Dave Mitchell


When I was a lad in the 1940s, the fictional character who fascinated me was not Superman, Roy Rogers, or the Lone Ranger. It was Mowgli. Of course it’s easy to romanticize living naked with a pack of wolves, but one of Mowgli’s adventures in particular remains part of my life.

Mind you I’m not talking about the Mowgli of Walt Disney’s animated movie The Jungle Book. That trivialized portrayal of the youth would not come along for another 20 years. I’m talking about Mowgli, the hero of nine Rudyard Kipling short stories. My mother read me at least three of the stories from Kipling’s 1893 collection, The Jungle Book, and I was more intrigued by what Mowgli got to see than by what he actually did.

Kipling (1865-1936), a British short-story writer who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, made a name for himself in two disparate genres: 1) children’s stories; and 2) stories and poems about British imperialism in India. The Jungle Book, naturally, is set in an Indian jungle.

Mowgli growing up with wolves. (Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg)

Mowgli is the boy who grows up in the jungle with a pack of wolves after his parents lose him during a tiger attack. A mother wolf with cubs decides to raise the child as a man cub, and because he is hairless, she names him “Mowgli,” which apparently is wolfspeak for “Frog.”

Mowgli’s greatest accomplishment is to kill a malicious tiger, Shere Khan. With help from two wolves, he causes water buffalo at two ends of a ravine to stampede down it. Shere Khan gets caught in the middle and is trampled.

Monkeys in the abandoned city of Cold Lairs sit around its crumbling palace.

For me, the highpoint of the stories occurred when a pack of monkeys kidnapped Mowgli and took him to the Cold Lairs, an abandoned city complete with a palace half overgrown with jungle. Mowgli escaped when Kaa, the python, hypnotized the monkeys with a writhing “hunger dance,” but that wasn’t what intrigued me.

What I, as a young boy, found hardest to imagine was a jungle so aggressively overgrowing grand buildings from past cultures that the buildings ultimately disappear. When my mother assured me that large structures really can get lost in tropical forests, I began to fantasize about finding one.

A Burmese family’s home faces the railroad tracks while out in back tropical foliage has begun to swallow a deteriorating British-colonial building. (Seen from a train approaching Rangoon, 1986.)

It was only when I finally made it to such places as Guatemala, Thailand, and Burma in the 1980s that I saw for myself how readily jungle vines, bushes, and even trees can take root on abandoned edifices such as temples, palaces, and government buildings.

Vines and other foliage taking over an abandoned commercial building in downtown Rangoon create a romantic sadness. It may be exotic, but it’s hard not to feel sentimental when seeing former grandeur being consumed by opportunistic plants.

I’ve carried my fascination with intrusive jungle life with me for many years. The area around my desk in the old Point Reyes Light newsroom in the Creamery Building was filled with laurentii and dieffenbachia while pots of philodendrons and spider plants hung from the rafters.

As it happened, the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) in 2004 named The Light first in Public Service statewide for a series of stories about a Guatemalan immigrant who was attacked in Bolinas and nearly died. His personal tragedy was a catastrophe for his family. His wife was very ill, and he had been supporting her and the rest of his family, who were living in rural poverty in a remote area of Guatemala.

Light reporter Ana Carolina Monterroso and photographer Anika Zappa covered the story from Guatemala while Victoria Schlesinger was the key reporter in West Marin. Victoria represented the newspaper at the awards ceremony aboard the Queen Mary, and CNPA wanted a photo of Light staff to project on a screen while she received the Public Service plaque. The newsroom’s jungle was the perfect backdrop to symbolize the back country of Guatemala, so Victoria and I (above) posed amid the foliage. ________________________________________________________________

My love of the jungle is most evident these days inside Mitchell cabin. Here and there spider plants cascade down from the loft into the living room and dining room below.

Screened from the dining room by a floor-to-ceiling tower of spider-plants, Lynn prepares dinner in our kitchen.

 

 

 

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If you don’t look where you’re going in the dining room, it’s easy to find greenery in your face.

Lynn and I have pretty much learned to avoid becoming entangled, but guests are forever brushing spider plants out of their hair.

 

 

 

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Having spider plants hanging into the living room from the floor above often results in our peering through a bit of jungle while carrying on a conversation.

What’s more, it only takes a little jungle to make everything seem more exotic. I may have moved into the village, but deep inside me the romanticism of Mowgli in the Cold Lairs palace lives on.

 

 

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With airlines becoming increasingly unpleasant — airport security treating passengers as suspected terrorists, flight attendants abusing fliers, and seats too close together to sit comfortably — there are better ways to travel.

Three weeks ago when Lynn and I traveled to Durango, Colorado, we saw no need to let an airline ruin an otherwise happy trip, so we didn’t. It was a good decision.

On the first part of our journey, we rode Amtrak from Emeryville to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Our roomette gave us space to stretch our legs and to sleep lying down. Unlike airlines that travel at roughly 30,000 feet, trains travel at ground level, and the scenery we passed through, such as this stretch of Utah desert, was spectacular.

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From Grand Junction, we drove almost 150 miles to Durango.

South of Ouray, Colorado, Highway 550 crosses Red Mountain Pass, and last year USA Today described that section of highway as one of the “world’s 12 most dangerous roads.”

