One of Stephen’s and my favorite walks near Mendocino takes us from near Highway 1 to the cliffs above the ocean. We love meandering along the paths, taking in the sweeping views and looking closely at whatever is growing along the way. As we wander, our ultimate goal is “The Bench,” a throne-like seat constructed of unrefined redwood branches and boards, overlooking the ocean in the near distance. Even our little dog, Frank, loves leaping up and perching there, gazing toward the horizon. At the same time peaceful and invigorating, the situation allows you to select for your mood: the ocean with its often roiling waves, or the land above, a dense sea of California coastal natives.
We stopped to enjoy this spot last weekend on our way home, after a sweet afternoon of birthday shopping (I confess, it was mine!) and a delicious take-out Mexican lunch from Las Palabras, a new discovery on a far-flung side street in Fort Brag. The early afternoon sun was bright and warm, and a gentle breeze ruffled us as we began threading our way down toward the Pacific. It’s been a banner year for California wildflowers, and within a few steps we spotted a clump of blue-eyed grass, offering us its lovely light blue star-shaped flowers with their bright-yellow pistons shining in the middle like tiny suns.
Several steps further on we came upon a what looked to me like clarkia, this one a pale pink, blooming low to the ground. At that moment, I wished I had my wildflower identifier with me. It’s long been a great satisfaction to me to know the names of the wild flowers I see, a way of creating a relationship of sorts with each one. To be able to name means you are not complete strangers to one another. So, although I wasn’t certain, I decided it was OK to call this four-lobed pink flower bowing its head in the breeze clarkia.
As we continued walking, we spotted more flowers blooming. What looked like wild rose blooming close to the ground, which made sense. The coastal winds can grow strong, and anything tall without a very solid stem doesn’t stand must chance of surviving. Cow parsnips are one of the few taller plants that thrive near the ocean because of their thick, muscular stems. I’ve always loved cow parsnips, cousins to Queen Anne’s Lace, one of my favorite Iowa wildflowers, which William Carlos Williams honored in one of my favorite poems.
Looking left and right beyond the path we were walking, we noticed dozens of cow parsnips in various states of maturation. Some were in the early stages of blossoming, while others remained sturdy stems rising from the earth, with a thickening near the top, which would eventually turn into the flower.
I walked along musing about the flowers, and remembering my walks in Hickory Woods in Iowa City, where I knew the name of every single wildflower and its usual bloom date. I was wondering why I haven’t made more of an effort to learn the names of the California natives, since recognizing them gives me so much joy.
“Hey, is that Indian Paint. Brush over there?” Stephen asked pointing to several clumps of flowers, about two feet tall, with tight, light red blossoms.
“I don’t know, “I said. It looks like it, but the red seems too light and orangey. It might be because it’s early in its blooming season.”
“I can’t quite tell either,” he said. And we walked on, noticing several more stands of what we had named Indian Paint Brush, all too far from the path to see them clearly.
I was beginning to feel angry with myself for not having tried harder to master the names of California flora. After all, it had given me such great pleasure in Iowa, and by not studying my guides, I was depriving myself of this pleasure. Plus, I don’t like feeling ignorant.
We continued walking, now on the uphill back to our car, me feeling a bit grumpy, Stephen lost in thought. When we arrived at the tiny parking lot, another couple was getting back into their van. We stopped and said hello to them.
“Beautiful afternoon,” the main offered. And we nodded. “Did you see the Indian Paintbrush in bloom? We walked all the way to the point and saw it there.”
“So it was Indian Paint Brush,” I said, relief flooding me. “We saw it but weren’t sure. It seemed lighter and more orangey than we remembered.”
“That’s because it’s still early,” the woman said.
“Well, thank you for clearing up a mystery,” Stephen said. And I realized how, in that moment of meeting the couple able to name the plant, my regrets had completely disappeared. We were right, I thought. It was Indian Paint Brush. I’m not so ignorant after all.