to the government after the second world war.

It's an odd thing to do, looking for wildflowers on a military base, definitely not a place that I'd like to just mosey around, peering at the ground and not watching my back.
I found it faintly reminiscent of the hippie protesters of the 60's, stuffing daisies down the rifles of the crowd control police.Yeah, we stuck it the Man: picnicking without a permit, and picking California poppies: (Fist in the air) Fight the Man! Down with global tyranny!
Golden Hills of....Cheese?
So the thing with Jolon Road and the surrounding landscape in springtime is that it is green, very green, with Spanish moss swinging from the oak trees and giant swathes of brilliant orange California poppies on the high slopes above the road. I wish I could find a more beautiful description, like that the hillsides looked like they had been poured over with molten gold, but honestly, it looked a lot more like Kraft Mac n' Cheese powder. A very unnatural cheesey orange smear on the hills. Today it was coupled with the giant purple bush lupines and white and blue ceanothus shrubs on the hillsides, as well as little dabs of red Indian paintbrush and little white wildflowers that looked like white forget-me-nots, with different foliage. I'm prodigiously proud of our native ceanothus, or California lilac; it's beautiful, especially the deep blue flowered variety, and adjusts well to being cultivated. It's mentioned on BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time this week, and I swelled with pride when I heard it. Though they grow in the wild near our neighborhood, it was great to see them au naturel, especially the white ones, which we don't have around here.
The Hacienda
We picnicked at the Hacienda, which is right in the center of the military base. All the surrounding land was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, and he had his old friend Julia Morgan (architect for Hearst Castle) design it in a solidly CA mission/Deco style. Today it's a hotel, officer's club & whatever else people do with old buildings in the military. Apparently, one of the things they do with old buildings, especially if they contain a restaurant, is litter the courtyards with life-size cut-outs of busty scantily-clad hoochie mamas, holding trays of beer up to their chests, slightly panting. I think it's military policy.
The Mission, If You Choose To Accept It
Sort of randomly, just down the road a pace (but still on gov't property) is the Mission San Antonio De Padua, one of the least accessible of the California missions. B & I went to a service there last year and it was a just a mite too syncretistic for us (Okay, it was on All Soul's Day, but still-the prayers to the dead and to the sky made my Protestant soul squirm.) Architecturally, it's quite simple and lovely. Like most CA missions, it is built around an inner courtyard with a garden in the center. We had a great time walking around the garden, with the central fountain and old mission relics (mainly of the pestle variety), and the ubiquitous pepper trees, grapevines, gnarled olive trees, figs, and pomegranates. I so appreciate these humble plantings, which are as much about utility as they are about beauty, and speak of the Creator's good design, which combines both elements with ease.
I Am In Plant Prison: Doing Time With the Roses
Actually this garden had been given over to one of my least favorite styles of gardening: the rose garden. Now, the words 'rose garden' evoke the scent, beauty, and fecund delights of the old roses, the cabbage roses and old fashioned David Austin climbers and shrub roses. But in actuality, the de rigeur for rose gardens is something birthed by a scientist, a corporation or at least an extremely linear thinker. It's all about the hybrid tea roses, the floribundas and grandifloras that are more flower factory than plant; with stiff, thorny, formal growth that has nothing of the wilderness and unfurling greenness that a rose should add to the garden. They are harshly regimented and pruned within an inch of their lives in order to produce the largest blooms possible. They actually depress me. This garden looked like the roses were all in trouble. Each one had it's metal disc around it's base like a prison ID tag, with ugly black irrigation tubing running out to each plant, eking out it's ration of bread and water. They seemed to snap to attention as I passed by, but maybe I was a little hyper-aware of my neighbors down the road. "Atten-shun!.....At ease, Private!"
I Am A Closet Cat Lady
What saved this garden for me was the amount of cats. They were hiding in the rosemary, dusty and indolent, they were stalking birds, they were escorting us through the quiet corridors, and later in the chapel, one was asleep in a basket filled with pamphlets on consecrating your life to Mary. He hopped out and into my lap. Which was hopefully a less heretical place to nap. It happened again-I get all enamored of places like this, because of the beauty and the history of the brothers and sisters in Christ that have gone before me in these churches. And then I look too closely, and end up with this: "the Marian Consecration", which, I am assured, is actually Consecration to Christ, because Mary is consecrated to Christ. Riiiight. It takes me by surprise every time, and each time it's like a little death.
Mission Gardens
A confession: I discovered my dream job a few years ago. I have no idea how to go about getting this dream job, mainly because it doesn't seem to exist right now. When we were in the UK; I was gardening on 4 acres at a converted Victorian-era convalescent home. Surveying the grounds daily I got really excited and intrigued by historical gardening, and garden archaeology. I loved doing plant ID, and digging around in what appears to be wild: uncovering brick paths, and forgotten areas of previous cultivation. Moving back to SC, I soon realized how difficult it is to find places old enough to restore. Our oldest gardens are the California Missions. So, going with this logic, I think I'd like to act as a consultant for the Diocese and state of California on the mission gardens. It's tricky because the missions are still owned by the Catholic church, so there's no one place to which I can apply (like the State Parks). Also, although this subject (historical gardening) seems to be flourishing (sorry for the garden adjectives) in the UK, it's not so prevalent in the Central Coast of California...so I have no idea how to go about getting the training I'd need. Ideas, anyone? There's a Mission in SC, so I guess I could start there.....
Big Sur

Anyway, to round off this trip, we went west, through the Los Padres National Forest and over the mountains to Big Sur; just barely keeping ourselves from being flung off the mountainside into the Pacific; those are seriously crazy roads.I speak of no particular incident, just that the CCC needs to get busy with some guard rails on the Fergusson-Nacimiento Road.

