Tag Archives: San Diego

The Tree Lady

illustration by Jill McElmurry from the children’s book by H. Joseph Hopkins

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We spent a month in San Diego. Shopping center after shopping center, parking lots, garages, and malls. What can everyone be purchasing, we wondered, as they sped about day and night in their shiny new cars? Where are they all going and what are they are so busy buying? Objects to furnish their homes, clothes to beautify their bodies, hair and nail salons, and gyms.

Meanwhile this piece of the planet has been plowed over, hardscaped with asphalt and concrete. I could hear it cry “RAPE!” What is needed is a new feminization of San Diego. A planner with a vision. Another Kate Sessions to turn things around and get the city back on the right path.

Barren and brown, that’s how Kate Sessions saw San Diego in 1884 when she first arrived from Northern California. The image of dirt and sagebrush must have burned into her consciousness. Her contract was to teach, but she left teaching after a short time to open a botanical nursery. Soon Sessions had nurseries in Coronado, Pacific Beach, and Mission Hills. Recognizing her passion, the city leased to Sessions 30 acres of a scrub-filled mesa known as City Park where cattle grazed and garbage was dumped. The park became her growing fields. And the park became Balboa Park, one of the premier urban parks in the country today.

If all this sounds like a fable, it isn’t.

Unprecedented for a woman at the time, Kate had graduated UC Berkley in 1881 with a degree in Natural Science. With that she became a botanist, horticulturist, landscape architect, and in the process, an activist. She published articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals, was appointed supervisor of agriculture and landscaper for the city schools, and supervised school gardens. “Her whole life and her whole interest was in horticulture,” noted her biographer, Elizabeth MacPhail.

“Sessions cut an extraordinary figure before women’s suffrage in California,” wrote Geoff Wade in the California Sun newsletter. “She kept her hair in a knot atop her head, and wore men’s shoes—perpetually muddy—and a twill shirt with a large inside pocket that bulged with pruning shears, a knife, and other tools.”

Growing from seeds collected around the world, Sessions planted thousands of cypress, pine, oak, peppertrees, jacaranda, and eucalyptus trees, where San Diegans didn’t think trees could grow. Blessed with a mild climate, plants thrived on the boulevards, in canyons, and public spaces.

And then, it’s almost as if San Diego became too desirable a place to live and everyone moved there. 

It’s no wonder we kept dodging into Balboa Park during our visit.

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The Geography of Home

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

In the city, nature has to be contained in a pot, a plot, upon a rooftop, a park, or in a conservatory. I started this month at The Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I had been in the city for some time, and in stepping into the garden everything was turned inside out, or right side up, again, for me. Suddenly woods where there’d been blocks of brownstones. Fields in lieu of pavement.

Oh right, I thought, I’m a country girl now living on bucolic San Juan Island, Washington with the birds and the foxes and the deer, where the trees meet the sea, and the air is so fresh it’s delicious—for I’d become acclimated to the city and was finding beauty there: in displays in store windows, in handsome pairs of planters at doorsteps, in art hanging high through the living room windows of illuminated brownstones, and all the gathering places: corner cafes and restaurants.

Not long afterward my Brooklyn daughter attended a conference in Laguna Beach, California. Gazing at the Pacific out the window of her train running up the coast from San Diego, she asked of the universe, “Remind me why I live on the East Coast….”

I can only tell my daughter that I go through this question all the time, coast to coast. This wanting to split myself in two—at least two—and live another life as well, somewhere else. The feeling that I belong there too, and that a ghost of me may indeed be living that life and I need only catch up with her. Hop into her shoes. Hop into her flat in Brooklyn. Hop into her little casita in California. All the places where ghosts of me dwell, walking with no footprints and sighing without sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Fern Named Fair Maiden

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

My daughter in San Diego has a 5 foot cactus in her home she calls Ole’. The air is dry, the light is bright, and the walls are white. Ole’ grows as proudly indoors as he would outdoors. It was on a visit to San Diego that I became enticed with miniature succulents. Growing in gardens, in mini-pots, on wall gardens or living walls, it was all the rage. Back home I got myself hooked, then I gave some away and got others hooked. That is how it happens. But here in the Northwest, succulents have to come indoors for the winter. My arrangements took over the dining table last year. It was cute for a while, but it wasn’t us. In anticipation of another long winter, I am regaining my senses.