As The Durango Herald reported while we were in town, it shares that distinction with the “Highway of Death in Iraq” and “Death Road” in Bolivia.

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“Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American Continent,” The Durango Herald added. “The narrow, two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.”

While Amtrak locomotives, of course, burn diesel fuel, steam locomotives still burn coal. The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE), whose conference Lynn and I were attending, took an excursion on the 132-year-old Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Silverton to Durango. I had as much fun as a kid with a Lionel Train set.

While trains in general are rich in history, steam engines are especially rich in nostalgia — even for the trainmen. Our engineer, Mike Nichols (seen releasing extra water for making steam), has been on the run for 43 years.

The route of the Durango and Silverton Railroad provided spectacular scenery of its own. Some passenger cars on the train have traditional, enclosed seating while some are open-air for enhanced sightseeing.

You may recall Arlo Guthrie’s hit, The City of New Orleans, in which: “The conductor sings his song again: the passengers will please refrain….” The line may be an allusion to a ribald ditty that folk legend Oscar Brand popularized with a 1956 recording. Sung to the tune of Dvorak’s Humoresque, it begins: “Passengers will please refrain/ from flushing toilets while the train/ is in the station, Darling I love you….”

Toilets on trains traditionally dumped their sewage on the tracks, which was unpleasant for track workers and for anyone below a bridge the train was crossing. At the insistence of Congress, Amtrak between 1991 and 1996 installed holding tanks for sewage in all cars with restrooms. Likewise, the Durango and Silverton Railroad’s toilets no longer empty onto the tracks although its restroom sinks still do. ___________________________________________________________________

Like all the Amtrak crew members we encountered, Nathan, the attendant for our two-level passenger car, was friendly as well as efficient.

Not only did he maintain the car throughout its trip from Emeryville to its ultimate destination, Chicago, he converted our roomette seats to beds at night and back to seats in the morning.

He also provided passengers in his car with free coffee, juice, and snacks.

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A view of Utah from a window in the dining car.

Passengers in sleeper cars pay nothing extra for their meals, and Amtrak does not skimp on its fare. Steak and seafood were among the dinner entrées.

Travelers typically are seated with other travelers at tables in the dining car, and all the strangers Lynn and I ate with turned out to be pleasant, friendly folks. Train travelers, we soon realized, more easily socialize with each other than air travelers do.

Amtrak’s lounge car was great  for sightseeing, snacking, and socializing. Some passengers brought their computers there to work in pleasant surroundings.

Riding Amtrak provides a tour of numerous towns that remain part of the Old West. This is Truckee near Donner Pass over the Sierra Nevada.

Winnemuccca, Nevada.

Amtrak does not own the tracks it travels on, and our train rode on Union Pacific rails the entire way. Union Pacific freight trains have priority, and Amtrak trains have to sit on a siding or stay in a station whenever a freight comes along. As a result, Amtrak is almost never on schedule.

We spent an unscheduled 90 minutes in Winnemucca while waiting for the Union Pacific’s relief engineer and conductor to show up. The delay was no problem for Lynn and me. It just brought to mind the old Hank Snow song I’ve Been Everywhere, which begins with a trip to Winnemucca.

Airplane contrails high in the sky over the Utah desert. Eighty million years ago, the USGS website says, most of this area was covered by a warm, shallow, inland sea.

Seen from our Amtrak window, the Colorado River flows past Utah’s dramatic rock formations.

Ouray, Colorado

After enjoying a family get-together with my cousin Leck Mitchell and his wife Pat in Grand Junction, we embarked the next day on a mostly relaxed drive to Durango. Along the way, we stopped for lunch in the old mining town of Ouray. The city of only 1,000 residents is full of historic buildings and offers a variety of places to eat. __________________________________________________________________

South of Ouray, however, our drive over Red Mountain Pass became a challenge.

“Although the speed limit is 15 mph for much of Red Mountain Pass,” The Durango Herald noted, “more than 300 accidents took place there between 1995 and 2010.

“The majority occurred in dry conditions and involved only one vehicle. Eight accidents killed nine people, including five highway workers.”

The newspaper quoted Nancy Shanks, the local Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman, as saying, “It’s so scary it forces people to focus and slow down.”

Another reason there aren’t even more wrecks, a shopkeeper in Silverton theorized, is that there’s no cellphone reception going over the pass, so drivers don’t get distracted by texting as they skirt the precipices. ___________________________________________________________________

With no guardrails and — in many places — no shoulder between the asphalt and the edge of a cliff, the pass must be impassable for drivers bothered by vertigo.

Heidi Pankow, public relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association, told The Herald, “People stop in and ask, ‘Why are there no guardrails?’ We explain there’s no room because plows have to push the snow off the edge in winter. It’s definitely a topic that comes up a lot.”

The road is also known as the Million Dollar highway. However, “the origin of the ‘Million Dollar’ name is clouded in myth,” Road Trip USA has noted. “Some say it was first used after an early traveler, complaining of the vertigo-inducing steepness of the route, said, ‘I wouldn’t go that way again if you paid me a million dollars.’

