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Fall Is in the Air : California autumn has its own personality, marked by changes in weather, landscape and harvests.

September 17, 1993|WALTER HOUK | Special To The Times; Walter Houk writes regularly about the great outdoors for Valley Life!

Easterners who come West seem to bring an attitude about seasons. They like to confide to us natives and old-timers that they miss four definite seasons, especially fall. They tell us our climatic cycle is too subtle, even boring, that our seasons can't be real if they don't show gross changes. Even folks who came here to escape harsh winters profess to miss the snow.

But with that mind-set could those people be overlooking something? Admittedly not like those east of the Rockies, California seasons may have their own definition and personality. Maybe there is more to autumn than wailing winds, naked woods and meadows brown and sere--those fine themes of traditional literature.

With fall due on the calendar in a few days, we will soon be seeing changes in weather, landscape and harvests. Such signs will be just as marked as the rustling dry leaves and fireplace weather that proclaim fall Back East.

Take the wind. Fall's most prominent feature is the brisk northeasterly Santa Ana, down from the desert. The long-term record shows it usually begins at the end of September and more than half of all episodes occur from then through December.

The earliest Santa Anas bring air temperatures hotter than any in summer, but later on they will be cooler. Whenever they blow, their low humidity can turn brush fires into firestorms. They also bring sparkling clear air and visibility to the farthest horizons of any that can be seen in the year. October's bright blue weather, California style. On such days you can see across the broad San Fernando Valley from the Sepulveda Pass. From other heights the most distant mountain peaks and islands offshore stand out.

In another mood, an occasional high-velocity Santa Ana will blow Mojave Desert real estate horizontally across the Valley toward the sea. Then our sky turns dust yellow.

Santa Ana frequency usually peaks in December, a statistic that means Christmas trees on sales lots often turn tinder-dry overnight. The canny shopper will either go to a Christmas tree farm and cut his own fresh, or select a tree newly off the truck from Northern California and keep it moist and out of the wind until it is up and decorated.

Cool air, another fall symptom, arrives without preamble some September afternoon when you notice a nip to the prevailing breeze. Settling in gradually, over a longer period than in the East, autumn cooling means sessions of stagnant air circulation, of murk and overcast. When a Santa Ana interrupts the pattern, its sudden warmth inspires Easterners to talk of Indian summer. As days get noticeably shorter, sweaters appear in football crowds but--except in jest--never a raccoon coat. The fall cool-down comes sooner up in the mountains, for a gain in altitude is like a move northward in climate.

Then one day, sometimes with little warning, gray skies open up to start autumn's second most prominent feature, the rainy season. With luck it will begin in November or December.

After the first soaking rains, new grass spreads a hint of green on hillsides. Soon in the canyons you note a California specialty, a carpet of intensely green grass under bright fall leaf color on stream-side trees. In a few more weeks, new leaves appear on elderberry, walnut and other native trees. "Spring" surges to life just as the calendar winter gets under way, and the English poet's "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" now sounds odd.

Storms that bring rain to the lowlands produce another sign of fall as Los Angeles' high mountain backdrop gets its first dusting of white. Snow is then an option. Those who feel nostalgia to be in it have only to seek it out.

Some special visitors come in fall for our mild winter. In much of the East, geese sailing high are over-flying. Here they alight at their destination. The first scouts, lone male Canada geese, show up in mid-October. By month-end, squadrons of the great honkers fly in vee formations to such Valley winter refuges as Sepulveda Basin, Chatsworth Lake and the Encino and Van Norman reservoirs. Wait some morning at first light in the fields of Pierce College in Woodland Hills to see and hear gabbling flocks drop in for a breakfast graze after a night on the water.

The natural landscape responds to autumn with deepening earth tones on grass-clad hills. Those range from grays beside the sea through tans and yellows to a warm breakfast-toast hue. Beside creeks and ponds, cattails turn brown, then collapse in the water until spring's new growth. We don't see much goldenrod, but mounding rabbitbrush brightens roadsides and meadows in the San Gabriel Mountains with a whitish-gold just as mellow and autumnal.

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