Tag Archives: history

not a grassy knoll

A trip to Dallas gives you the opportunity to visit the Sixth Floor Museum, an institution that “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historical Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”

Whenever anyone hears about the place, the initial reaction is something like “ooh, creepy.” But the thing is done so simply and respectfully that it’s worth fighting the ick factor.

The museum–no interior photography allowed, sorry–builds a narrative that leads up to and recedes from a re-creation of the sniper’s nest on the sixth floor of what was back then the Texas Book Depository building. From the outside, immediately below the cornice, there on the right, you can see the infamous partially-open window.

Down below there’s an embankment planted with grass, the “grassy knoll” that figures in some scenarios as the location of a possible second gunman.

It’s also the location of a big banner screaming “Grassy Knoll” in case you didn’t figure what it is.

Planting a big banner on an embankment doesn’t make it any more of knoll, however. From my imperfect understanding of landscape terms a knoll is a gentle bump on a flattish landscape. (There might be sheep nearby.) This instead is a grassy embankment beside a road that feeds into a highway. This is not a knoll.

grassy knoll

This, however, is a knoll, and quite a grassy one at that. (Image by Rosser1954 at the Wikimedia Commons.)

On the pavement right in front of the G.K., you can see one of the two white X’s that mark the locations of the limousine when it was struck by gunfire. It’s probably the most tacky or mawkish thing you’ll see on your visit.

Down on the plaza you can look up to the open window, across to the “knoll,” or down into a big water feature filled with winter leaves moving slowly in the breeze-driven water currents. You can trance out to the little epicycles that the leaves take through the water, or you can try to ignore traffic and reflect quietly on the events that took place here fifty years ago.

I’d guess that most Dallas residents aren’t so thrilled for being known for living in the city that killed JFK. But this is history, and I’m glad I came to pay my respects.

on the road: luther burbank’s farm

History is a fragile thing, something that I was reminded of on my recent visit to Sonoma County.

Burbank Shasta daisies

Pioneering plantsman Luther Burbank moved to this area in the mid-1880s, making his home in Santa Rosa, and establishing a plant breeding and trial location nearby on Gold Ridge, in present-day Sebastapol. Over his career, which included over 40 years of work at this location, he developed and introduced hundreds of varieties of food crops and ornamental plants–including the still-popular Shasta daisy, and was pretty much the Thomas Edison of the plant world.

You can visit his main residence in Santa Rosa, but it was the Gold Ridge Experiment Farm where the work of coming up with the new varieties took place. Our host in Sebastapol basically said that there wasn’t much to see of the farm anymore. But I was curious to stand in the middle of horticultural and agricultural history, so John and Jenny and I took a short trip to the site.

A small brown sign in downtown Sebastapol points to the farm, .7 miles away, and a second small brown sign down the road points left towards the location. The first thing that you see when you turn left, instead of some pastoral trial farm scene overflowing with historical flowers, is the bigger sign announcing the Burbank Heights & Orchards, an anonymous cluster of gray clapboard-sided apartment houses. A bit of trailblazing over the winding lane through the apartments eventually leads to a little yellow cottage in a clearing, along with a matching out-building and a greenhouse that must be as small as the bathrooms in the surrounding apartments.

Burbank barn and apartments

If it weren’t for the greenhouse it’d be hard to know that this was the destination. But this was it. What’s left of major botanical history. (You can see the apartments in the background.)

Burbank cottage

The cottage dates to 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake scrapped the original structure. There’s an adjacent little cottage garden, with some examples of Shasta daisies and other plants with ties to Burbank and this location.

Burbank nightshade

The hybrid penstemons here are modern varieties, but there’s an interesting unknown tall nightshade with purple flowers that was found growing on the site in 1980. Aside from the Shasta daisies, the plants of major historical interest here aren’t the horticultural pretties as much as the trees and shrubs nearby: Walnuts, berries, plums, cherries, hawthorns, roses, among many.

