Archive for June, 2011

With the summer fire season almost upon us, I finally had my fields mowed last Friday. Most of the grass was already dry, and tractor owner Gary Titus brought a rig down from Tomales to do the work.

Gary Titus mowing my fields in June 2007. He’s bought a new tractor since then but does less mowing.

Gary spent several hours driving up and down my hill, managing to stay upright even on steep sections. For years Gary has mowed my fields, but he’s basically in the electric-gate business, and by now he has only three mowing customers. Luckily, I’m one of them.

The trick each year is to figure out when to do the mowing.

If I get it done too early, some grass will grow back — especially if it rains. If I wait too long, the fire season will have begun.

This year, as always, I waited until I was sure the rains were finally over before I asked Gary to do the mowing.

Gary showed up the next day, did his work, and four days later, the rains were back.

There was a day when the change of seasons counted for something, but as rain soaked this hill Tuesday and Wednesday, I could see where some grass was already turning green.

Nor is that the biggest problem around Mitchell cabin. Last week I discovered that fascia boards along the eaves at the back of the house need to be replaced, along with adjacent timbers and a bunch of shingles.

Leo Gilberti of Fairfax carries a rotten fascia board to one end of the eaves while Terry Gray of Inverness Park takes measurements.

The work has required a couple of trips over the hill to pick up supplies.

In fact, I had to drive all the way to Santa Rosa in a friend’s truck just to buy shingles.

Surprisingly, no roofing-materials store in Marin County had brick-red shingles in stock although all of them without exception said they would be getting some before too long.

Is there an unreported brick-red-shingle fad underway in Marin?

Or do few stores keep the shingles in stock because few people buy them?

In either case, Allied Building Products on Santa Rosa Avenue for the moment has a lock on the brick-red-shingle business in Marin and Southern Sonoma County.

My friend Terry Gray is helping me with the project.

Originally I had planned to start stripping shingles off the eaves on Tuesday, but then came the rain. I try to avoid working on my roof in the rain — especially when the work involves removing part of the roof.

On Wednesday, however, we resumed the roofing project before a last sprinkling had completely tapered off, for I could remember an old song called The Arkansas Traveler:

“Oh, once upon a time in Arkansas,/ An old man sat in his little cabin door/ And fiddled at a tune that he liked to hear,/ A jolly old tune that he played by ear./ It was raining hard, but the fiddler didn’t care,/ He sawed away at the popular air,/ Tho’ his rooftree leaked like a waterfall,/ That didn’t seem to bother the man at all.

“A traveler was riding by that day,/ And stopped to hear him a-practicing away;/ The cabin was a-float and his feet were wet,/ But still the old man didn’t seem to fret./ So the stranger said, ‘Now the way it seems to me,/ You’d better mend your roof,’ said he./ But the old man said as he played away,/ ‘I couldn’t mend it now; it’s a rainy day.’

“The traveler replied, ‘That’s all quite true,/ But this, I think, is the thing to do;/ Get busy on a day that is fair and bright,/ Then patch the old roof till it’s good and tight.’/ But the old man kept on a-playing at his reel,/ And tapped the ground with his leathery heel./ ‘Get along,’ said he, ‘for you give me a pain;/ My cabin never leaks when it doesn’t rain.'”

My girlfriend Lynn Axelrod owns a cottage in the woods near Forestville, and her tenant of two and a half years just moved out. As a result, she and I have been making repeated trips to her cottage during the past few weeks in order to get the property ready to be rented out again.

The cottage is completely ringed by tall redwoods, and I spent most of one day with a rake and pressure washer merely removing all the redwood needles that had accumulated on the roof.

A Western Pond Turtle sunning himself Tuesday at a pond next to Anastacio and Sue Gonzalez’s home in Point Reyes Station.

Last Friday, Lynn and I were on the Freestone-Valley Ford Road driving back to Point Reyes Station from Forestville when I spotted a Western Pond Turtle walking along the edge of the northbound lane. So I turned the car around and drove back to the turtle. Lynn got out, picked it up, and carried it to a rancher’s driveway where I had had room to pull off the road and park.

For a couple of minutes, we looked around trying to find a creek or pond where the turtle would be safe from traffic. Eventually we noticed a small pond beside the rancher’s long driveway. I could see the rancher standing outside his house, so I went through his gate and started up the driveway, and he walked down to meet me.

“We found this turtle on the road,” I told him. “Would it be all right if we put it in your pond?”

“That turtle must be trying to commit suicide,” replied the rancher. “You’re the fourth people to rescue him this week.” He gave us permission to put the turtle in the pond.

All this raises the question: why did that turtle persist in trying to walk along the edge of the pavement? Adult males have a larger home range (up to 2.4 acres) than females have (0.62 acres), so perhaps it was a male moving between wetlands.

