Archive for December, 2006

As I was driving through San Geronimo Friday, I was reminded of the days when I covered Sheriff’s Calls for The Point Reyes Light. Every couple of years, some motorist would notify sheriff’s deputies he had been driving past the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course when his car was hit by a golf ball. Last week, it finally happened to me.

The ball came off a fairway south of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, bounced on the shoulder, and then off the hood of my car. It didn’t do any damage; however, it felt like a rite of passage: somewhat akin to Bolinas and Stinson Beach motorists being inducted into the Lagoon Club — but without all the mess.

Immediately I knew how I would begin this week’s blog entry, but what I didn’t figure on is what would happen next.

100_2904_13.jpgSurprisingly big pot busted by hurricane-force gusts

Helping keep this blog online is computer technician Keith Matthews of Point Reyes Station, and for Christmas he gave me his copy of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Matthews said he’d spent the last year working his way through the dictionary and thought I too might find it interesting. I already have.

As it happened, when I opened the dictionary, the first word my eye fell upon was “halcyon.” Although I seldom use the word, I have occasionally quipped about “the halcyon days of yore” in referring to mellower times, but I knew nothing about the word’s origin. It turns out, “halcyon” has had particularly ironic meaning for West Marin these the past few weeks.

Here’s the Morris Dictionary’s explanation of the word: “Halcyon (pronounced HAL-see-un) is an adjective meaning ‘calm and peaceful.’ It comes from the Greek word for kingfisher. Legend was that the kingfisher’s brooding period was the seven days before and the seven days after the shortest day of the year. Since the kingfisher’s nest was believed to be borne on the waves of the ocean, it followed that during this period the weather would surely be calm and peaceful — or halcyon.”

Tuesday evening after this week’s storm had caused a several-hour blackout, I mentioned to Nina Howard of Point Reyes Station that the foul weather ran afoul of the original meaning of halcyon. I explained about the Greeks believing the kingfisher’s nest floated on the ocean and, therefore, needed calm weather to get through the brooding that supposedly occurred at this time of year.

“Did the Greeks ever see any kingfishers nesting on the ocean?” Nina asked. “Not that I know of,” I told her, “but scholars in ancient Greece — even Aristotle — weren’t into empiricism.”

“Well, so much for that theory,” remarked Nina.

Waking Wednesday from the night’s heavy rains, high winds, and several-hour-long blackouts, I looked out on my deck Wednesday morning to see if the storm had caused any damage. What I saw was a big pot bust.

Indeed, lying busted up on my deck was a heavy, terra cotta flowerpot that had blown off my picnic table. A root ball from the chrysanthemums and ice plant growing in it was still intact, and later in the day I was able to find another large pot at Toby’s Feed Barn and replant the flowers.

100_2947.jpgPredictably, the most noticeable damage I spotted around my property was not to my flowerpot. On the way into town, I discovered a massive limb had broken off one of the pines of my neighbors, and part of the tree was sticking into Campolindo Drive.

Someone had stuck orange traffic cones around it, giving maintenance of our private road a sort of Public Works Department ambiance.

What got me out of my cabin before showering and shaving Wednesday morning, however, was not finding a replacement for my broken flowerpot. Two friends called to say that Manka’s had caught fire during the night and was still burning. Owner Margaret Grade is a long-time friend, so I immediately headed for Inverness to see what was happening to her restaurant. That story follows.

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Hot spots at the rear of Manka’s restaurant continued to flare up for hours after the fire had been contained.

Winds that gusted to hurricane force toppled a tree onto Manka’s Inverness Lodge and Restaurant early Wednesday, breaking a gas line and starting a fire that gutted the 81-year-old wooden building.

100_2906_2.jpgTrapped. A guest who escaped unharmed with his possessions nonetheless found his car stuck for hours in Manka’s parking lot, hemmed in by Inverness and Marin County firetrucks.

