The Amber Hues, and the Embers, of Summer

Summer in the city. Long days, lingering twilights.

I wander a weekend through the dry hills and steamy neighborhoods. It isn't enough just to know summer is here. You have to feel it. You have to absorb it.

Summer is a cultural experience, a season that tugs at the senses and dwells in the deepest parts of the soul.

I see picnics in the parks. I see swimmers and bathers along the broad beaches. I see children splash gleaming sprays of water into the sunlight. I see wispy dark tendrils of barbecue smoke trace pencil lines against the flawless sky.

In East L.A., porch swings and fans. In Santa Monica, a crowded pier and whirling rides. In South-Central, lawn sprinklers and portable pools.

The green grasses of spring have turned to gold in the mountains that surround the sprawling L.A. Basin. They glow in the relentless sunlight like a wheat field awaiting a harvest of fire. Chaparral crackles as it dries with an intensity you can almost hear.

Summer comes with a price. Sporadic brush fires warn that atonement is at hand. We challenge nature when we move into the mountains and canyons. Wary of the season of flame, we send firetrucks to prowl the dirt roads. Arson watchers scan the ridgelines. We wait. We watch. We listen.

Summer in the city.

The season drifts gently into our midst, with the warmth and presence of a beautiful woman, embracing the time between summer solstice and autumnal equinox. The angle of the sun's rays shifts as we circle through space, heating our part of the Northern Hemisphere and lengthening the days.

Scientists know the summer by angles and temperature oscillations. I know it by the flowers.

The sweetness of spring gives birth to blossoms maintained by summer. Nurseries from Altadena to Studio City do brisk business. At Nuccio's, six acres of camellias and azaleas wait to bloom again.

At the West Valley Nursery, buyers wander through crowded aisles, loading carts with ferns and marigolds.

Los Angeles isn't Paris with flowers on every corner, or Amsterdam, with its acres of multicolored tulips. But it isn't a wasteland either.

Roses dazzle the eye in every section of the city, as carefully cultivated in Palmdale as they are in Beverly Hills. Dabs of color dress our mountains and basin like a Monet painting. Reds as deep as rubies, yellows that glow like amber.

When you look closely at summer, you discover corners in yourself. I found a need for a quiet place that balanced heat and beauty in equal proportions, a garden of thought beyond the direct rays of a hard-burning sun. When I turned toward the corner, I found it in my own yard.

I sit here now as I write on a laptop computer. It's a cool place under an oak tree that towers 60 feet into the blue sky, its heavy branches forming an umbrella of leaves over a level spot by our dry creek bed.

It's my Walden Pond, far enough away from the house to allow distance, close to a foot bridge that connects a trail through Cinelli's vast and beautiful garden. Sounds are muted here. I can think. I can wonder. I can imagine. I can dream.

The discovery of this quiet place parallels my discovery of gardens. I have become aware of them in the summer glow. I have my own corner of the yard where roses grow and bougainvillea plants spread blossoms of white and apricot orange against a back fence. I have night-blooming jasmine to sweeten the warm air and lavender verbena to cover a hillside.

It is only as I have struggled through the years toward the heavier burden of age that I have discovered the notion of planting and growing. Is it a metaphor for continuing life? Possibly. A quest for a kind of eternity? Perhaps.

I think about this as I complete my daylight circuit of the city, writing as the light flattens over the land and a thin crescent moon awaits just beyond the pending twilight.

Time, like the rolling seasons, deepens perceptions and alerts the senses to the world that surrounds us. Driving through L.A. was a lesson in revelation, a new view of the territory that has become my home.

As night falls, I leave my place of solitude, my garden of thought and drive by the ocean. Phosphorescent waves light the water. A Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier spins slowly through the night, neon brilliance against the dark horizon. A warm breeze touches my face. The night is gentle, the mood sublime.

Summer in the city.

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Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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