Earlier this month, a Marin Municipal Water District aquatic biologist reported finding that an adult male pond turtle, which he had previously marked, had traveled from Phoenix Lake in Ross to Papermill Creek in Point Reyes Station. The 18-mile journey took two years and would have required the turtle to climb some steep hills and get around a number of dams.

Nonetheless, the turtle we found may well have been a female. June is the peak of the nesting season for northwestern pond turtles (the subspecies we have around here), and northwestern females have been known to crawl as far as 1.2 miles along a waterway to find a suitable nesting site.

Basking western pond turtles, such as these at the Gonzalezes’ pond in May 2010, can be aggressive in making sure they have enough room. Usually this consists of biting and ramming other turtles to push them off their perch. Luckily, such aggression is usually over by noon, which leaves the afternoon free for sunning. Or so I read.

Western pond turtle “populations are declining in southern California and over most of their northern range,” according to a study by Jeff Lovich of the US Geological Survey. “Habitat destruction seems to be the major cause of the decline. Today only northern California and southern Oregon support extensive populations.”

Well, if they’d just stop walking in the road….

A tip of the hat to Safeway Inc. for demonstrating that even corporate chains can be good guys.

As I explained in a March 31 posting: on Feb. 22, I bought $3.67 worth of Asian chicken wings from the deli counter of the San Anselmo Safeway store, thinking the spicy wings would make a good snack on my way back over the hill to West Marin.

The fried wings seemed tender enough, but when I bit into one, I felt a sharp pain in my lower jaw. I checked and discovered the wing had been sitting in the warming tray so long that the bottom side had become rock hard. Biting into it was like biting into a pebble.

When the pain stayed with me, I went to my dentist, who took an x-ray and confirmed the tooth had fractured at the gum line. He removed the top half of the tooth and referred me to an oral surgeon to remove the root and begin the process of replacing it with an implant. By now I’m well on my way to getting an implant, with the process expected to last eight months and cost more than $4,600.

As soon as I’d had my first dental appointment, I told the store manager what had happened, and he said it was store policy to make customers whole in such matters. He told me to provide a written account of the incident. I also gave Safeway the dentists’ estimates.

It took three months for Safeway Inc. to process my claim, but a week ago Safeway sent me a check covering my losses. From time to time, most people find themselves in unpleasant dealings with large institutions, so I was pleased to discover Safeway behaving the way one would hope.


As American English lurches along, it is leaving a roadside littered with abandoned and misused expressions. Instead of conserving our language, we treat it as disposable. Sayings that reflect popular culture have especially short life spans.

When I was a kid, for example, my smart-aleck friends would sometimes answer the phone, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, Duffy speaking.” The phrase would be lost on young folks today, but it was once a common variation on the opening line to a popular radio comedy, Duffy’s Tavern, which aired from 1941 to 1951.

In the actual opening, an old piano would be playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, only to be interrupted by the ring of a telephone. A thick New York accent would then be heard answering, “Hello, Duffy’s Tavern, where the elite meet to eat. Archie the manager speakin’. Duffy ain’t here. Oh hello, Duffy.”

My great grandfather Amos Mitchell and great grandmother Mary Jane Mitchell née Guiher with their children (from left): Lansing, Lulu, Miles Lecki (my grandfather), and Amy. Photographer’s studio portrait, 1892.

For most of my youth, my great aunt Amy lived with my family. Born in 1872, aunt Amy grew up in an area of Pennsylvania where Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German) was spoken. She and I were close, and when I was  a little boy, she’d often address me as “schnickelfritz.”

I knew she was teasing me in a friendly fashion, but I didn’t learn until years later what “schnickelfritz” actually means. As it turns out, in some dialects of German, it’s an affectionate way to say “you little imp.” The “fritz” part is a way of saying “guy” while “schnickel” suggests impulsive behavior or chattering.

It’s an old expression, and I wonder if anyone today still uses it.

My father Herbert H. Mitchell (at right in 1920) was born in 1902, and he too used an expression I don’t hear much anymore: “When Hector was a pup.”

It means “a very long time ago,” and refers to the boyhood of Hector, Troy’s hero who was slain in the Trojan War 3,200 years ago.

Hector was the son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Following the fall of the city to the Greeks, one of their other sons, Polydorus, was killed by a treacherous son-in-law, King Polymestor of Thrace.

Hecuba retaliated by blinding Polymestor. By one account, she was to be punished for this by being given to the Greek hero Odysseus as a slave, but when she snarled at him, the gods turned her into a dog, allowing her to escape.

Thus Hector would not only be a “pup” when he was in his youth, he would remain a “pup” because he was the son of a dog. Apparently as a result of American education’s renewed interest in Greek mythology during the early 20th century, “when Hector was a pup” was a popular expression all during the years my father was in school.

My mother Edith Vokes Mitchell as a girl in Canada where she was born in 1906.