“Others claim that it derives simply from the actual cost of paving the route in the 1930s. But the favorite explanation is also the most likely: when the highway was first constructed, the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated ‘million dollars.’”

Lynn prepares to board the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Silverton during the ISWNE excursion.

Silverton was born as a silver- and gold-mining town in 1874, and at one time Blair Street (pictured) was lined with 40 saloons and brothels that served the miners. Most of the old buildings are still standing, and the downtown area is now a National Historic Landmark District. With an elevation of 9,308 feet, the town has a summer population of around 600 but far less in winter.

The town’s 139-year-old newspaper, The Silverton Standard, is now a nonprofit owned by the San Juan Historical Society, which took it over five years ago when The Standard was about to go out of business. The paper is now marginally in the black, its editor, Mark Esper, told ISWNE members when we met with him in the old county courthouse.

In keeping with Silverton’s rakish past, the town council is now considering modifying its zoning to allow a retail marijuana shop just east of downtown, The Standard reported while we were in town. Current zoning would already allow a marijuana-growing facility in the area, the paper noted.

ISWNE members gaze at the scenery as the narrow-gauge railroad crosses the San Juan Mountains en route to Durango.

Train conductors warn passengers not to stick their heads or arms out the window during the ride. The train passes so close to rocks and trees a passenger could easily bang into them.

Like the “Highway to Hell,” the train route in places winds along the edge of cliffs. The precipices, however, seem far less daunting when riding on a train than when driving above them in a car.

Air travel too, of course, includes a lot of looking down from high places, and that makes some people even more queasy. All in all, Lynn and I found traveling by train and car far preferable to flying, and the scenery was immensely better.

As last week’s posting noted, our destination was an annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which this year was in Durango. I was there to give a talk and receive ISWNE’s Eugene Cervi Award, and these were the highlights of our trip. But getting there, around, and back was great fun too.

During an open house and reunion Saturday, a happy throng of Point Reyes Light readers, staff, and columnists joined with former staff and correspondents to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the newspaper’s first issue.

The reunion drew staff and contributors who had worked at the paper at different times during the past 44 years. A number of former staff traveled hundreds of miles to attend. A couple of them arrived from out of state.

From left: Laura Lee Miller, David Rolland (who drove up from San Diego), Cat Cowles, Wendi Kallins, Janine Warner (who drove up from Los Angeles), Elisabeth Ptak (back to camera), Gayanne Enquist, Art Rogers (talking with Elisabeth), Keith Ervin (who drove down from Seattle), B.G. Buttemiller, and (in blue shirt with back to camera) Víctor Reyes. (Photo by Dave LaFontaine) ______________________________________________________________

The party was also a celebration of the Tomales Regional History Center’s publishing The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in The Point Reyes Light.

Stuart Chapman of Bolinas, a former member of the staff, shot this photo, which he titled “Dave, Proud Father” because I authored the book.

My co-author was Jacoba Charles. Jacoba reported for The Light under its previous ownership and is a member of the paper’s board of directors under its present ownership, Marin Media Institute.

The colored Post-its, by the way, mark selections that I, along with others, would be reading to attendees. ____________________________________________________________

From left: Co-author Jacoba Charles, photographer Art Rogers, scientist Corey Goodman, photographer David Briggs, editorial consultant on the book and former member of The Light’s ad department Lynn Axelrod, and Spanish-language columnist Víctor Reyes. (Except where noted otherwise, the photos in this posting were shot by former Light reporter Janine Warner)

Michael Gahagan (left), who drove down from the Sierra Nevada town of Columbia to attend, published The Light from 1970 to 1975. Here he reminisces with historian Dewey Livingston of Inverness. Dewey for many years provided a weekly historical feature titled “West Marin’s Past.”

During the Gahagan years, Lee Sims (left) was the newspaper’s main typographer. This was back in the days before offset printing, and each page that went on the press had to be composed in lead.

In a piece written for The Light’s 30th anniversary in 1978 and reprinted in The Light on the Coast, Michael Gahagan’s former wife Annabelle comments, “Poor Lee, he had the disadvantage of being a friend of ours. One can always depend on friends — and we did lean on him! He was always underpaid and overworked. (Weren’t we all?)”

Catching up on old times are (in foreground from left): former news editor David Rolland, who drove to the reunion from San Diego, former typesetter Cat Cowles of Inverness, and former reporter Joel Reese, who flew in from Chicago. Standing behind them are current reporter Christopher Peak (left) and Matt Gallagher, who filled in as managing editor from February through July 2011. _____________________________________________________________

Samantha Kimmey (on the left) has been a reporter at The Light for the past year. With her is Tess Elliott of Inverness, who has been The Light’s editor for the past eight years   ____________________________________________________________

Gayanne Enquist was office manager during much of the 27 years I owned The Light. She was there when I arrived in July 1975, and she was there when I left in November 2005. (I was away reporting for the old San Francisco Examiner between September 1981 and the end of 1983.)

Former reporter Michelle Ling trades stories with Don Schinske, who was business manager during the 1990s and was co-publisher from 1995 to 1998. At left is her father, Dr. Walter Ling who teaches at UCLA. With his wife, May, Dr. Ling drove to Point Reyes Station for the celebration. In the background, Mary Papale listens intently to Laura Rogers.

