Trust California to have the good taste to have an invasive species that is edible. Wild fennel has escaped from cultivation along roadsides and in sensitive habitats across the Golden State. We in the Northeast have to make do with knotweed pie: an ersatz and pale substitute for rhubarb when picked young. I am in Sonoma on a work-related retreat, and in addition to extraordinary wine and nature's bounty in great abundance at the local farmers markets, I can't help looking in California's medicine cabinet and snooping in its drawers to see what's going on ecologically.
The hills around the Westerbeke Ranch where I and my land trust colleagues are gathered are that marvelous dry oak savannah so emblematic of California and so reminiscent for me of the Acacia veld of southern Africa. If there had been the early evening cooing of cape turtle doves in the eucalyptus grove, and maybe a troop of baboons loping toward the vineyards, the sere grassy hills and clumps of live oaks would have had the feel of Namibia for this old Africa hand. As it was, I could feel that dry heat with nothing but mare's tails for clouds and the cluster of vine and fig tree felt like the old mission stations where I taught in the early 1990s in Africa. The Eucalyptus were shedding a soft seed rain on the dry growth beneath, and the shiny leaves of poison oak warned me away from the rank places as their ivy kin would have at home. I saw a few dead oaks, and wondered whether Sudden Oak Death is making its dire presense known among these pleasant hills.
California is a favored land for gardens, even though it comes at cost of fire, quake and traffic smog. The rosemary bushes grow thick as boxwood and without the terminal pruning of Jack Frost. The plaza in Sonoma this evening was a festival of families, food stalls brimming with the finest fruits of the harvest, old time bluegrass bands and people recreating together. In our New England village, my wife is fond of saying, the town post office is "a social opportunity with bad parking." In Sonoma, it is the ample town plaza, with its mission-style architecture and generous shade beneath the oaks and palms.
As I cannot bring wine safely back as checked luggage or legally back as carry on, I am unable to share this bounty with my beloved. It is no doubt cold comfort to her, at home with our offspring for the rest of the week, to know that I raise exquisite glasses to her good health here with some frequency. I'm on with the kids this weekend, my love, and since I have a free round ticket for my pains getting out here, perhaps we can return in the next 12 months and sample some of these pleasures together.