May 24, 2005

Ah, Those Golden-Brown Hills

Filed under: Art and About Nature — admin @ 2:53 pm

The Change always comes so fast. I’m a native Californian, and I’ve watched it happen every spring for 33 years, but it still astounds me. I go to bed one night surrounded by rolling green hillsides and wake up the next morning to see mountains of brown fire hazard staring at me through my windows. Oh, I’m sorry — the tourist bureau wants me to call them California’s Golden Hills. But let’s call a spade a spade. Brownish hues cover our landscape for at least half of every year, and although I would never live anywhere else, that brown is not the ideal backdrop for my personal fairy tale.

I set my fairy tale in the lush green landscapes of England, New Zealand, Virginia or Northern California. Perhaps it is because green was such a rare sight for a girl who grew up during the drought in the ’70s. My childhood memories are sepia tinted by California’s dry and brown decade. Now that I have kids, I use the growing-up-during-the-drought stories as my version of the elder generation’s tale of having to walk to school in the snow barefoot up hill both ways. The dry hills were brown, the stuff we were allowed to flush down the toilet was brown and the reusable water we kept in a garbage can on the patio was kind of brownish.

My brain stores a lifetime of memories of picking up visiting relatives at the airport who commented on the drive home about the beautiful golden hills, how unusual the countryside is, and the mesmerizing, warm landscape. The grass is always browner, I guess.

My younger brother, Matt, has been a California expatriate for 13 years now. He went to college in North Carolina, moved to Chicago for a few years, and now is a homeowner in North Carolina. He says things that other California expatriates say about how much traffic there is on our freeways and how expensive the housing prices are. But like any true Californian, I continue to feel superior.

Matt only speaks when he absolutely needs to so we have all learned to give great weight to every word he utters. One summer day, he and I were driving together in silence toward Walnut Creek on Highway 24 with the magnificent yet brown Mount Diablo towering in the distance. (As you may guess, a green Mount Diablo is more majestic to me since it is a fleeting sight. Snow on Mount Diablo can give me goose bumps of delight.) Then Matt said one profound sentence.

“You know, the one thing I miss about California is the brown — especially Mount Diablo brown.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“No. You don’t see that anywhere else. Someday, I’d like to buy a painting of the brown Mount Diablo to hang in my home,” he replied.

From that moment, I tried to see the brown the way he sees it. I also started searching for a painting to give him that captured the California brown of his imagination. Through these two exercises, I learned that although myriad local artists paint Mount Diablo, no one saw it the way I did. And I don’t mean the ugly way. The brown shading and shadows that define the mountain to me don’t seem to hit artists the same way. The search for a painting became rather frustrating as I realized that when I became informed by my brother’s comments, the brown Mount Diablo became more beautiful than any painter could capture.

I opted to give Matt a photograph of Mount Diablo taken by a friend of mine. It wasn’t a typical angle of the mountain for those of us who live on the west side of the 680 interchange, but I did feel it accurately captured the summer grasses. My brother liked the photo, but he admitted he still wanted to look for that painting someday. I wish him luck in finding it. As for me, I’ve learned that in my imaginary fairy tale, spinning brown into gold means adding just a little perspective.

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