Ingrid Noyes of Marshall (left) tells a story to my co-author, Jacoba Charles, outside The Light office.

Former staff recall the days of yore. From left: artist Laura Lee Miller, news editor David Rolland, typesetter Cat Cowles, reporter Janine Warner, and San Geronimo Valley correspondent Wendi Kallins. (Photo by Dave LaFontaine)

Sarah Rohrs was a reporter at The Light in the late 1980s. When several of us took turns reading aloud selections from The Light on the Coast, I read Sarah’s wonderfully droll account of a county fireman in Hicks Valley having to get a cow down out of a tree. (Photo by Joe Gramer)

Larken Bradley (left), who formerly wrote obituaries for The Light, chats with librarian Kerry Livingston, wife of Dewey.

Photographer Janine Dunn née Collins in 1995 traveled with news editor David Rolland to Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino and to war-torn Croatia in doing research for The Light’s series on the five waves of historic immigration to West Marin. Here she chats with the paper’s current photographer David Briggs (center) and her husband John Dunn.

Former Light graphic artist Kathleen O’Neill (left) discusses newspapering in West Marin with present business manager Diana Cameron. _____________________________________________________________

Former Light reporter Marian Schinske (right) and I wax nostalgic while photographic contributor Ilka Hartmann (left), looks on and Heather Mack (center), a graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley, takes notes. ____________________________________________________________

Former news editor Jim Kravets (left) jokes with photographer Art Rogers.

John Hulls of Point Reyes Station and Cynthia Clark of Novato have in the past worked with The Light in various capacities. In 1984, Cynthia set up the first computer system for the newsroom and ad department.

From left: Stuart Chapman of Bolinas, who formerly worked in The Light’s ad department, swaps stories with journalist Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles and Light columnist Víctor Reyes.

Historian Dewey Livingston (left), a former production manager at The Light, poses with former news editor David Rolland while former business manager Bert Crews of Tomales mugs in the background.

In preparing to shoot one of his signature group portraits, Art Rogers directs members of the crowd where to stand. With the throng crowded into the newspaper office, getting everyone in the right place to be seen was such a complicated operation that some of the photographer’s subjects began photographing him. _____________________________________________________________

In shooting a series of three-dimensional photos, Art had to use a tall tripod and balance precariously on a window ledge and ladder.               _____________________________________________________________

Art’s wife, Laura, who didn’t have to work nearly as hard, pages through a copy of The Light on the Coast. _______________________________________________________________

The party was in part a book-signing, and I signed copies off and on all afternoon. ______________________________________________________

Light editor Tess Elliott reads Wilma Van Peer’s 1998 account of working for the paper’s founders, Dave and Wilma Rogers half a century earlier. The newspaper was called The Baywood Press when it began publishing in 1948. The paper’s fourth publisher, Don DeWolfe, changed the name to Point Reyes Light in 1966.

Originally the readings were scheduled to be held in the newspaper office, but so much socializing was going on they had to be delayed until the party moved around the corner to Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant where the banquet room had been reserved.

Among those reading besides Tess were Dewey Livingston, David Rolland, Matt Gallagher, and I. Anyone wishing to watch me read former publisher (1957 to 1970) Don DeWolfe’s account of his initiation to running the paper can click here.

It was a grand party, and I want to thank present Light staff, who made arrangements for the party, and former staff, some of whom traveled significant distances to attend the reunion.

Two other book readings are also scheduled. At 3 p.m. Sunday, March 9, in Point Reyes Presbyterian Church, Point Reyes Books will sponsor readings from The Light on the Coast and from Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls, Susanna Solomon’s book of short stories inspired by Sheriff’s Calls in The Light.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, April 27, in its Corte Madera store, Book Passage will sponsor readings from The Light on the Coast. Refreshments will be served.

On Saturday I became a septuagenarian, having been born near the midpoint of U.S. fighting in World War II. There was no special celebration for my 70th, but Lynn and I nonetheless had a good time.

Lynn stands in the garden area at the entrance to Heidrun Meadery’s tasting room.

We started out the day at Heidrun Meadery, which two years ago opened across Highway 1 from Campolindo Road, where Mitchell cabin is located.

Despite its being so close, Lynn and I had not previously visited the meadery. Most of the time, guests need to make reservations for mead tastings, but on Saturday the meadery held a “holiday open house.” Another is scheduled for Dec. 7.

Heidrun owner Gordon Hull tells guests about the different varieties of mead he produces.

Mead is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey and water. In various parts of Europe, it has been popular for centuries. Heidrun’s meads are bubbly, having been made with the same method used to make champagne. Despite the honey content, Heidrun meads tend to be more dry than sweet.

Inside Heidrun’s tasting room.

The meadery was founded in Arcata, Humboldt County, in 1997 and moved to Point Reyes Station in 2011.

Avery Giacomini describes how one cheese differs from another.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese gave out samples of Point Reyes Original Blue cheese and Point Reyes Toma cheese during the mead tasting.