The tree fell onto Guest Room 7 and went through it into Room 4 where it hit a hotwater heater and broke the gas line. All of those in the building escaped unharmed, including overnight guest Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in the movie Brokeback Mountain, and his actress sister Maggie.

Daniel DeLong, chef and co-owner with his partner, Margaret Grade, later told The Independent Journal, “Jake was helping me pull things out of the fire.”

Inverness and county firefighters were called out at 2:43 a.m., and by the time the first firetrucks arrived, “it was going pretty good,” one Inverness fireman told me, so there was little that could be done except keep the fire from spreading. Firefighters did manage to save the original building on the property, a 106-year-old cottage.

Referring to the inn itself, the fireman remarked, “When it’s all wood, it isn’t easy to get inside and get [the fire] out.” This is a particular problem with historic buildings, he said, adding with a grimace, “It sucks.”

Heavy rain and Arctic wind (which gusted to 100 mph atop Mount Tamalpais, county firefighters were told) not only sent the tree crashing onto Manka’s, it did less-severe damage throughout West Marin. Falling trees blacked out much of West Marin most of the night.

100_29411.jpgA tree that fell on a utility pole along the levee road in Point Reyes Station forced closure of the road for much of Wednesday.

Sections of Highway 1 between Point Reyes Station and Olema were flooded during the night.

Manka’s under its former owners, the Prokupeks, was known for decades as a Czech restaurant. Current owner Margaret Grade bought Manka’s in 1992, refurbished the building, and developed a cuisine around wild game, locally grown organic meat and produce, seafood and elegant desserts.

In recent years, Food and Wine magazine repeatedly rated Manka’s as among the top 50 hotel restaurants in America while The San Francisco Chronicle called it one of the top 100 restaurants in the nine-county Bay Area.

When Prince Charles and Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, visited West Marin a year ago, they stayed in Manka’s. Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey later told The Independent Journal the prince told him they “had a good night’s sleep” and found Manka’s fare “really outstanding.”

100_2928.jpgManka’s owner Margaret Grade (center) herself was one of the chefs, and several of those who worked with her were in tears Wednesday morning. However, when Margaret spotted me taking photos, she might just as easily have been the congenial hostess welcoming guests at the door.

“Good to see you, Dave,” she called to me. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“It’s good to see you too,” I responded, “but not under these circumstances.”

100_2908_3.jpgOnly the front wall of Manka’s restaurant remained mostly standing. Sky can be seen through the windows of a guest room whose roof was consumed.

Despite the circumstances, however, Margaret remained the upbeat person I’d always known her to be, and before the fire was out, she had begun talking about rebuilding. Responding in kind, I asked her if she already had a contractor in mind.

Alluding to restaurant designer Pat Kuletto, who is restoring Nick’s Cove restaurant in Marshall after numerous permit hassles, Margaret joked, “I hope Kuletto has paved the way for us at the county.”

Then recalling how much work Manka’s needed when she bought the restaurant and inn in 1992, Margaret said to me with a laugh, “Look at what a disaster the place was. This takes us to a different level.”

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A blacktail buck in the glow of late afternoon sun as the days grow short.

It was one of those moments when reality becomes surreal — as if the natural world suddenly went running off in all directions. Which is sort of what happened.

As I was about to leave my cabin to get my mail at the post office, something told me this would be a good day to carry my camera in my pocket. So I did. Nothing happened downtown worth photographing, but when I was driving back up my long, curved driveway, I was suddenly glad to have my camera with me.

Near the top of my driveway, I startled a herd of blacktail deer grazing just downhill from my cabin, and they did what deer typically do in these circumstances. The herd ran in front of my car. I was proceeding slowly, however, so they safely made it into a field on the other side of the driveway where they stopped.

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Wild turkeys hunt and peck their way across my field.

As it happened, a flock of 12 wild turkeys were already in that field, and when they saw my car approaching, the turkeys just as perversely scurried across my driveway in the opposite direction.

