Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Solace and Inspiration of Berkeley’s Nature

By Noam Schimmel

Growing up in New England, I distinctly remember as a child my kind neighbor showing me her yellow marigolds and teaching me about flowers.

When it comes to flowers, marigolds are – in retrospect rather fittingly – a humble flower. They are fairly subdued in their beauty and not particularly extravagant or unusual.

They don’t call attention to themselves.

The flowers that grow in Berkeley don’t have quite that quiet, restrained, domesticated feeling of that flower of my youth.

Though not quite feral, some seemingly aspire to be.

They grow on large trees, they are everywhere, they are diverse in size and shape and color; they are exuberant, expressive, and extraordinary. They climb and grow large and confident.

Some come to us from afar – South Africa’s Protea, Brazil’s Princess, and Australia’s Kangaroo Paws.

Some are decidedly Californian - blue-eyed grass, carmel mountain lilacs, and sentinel manzanitas.

Bougainvillea doesn’t have so much in common with my first marigolds.

Vast and ablaze in shades of magenta, purple and pink it overflows and seems to delight in its expansive abundance.

Fruits are abundant in Berkeley.

Figs and grapefruits grow with breezy ease on front lawns.

But here is the thing. Just as you think Berkeley has gone full-on Mediterranean on you and you are getting your bearings amongst the lemons and clementines and thinking you understand the citrusy nature of this environment, Berkeley pulls a surprise – care for a pear? How about an apple? A peach or a plum?

And so it reminds you that in the city of eternal spring, in this garden paradise, practically anything can grow.

Palm trees, olive trees, passionfruit, plums, avocados and apricots… it is dizzying and delightful.

My first summer in Berkeley I was buying stamps at the local post office. I asked for airmail stamps and the postal worker helpfully provided them.

I looked at them - a deep shade of green and a shape I couldn’t quite make out that seemed intricate and unfamiliar - and said, with a mixture of what may have seemed like curiosity and concern but really just reflected momentary confusion and my east coast origins, ‘What is that?’

And with benign clarity he said back, ‘That, well, that’s a succulent.’

He said it with the gentle, slow, non-judgmental and decidedly reassuring cadence of Mr. Rogers – magnanimity in the face of my momentary lapse of awareness.

I had actually been responsible as a young boy for watering my grandma’s succulents, so I had seen succulents before many a time. But some decades had elapsed between those watering responsibilities and this moment, and my brain freeze revealed that I was obviously not from California.

‘Oh, right’ I said – as though I had known all along and was not genuinely baffled at first glance as I looked down at the stamp.

I am still not quite sure what I was expecting. Maybe an oak tree or a maple tree.

That is the thing about New Englanders – or at least about me. When I think of nature I think about Maples. Autumn. Reds and oranges and yellows. Leaves changing color.

That is after all what we do in New England and what we are famous for.

That and snow.

My first few months in Berkeley I discovered California’s response to maples; liquid ambers.

Ablaze with color, I was again reminded that even though Berkeley could not pull off the kind of autumnal paroxysms of color that New England offers with aplomb and reliability, Berkeley still had a few tricks up its sleeves.

Many of us are still immersed in a subject or activity that helped us through the pandemic’s most difficult days.

I binged on a few things like many people – from world music to film - but mainly on flowers and long walks.

In a happy kind of delirium, I would text friends endless images of passionflowers and trumpet flowers in bright yellow and white.

Roses of every color and moonflowers in violet and blue and morning glories at their most expressive and resplendent, along with Chinese lantern flowers in red and pink and yellow - and tear drop fuchsia and bright deep purple Brazilian princess flowers - these were my companions and my enchantment.

They helped shepherd me through the pandemic, and they are helping once again as we emerge from its most difficult years.

And for that and for them, for Berkeley, I am most grateful.