A blurry shot of a colorful field of wildflowers.

Finding “Blissonance” Amid the California Superbloom

words by jasmine hardy

photographs by arianna lago

California’s historically wet winter has caused a rare superbloom event, but has also led to severe flooding. As climate change exacerbates weather conditions everywhere, how can we learn to honor beauty while confronting destruction?

Here in California, wildflowers are expelling from the Earth, adorning hillsides and valleys with a coalition of colors. Yellow and white tidy tips dance in the wind while purple sky lupines stretch toward the clouds. Fields of bright orange California poppies and pink filaree can be seen from space. We call this natural phenomenon the California superbloomand it has returned for the first time since 2019. 


There’s a reason we haven’t borne witness to this event in four years. The conditions that give way to it have to be just rightthe perfect recipe of light, moisture, temperature, and time. A superbloom only occurs when there are several dry years followed by an extremely wet year. Or, in our most recent case, a long drought followed by a series of harsh winter storms. The dry spell forced wildflower seeds to lie dormant, slowly accumulating underneath the desert soil until this winter’s watershed triggered them to germinate. The result? A blossoming of wildflowers–exploding everywhere and all at once.


Like many other Californians, I felt compelled to go see this rarity myself. I traveled about 70 miles north of Sacramento to the city of Oroville, home to Phantom Falls. During an eight-mile hike through the hills and valleys I saw breathtaking beautycascading waterfalls, humbling canyons, and meadows blanketed with wildflowers. But I also saw disaster. Clusters of decimated trees littered the hiking paths, daring me to tear my eyes away from the bliss, if only for a second, to acknowledge the destruction the storms brought.

Running water flows through a medley of rocks.
A grassy hillside filled with yellow wildflowers.

These calamitous storms are actually called atmospheric rivers, or simply rivers in the sky. They travel through warm, tropical areas picking up water vapor along the way; then, when they reach cooler areas, the water drops in the form of rain or snow. This past year, California endured over 30 of them back-to-back. This number isn’t exceptional for the state; however, the duration and intensity of them was. 


The storms culminated in a total release of 30 trillion gallons of water across the landscape, including in the Sierra Nevada mountains where it froze over and produced a historic amount of snowpack. Now that it’s getting warmer, that ice is beginning to melt, and the plains below are experiencing a devastating amount of flooding in homes and farms. As the temperatures continue to rise, that ice will continue to melt, leading to more tragedy and more flowering.


During my hike, I remember pausing to marvel at a field of native California poppies. Thinking back on the sight, I can’t help but to reflect on the carnage that had to occur for this beauty to flourish. But the flame orange flower also reminds me of the resilience of Californians, who are learning one disaster at a time, how to hold space for both the flowers and the floods.

A blurry shot of orange California poppies.
A grassy field of trees and brush with snow capped mountains in the background.

Local farmer Melissa Parks is familiar with disaster. She rolled into winter feeling defeated from the summer’s intense heat waves, her newly planted crops washed away in the storms. Rows of kale, carrots, and broccoli were saturated and submerged in water at her two-acre Rio Linda farm, her flowers the only surviving plants. When the storms kept coming, she almost lost faith.


“It was depressing as hell,” she tells me while drying a bouquet of ranunculus. “Farming is hard enough, but when it feels like nature is working against you too, that’s the toughest part of it.”


In order to withstand the climate whiplash California will continue to inflict on its inhabitants, she looks to the positives, citing “the bigger picture.” Relatively new to farming, she had never worked the land outside of a drought, witnessing wildlife and flowers she’d never seen prior to the rainstorms. For her, these ups and downsthese flowers and floodsare all a part of a larger natural cycle, one we as humans are out of touch with.

“Make room for it all. It doesn’t help us to only dwell in the distress and ignore the good.”

Leslie Davenport
Climate Psychologist

Parks isn’t the only one to feel this way. 


“Maybe [the floods] are the Earth’s way of bringing it all back into balance,” says Cristina Gonzales, a member of the Tachi-Yokut tribe, who are native to the San Joaquin Valley. She is specifically referring to the revival of the Tulare lake, a special cultural site known to have inspired the Tachi-Yokut tribe’s creation story.


Before the floods, the lake was dormant due to the long-standing drought. Kenny Barrios, a direct descendant of the Tachis, recalls singing songs and sharing stories about the tribe’s relationship with the lake, including one about the tribe having to evacuate because of flooding, only to return when the water had dissipated. He hopes that the return of the water to the lake bed is a sign of better things to come: a return to natural weather patterns and cycles, and a resurgence of life.


“[The lake] was asleep and now it’s awake,” he says.