Cheese company owner Bob Giacomini grew up on his father’s dairy ranch in Point Reyes Station. In 1959, he purchased pasture land three miles north of town and went into the milk business on his own. In August 2000, the farm produced its first rounds of blue cheese, describing it as “California’s only classic-style blue cheese.”

The cheese, which is not as sharp as some blue cheeses, was immediately popular. In 2011, Point Reyes Original Blue won the gold medal for Outstanding Cheese/Dairy Product from the National Association for Specialty Food Trade. This year, Point Reyes Bay Blue won the gold medal for Best New Product while Point Reyes Toma was named the Outstanding Cheese/Dairy Product.

As it happened, musician Ingrid Noyes of Marshall (in the center talking with me) invited a number of other musicians over to play Saturday. Her friend, Víctor Reyes (upper left), who writes a Spanish-language column for The Point Reyes Light, is also a longtime friend of mine, and he made sure Lynn and I were included. (I brought my harmonica.)

Cake on a stick.

By chance, Saturday was the birthday for three of us at the party, and Lynn brought a chocolate-fudge cake. The cake contained so much fudge that I was able to pick up my piece with the long birthday candle stuck in it. So that was the way I ate it, calling it “cake on a stick.”

Shaili (at center) in Kenya.

I received birthday greetings from several friends and relatives, but by far the most distant greeting came from my stepdaughter Shaili, who is in Kenya taking part in a study-abroad program of the University of Minnesota.

Although our voices faded in and out, Shaili, Lynn, and I were able to chat by cellphone. Other than getting help from tech support in India, neither Lynn nor I had previously talked on the phone with anyone so far away. The time in Kenya is 11 hours ahead of the time in Point Reyes Station.

Shaili is working at an education center for Maasai girls, who too often are forced into marriage before getting schooling. Lynn and I are extremely proud of her, and I couldn’t hope for a better 70th-birthday present than hearing her good wishes from rural Africa.

I was raised by Christian Science parents in Berkeley and attended Berkeley High School, but in the middle of my junior year I abruptly transferred to a boarding school in St. Louis. The story of how that came about illustrates what a teenager is capable of doing out of fear.

As a 16 year old, I often chafed at parental restrictions on my driving and staying out late, but at Berkeley High, I earned good grades in most subjects. Advanced Latin, however, proved to be a step too far. One afternoon in the fall of 1959, I went directly home after school in order to spend extra time studying for a Latin test only to realize the battle was lost. Given my grades so far, it was impossible for me to pass advanced Latin.

It was a frightening thought. I had never received less than a C in any class, and that alone had brought down my parents’ wrath. I had been grounded and had my allowance cut for a month. What might happen when I brought home an F was too awful to imagine.

It was obvious I couldn’t still be living at home when report cards came out. But what to do? Suddenly I remembered a Christian Science high school my parents had mentioned in glowing terms. It was called Principia and was safely located 1,800 miles away in St. Louis. I feared the school might be overly religious, but anything was better than facing my parents with an F in Latin.

I got up from my desk and went looking for my mother, who was in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I want to go to Principia,” I announced. My mother was startled, but given the pressures of trying to raise a headstrong teenager, she didn’t oppose my request. Instead, she took it up with my father, and a week before Berkeley High mailed home my grades for the fall semester, I boarded a train for Missouri, having no idea what I would find.

At Principia, where football players were generally smaller than at Berkeley High, I was big enough to play offensive tackle. I’m No. 74 in the middle of the back row. Because Principia’s sports program was far more modest than Berkeley High’s, I was able to letter in both football and track during my three semesters in St. Louis.

Principia Upper School had a newly opened, suburban campus on Clayton Valley Road, and the place had the pleasant charm of brick buildings and expansive lawns. Its religious atmosphere was about the same as in my home back in Berkeley.

A few days after I had been assigned a room and roommate, I got a call from my much-distressed parents. They had received my report card from Berkeley High and discovered I’d flunked Latin. How could I have done so badly when I’d been assuring them I was doing okay in Latin? “I’m as surprised as you,” I replied with feigned concern. “I must have blown the final exam. Everything seemed fine before then.”

My parents started scolding, but I interrupted to say I was being called away to Sunday dinner. Reluctantly, they said goodbye and hung up. In fact, there was nothing going on — other than my jubilation at being beyond their reach.

I sometimes practiced high jump barefoot. At Berkeley High, good jumpers were able to clear six feet. My best jump at Principia was five feet, six inches, but when I made it, that was enough to win the event, which was the last of the day in a track meet with John Burroughs Academy. When the high jumping finally got underway late that afternoon, each school’s total points happened to be the same, so my not-so-high jump won the meet for Principia.

Berkeley High had taught most courses a bit earlier than Principia did, so I frequently was already familiar with subjects when they came up in class. Nor did Prin offer any Latin. As a result, I was one of the top three students in my graduating class.

All this helped get me into Stanford University where circumstances eventually forced me to again take Latin. This time, however, my grades were three A’s and two B’s. Ironically, it was my best subject as an undergraduate. How could that be?

First, thanks to my classes at Berkeley High, I was already familiar with basic Latin. Second, the night before each final, I sat down with a Latin-English dictionary and practiced translating passages from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, The Aeneid, etc. The passages were typically ones the professor had emphasized in class, and I figured some of them were likely to be on the exam. That quickly turned out to be true. Three times I managed, with the help of a dictionary, to translate every passage on a final exam just before I took it. My flight from Latin was over.