In outdoor gardening we are mindful to go with natives, but what about our indoor plants? Travel through any nursery’s indoor selection anywhere and you’ll find predominantly tropicals: palms, dracaenas, rubber tree, snake plant, philodendron. We’ve all done it, we all do it, yet few of us live in the tropics either.

It started with the idea of a centerpiece. Did I really want to look at succulent creatures from outer space crawling all about my dining table again, or would I like something soft and calming, something greener, something that moves? Something indigenous like fern? They’re all over my house now, one type or another of fern.

I feel like my house has come home.

The Pacific Northwest coastal region is home to approximately 40 species of fern. They blanket the floor beneath the tree canopy in forests, or in my case, beneath a wooden ceiling. With fern for indoor plants my home is as at one with the woods as the day we cedar-shingled the exterior. I seem to be onto something.

It asks more of me to be the mother of fern, but as an empty nester, I rather like that. Thirsty creatures with a penchant for daily mistings, I’m not quite sure how I will ever travel again. But for now I’m not going anywhere. I have an impending deadline with my agent on my book, and in the meantime have rattled off another blog post on the natural world.

Because what other world is there really?

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Welcome! Bienvenido!

Balboa Park  Balboa Park, San Diego. Photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When I first laid eyes on Hunter he was smaller than I had imagined. I realize now I had been enlarging every photo his parents sent to us until his eyes were the size of walnuts, and his hands and feet humongous. I remember looking at those mitts and crowing, “our grandson is going to be a baseball player!”

Then we are in San Diego and he is in my arms and, to my surprise, holding him is one part scary. On one hand I fold right into position. On the other hand, I’m all elbows and thumbs. It is his parents that are best with him. I like being seated with pillows to help brace his rolling head. Seems half the weight of a newborn baby is in the head. Now I see him as cerebral—and this little boy is brilliant. In a gush I promise him an education and a drafting table, for I see AIA beside his name.

In truth Hunter mostly sleeps. His eyes dream and dance in his skull, and his little mouth moves with the memory of milk. Like a frog he keeps his legs tucked in, and his arms don’t know where to go or what to do with themselves. We are doing newborn babies a favor, I have learned, by swaddling them in a blanket or cloth. An old idea that’s come around again.

Like a procession we move into his nursery and out of his nursery. His parents, grandparents, and an aunt who flew in from NYC. A procession wherever he goes. If he has his days and nights flipped, we wouldn’t know. We’re with him. We venture out, bags and baggage and carriage. A procession to Balboa Park.

I once knew what it was to raise babies in San Diego. As my son-in-law says, my life is passing before me here. I know of no place better for being outdoors 365 days a year. Even now I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sky so blue—not for a long time anyway. But San Diego in our day had fewer cars on the freeways. No one had air conditioning, and no one saw the need. The Safari Park was called The Wild Animal Park, and as members we nearly had it to ourselves. Pushing a stroller we hiked out on the mesas, the savannah, while herds of animals roamed. Do my daughters remember those days as I do? It was a part of me then, and a part of me now.

One more memory returns to me of the earliest days. Shut in, home alone, and hormones raging. I am nursing my newborn baby and crying uncontrollably. Across the room a small black & white television set is on softly. Public Service Announcements, particularly “Save the Children,” air frequently between daytime programs, and I lose it every time, day after day. I am holding my baby and weeping over the fact that she is one of the lucky ones born on this side of the border, when just a few miles away can be all the difference in the world.

Little has changed.

