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Pele and The Sleepy Ones

by Linda Thomas

California Poppies are a hardy species--accustomed to poor desert soil, drought resistant, and capable of conserving moisture by virtue of a behavioral phenomenon. At night and on cloudy days, the silky orange petals close up into a roll thin as a bright orange toothpick. It is of no gain on a sunny day to pluck a bouquet of poppies, for within an hour, they will close up tight to conserve the moisture left in their petals, leaves and stems.

It is this marvel of natural behavior that earned the poppy its Spanish name, dormidera, meaning "the sleepy one." In shade or darkness, the blooms seem to curl into sleep. Orange, red, gold, and yellow as a Santa Monica sunset--the poppy petals are tender as a baby's eyelid. To midwesterners knee-deep in April slush, the bright orange cups sprung from deep green foliage are pure California.

The Golden State. Here we come. Dreamers, movie stars, Disneyland, suntans, the Pacific Ocean, and those orange California Poppies. Eschscholzia. Identified in 1820, and chosen over the Mariposa Lily in 1890 as the Official State Flower. Anyone could rightly presume that California Poppies grow everywhere and all over the state.

Here's the truth: in the Southland--north of the Mexican border and south of Fresno--from whence rises the dream of all things gold, a motorist might spot a lone poppy or three struggling up from a neglected freeway embankment. That's about it. Industry, housing, grazing, and recreation have used up the open land habitat that poppies need to bloom in the sort of showy spectacle that made them the golden image of California--the image that John Muir once described as "a lake of pure sunshine."

Industry, housing, grazing, recreation, and--what's more--those who pick the poppies with their bare hands, up front, no bulldozers, no motor bikes, no herd of steers: these are the enemies of the California poppy. But thanks to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, it is still possible each April to see fields of poppies. The Reserve is located on a 1,745 acre tract of rolling land in the Mojave Desert, just west of Lancaster. And it is the last place I would expect to encounter a poppy thief. But this morning as I walked the loop trails through the broad swathes of orange-gold poppies in the Antelope Valley Reserve, I did just that.

The sky was blue as spring. The poppies glowed among other wildflowers, also protected and maintained by the Reserve, and together they spread like a orange, yellow, blue, and white garden mosaic born of nature, April, and the snow-covered Tehachapi Mountains to the north. But as I rounded a low hill this morning and lost sight of the Reserve's Interpretative Center's building, I caught up to a woman and a small boy. The boy, a tumbling, free-spirit of a four-year-old in denim coveralls, had left the carefully marked Reserve trail and was tromping through the thick bushes of blooming poppy plants. With his flashy Jordan sneakers, he smashed delicate cream cups, crushed purple owl's clover, and finally tumbled, laughing, into an opulent stand of royal blue lupine.

I put on my grandmother's sing-song voice and called, "Come back to the trail."

Then, I realized that the woman--this child's mother, no doubt--was glaring at me. She held before her a camera, poised to snap candids of her marauding child pummeling the poppies. She was no more than ten feet from me, uphill of the trail, and I could see clearly the neat trim of her auburn hair, the starched cuffs and collar of a white shirt peeking out from her navy crew neck sweater. Not the pirate type, but her glare hardened into a warning.

I was here for the poppies, after all. What was one child? Certainly not a dune buggy. I ducked my head, the way innocent people do at crime scenes, in those moments when speaking means involvement and commitment. As I passed the woman, I heard the shutter click once, twice. Then, as if to deepen the insult, she lifted her voice and called to the child, "Pick one and hold it up!"

I turned to face her. "This is a reserve," I said. "A wildflower reserve."

She did not look at me, but kept her face toward the boy, who continued laughing and stomping through the orange poppies and bright yellow coreopsis. With her mouth turned down, she exhaled air in a sound intended to express her disgust with me. I wondered if perhaps she didn't understand.

I said, "A reserve is a place where resources are kept safe for future generations." I waited, then, with the distinct feeling that she was waiting, too, her profile etched against the blue sky.

We must have stood like that for minutes, in a sort of stand-off. Finally, she whirled to face me and said, "Why don't you just GO."

But I didn't, and I am not sure why I did not just turn and continue with my morning walk, why I did not just leave this woman alone with her child to pluck wildflowers and take photographs. I remember that I imagined ten little boys picking poppies, one hundred little boys trampling lupine, one thousand blooms in a single season carried off in the back pockets of little boys. I thought of the Poppy Reserve's soft-spoken staff and their modest brochure, suggesting a tax-deductible contribution toward the preservation of the wildflowers.

Wildflowers--the domain of volunteer matrons and grandmothers who stitch the petals of State Flowers on throw pillows. What this Reserve needed was Pele, Goddess of Fire, the exotic, flaming-haired beauty of volcanoes who promises a cursed life to any who dares steal a single lava pebble from the islands of Hawaii. So powerful is Pele's curse, that visitors to Volcanoes National Park think twice before slipping a lava stone into their pockets. And those who do often return the stone via air mail with a note attached: "Take back your stone, I've had nothing but bad luck!"

It was with these thoughts in mind that I stood my ground there beside the vast fields of orange poppies. Until finally, the woman fumbled for her bag, stuffed the camera inside, and called, "Gregory!" The two walked back down the trail, the boy running ahead, and the woman stiffening her back, as if her spine had been injected with molten lava.

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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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