Both were so intent on where they were heading that the flock and herd dashed past each other without seeming to notice there was a discrepancy as to where safety could be found.

100_2743.jpgA dozen wild turkeys forage downhill from my cabin.

Once they’d passed each other on the driveway, bird and deer both slowed to a walk, and I was able to photograph the turkeys as they marched across the field below my cabin.

Wild turkeys are not native to California. In 1988, California’s Department of Fish and Game planted three toms and 11 hens for hunting at Loma Alta Ranch (on the ridge between Woodacre and Lucas Valley Road).

From there the turkeys spread to nearby Flander’s Ranch and the Spirit Rock property — and eventually to Nicasio, Olema, and even as far north as Tomales, where they have been known to intimidate small children and scratch the paint of cars on which they perch.

In February 2005, a low-flying turkey gliding across Highway 1 in downtown Tomales hit a power line, causing three lines to slap together and fall to the ground. The town was blacked out for four hours, but the turkey — albeit initially stunned and walking around in circles — suffered only a few singed feathers and eventually wandered off.

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After the commotion has died down, a fawn peers
around her mother’s neck at the departing turkeys.

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I found this garter snake one morning warming itself in the sun on my driveway. Common garter snakes come in innumerable variations and are found in fields, forests and wetlands nationwide. Like this snake, adults average about four feet long. In West Marin, their diet typically consists of tadpoles, slugs, and earthworms. But unlike other snakes, they don’t eat insects. When first born, the snakes are prey for bullfrogs. Hawks and foxes eat adults.

100_2680.jpgPacific tree frog hiding out in leaves from my persimmon tree.

Pacific tree frogs’ chirping is so dependable that Hollywood typically uses it whenever the sound of frogs is needed in a movie, even if it’s set in Africa.

The website NaturePark.com reports that the tree frog’s “color varies from almost a bronze brown to a light lime green. Individuals can change color in green and brown tones in a few minutes. This color change is related to the temperature and amount of moisture in the air, not the background color as in most other amphibians and reptiles. This color change gives it the protection of camouflage as it hops and crawls about on low leaves, branches and on the ground in open forests and forest edges looking for flying and crawling insects to eat.”

100_2443.jpgI photographed three lizards on the wall of my cabin and then was unable to find any naturalist either in town or at the Point Reyes National Seashore who could identify the green lizard at lower left.

I also checked the website wildherps.com operated by herpetologist John Sullivan of Pacific Grove. When I didn’t see the green lizard on his site, I emailed Sullivan photos of the three and asked for help. His answer: “I believe all three of your lizards are actually Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). They have a fair amount of color variation, and the green one is within the range of colors I’ve seen.”

Charlotte’s Web (below) — Every fall I can count on some garden orb weaver each evening stretching a web from my eaves to the railing of my deck near the front-door light.

“The building of a web is an engineering feat,” as Wikipedia aptly notes. The orb weaver “floats a line on the wind to another surface. The spider secures the line and then drops another line from the center, making a ‘Y’.

“The rest of the scaffolding follows with many radii of non-sticky silk being constructed before a final spiral of sticky capture silk.”

“Orb weavers are three-clawed spiders, and “the third claw is used to walk on the non-sticky part of the web.

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“Characteristically, the prey insect that blunders into the sticky lines is stunned by a quick bite and then wrapped in silk. If the prey is a venomous insect, such as a wasp, wrapping may precede biting.”

100_2499_1.jpgPossums are found throughout West Marin wherever ponds, creeks, marshes, and even drainage ditches provide riparian habitat.

I photographed this possum when it stopped on my deck to wash its paws.

West Marin’s possums originated in the Deep South where “common opossums” are commonly called possums, thanks to a linguistic phenomenon known as aphesis.

