If there’s one piece of advice essential for survival at Cal, it is this: bring layers.
Newcomers to the Golden State (of which Berkeley has many, the student body now representing 74 countries and all 50 states) are quickly disabused of the beachy, bikini-clad stereotype of California sold to them in song lyrics. Instead, they find themselves immersed in Berkeley’s funky, foggy, nonlinear climate. In fall, while much of the nation is snuggling into sweaters and snarfing down pumpkin spice what-have-you, Bay Area folks are pulling the popsicles from the freezer for the first time, September usually being the hottest month of the year. And you can forget that sundress when summer brings “May Gray,” “June Gloom,” and “Fogust.”
This year’s crop of far-flung students is not the first to feel betrayed by seasons without sequence. Polish poet and Professor Emeritus Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) cited the strangeness of Bay Area seasons in his poem, “A Magic Mountain,” written in 1975:
Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.
Miłosz, UC Berkeley’s only Nobel laureate in literature, arrived on the shores of California in 1960 as a reluctant defector. Having survived the German occupation of Poland in World War II and serving as a kind of diplomat in its aftermath, he was forced to flee for safety from Communist authorities. Naturally, his poetry often weighs in on heavy-duty subjects: war, morality, nationality, and faith.
Oh, and the weather.
In the poem, a colleague and fellow émigré describes California as a place “Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by. / This is, you will see, a magic mountain”—a place that both enchants and leaves you as lost as a lotus-eater. How can you feel the passing of time when, as Miłosz mentions, you can hear the creaky-bicycle birdsong of the hummingbird 12 months of the year?
Miłosz was grateful for his professorship at Berkeley, yet he always felt his own foreignness here. The absence of seasons was a constant reminder of his displacement.
Although we dismiss the weather as the stuff of small talk, many of us rely on the seasons as a way to mark the passage of time and give meaning to an indifferent natural world. Like Miłosz, those of us who are not native to the Bay Area are often shocked to learn that it is somehow December, that while we were watching the fog burn off in the afternoon sun, a new year has crept up on us.
It took decades but Miłosz did finally embrace his Berkeley existence:
Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, sí.
Mary Flegler is a freelance writer who hails from the Midwest where winters are freezing and summers miserably hot, “like the good Lord intended.”
From the Winter 2019 issue of California.