(Photo credit; the amazing Stepka powers of photography: Susie Stepka, herself. Woo-hoo!)


Mark said...

Sounds like a great time there lady :P

Esther Montgomery said...

Down with such roses! I'm grappling in my mind for a John Betjemen poem in which he pours scorn on the municipal rose. I've got the rhythm in my head - but not the words!

I can't decide which are worse - the ones that are pruned down into little sticks or the ones used for ground cover (huge hips and horrible leaves).

Definitely, you should have that job with the Catholic Missions!

Write to the Bishop!

Pick out your favourite, or nearest ecclesiastical courtyard and write to the priest / father prior / whoever is in charge.

The Roman Catholic Church is quite extraordinarily mixed. You might find yourself in touch with someone dreadfully old fashioned and narrow minded - or - well, haven't you got Thomas Merton on your sidebar?

Can't remember who I am just at present - Esther (I think).


Esther Montgomery said...

Long posts inspire lots of comments!

I wasn't sticking flowers into tanks in the sixties - but I did help to cut down the fence of the American Airbase at Greenham Common (Berkshire) in an attempt to delay the arrival of cruise missiles.

The woods surrounding it were beautiful.

Not a flower in sight once you were in the base though. Just runways and silos.


rosa said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Esther, or whoever you are! (Assumed identities can get cumbersome, can't they?) What sort of crime was that-cutting down the fence? (Would it be classified as merely vandalism (a misdemeanor?) or something more serious b/c it was on an airbase? Would it make you an enemy of America? In that case, keep the false identity!
I don't know Betjeman too well, but I'll look into it. The Monday Poet's Society will probably get a reading soon!

Esther Montgomery said...

Not an enemy of America - but of violence.


sarah said...

Oh, I must tell you-last sunday, April 6th-Mike and I were on our way back from SLO and stopped by the Mission san Antonio de Padua (took some fun pictures as well). Anytime Mike and I are on vacation in CA, we always add a mission as a part of our traveling and this was the one for this last trip. I was IN LOVE with the Mission Cats (took a couple pictures of it too :)), the mission gardens and the great signage that was all over the mission, bringing such rich context to this historical building. It's so neat to hear you found the "secret find" that I thought was so secret. :)

rosa said...

that's so funny that you were just there! you would have thought the service B and I went to last year was very interesting. The local Native American tribe (the Solanan?) were participating in the service, since their history is so tied into that of the Mission. The priest used the traditional smudge stick for the incense, instead of the censer (that ball thing that they swing). It smelled like downtown SC.

Anonymous said...



sarah said...

wow, we would have LOVED to have gone. How neat. I sometimes secretly wish I was Catholic with the tradition that they hold and the mysticism of their gatherings. I love the fact that they weaved in the history of the Native Americans. Very neat.

rosa said...

thanks, b. you're always keeping me in line.

Read Your Way Through the Garden: Choice Tomes From Garden Literature

  • A Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch
  • Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon
  • Making Bentwood Trellises by Jim Long
  • RHS Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers
  • Rose Primer: An Organic Approach to Rose Selection & Care by Orin Martin
  • Start With the Soil by Grace Gershuny
  • Sunset Western Garden Book
  • Sunset Western Landscaping Book
  • The Book of Garden Secrets by Patent & Bilderback
  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Botany
  • the Gardener's Table: A Guide to Natural Vegetable Growing and Cooking by Richard Merrill & Joe Ortiz
  • The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek
  • The Hutchinson Dictionary of Plant Names: Common & Botanical
  • We Made A Garden by Margaret Fish

lotsa latin: rosa's botanical & etymological ruminations

  • vespertinus: flowers in the evening
  • vernalis:spring
  • veni vidi nates calcalvi: we came, we saw, we kicked butt. This was printed on a T shirt I bought at Abbot's Thrift many years ago. It encircled the NEA symbol. I wish I knew why.
  • superciliaris: shaped like an eyebrow ex: sturnella superciliaris, the White-browed Blackbird
  • rosa-sinensis: species of Hibiscus: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Lit. Rosa of China, so named by British plant hunters.
  • placentiformis: shaped like a cake ex: discocactus placentiformis
  • nudiflorus: flowers before leaves show ex: flowering quince, magnolia
  • nivalis: growing in or near snow ex: galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop)
  • muralis: growing on walls
  • mirabilis: marvellous, wonderful
  • formosa: beautiful ex: dicentra formosa, a.k.a.western bleeding heart/dutchman's breeches/lady in a bath
  • carpe vitam: get a life
  • Carolus Linnaeus: Latinized name of Carl von Linne (1707-1778), Swedish naturalist considered the father of plant taxonomy. Whatta guy.