California Winter

Kage Baker, being a native Californio, admired weather. She wrote lovingly of it, notably in the opening paragraphs of The Life of The World To Come. She studied it constantly, especially in her lives as a gardener, a traveller, a performer in outdoor venues.

That may sound paradoxical to non-natives, but it’s a fact: Californians love weather. It’s because no one outside the state thinks we have any – we’re defensive of it. Also, depending on where you are, you can find nearly every climate on Earth within a day or two’s drive of one another. Lastly, it must be admitted that some of our weather requires keenly attuned senses to fully appreciate it; or notice at all.

No one’s sense were more keenly – or more peculiarly – focused than Kage’s.

Californians are sensitive to ultra-violet light: it lets us tan in the winter, on snow, through the windows of glass skyscrapers. It’s what gives Northern California the crystalline shimmer of December light even in the depths of August; it’s the starlight distilled out of sunshine. Kage was acutely sensitive to it, and only partly because she was the palest of redheads and could get a sunburn off the dashboard lights in the car …

Californians are super-aware of air pressure, too. Anyone who lives near a coast is; and California is essentially just one loooong coast with a couple of terraces fenced in by mountains. The low, rounded hills of the coastal ranges are ineffective in stopping the on-shore flow from the  Pacific – a vast invisible wave of wind, mist and air pressure rolls 250 miles inward to pile up against the toothy Sierra Nevadas. Then it crests backwards and falls down the west-facing slopes once more, to wash through the long central valley that was once a sea in its own right, and drown the coast in reversed fogs.

When those winds come foaming inland, they bury the long slope of California in legendary dense fogs: you’re more likely to hit a white-out in Buttonwillow than in Pismo Beach. Kage could feel the fog rising like a tide in her bones, and was always insistent on clinging to the coast herself. Those 100-car pileups don’t happen in Malibu, but away inland among the rice and raisins of Fresno.

When the winds crest short of the eastern mountains, though, and come back ... that’s when they get dangerous.

When non-natives think of California, odds are they envision the nearly-1,000 miles of beaches, or the snows under bright blue skies: basically, everyone thinks of water. But the other prime ingredient of California is flame. And when the on-shore winds hit the Sierras and flood back down across the land, they come with fire in their wings.

Call them Santa Anas (only sloppy foreigners slur it into santanas; that’s a great band, folks, but not weather), sundowners, off shore flow, whatever – something in the mountains sparks like flint, and the winds come back hot. The halcyon days, the brief winter days of soft air and warmth – at the best of times, that’s what we get. When California has her back up, though, what we get are furnace winds erupting from the canyons like dragons, blowing off roofs, taking down trees and power poles, and looking for something to burn.

It’s a weather chimera. One that is apparently cross-eyed, as Kage once observed, since it never seems to know exactly what it wants to do … as a native, she could feel the winter inferno coming; and she both loved and feared it.

Last week, we had frost and freezing temperatures. The lawns here in the LA Basin froze white; crunchy and sparkling, they died. Now they’re brown and dry, and the winds have risen by 40 degrees in temperature, and 40 miles an hour in speed. We are now under three separate weather alerts: a wind warning, a coastal flood warning, and a fire warning.

The wind blows hard, dismembering trees and roofs; it also whips up the winter waves so they flood the beach cities. And it drinks up what little moisture the cold earth and dessicated hillsides have retained after a 9-month dry season: and now, anything at all can  light the winter candles on the heights …

Only in California. Only in the winter. Our weather is immense, weird, lovely and deadly; you can learn to predict it, but there’s a disaster at the end of every forecast. No wonder it fascinated Kage, who loved puzzles and mysteries.

In a land where cities can drown from the west while they burn from the east, she was right at home.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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3 Responses to California Winter

  1. Maggie says:

    Yes. Yes, exactly. And you description of it warms my heart.


  2. Elaine says:

    It’s interesting to me…I grew up in Southern California, and we never called the wind from the east the Santa Anas. They were always just the East Wind. It’s funny, too…Now that I no longer live in Southern California, but in Fresno (alas), I long for the East Wind. Yes, it causes all kind of havoc, but, growing up with it, it’s in my bones and in my soul.


  3. The Santa Ana winds have been recognized and reported in English-language records as a weather phenomenon in Southern California since at least the mid-1800s.


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