January 13, 2018

Native Peony
Western Peony, Paso Robles, Feb 2003 (watercolor, colored pencil on illustration board)

Hard to believe it’s been almost 15 years since I saw this flower. I was traipsing around the oak studded hills of a friend’s winery near Vineyard Road and Highway 46. They had just completed their first tasting room and a few of the old wooden cattle structures from the previous owner were still standing. The winery is now triple the size and the corral is gone. And they have a new entrance with a gate and you need an appointment to be allowed on the premises. Gone are the days when I could pull up to there, unannounced, hang my art in their tasting room and wander the hills with their winery dog, Bear Dog.

I remember the day I came across this small patch of native paeonias. I was shocked that there was even such a thing, blooming its little heart out with no one but me and the dog there to notice. I think Bear Dog was surprised too. (Have your ever noticed that dogs can mirror your feelings at just the right moment? Of course their souls are so generous, they don’t care about what we do, just as long as we include them in our little lives…) I thought my eyes had played a trick on me as I looked at the amazing jewel-like red against almost chartreuse leaves and stems. I don’t know if you are familiar with peonies, but sometimes the flower is so heavy with petals and other flower parts it can hang completely upside down from the shear flower weight on a slim stem. And this native flower was no exception. At that time my son was still in elementary school and I had to take lots of pictures for a later time when I could paint anything I’d found on my walks. No plein air moments back then. Bear Dog soon got bored of my rapt attention to a half a dozen plants that didn’t smell like anything interesting. He continued on his journey, leaving me alone with my discovery. It felt like I was the only one to have ever seen such a thing and maybe I could even be allowed to come up with a common name like “Ruby Red” or “Ruby Jewel.” Maybe no one would believe that I discovered something that had never been seen before. But who did I think I was? I was just One California Girl. Who was I trying to impress? My only companion for my hike through the weeds that day had already run off somewhere else. Since it was February it would be too early for shiny red poison oak leaves to be out yet. So, I didn’t have to worry about Bear Dog running through the poison oak, and then coming back for a scratch behind the ears.

I didn’t know it at the time, but such wanderings in the Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero hills would come to an end with people building houses and putting up fences. In the late 80s and early 90s my then husband’s Aunt Ruth took me to many special places to see random patches, and sometimes huge fields, of wildflowers like poppies, lupines, Chinese houses, fairy lanterns, larkspur, baby blue eyes, gold fields, tidy tips and shooting star in those areas. She took me on drives down narrow back roads in Atascadero to see masses of tiny violet and white colored lupines. On many of our drives or walks she pointed out long “strap-like” leaves that would soon be white ball-shaped flowers called fairy lanterns. I did an oil painting of a narrow road flanked by a hillside of those lupines as well as several watercolor and colored pencil botanicals of single fairy lanterns and Mariposa lilies. Once we stopped by the side of the road on Highway 41 (that goes from Atascadero to Morro Bay) to see a meadow of shin-deep dark purple larkspur. Aunt Ruth also took me to a hillside of wildflowers near her daughter’s house (off Highway 41) that had every imaginable wildflower. (I did an acrylic painting of that view and will post it one of these days, with a story that I haven’t yet imagined.) Five or six houses with fences between each one is now in that spot. And even though her nephew and I got divorced, Aunt Ruth and I are still friends, friends who love wildflowers and are still on the look out for them. When my son was a baby, late 1995 I think, Aunt Ruth took me and my son, my aunt and mom to Shell Creek Road. That year the wildflower colors of yellow, purple, orange and pink were so bright it almost hurt my eyes to look at them. Years later I took a son and a friend and her two kids to see the show. They all had attacks of hay fever and we left early because everyone, except my son and I, was sneezing. Aunt Ruth used to say that one person’s wildflower garden was another person’s patch of weeds. Oh well.

Aunt Ruth’s mom, my son’s great grandma Mary, also loved wildflowers. When Mary got too old to drive Aunt Ruth would take her out to Adelaida, where Ruth and her sisters and brothers had been born, to look for shooting star. (Great grandma Mary had been born in Klau, California.) I never went with them, but Aunt Ruth told me her mother looked forward every spring to going back to their old family home and orchards to look for the first flowers of spring. And that was the shooting star. Google it. They are pretty little flowers that come in a variety of colors and can be found in the hills of Adelaida. There are remnants of the almond (pronounced a-mond by the old farmers) and walnut trees that those early German settlers planted there, but much of that area is now covered with vineyards. Great Grandma Mary, Aunt Ruth and I loved such excursions and flowers. They didn’t look much like weeds to us! Don’t get me wrong, I like vineyards and have painted quite a few in the area. But patches of shooting star are so fun to watch for because they come and go so quickly. I love that kind of ephemeral beauty.

When my son and I lived in Paso Robles we had friends way out on the east side, near Geneseo Road. We went to their house one windy day and my friend had staked the strings of 2 or 3 kites into the ground in her back yard. The kites were high in the sky, whipping back and forth against the blue. And behind this rather cool scene were amazing golden fields as far as the eye could see. My son and my friend’s kids would traipse way out into those golden fields. (Wish I had thought to take a picture.) Now vineyards cover those same fields, and a couple houses are also part of that previously simple and windblown landscape.

The landscape of Paso Robles, Templeton, and Atascadero (and California for that matter), has really changed over the years. And I have other stories to tell about our changing landscape, but that is for a future California story or two. So, do I have any final words? Am I sad that so many fields of flowers are gone—covered with houses, roads and vineyards? And I would say, maybe. But I’ve always loved the symmetry of vineyards, and the beauty of the bright green leaves as they come alive in the spring, the plump bunches of dark purple grapes on dark green leafy vines, finishing with gorgeous fall-colored leaves. I have done many paintings of vineyards at different times of the year in Paso Robles and will always love that. Maybe what I really miss is that I need permission to traipse around a hillside, discovering miraculous patches of wildflowers with a winery dog. Not many surprises when you walk around a vineyard, and besides you need permission or an appointment to do that now. Otherwise someone might yell at you or chase you away. Maybe what I really miss is Great Grandma Mary, Bear Dog and watching my young son traipse through those golden fields with his young friends as colorful kites snaps in the air in the endless blue sky above them. Ah me.

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