This is the 300th posting on SparselySageAndTimely.com, and my friend Dave LaFontaine of Los Angeles has urged me to write something commemorating the occasion.

The first posting went online back on Nov. 28, 2006, and at least one per week has followed ever since.

Usually it’s been fun although on a few slow weeks I’ve felt like The Desperate Man (at right), a self-portrait by Gustave Corbet (1819-1877).

As was explained in the first posting, keeping a log on the web (i.e. a blog) is a bit like keeping a log on a ship. It includes both a journal of one’s trip through life and reports on significant events along the way. How a web log came to be called a blog, by the way, reflects the whimsy that has long characterized those who gambol on the World Wide Web of the Internet.

A blogger named Jorn Barger coined the term in a Dec. 17, 1997, entry on his site, jokingly turning “web log” into “we blog.” And who is Jorn Barger? Wikipedia reports he is editor of “Robot Wisdom,” has taught at Northwestern, and once lived at The Farm (Stephen Gaskin’s commune in Tennessee).

Some weeks my topics were obvious: major storms, the November 2007 oil spill along the coast, community celebrations, and the deaths of prominent people. Some postings, such as those recounting West Marin history, required a bit of research.

West Marin’s animal life, both wild and domestic, has been a constant of this blog. Here two horses in a field next to mine enjoyed a sunny day last weekend.

Naturally, so to speak, some wildlife adventures chronicled here probably aren’t as fascinating to all readers as they are to me. This past week I’ve been delighted that a new possum (seen here) has begun visiting my cabin in the evening. It’s younger than the one that had been coming around, and both are more skittish than the possum a couple of years ago that would let me pet her as she snacked on peanuts.

Regular readers know I am particularly intrigued when seemingly unrelated events turn out to be connected. My favorite such posting told how a grim, 1909 Hungarian play called Lliom led to the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, which in 1963 led to Gerry and the Pacemakers’ rhythmic recording of You’ll Never Walk Alone, with that rendition then becoming a worldwide professional soccer anthem.

Readers too seem to like following these connections.

My April 19 posting What does the Easter Bunny have to do with Jesus’ resurrection? drew readers by the hundreds.

The posting told how Gregory the Great (at right), who was pope from 590 to 604, unintentionally brought about the Easter Bunny’s becoming associated with Jesus’ resurrection.

Some 877 people dropped by here this past Easter — 308 on Easter Day alone — to read the story. I was struck by the fact that 270 of those visitors found their way here via Google.

While we’re on the topic of Google, are any of you old enough to remember the 1923 hit tune Barney Google? “Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google had a wife three times his size./ She sued Barney for divorce/ Now he’s living with his horse.

“Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google, with his googley eyes./ Barney Google, has a girl that loves the guys./ Only friends can get a squeeze./ That girl has no enemies./ Barney Google, with his googley eyes.”

Nor should we forget the comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, which is still going strong after 92 years.

Doesn’t all this make you wonder about the origin of the corporate name Google? In fact, it comes from a misspelling of “googol,” which refers to the number one followed by 100 zeros. Nonetheless, the verb “to google” (use the Google search engine) is now included in major dictionaries. But I digress….

This being spring (witness the iris on my deck), I’ll end with a poem composed for this commemorative posting.

With thanks to T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Matthew Arnold, William Butler Yeats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost for their contributions:

West of Eden

The hollow men/ Headpiece filled with straw./ Starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world./ Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward,/ All in the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred./ To die, to sleep.

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light./ I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Mass communications began after a German goldsmith named Johnannes Gutenberg in 1439 borrowed money to produce souvenirs to sell at a religious festival only to have the festival postponed for a year.

Unable to repay his investors, Gutenberg (left) offered to share the proceeds of a “secret” with them and during the next 10 years devised a printing press that used movable type. The invention led to the printing of the Gutenberg Bible and eventually mass-produced books in general, as well as newspapers and magazines.

The first newspaper in the American colonies was Publick Occurrences, published in Boston in 1690. Its first and only issue was printed on a hand-powered press like Gutenberg’s. The newspaper, however, had not been officially authorized, and it was immediately shut down, its press run confiscated, and its publisher arrested.

The first paper to survive was The Boston Newsletter founded in 1704 by the postmaster. In the 1720s, two other newspapers were launched in New York.

By the start of the Revolutionary War, there were a couple of dozen newspapers in the colonies. By the end of the war, there were 43.

Virtually all were weeklies with circulations of roughly 500. Using Gutenberg technology, that was about all that a print shop could produce in a week. When the First Amendment guaranteed Freedom of the Press, newspapers such as these were what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

By the 1830s, improving technology allowed for creation of mass-circulation newspapers, and by the 1890s, two New York City papers, The New York Journal and The World, were each selling half a million copies per day. The day after the 1896 election of President William McKinley, each paper sold 1.5 million copies.

Then along came radio broadcasting, which began in Holland in 1919 and in the US in 1920. Suddenly newsmakers and entertainers could speak directly to audiences everywhere. Radio, of course, was only the beginning. From 1928 to 1931, the first television stations began broadcasting in different parts of the US.

