Kage Baker was fiercely proud of being a Californian. She loved the place.
This rookery of wing nuts on the edge of the continent was her home. She was proud of its fertility, its enthusiastic extremism, its buffet-style environment – you could find just about anything the rest of the United States had, right here in California, she always maintained. Anything would grow here – politically, socially, and literally; especially literally, the place is the Garden of the Gods when provided with a bit of water and fertilizer.
That was probably what she loved best about it.
California is among the top producers in the country of rice, macadamias, cotton and barley – none of which are native crops. and are in fact associated legendarily with other places entirely. But we grow more of them here. The largest stand of eucalyptus trees outside of Australia grows in Central California out near Vandenberg Air Force Base. Grapes, of course, are the most famous of our great imported successes – fresh, dried or transformed into wine, we grow more than most entire countries.
The native Californian plants grow lush and thick, but they’re not the stars the imports have become. Heck, before the Europeans got here, the place didn’t even have ordinary grass; the native grasses all grow in erratic bunches like feather dusters, making smooth lawns impossible. Since then California has grown famous for another types of grass altogether, of course – the world can thank UC Davis, a sterling aggie college, for some of the splendid varieties of recreational cannabis now available. It’s one of the largest cash crops on the Pacific coast, and when California finally legalizes the stuff, we’re gonna dominate the market. Also, finally, balance the state budget …
California is sometimes called the Salad Bowl of the Nation. Kage was proud of that, and felt enormously privileged as well, to be living where it was so simple to get oranges, lettuce and grapes year round. A lot of the fruits and vegetables have even gone feral; lettuce, carrots, radishes, onions, and tomatoes spring up on every road verge. Mustard and spinach, too, in wet places in the spring; we picked them for spring suppers in our most impecunious youthful days. Oats – oats, man, a major cereal crop – grow wild and free on every empty lot and hillside, and are what makes California’s wild landscapes golden in the summer heat. Scotland based an economy on the things, and they grow wild literally everywhere in California: between the sidewalks, through the cracks in asphalt, in rain gutters and flower pots.
(If the event of society collapsing, Kage planned for us to plant a vegetable garden, put in as many acres as possible in wild grain, and run a tavern. Home-made beer and crudites, herbal tonics, and oatmeal for breakfast. Would probably have worked, too. Taverns, like black smithies, tend to become sacred ground … )
Anyway, Kage loved her home state, and its insane floral profligacy. Damn near anything will grow here, somewhere, and most things do. There was, for many years, a banana farm out on Highway 1 just North of Oxnard – dozens of varieties, unseen in stores because they were too small, too strangely coloured, too fragile to ship. That only went away when Southern California Gas took the land, the bastards – where we used to stop and buy Red Plaintains, Pink French bananas, Silver Bluggoes and Blue Javas, there is now an immense burn-off valve for the underwater gas plant just offshore. A blue flame 5 stories tall burns there most nights … but I haven’t tasted a Silk or Apple banana in 20 years.
Change happens. We cope or we don’t. Right now, California is in a quite serious drought – maybe the kind that killed the Anasazi a state or so over to the East, maybe only the sort that changes our annual crops. Already, there are victims here: the almond crop was poor, the peaches and plums faltered badly. Pumpkins are smaller and fewer this year. These are all fruits that need lots of water, and we may not be growing them in another 20 years.
We’ll grow something else, of course. California is, at its literal heart, an agricultural state. Maybe winter wheat will replace the rice; tough sorghum and sugar beets are already outpacing delicate corn. Red wines will win out over the white varietals, and plain old raisins over both. The climate these days is ideal for concentrating your sugars … and other crops will become possible.
Someone may finally persuade cocoanut palms and mangoes to grow in a hotter California. Maybe even cacao! Tropical yams in place of Russet potatoes; miner’s lettuce, moringa and quail grass instead of Iceberg lettuce. The Silk Floss Tree, which is planted all over Southern California, is suddenly setting fruit in the last two years – it’s drought resistant, native to Brazil and Argentina, and has grown here, well but mostly sterile, for years. Suddenly, in our 99 degree heat and 5% humidity, it’s setting its strange fruit …
Who knows? Maybe the bananas will come back to La Conchita.