The Backyard Lowell Thomas

A gardener groveling in the gravel with her nose down and her butt in the air isn’t an  unusual sight, I suppose. But such a scene is usually confined to her own garden, involving some issue of rootlets, seeds, bugs, or a lost contact lens. I confess that I was offering such an unsavory prospect to passersby on Del Puerto Canyon Road and likely endangering myself as well when we found that first patch of Clarkia breweri a few years ago, right on the scanty road shoulder east of Livermore.
The combination route of Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon Road is awfully narrow in places. The precise locations of those narrow spots change from year to year, which makes the whole drive interesting in the ominous sense of the word, because much of the road is set on the merest notch cut in steep hillsides. Those hillsides are engaged in the eternal dance with gravity to the tune of big winter rains, a dance that responds to the slow quadrille of tectonic plates which rumpled those hills into existence in the first place. The dancing hills take chunks of road with them down to join the creek, and every year there’s change: a new slide with blinkers and  reflectors and signs, or a repair unheralded except for some new tarmac and shiny stripes.
The road is popular with bikers of both species in good weather, which adds to the interest, sometimes rather a lot on blind curves. It’s not a hiking situation; most of the land around the road is privately owned. But the road itself is marvelous, a transect of California in miniature, through riparian sycamore and cottonwood belts, open grassland, classic chaparral from oak to gray pine to juniper zones, and bare rocky spaces with a few desert species like Lindley’s blazing star and roadrunner. Driving it over the years, I’ve memorized the best pull-off spots and promising bird and wildflower locations. Fortunately, we found another stand of Brewer’s clarkia near that comically perilous first one, this one in a pull-off big enough for trucks. So now I just look silly when I commune with the posies.
Brewer’s clarkia is a little bitty annual, an Art Deco-looking fourfold pink bloom on a soft reddish stem only a few inches tall. Thompson & Morgan sells seeds and calls it “Pink Ribbons” and tells buyers it likes deep, rich soil; the field guides give an alternate name, “fairy fans,” and call it a plant of open woodlands and chaparral. Apparently I could be growing it in my herb bed easily enough, though I’ve never tried. Still, I wonder if plants grown in deep rich soil will make that scent, the scent that has me and others on our knees in the dirt. It’s spicy and warm and complicated, a little like good carnations, and you have to get close to the flower to smell it, and it’s half the fun of finding the blooming patch.
The places I see Brewer’s clarkia have one thing in common: they’re scree, little heaps of sharp gravel under steep slopes. Those slopes are about vertical, in fact, and formed of reddish rock that flakes off in  little bits constantly, another step in that gravity dance. If someone decided to neaten up the place—pave it or just make it a nice orderly family park (they could call it “open space”)—it would be useless to the plant, and that population would be gone along with whatever differences make it prefer such an unpromising habitat. But the place is perilous all by itself. If that bluff dissolved fast enough, it could bring down the whole meadow that sits on top of it to bury the little colony of clarkias for good.
Fortunately, they seem able to live in other environments. Good thing for gardeners who want to grow them; it’s all very well to work at recreating the conditions of the tropics or a North American temperate forest or a mountain top with very little soil at all. Even plants that want moving water can be accommodated with a container and a recirculating pump. I’m trying to imagine what it would take to simulate a constantly repeated avalanche, a rock flow. Something involving a plexiglass cement mixer?
Conventional wisdom says that agriculture started when people started planting their favorite, tastiest gathered foods closer to home, where it took less work to get to them. When I sniff that clarkia scent—which, by the way, is nifty enough to attract scientific attention and get the plant’s genome mapped—I speculate that we could add good looks and scent to the gathering/gardening instinct. It’s a funny sort of abstraction, first domesticating a plant that got our attention or that  reminds us of a wild place; then deciding to isolate one quality of the plant and study it scientifically. But one sniff of that little flower tells me why people want to know how it does that.
In gardens, we’re often representing experiences of the wild, even if we ourselves have never had them. Himalayan rhododendrons, tropical cannas, African gerberas grow just fine for stay-at-home folks who don’t own crampons or a pith helmet. Gardening is a form of reminiscence, tale-telling, or high drama with special effects, as much as it is a provider of groceries.

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