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Seeing Red in the Chaparral: A Poem and Photos

May 25, 2018

During yesterday’s lovely barefoot lope up and down 90 minutes of ridge between Santiago Oaks and Irvine Regional Parks, I came across a(nother) balloon. Grrrr. Besides the questionable environmental value of free-floating metallic-plastic, the very stuff that makes balloons soar–helium–is a nonrenewable resource that is unmakeable by humans. 

So when I see balloon-trash along the trail, I see always see red metaphorically–and sometimes I see red literally:

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This reminded me of a poem which I wrote years ago that recently resurfaced for editing as I put together a(nother) manuscript of poems to electronically schlepp to publishers who this time will be so fascinated by my work that they will immediately drop all other projects to print 10,000 copies of my new collection (Desert In My Bones) which will then garner big reviews in (name as many prestigious book-reviewing publications here as you can; that didn’t take long, did it?) and even bigger sales. 

[Cue maniacal laughter.] 

While I’m waiting, and since my balloon-poem-prophecy had so amazingly come true yesterday, I decided to rummage through old photo files in hopes of dredging up all the other red things mentioned in the poem; yes, this is what the daily non-grind of retirement facilitates.

First the poem, then the images:

Seeing Red in the Chaparral

You feel California fuchsia’s
flaming trumpets sing:
summer has ripened

into sticky lemonade
berries, razzle-dazzle
to your tongue.

You laugh at the crazy flash
of Nuttall’s woodpecker
as he bristles his crimson toupee.

You flinch at danger
tarantula hawk—

and danger fuzz: a scarlet
velvet ant (wasp
with unimaginable sting).

She zigs; you zag
past a sentinel
laurel sumac that reeks
of bitterness and home,

that carries in her crown
of splendid red-veined leaves:
a sparkly mylar heart balloon.


Fuchsia trumpets: check


Razzle-licious lemonade berries: check


Toupeed woodpecker: check


Fierce lady wasp: double-check (see my poem and video about this disturbing relationship here)


Half check? This was the only velvet ant photo I could find in my files, but these fuzzy non-ant wasps come in shades of red as well. The females have stingers/no wings; males have wings/no stingers. Nickname? “Cow killer” ants, because when you get stung you just want to holler “Moo” and die.

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Colorful sprouts of laurel sumac: check-ity check check check. Although the balloon in the poem got lodged in a full-grown one of these pungent shrubs, the photo at the beginning of this post shows it in a Mexican elderberry.  Poetic license . . .

And since I was on a red roll, looking through ten+ years of photos, I had fun stumbling upon so much other lovely red stuff. Just don’t google “red things in nature” ‘cuz those images really make mine look blurry and bush-league. So be it:


Red diamondback rattler in Weir Canyon.

Red tuna-fruits of the prickly pear–a delicacy for humans and coyotes, it seems.


Red berry-like pomes (fruits) of the toyon.

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Red bracts of paintbrush–a polite root parasite that does not kill its host.


Rusty-red buckwheat flowers–the Eriogonums are some of my favorite garden plants as the flowers change color and hang around for a long time. Plus: they are fabulous habitat providers–food and shelter in abundance for all kinds of small to tiny critters.

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Fascinating, hard-working deer plant, whose flowers change from yellow to reddish-orange upon pollination, steering pollinators in another direction. One of the best local plants for taking nitrogen out of the air and “fixing” it into the soil where plants can use it, this fire-follower helps prep the soil of burned areas for the rest of the plant community. Thanks, Deer Plant! You are too valuable to call Deer Weed!


Two reds for the price of one: the stunning Red Rocks formation near Black Star Canyon and one of the ubiquitous anti-invitations to enjoy it.


Sweet Southern Pink–I love these Silene laciniata, whose ephithet derives from the Latin word lacinia: “a thing torn” (the petals’ edges, get it? Like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears? Who even knows what pinking shears are these days!).


Here’s two reds I don’t like to see: flames below, Foscheck above being dumped in hopes of keeping yet another fire from re-burning areas that have been scorched by human-caused conflagrations far too often for them to remain healthy.


Here’s a happier note to end on: the dependable end-of-May appearance of the delightful (and rare!) Intermediate Mariposa Lilies at the top of Barham Ridge.

Happy Spring Flower Trails! May all the red you see be a blessing and not a stressing . . .


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob G. permalink
    May 29, 2018 6:16 am

    Hi Thea…strangely enough, red is becoming a favorite color of mine for little things like pens, fishing lures, rain jackets…maybe it’s the color of healthy plants, and the color of living-blood movement of animals, or a warning to be acknowledged. If only we could be as well camouflaged, and belonging to a place, as the red rattler. Crouching barefoot in red dirt and silence must bring you fairly close…..Bob G.

    • May 29, 2018 8:56 pm

      Hi Bob–I like your reminder how red is both a sign of life & a warning 🙂 (and I want to assure you that I try to maintain a healthy distance from my rattly friends . . . although reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s “The Turquoise Ledge” really helped me get past a lot of the (unhealthy) fear . . . now it’s more just plain ol’ respect!

  2. Scott permalink
    May 26, 2018 1:09 pm

    Thank you Thea for another enjoyable post! Maybe there should be a new name for the barefoot version of the new sport of plogging?

    All the best, Scott

    • May 26, 2018 5:45 pm

      Thanks, Scott . . . I always appreciate your positive comments . . . especially on a post like this that wasn’t as “barefoot-focused” as most of them are. And THANKS for letting me know about “plogging!” I can’t believe I’d never heard of it . . . it’s exactly what I do every time I hike/run 🙂 Gonna have to do my next blog post on it 🙂

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