A field of yellow wildflowers with a small body of water in the middle.

Not only are once barren lakes now filled with water, but so are California rivers, now flowing with fish and gold for people to mine. And many native plant species that have evolved with California’s temperamental climate, are also benefiting from the exorbitant amounts of moisture.


But climate scientists and ecologists are here to remind us of the unsettling bigger pictureclimate change. California is no stranger to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. It truly is a part of the natural cycle here; however, climate change has exacerbated our already extreme ecology. And experts warn that this “climate whiplash” is indicative of what’s to come in the Golden State.


“You get these moments where it seems like the ecosystem is doing better, but it’s just a moment in time before what we’re expected to see in the future, which is more severe drought and flooding events that are beyond what our systems have adapted to,” says ecologist Joan Dudney.


It is because of this daunting knowledge that Dudney finds it difficult to relish in these “pockets of positivity.” For her, the superbloom represents a moment of reprieve, a reminder of the beauty and magic of our ecosystems; but, it also serves as a warning. Even though it isn’t bad all the time, the overall effect of climate change will ultimately be devastating.

A field of pink wildflowers.
Creek water flowing downstream while a bed of rocks sits below.
A close up of a purple and yellow flower.

This dichotomy of grasping onto moments of beauty amidst a climate emergency is an enigma of our era. What if fixating on the big picture of climate change is doing us more harm than good? What if focusing on these smaller pieces is the only thing keeping us from unraveling?  


According to climate psychologist Leslie Davenport, it’s important to first and foremost, acknowledge all of these nuanced emotions. Climate change has thrust us into unfamiliar territory, and we’re all still learning how to navigate its dimensions. 


“Make room for it all,” she says. “It doesn’t help us to only dwell in the distress and ignore the good. It’s a characteristic of our time to be with these mixed feelings and to enjoy the beauty when it’s with us and know that it can coexist. In fact, we need to nourish and replenish ourselves emotionally, including enjoying beautiful natural experiences, in order to do the work we need to do.” 


But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As humans, Davenport says, we have difficulty talking about and naming these new experiences our climate has presented us with, specifically balancing beauty amongst ruin. She shared an example with me to further explain: someone may be admiring a gorgeous sunsetthat is until their thoughts are intruded with the knowledge that the charmingly hazy glow is caused by harmful particulate matter in the air.


“For someone with that knowledge there’s a competing experience of both beauty and horror.”

A field of yellow wildflowers with a lake in the middle and mountains in the distance.
A close up of a California poppy.

There’s a word for this. It’s called “blissonance,” aka when an otherwise blissful experience in nature is wedded to or disrupted by an understanding of how the place will be negatively affected in the near future by urbanization, climate change, or other disrupting factors. Alicia Escott and her project partner Heidi Quante, along with a select few others created the word, in addition to over a thousand other terms to describe feelings relating to the future of our planet. 


Escott, who is an artist, climate activist, and California native, was inspired to create this linguistic project with Quante because of the extreme climate events she has experienced living here in California. Through the wildfires, droughts, floods, and alarmingly warm days, she’s lacked the vocabulary to express her grievances. So, her and Quante decided to speak with people around the world to create incredibly specific words like “gwilt” (to cause wilting in plants by not providing proper care out of concern for water consumption, especially during a drought) and “quieseed” (a seed that due to social trauma stays dormant until it finds itself in a fertile, fecund environment). This lexicon of climate-related terms aims to better encapsulate feelings of fear, grief, and even hope than the English language ever could.


“We’re all feeling this, we’re just not talking about it because we don’t have the language to talk about it,” Escott says.

Climate change has thrust us into unfamiliar territory, and we’re all still learning how to navigate its dimensions. 

According to Escott, language and art are just as important as science-backed solutions when it comes to saving our planet; we need to shift both the way we view climate change and the way we speak about it: “Climate change asks us to look at the death of the way we live and see that there’s possibility.”


Now, most of Escott’s recent art work involves cultivating wildflowers. She is learning that many parts of the land are incredibly resilient, which has provided her with a source of joy. 


Looking across California’s landscape, some parts seem to be filled with vitality. It can be a source of joy for many, even if it is temporary. Other parts seem to be on the brink of environmental ruin. In moments of bliss and dissonance such as this, I recall my conversation with Davenport, who shared with me a phrase she often returns to. A popular Buddhist saying, which goes, “When you open your heart, you get life’s 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys.” 


In all of it, we find a reminder of our humanity. Across the Earth, people are increasingly faced with geological ruin. Still, it is possible— and even imperative—to simultaneously uncover beauty in the smallest of crevices, equipped with the confidence that we are capable of holding space for it all.

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