But this time I have to go, I can’t stay. So long, Hunter. You are in good hands and in a good place. From the vantage point of the plane there’s one long coast between us, one beautiful stretch. One ocean alongside us. And a kayak in the bay up here for you, always.

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Drawers

 BY KIMBERLY MAYER

Everything I know about the KonMari Method I learned from a baby not even born yet. Like everyone else, I bought the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, but it’s been lying around and waiting in the wings to be read. Like clutter. Nevertheless, on a visit with my daughter who is due any day now, we plunged in.

My baby is having a baby. At the same time she and her husband are remodeling a house in San Diego, and that fell behind due to one thing or another—most recently, heavy rains. Who would have thought? Anyway there wasn’t anything to do but turn a storage room in their apartment into the nursery for now.

With all the chaos that surrounds her in remodeling, my daughter says “his drawers give me a sense of calm.” At first glance in life, their baby will have what I am only beginning to appreciate: organization and minimalism.

Pacing through the construction schedule, my son-in-law has lately adopted “better done than perfect” as a mantra. I’m making it my mantra as well. We are all perfectionists apparently; it runs both in our blood and by marriage. But at some point projects have to be finished and babies will be born.

And the next thing you know, you’re a grandparent.

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Bird Park, San Diego

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

I remember my uncle’s visit in Southern California. We were living in Laguna Beach at the time, and, recently widowed, he was traveling to New Zealand from New England. We were a half-way resting place and ever so happy to have him.

My uncle looked upon it all incredulously. From Connecticut to California it must have been like landing on the moon. Main Beach is to Laguna Beach what “The Town Green” is to New England. In Laguna, a well-tended lifeguard tower stood in lieu of a white gazebo. And sand and surf where there was usually a lawn. Main Beach bustled with people, tan, fit, and half-clad.

I was seeing all this through my uncle’s eyes.

“Everyone’s in motion, aren’t they?” I asked. He could only nod.

Today our daughter lives across from Bird Park in San Diego. Bird Park is a part of Balboa Park, the famed legacy of Kate Sessions. Balboa Park may be to San Diego what Central Park is to New York City.

There is something so timeless about this scene from our daughter’s front door: a child and a swing, families picnicking. Strollers, bikes, rollerblades, scooters. Stretching routines and soccer practice.

Constructed in the shape of an enormous bird, Pershing Drive is the “branch” on which the “bird” stands. Employing native plantings to attract local birds, Bird Park is the brainchild of San Diego artists Robin Brailsford and Wick Alexander.

I raised my children not far from here in this climate when they were very young. Out every day, all day, is how I remember our time together. We were card-carrying members, regulars at The Wild Animal Park, now Safari Park. Strolling The Kilimanjaro Trail, lunching at picnic tables, napping in a double stroller while still moving.

A short jog off The Kilimanjaro Trial, we liked to cut through an Australian Rain Forest exhibit for the girls were fond of wallaby’s and kookaburras—as amused by the names as much as the animals. For me it was the vegetation, a green respite from the dry brown heat of the African-based trail. In the shelter of the rain forest I pointed out bronze signs in braille to two little girls who were learning to read English at the time. Their fingers running over and over the raised dots in each sign.

Sometimes you are all of one place. The climate became us. The park, wildlife, and horticulture, became us. I could see my daughters in khaki uniforms one day working summer jobs there. But then we moved. How did we ever move to the desert when San Diego was desert enough? I ask myself this now.

I live on an island now, and I have become it. I hear from friends that the bulbs are pushing up, and I must return.

Life moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes in circles, sometimes in avian shapes. But never in a straight line.