“The common opossum,” writes Point Reyes Station biologist Jules Evens in The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, is “the only marsupial native to North America [but] is not native to Point Reyes or the Pacific Coast. After the first known introduction into California at San Jose about 1900 (for meat, delicious with sweet potatoes), opossums spread rapidly southward: by 1931 they were common on the coastal slope from San Francisco Bay south to the Mexican border. Point Reyes avoided the onslaught until about 1968.” They are nocturnal omnivores, eating plants, earthworms, slugs, insects, and roadkill.

Biographical information on newspaperman Dave Mitchell
Editor & publisher emeritus
The Point Reyes Light

Born in San Francisco, Nov. 23, 1943

Point Reyes Light, editor & publisher (1975-1981 & 1984-2005)

San Francisco Examiner, general assignment reporter, war correspondent, transportation writer (1981-1983)

The Sebastopol Times, editor (1973-1975)

The (Sonora) Daily Union Democrat, county government reporter (1971-1973)

The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, city hall reporter (1970)

Upper Iowa College, instructor of World Literature, Freshman English, English Literature, and Journalism. Faculty advisor to the student newspaper, The Collegian, and the black-student union, The Brotherhood (1968-1970)

Leesburg (Florida) High School, teacher of Speech and Literature and faculty advisor to the student newspaper (spring semester 1968)

Marvel Academy in Rye, New York, teacher of English and history (fall semester 1967)

Education:

Stanford University, master’s degree in Communications, 1967
Stanford University, bachelor’s degree in English with minor in History & Political Science, 1965
Principia Upper School in St. Louis, Missouri (1960-1961)
Berkeley High School in California (1958-1959)

05-06-017_1.jpgAn English major at Stanford, I graduated a quarter later than the rest of my class; in a moment of bohemian romanticism, I had left Stanford for three months in 1964 to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts. After graduating from Senator Leland Stanford’s “Farm,” I returned to Stanford in 1966-67 and received a master’s degree in Communications with a concentration in print media. My return was just as impulsive as my earlier fling at becoming an artist; I didn’t apply for graduate school (or even choose a field of study) until the first day of fall registration. To my parents’ surprise, as much as my own, I ultimately left Stanford as a budding journalist.

I taught high school for a year divided between Rye, a suburb of New York City, and Leesburg in Lake County, Florida. Lake County at that time was still mostly segregated, and I briefly worked to register black voters in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat a brutal, racist sheriff, Willis V. McCall.

Two years teaching at Upper Iowa College followed. Along with teaching in the English Department, I was the faculty advisor to the black-student union and the student newspaper.

Next came three years reporting for daily newspapers in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sonora, California, followed by editing a weekly in Sebastopol, California. In 1975, my former wife Cathy and I bought the weekly Point Reyes Light on the rural coast 40 miles north of San Francisco.

100_2717.jpgThe Light won the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service in 1979. It was only the fourth year since the Pulitzers began in 1917 that a prize in any division (e.g. editorial writing, foreign correspondence, breaking-news photography) went to a weekly. In The Light’s case, the prize was for an exposé and editorial crusade, both of which I mostly wrote, of the increasingly violent Synanon cult. Working with me on the investigation were Cathy and a UC Berkeley sociologist, Richard Ofshe. With their help, I subsequently wrote a book about our investigation, The Light on Synanon, which was made into a two-hour movie for CBS called Attack on Fear. Actor Paul Michael Glazer (AKA Starsky) played me.

I reported for the old San Francisco Examiner from 1981 to 1983 following Cathy’s and my divorce, which forced us to sell The Light. At The Examiner, I covered — among many other things — the post-war refugee crisis in Southeast Asia and the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

I reacquired The Point Reyes Light through a default action in late 1983. Although the paper remained small (about 4,000 circulation with a staff of eight), I sent reporters and photographers all over the world to research historic waves of immigration to Point Reyes. Over 20 years, reporters tracked immigrant families to relatives in southern Mexico (three times), Switzerland’s Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino, Croatia during its civil war, the Irish Republic along with pre-cease-fire Ulster, and Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores. The series revealed why five waves of immigration (beginning in 1850 and continuing to the present) have left the Old Country for Point Reyes and how they have fared since reaching West Marin’s shores. The lives of immigrants and their descendants were compared with the lives of relatives whose part of the family stayed in the Old Country.

