Diving Into Octavia Butler’s World in Southern California

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Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels and won each of science fiction’s highest honors. She was the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant.

In 2020, 14 years after her death, one of her novels, “Parable of the Sower,” appeared on The New York Times’s best-seller list for the first time, a testament to how much readers still connect with her writing today.

And much of that work was greatly shaped by her life in California. Butler was born and went to school in Pasadena. Her mother cleaned houses in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, and Butler became a fixture at the Peter Pan Room, the children’s section of the elegant Pasadena Central Library. As an adult, she regularly traveled across the Southland, scrutinizing the world around her and drawing on those observations for her books.

“Southern California was really her inspiration,” said Lynell George, a journalist based in Los Angeles who wrote the book “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.”

George recently wrote a piece for The Times that allows readers to explore Butler’s universe, both through the author’s own words but also through mesmerizing images of the places that made her. There are the stacks at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and the bus seats where Butler spent hours making sketches of potential characters. Butler never learned to drive, so she relied on the city’s public transportation options.

“Los Angeles is so spread out that almost any bus ride will be a long one,” Butler once observed. “The time proved perfect for writing.”

To understand Butler’s life, George dug through hundreds of boxes of archives at the Huntington Library in San Marino that contain the author’s voluminous notebooks and meticulous research. In her notes, Butler had recorded the changing seasonal colors of the hills and mountains surrounding Pasadena, or how long it took for random magnolia and pomegranate trees to grow heavy with blooms or fruit. She even measured the trees’ growth year to year to gauge how well they were doing.

These close observations, along with an obsession with the news, gave Butler insight into the dangers of climate change, which played a central role in many of her novels. George’s reporting has further revealed to her just how much Butler was observing the natural world, and learning from what she saw.

“Sometimes I will see an address scribbled in a notebook, and she’s commented on whether or not a particular tree was going to survive,” George said, adding that at least once she had checked on one of her predictions. “She was right: It was not there.”

For the past few years, Butler’s work has been experiencing something of a renaissance, as there are several ongoing TV and film adaptations based on her fiction, including “Kindred,” her 1979 novel about a Black woman who is yanked back in time to the antebellum, and her 2005 vampire novel, “Fledgling.” Her Times best-seller list appearance in 2020 was a longtime dream of hers. In 2021, NASA named the Mars landing site for the Perseverance rover the Octavia E. Butler Landing.

“It’s been quite a ride watching what has happened, given all the things she was hoping for that she didn’t see in her lifetime,” George told me. “That’s been magnificent and poignant.”

For more:

For $3.5 million: A Spanish-style house in Los Angeles, a 1925 Mediterranean-style home in San Francisco or a renovated 1978 retreat in Encinitas.

Today’s tip comes from Andrew Carter, who lives in Hanford. Andrew recommends Carrizo Plain National Monument in rural San Luis Obispo County:

“In the spring, it’s incredibly beautiful — green grass and wildflowers galore. Given the wet winter, this spring should be amazing with a potential wildflower superbloom. The national monument web page provides a link to a wildflower hotline updated weekly during March, April and May.

The monument is beautiful year-round, not just during wildflower season, although it can be extremely hot in the summer. Depending on time of year, Soda Lake may or may not have water in it. If not, you’ll see wide alkali flats.

I camped at the KCL Campground off Soda Lake Road one year during non-wildflower season. I was the only person in the campground. I watched dusk fall over the red, brown and tan plain. The colors shifted to gray and then black. Other than the road in, there was no sign of man. Such incredible quiet and peacefulness.

I’ve also hiked through the fields in the foothills on the west side of the plain and hiked the Caliente Mountain Ridge Trail to Caliente Mountain, which provides views east over the plain and south to Cuyama Valley and the Los Padres National Forest beyond. Bring lots of water, especially for the ridge hike.

There are other trails to enjoy — the Painted Rock Trail to the Painted Rock Native American cultural site, the Travis Ranch trail through the old Travers Ranch homestead and the Wallace Creek Trail along the San Andreas Fault. Due to movement along the fault, the creek makes a right-hand turn and then a left-hand turn to cross it.

Clearly, a lot to see and do.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

We’re looking for recommendations for where to see the best art in California. What galleries have you visited over and over? Which exhibits do you insist on taking all out-of-town visitors?

Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com with your suggestions, and a few lines on why it’s your pick.

In 1992, Niffer Marie Desmond and her friend Caitlyn Meeks hosted a late night radio show called “The Bucket Sisters” at U.C. Santa Cruz, where they were undergraduates. On the show, they played CDs that were stacked on a shelf in the campus studio.

One night, they stumbled upon a CD called “Lo Fidelity, Hi Anxiety” by Paul Allen Petroskey, whose artist name is Weird Paul.

Typically, they would play a couple of songs from each CD. But this time, they played the entire album. “I thought to myself, ‘I have to see if I can find more of these, and I want to meet this guy,’” Desmond said.

But it would be another eight years, in 2006, before she finally found him on Myspace — or rather, he found her. On her profile, she had listed Weird Paul as one of her favorite musicians. Petroskey, who has released 33 albums, had used a Myspace search tool to see those who had listed him as their favorite musician. When Desmond’s profile popped up, he decided to send her a friend request.

That Myspace connection was the first chapter of their love story. Another took place last month, when Desmond and Petroskey got married.

Read their full story in The Times.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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