GETTING OUT: More than just a vacant lot

There is beauty even in poison oak. Just don't get too

A lesson I have to constantly relearn is that getting out does
not have to mean getting away. The call of the coast line, the
Sierra peaks, high deserts and redwood forests can blind one to the
attractions that await discovery just down the street
A lesson I have to constantly relearn is that getting out does not have to mean getting away. The call of the coast line, the Sierra peaks, high deserts and redwood forests can blind one to the attractions that await discovery just down the street.

An obstacle to this realization is that everything down the street is so usual, so everyday. Where’s the “wow” in the weedy vacant lot we pass every day?

Writing about this very subject, Freeman Patterson, a favorite photographer of mine, told a story of a woman who visited his home in rural New Brunswick. She was from Africa and was absolutely awed by the vast display of yellow flowers on his home property. They were dandelions, a weed and a nuisance to Patterson, but an exotic floral display to this woman who saw dandelions with beginner’s eyes.

The pleasure I take in hiking or backpacking has been immeasurably enhanced by learning something about the trees, flowers and critters I pass. Like making any acquaintance, learning a name is Step 1. From that beginning, it is amazing how your knowledge and understanding of an environment and its creatures will grow. You learn to recognize changes in elevation, seasonal changes and many others things about your surroundings just by knowing the plants around you and how they behave.

I own a 250-page book titled “Natural History of Vacant Lots.” Clearly, there is more going on down the street than we grasp. Most of us pass vacant lots every day and could not write a paragraph about their natural history. Perhaps, with a little effort and interest, we can find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

In the fall, two surprisingly showy plants have replaced spring’s field mustard: chicory and the common sunflower. Lovely sky blue flowers grow along the stems of the 2-foot high chicory plant. You will recognize a common sunflower when you see it by the side of the road, because it looks just like a sunflower should — bright yellow petals (actually individual ray flowers) radiating from a dark brown center (actually many individual disc flowers).

On the compact soil by the side of the road, look for the turkey mullein’s fuzzy gray-green rosette of leaves huddled close to the ground. Mourning doves, goldfinches and other birds love the seeds of this plant.

If you see a white downy fluff tangled at the top of a thin-leafed plant, the plant is narrowleaf milkweed, and the fluff lifts the seeds and carries them on the wind to a hopeful sprouting spot. To me, milkweed is special because it is the main plant on which the monarch butterfly feeds and lays eggs.

It would be hard to take a neighborhood walk in the fall and not bump into one of these plants. None of them will ever be the cool quarterback or the hot cheerleader of the plant kingdom. The showy spring flowers get all the attention, but they are here brightening our way after a long dry season.

On your evening walk, seeing the neighborhood with fresh eyes might create a new awareness of what we pass without notice. Why do the buckeye trees lose their leaves in the middle of summer? Can that bright red plant be pretty even if it is poison oak?

Along the levee in Gilroy, on the flank of El Toro, or just walking around the block, take a fresh look at what you pass unnoticed everyday. The ordinary might become extraordinary.

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