In 2000, I myself returned to Central America to write a report on Guatemalan politics for the online Miami Herald, as well as The Light. This led directly to my brief marriage to a Guatemalan. Indirectly it led to The Light’s winning state and national awards for a series on an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who in 2003 was found beaten nearly to death in Bolinas. Light reporters and photographers (including my wife Ana Carolina and stepdaughter Anika) working both in West Marin and Guatemala revealed how the man’s personal misfortune was a catastrophe for his family. As the series showed, he had been supporting nine children and an extremely ill wife living in rural poverty in a remote region of Guatemala. The series helped raise funds for the family, and eventually $30,000 was collected to finance a heart operation for the wife and schooling for the children.

In November 2005, I retired. A former Monterey County deputy district attorney, Robert Israel Plotkin, bought all the stock of The Point Reyes Light corporation. Plotkin, who had recently moved from Taos to Bolinas, was raised in San Diego but attended college and law school in New York.

Awards

100_2719.jpgThe Point Reyes Light won 108 national, regional, and state journalism awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, during my 27 years as editor and publisher. After my retirement, I received a Career Achievement award from the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter, and the Marin County Board of Supervisors held its own ceremony to present me with a resolution honoring my work at The Light.

The front of the Pulitzer gold medal contains an image of Benjamin Franklin, who was a colonial printer and publisher along with being a statesman and inventor. It is inscribed: “Honoris causa. Awarded by Columbia University to Point Reyes Light.” The back of the medal, which shows a printer at a colonial, hand-operated press, says: “For Distinguished and Meritorious Public Service Rendered by a United States Newspaper During the Year 1979. Joseph Pulitzer Medal.”

When Pulitzer in 1917 created the Pulitzer Prizes, he opted to give a cash prize to every winning writer or photographer. Only one prize — “For Distinguished and Meritorious Public Service” — was earmarked for a newspaper, not individuals. Pulitzer assumed a cash prize wouldn’t mean much to a newspaper, so he decided that Public Service winners should instead receive a gold medal. Under the rules he laid down, the medal was to contain exactly $500 worth of gold at the time it was minted, so over the years, the amount of gold in the medal has been shrinking. This 14-carat-gold medal is the size of a Mason Jar lid.

A perfectly preserved fossil of a feathered creature that lived 150 million years ago has provided further evidence to show that modern birds are living dinosaurs. The fossil is a complete skeleton of an Archaeopteryx and shows it had features common to birds and a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called therapods. — The Independent (London)

There are dinosaurs living on the two acres around my cabin. This is not metaphor but fact, as scientists from around the world have confirmed. Naturally, I hate to see any prehistoric reptile going hungry, so I buy dinosaur food at Toby’s Feed Barn in 50-pound sacks. The dinosaurs at my cabin get fed twice daily, thus requiring a new sack every fortnight.

Putting out seeds for the dinosaurs and then watching them show up, chow down, and start fighting provide me with a prehistoric world of entertainment. I’d much rather watch this twice-a-day drama than anything on television.

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Canada geese fly over my cabin each evening en route from Tomales Bay to the larger of two ponds at the Cheese Factory in Hicks Valley, where many of West Marin’s Canada geese spend nights. Hundreds of Canada geese winter annually on the bay, on Nicasio Reservoir, and at Bolinas Lagoon. Along with these snowbirders, a year-round population of Canada geese is developing in West Marin. The fulltimers are descendants of geese that people over the years have dropped off at the Cheese Factory’s smaller pond, which is beside the picnic area. This began with an unidentified “Johnny Apple-Goose” releasing (with permission) four geese with clipped wings at the pond in the 1970s. Seeing those four, other people were then inspired to start dropping off their own surplus Canada geese (not always with the Cheese Factory’s permission).