Back when I was studying Mass Communications in college half a century ago, the news media consisted of magazines, newspapers, radio, and television.

The next medium to come along was, of course, the World Wide Web, which was launched in 1990. Soon organizations ranging from small businesses to the news media were creating websites to promote themselves. Meanwhile individuals such as I began putting blogs online. (The word blog, by the way, comes from web log in the sense of a ship’s log.)

In 2004, a new type of website devoted to “social networking” went online when Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook. Facebook allows users to post vast amounts of text and photos online at no charge. The company makes its money selling advertising on the site.

It all sounded simple enough at first. Friends and relatives used the site to let each other see what they’d been doing and read what they’d been thinking about. But then some strange things started happening. For example:

Last August it came to light that a wife in Cleveland, Lynn France, had suspected her husband was having an affair with another woman, Amanda Weisal, so she logged onto Facebook and typed in Weisal’s name.

John France and Amanda Weisal France on the Today Show.

Not only did she find photos of her husband with Weisal, the pictures showed the two of them getting married. Lynn France then accused her husband of bigamy. John France, however, denied it, claiming his marriage to Lynn in Italy back in 2005 was invalid although he acknowledged fathering two children by her.

Now that’s social networking. Or how about this?

Last November, a 51-year-old Antioch man halted westbound traffic on the Oakland Bay Bridge for an hour when he stopped in the slow lane and told officers via a cell phone that he was armed with guns and explosives.

Craig Carlos-Valentino (at right in CHP photo) also threatened to jump off the bridge. Eventually he surrendered to authorities. No explosives or guns were found in his car, and his 16-year-old daughter, who had also been in the car, was unharmed.

Carlos-Valentino is now in jail awaiting trial, but what in the world was going on? The suspect told officers he was upset that his wife was going to leave him. And why did he think that? She’d revealed it on Facebook.

Nor is the issue merely a matter of indiscreet postings. Much in the news this past three weeks has been the 1987 kidnapping of Carlina White. A woman posing as a nurse had stolen White, then a newborn, from a Harlem hospital.

The kidnapping suspect, Ann Pettway (at right in a North Carolina Department of Identification photo), had raised the girl as her own.

But Carlina White came to wonder if she were really the woman’s daughter and eventually found her actual parents via a missing-children’s website.

With all the publicity over the girl’s being reunited with her true family, Pettway disappeared for 10 days, but on Sunday, she turned herself in to Bridgeport, Connecticut, police. And how was that arranged?

Sunday happened to be police Lt. David Daniels’ birthday, and when he logged onto Facebook to see who had wished him a happy birthday, he found a message from Pettway saying to call her.

Communications have come a long way since Gutenberg, but so far I’ve declined friends’ and relatives’ invitations to stay in touch with them on Facebook. To me it just seems like a waste of time since I have no plans for bigamy, leaving a spouse, or surrendering to Connecticut police.

It’s not that I have no interest in self-promotion. While talking with my friend Lynn Axelrod Saturday evening, I began balancing a cup of coffee on my foot. To my disappointment, she failed to notice, so after 10 minutes I finally pointed out my balancing act.

Lynn quickly snapped a photo with her cell phone, and now the world can see that I too have a story to tell. It’s not, however, sordid enough for Facebook.

Among the many friends and relatives paying tribute to Missy Patterson during her memorial reception in the Dance Palace was former Point Reyes Light reporter Janine Warner, along with me.

As we were  telling what Missy had meant to us, Janine’s husband Dave LaFontaine, unknown to me at the time, shot a video, which he has now edited. Here it is it for the benefit of those who were not able to be present, as well as for those who were.

Missy Patterson Memorial Service from Artesian Media on Vimeo.

Janine Warner and Dave Mitchell speak about their cherished memories of West Marin matriarch Rosalie (“Missy”) Patterson during her memorial reception at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.

An earlier posting describing the memorial reception and mass for Missy can be found by clicking here.

Back in the days of the Vietnam War, we young men would warily watch our mailboxes for letters from the President. Too many friends had already received letters that began, “Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Today I received an official letter almost as chilling. In celebration of my upcoming 67th birthday, wrote California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I must renew my driver’s license “on or before [its] expiration date…. [of] 11/23/2010.”

Your last two renewals have been by mail,” the governor wrote on behalf of the Department of Motor Vehicles. “The law requires you to now renew at a DMV office. If your physical description or address on this notice is incorrect, please make the necessary changes.”

Clearly incorrect was the address the governor used to reach me, that of The Point Reyes Light. I’ll have to change it.

As for my height, alas I’ve shrunk a bit from my 6-foot, 4-inch days. I now have to stand really straight just to hit 6-3, and as for 185 pounds, I’ve lost more than 15 of them in the last five years. (To paraphrase General MacArthur, old newsmen never die. Their layouts just get tighter.)

Nor did it seem entirely fair that the DMV required me to renew my car’s registration just weeks before before determining whether I am eligible to drive it. What if I fail my vision test? Or forget when the speed limit is 70 mph?

