Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Honey Wind

 This is the brief but intense time of year when the honey wind blows. Hundreds of acres of manzanita are blooming, right now, and the combined fragrance is intoxicating. One inhalation is dizzying; an entire walk’s-worth is almost hallucinogenic.

The word manzanita is the Spanish diminutive of manzana, apple, meaning little apple. One of California’s most common shrubs, there are many species of its genus, Arctostaphylos. They are evergreen and characterized by smooth, red bark and stiff, twisting branches. There are 106 species of manzanita, 95 of which are found in the Mediterranean climate and colder mountainous regions of California.

The berries and flowers of most species are edible. For years I gathered the flowers, cooked them to a marvelous pinky-red juice, and then made jelly. The flavor is delicate and exquisite – something truly rare in the gustatory realm. And the honey that our bees make from manzanita flowers is rarer still. One spoonful is so redolent of spring flowers that it can bring tears of joy to my eyes. The berries are rather dry and tasteless, but high in protein -- a good thing to remember if you're ever lost in the woods. And apparently they are delicious to bears, as I find bear poop studded with them, here on the mountain.

I grew up in the brush, so to speak, and manzanita was so ever-present and so common that, despite its beauty, I took it for granted for many years. But I’ve been doing a photographic study of manzanita for several years, now, in preparation for a series I’ve begun to paint. I began to focus on the red trunks, so sinewy and sleek; on the round, celadon leaves; and the delicate bell-shaped flowers; even on the gray, twisted masses of dead manzanita. Slowly, I’ve come to an entirely new appreciation for this humble and ubiquitous plant. 

At this brief moment in time, particularly, manzanita is incredibly exotic. With its erotically muscled red trunks, its silvery coin-shaped leaves, clusters of ravishingly scented, shell pink flowers and eccentric shape, each bush looks like something carefully nurtured in an arboretum of rare plants, or lovingly pruned by a master Japanese gardener. As I stand in contemplation of some of my favorite bushes, which have patiently stood as photographic models in all seasons, and I breathe the moist, honeyed air that rises along the mountainside on the spring wind, I realize that there are many more things than manzanita that I have taken for granted, to the beauty of which I am blind. Manzanita has become a teacher, exhorting me to see the unique and the beautiful even in, or perhaps especially in, that which is most common. There is epiphany riding on the honey wind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Susan C.