The dinosaurs around my two acres are mostly songbirds, jays, blackbirds, herons, crows, vultures, and hawks while Canada geese honk overhead. This may sound odd, but as the website of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History explains: “In the view of most paleontologists today, birds are living dinosaurs. In other words, the traits that we accept as defining birds — key skeletal features as well as behaviors including nesting and brooding — actually first arose in some dinosaurs.”

Professor Mike Archer, director of the Australian Museum in Sydney, told ABC in 2002, “Fossils uncovered in the Liaoning Province of China have provided a whole sequence of missing links in the dinosaur-to-bird story…. The birds we see flying around our backyards are actually living dinosaurs, descendants of prehistoric beasts we all once presumed became extinct 65 million years ago.” In fact, not every scientist had shared that presumption. The

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With its bird brain, a red-winged blackbird has the mind of a dinosaur. Ninety percent of red-winged blackbird males have more than one mate, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports, “with one male having up to 15 different females making nests in his territory…. [He] fiercely defends his territory during the breeding season [and] may spend more than a quarter of all the daylight hours in territory defense.” He doesn’t get much cooperation, however, from his female consorts. The ornithologists at Cornell report, “From one quarter to up to half of the young in ‘his’ nests do not belong to the territorial male. Instead they have been sired by neighboring males.”

Chinese fossils of nesting dinosaurs with rudimentary feathers have made many laymen finally realize birds are indeed dinosaurs — not creatures that evolved from dinosaurs but true dinosaurs. However, for more than a century there were always some scientists convinced of this.

Responding to renewed interest in the concept following the Chinese discoveries, Yale University two years ago proudly pointed out that “in 1880, Charles Darwin credited O.C. Marsh — Yale’s first professor of Paleontology — with further research on ‘toothed birds’ (dinosaurs) that provided ‘the best support’ for his theory of evolution.”

100_1476_1.jpgAnd while it’s amusing to talk in terms of “dinosaurs” eating birdseed on my deck, realizing that that they are, in fact, reptilian is illuminating. When a crow lands on a railing, it might as well be a Tyrannosaurus Rex as far as the other dinosaurs are concerned; they scatter in panic.

A scrub jay swooping onto my deck strikes the same fear among smaller dinosaurs that the arrival of a malevolent Monolophosaurus (1,500 pounds and carnivorous) would have struck among their prehistoric predecessors. Among like-sized dinosaurs, only the doves — those feisty birds of peace — can hold their own against common jays

Mealtime generally is fight time for the dinosaurs at my cabin. Fifty or more birds of several species get their beaks in each other’s face as they jostle for position along the 2-by-4 railings where I leave seeds. This reptilian territoriality is especially noticeable among blackbirds, as well as scrub jays (below). Their constant sparring to determine survival of the fittest can, however, work to their disadvantage, for it often causes them to overlook untouched piles of seed nearby.

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On the other hand, the sparring of the bigger birds suits the towhees and Oregon juncos just fine. These mellower dinosaurs take their place at the feast as soon as the blackbirds and then the jays drive each other away.

Several dinosaurs are almost as fond of my birdbath as my birdseed, for they drink from the basin as well as bathe in it. Unfortunately, while dinosaurs instinctively avoid dirtying their own nests, they have no similar aversion to fouling their own drinking water. Birdbaths can transmit disease from one dinosaur to another, so I refill mine daily, pouring the old water into flowerpots on my deck. Unlike dinosaurs, flowers benefit from poop in their diet.

The fact that my feathered friends are prehistoric reptiles doesn’t, of course, make them all savage beasts. For example, I call this photo taken on my deck:

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Golden-Crowned Sparrow Disguised as a Stained Glass Window