Some of the plants aren’t Burbank hybrids at all, but are stock that was used in his vegetable husbandry. Burbank’s work was all about improving on nature, not appreciating nature as it exists, so what nature you see in the form of the original species–including the Catalina Cherries native to California–were collected here for their potential value to what could be made with them.

In an article, “Luther Burbank : A Victim of Hero Worship,” Walter L. Howard writes that “[t]he science of breeding grew and advanced rapidly during the first two decades of the new century, and though it may not be generally recognized, the movement is traceable to Burbank as a potent activator. Professor H. J. Webber, a pioneer plant-breeder and geneticist and a contemporary of Burbank, has declared that through the influence of Burbank the science of plant breeding was advanced by at least twenty years and for this accomplishment alone, he deserved a sizable monument to his memory.” (Quoted at the Gold Ridge website.)

Today, Luther Burbank isn’t completely forgotten. There’s the little remaining farmstead, and the Burbank home in Santa Rosa. Burbank’s Shasta daisy is the official flower of Sebastapol. And there’s even a stretch of Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastapol that’s designated the Luther Burbank Memorial Highway. But Sonoma County, a region that’s living large as one of the hotspots of California wine country, seems a little distracted by other things than to pay large amounts of attention to a figure whose career saw the rise but not the fall of Prohibition in the United States.

So, should you plan a trip to God Ridge Experiment Farm? As a destination unto itself, probably not, unless you live nearby. But if you’re here for a visit to the Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries, sure, take the little side trip. It might be a little sad, but you’ll be glad you went.

once an orchard

I wanted to find the quince tree again.

It probably had been close to ten years since I last hiked my nearby Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. Still I clearly remembered coming upon an ancient but still fruiting quince in one of the tributary canyon bottoms. Unwatered for decades and tended only by the wildlife, it had seemed like a miracle of survival in San Diego’s desert climate.

Survivor quinceLast Saturday I scootered up to the preserve and started a slow stroll through the native willows and sycamores and oaks that line the dry creek in López Canyon. I only vaguely remembered the location, but less than half a mile in, right by the side of the trail, there it was, still very much alive, green and loaded with fruit.

Fruit on old quince tree

Nearby, in the shade of an old sycamore and crowded with some robust shrubs–including poison oak–I found a second tree with fruit on its branches.

Quince and poison oak

And then I started looking around in earnest. Off to the left stood a different kind of tree, either a different quince or maybe even a pear. It had a thick, creased trunk and the plant was clearly old. But the tree still drooped a little from the weight of the fruit.

Quince or pear treeQuince or pear fruit

Old apricot in Lopez CanyonNot far ahead stood another specimen. Though without fruit it was clearly another fruiting tree, probably an apricot, judging by its leaves, a month after the last of its offerings would have been ripe.

So that made for four trees that I could find without crawling through more poison oak or further through the snakey grass. I’m certain all the trees were many decades old, but exactly how old I couldn’t say for sure.

Local history places an orchard operator in this canyon as late as 1921, so some of the trees may date to then, though this area has been ranched and cultivated at least as early as the early 1800s, when this area was contained in the first of the Mexican land grants in Alta California, to as recently as 1962, when the land was acquired by the County.

Ruiz-Alvarado adobe, San DiegoNearby, under a protective shelter at the confluence of López Canyon and Los Peñasquitos Canyon, stand the remains of the Ruiz-Alvarado Adobe, one of the oldest structures in San Diego County.

Anything older than a hundred years around these parts is considered a relic. If you were to believe the most wishful of the sources the adobe would date all the way back to 1815, though more reliable sources place its construction at 1857. This small adobe, along with a later, grander one to the east, became part of a thriving concern dedicated to ranching.

Ruiz-Alvarado adobe, San DiegoMaybe it’s wishful and over-romanticizing on my own part–or maybe not–to imagine that the settlers who lived in this adobe planted the fruit trees in López Canyon. But the trees are as much of the human history of this area as are the few remaining adobe walls. Here we need all the history that we’ve got.