 

Perching birds of San Diego, in no particular order: Black-chinned sparrow, California towhee, Common yellowthroat, Horned lark, Western wood-peewee, Vermilion flycatcher, Western bluebird, Barn swallow, Blue grosbeak, Yellow warbler, Savannah sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, Northern rough-winged swallow, Red-breasted nuthatch, Rufous-crowned sparrow, Gray vireo, Marsh wren, Fox sparrow, California thrasher, Lark sparrow, Black phoebe, Tree swallow, Dusky flycatcher, Sage sparrow, LeConte’s thrasher, Lawrence’s goldfinch, California gnatcatcher, Tricolored blackbird, Say’s Phoebe, Wrentit, Bell’s vireo, Yellow-breasted chat, Red-winged blackbird, Lucy’s warbler, Chipping sparrow, Western tanager, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, Hooded oriole, Song sparrow, Brown-headed cowbird, Rock wren, Olive-sided flycatcher, Yellow-rumped warbler, Black-tailed gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Verdin, American robin, Lesser goldfinch, Green-tailed towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western kingbird, Violet-green swallow, Cassin’s kingbird, Black-throated sparrow, Phainopepha, Cactus wren, Purple finch, Scrub jay, Bullock’s oriole, Grasshopper sparrow,  Scott’s oriole, American goldfinch, Purple martin, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Lazuli bunting, Western meadowlark, Ash-throated flycatcher, Great-tailed crackle, Blue-grey gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned warbler, Brewer’s blackbird, Willow flycatcher, White-breasted nuthatch, Hutton’s vireo, Canyon wren, Crissal thrasher, Steller’s jay, Plain titmouse, Northern mockingbird, Bewick’s wren, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, Warbling vireo, Pygmy nuthatch, Bendire’s thrasher, American crow, Brown creeper, Mountain chickadee, and Common raven

 

 

 

 

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Flip Flops in January: Three Girls and a Truck at Village Nurseries, San Diego

photo credit: Jackie Mayer Blum

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

We are wintering in San Diego, living on a mattress with a small bistro table, a couple folding chairs, and two bright Hawaiian printed Tommy Bahama beach chairs in an otherwise empty house. The house is a job site. Our daughter and her husband purchased a new home in North Park, San Diego. A remodel, and we are here to help.

While the men are at home swinging hammers, we are on a landscape mission. My daughter is commandeering a pickup truck, bouncing over dirt roads and splashing through puddles at Village Nurseries Wholesale Plant and Tree Grower. Thirteen acres of planted bliss, a Disneyland to me. No lines, no crowds (to-the-trade only), and free of all the commercialization.

The bed of our truck is brimming with potted plants: 5 tall Barbara Karst bougainvillea, Mister Lincoln white rose shrubs, “bartenders choice” Mexican Lime Tree, a 15 gallon Strelitzia retinae Bird of Paradise shrub, and enormous agave plants anchoring them all. Clean and new at the U Haul lot, the truck will be returning with all the mud and markings of having taken the Indiana Jones ride at Adventureland.

You had to know my mother would be on board; she must have slipped onto the bench seat. It wasn’t until we turned into the nursery that we realized she was with us. https://alittleelbowroom.com/2017/12/05/my-imaginary-mother-in-winter/ Her breath, like ours, was taken away with the vastness and the serenity of the place.

Rounding Succulents and Drought Tolerant plants, I am back in the gray/greens with Mediterranean plants. Heaven for me once, for at one time I lived in Southern California. Today I recognize some full well, yet can’t recall their names. Other names I know, but can’t picture. My daughter is reintroducing me to some old friends.

Discombobulated I fumble forward. A Master Gardener from Climate Zone 4 (San Juan Island, WA) in Zone 24 (San Diego, CA), I try to be helpful. “Seasonal amnesia,” is there such a thing? All I know is that in a rush I just mailed a Valentine’s Day card–one month early. I recall that when living here: waking and having to orient myself with the season, with the month, before stepping out of bed.

Left to our own devises mom and I might have gone crazy, but my daughter was specific. A wall of her courtyard would be draped in bougainvillea. She knew the color. A lime tree would round out their citrus collection. And white roses and giant Blue Glow agave look exquisite together. Who knew?

And who knew about my daughter’s newfound passion for plants, and in the same place where I first got the bug? Her grandmother may have been the only one to have seen that coming.

 

 

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