All my life I have found driver’s license tests unnerving — perhaps because I flunked the first one I took back in high school. The man giving me the test directed me to drive through a construction zone, and when we came to an intersection, I stopped at the crosswalk rather than at a stopsign sticking haphazardly out of a pile of dirt. Wrong decision.

Luckily, when I taught college for two years in Iowa and then reported for Council Bluff’s daily newspaper, The Nonpareil, the State of Iowa simply issued me a driver’s license based on my having one from California. I guess the Iowa Division of Motor Vehicles figured that anyone who could survive the freeways of Los Angeles could handle the farm roads of the Hawkeye State.

However, when I returned to California and began reporting for Sonora’s daily newspaper, The Union Democrat, this state required me to take a behind-the-wheel driving test to get a new license.

I showed up for the test nervous as a cat. With a woman from the DMV directing me where to go, we drove all over Sonora. If we turned a corner, I used arm signals as well as blinkers. In fact, I used arm signals when I merely slowed down.

This time there were no problems, and we returned to the DMV office where I was told to sign more papers and have my photo taken. Next to a stripe painted on the floor of the photo area, a sign said it was important that my feet were exactly on it.

Still nervous, I bent over and carefully positioned my toes exactly on the stripe. However, just as I was straightening up, I heard a perplexed DMV photographer say, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to turn around and face the camera.” For the next several years, my driver’s license photo showed me with bright red ears.

Because few of us in Point Reyes Station have home delivery, the post office has long been the most popular meeting spot in town. On Monday, it was the scene of one of those happy little moments that make small towns great places.

As it happens, postal worker Erin Clark, who was helping out in Point Reyes Station for a day, is a volunteer with a wildlife-rescue group, Rancho Raccoon, headed by Megan Isadore of Forest Knolls.

About a week earlier, Rancho Raccoon received four newly born raccoons that were orphaned when a building was torn down in Oakland. Erin took over raising the newborns when they were less than a week old.

Like any mother, Erin has to periodically check on her young ones, so on Monday she brought them with her when she went to work. There was no risk of the baby raccoons getting into trouble at the post office where they spent the day sleeping in a back room. At 11 days old, their eyes had not yet opened nor were their ears fully developed.

Erin is the only mother the raccoons know, so whenever she picks one up, the baby tries to suckle on her fingers.

Equally picturesque but less cuddly were 15 western pond turtles I counted Monday on two logs in a pond off Cypress Road. The small pond at Anastacio and Sue Gonzalez’s home attracts a variety of wildlife, and on warm days, these turtles emerge to sun themselves.

California’s Department of Fish and Game has designated the western pond turtle a “species of special concern.” Because some pond turtles, especially fertile females, migrate, motor vehicles periodically kill a few. Pesticide runoff, loss of habitat, and introduced predators are also reducing their numbers. Around West Marin, a major threat is from non-native bullfrogs, which eat hatchling and juvenile turtles.

Western pond turtles can be found from the Canadian border to Baja California although in the state of Washington, they almost became extinct around 1990 because of an unidentified of disease. However, they are now making a recovery there thanks to government programs.

As I started down my front steps Monday en route to the post office, I startled a young buck that was lying down, chewing its cud. The deer jumped up and started to quickly walk away, but I began talking to it in a low voice, and it stopped to look at me.

When I stayed put and kept whispering soothingly, the buck relaxed and started scratching fleas. Before long it was grazing. Not wanting to disturb the deer, I had to wait about 10 minutes until it wandered off and I could get to my car and drive into town.

Italian thistles on my hill

On Sunday I completed a two-week assault on the thistles in my field. I even removed thistles on the edge of three neighbors’ fields since one neighbor’s thistle problem quickly becomes the neighborhood’s thistle problem.

As first described in this blog April 28, a fortnight spent pulling up and cutting down thistles was exhausting and sometimes painful. Several fingers sustained battle wounds, but I expect to fully recover. As of now, I’m storing enough thistles in plastic bags to keep my green-waste container full for another month of pickups.

Eliminating thistles is, of course, a bit like eliminating spiderwebs. Every time the light changes, you spot one you previously missed. All the same, I sort of felt a sense of satisfaction Sunday evening for having persevered in this unpleasant task for two weeks.

The cable guy, Jim Townsend of Horizon Cable

I would have felt even better were it not for one screwup. My cabin is connected to one of the oldest sections of the Horizon Cable system in Point Reyes Station. It’s so old that much of the cable was originally strung along this hill’s barbed-wire fences.

Ever since buying the old system, Horizon Cable has been upgrading it. However, at one corner of my fence, a short length of cable in relatively thin conduit still dangles beside the barbed wire. On Sunday while using loppers to cut down the largest thistles, I reached into a clump and instead cut the cable.

Immediately I alerted Horizon Cable, for although I didn’t much mind not having television, not having access to the Internet was a real drag. I felt cut off from friends and family in faraway places. I couldn’t get my nightly fix of al Jazeera.

Thankfully on Monday morning, Horizon technician Jim Townsend showed up and managed to get me back online despite having to dig up some old-style fittings for my old-style section of the system. I don’t mind being on an antiquated section with part of my cable running along a barbed-wire fence. To me it symbolizes the enduring rusticity of Point Reyes Station.

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