I can recall my mother sometimes exclaiming, “My eye and Betty Martin,” when something didn’t make sense. “Who’s Betty Martin?” I asked her more than once, but she didn’t know. It was just an expression meaning “humbug” she had learned from her mother.

The expression, which is sometimes phrased as “all my eye and Betty Martin,” is often believed to be a case of folk etymology — common people altering foreign phrases they don’t understand into something that at least sounds intelligible.

By that theory, which first circulated in the 1820s, the expression was originally “O mihi, beate Martine.” The words were supposedly taken from a Latin prayer to St. Martin and mean, “Oh grant me, blessed Martin…” Supposedly the Latin words were reinterpreted as English words in nautical slang and were spread in that fashion.

Another theory is that it’s a lyric from an 18th century song addressed to a Miss Betty Martin, who has spurned the singer’s overtures. The supposed lyric is, “That’s my eye, Betty Martin.” However, I’m skeptical of this explanation.

On the other hand, the origin of “all hell broke loose” is known to literary scholars although most people using the expression have no idea where it comes from.

The phrase, in fact, comes from John Milton’s 1667 epic Paradise Lost. To me that origin seems rather formal and pious, given that “all hell broke loose” has become slang.

In Milton’s poem, the angel Gabriel asks Satan — just before kicking him out of the Garden of Eden — why all the other inhabitants of hell hadn’t broken out of the underworld and accompanied him to the garden: “Wherefore with thee came not all hell broke loose?”

Although there has been a marked change during the last 344 years in the way “all hell broke loose” is used, Milton’s exact words have endured.

Satan (above) as depicted by the French engraver Gustave Dore (1832-1883).

Finally, let’s consider “at one fell swoop,” which we use to mean “all at once.” Although many people regularly quote the expression, most folks have no idea what the words mean. The “swoop” part is straightforward enough and is used in the sense of a hawk swooping down on a mouse. The “fell” part, however, is a surprise.

In this expression, “fell” is an archaic word for “savage.” As such, it is related to the modern word “felon,” says The Oxford English Dictionary.

All this raises the question: how many other expressions do we quote every day without knowing what we’re quoting? I’d ask Duffy his opinion, but “Duffy ain’t here.”


For two days this week, visitors to this blog could not see photos from the Western Weekend parade, 4-H Fair, or barn dance because of vandalism by an unknown hacker.

By Thursday evening, however, the damage had been repaired and the pictures were back online. Who’s to say, but given the international importance of this blog’s coverage of foxes, raccoons, and small-town events, the culprits could well have been the same hackers in Jinan, China, that have allegedly tried to break into US government computers.

More on the Internet front: Bonnie Porter of Inverness, who is a computer technician in her day job, astonished parade goers Sunday with her fire eating. For more Western Weekend photos, please see the next two postings.

The sun shone Sunday on the Western Weekend parade in Point Reyes Station. Despite a week of off-and-on rain leading up to the parade, the weather was sunny and warm.

Receiving applause all along the main street, a Coast Guard color guard headed up the parade.

Western Weekend queen Alyssa Tanner (left) and princess Jessica Arndt together made a second trip down the three-block-long parade route after riding in separate vehicles at the start of the parade. At the wheel of the 1936 Ford Phaeton is owner Jon Langdon of Inverness.


El Radio Fantastique sponsored by Vladimir’s Restaurant in Inverness won the grand prize trophy. Riding on a lowboy trailer pulled by a truck, the band led by Giovanni DeMorenti (in red) performed New Orleans-style jazz and blues.


El Radio Fantastique also won a trophy and a first-place ribbon in the adult music category. Marching ahead of the band was fire-eater Bonnie Porter. Circling the float on bicycles were a pair of winged fairies, including Miss June at left.

Pete Tomasetti Tractors won the first-place ribbon in the Farm Vehicle division. The orange tractor was built in 1938, the red one in 1941.

The first-place ribbon and a trophy in the adult-street-show division went to the Mainstreet Moms, who oppose nuclear development.

The West Marin Citizen’s entry celebrated the weekly newspaper’s fourth anniversary.

The Aztec Dancers won a second-place ribbon in the best-drill-team judging.

For his parade entry, Jason McLean built and rode a deer with fire belching from its tail.

Taking the second-place ribbon in adult street shows was the Inverness Garden Club.

Escorted by two goats, Violet (wearing brown) and Avie (in a white-and-black wool coat), Devil’s Gulch Ranch Camp in Nicasio won a first place ribbon in the kids’ animal competition and a trophy in the adult-animal judging.

The ever-popular Nave Patrola won a trophy and first-place ribbon in the best-drill-team judging. The group spoofs the Italian army in World War I. Although the Italian consulate in San Francisco back in the 1970s complained that their bumbling antics denigrate Italians, the Nave Patrola, which includes several members of Italian descent, has continued to take part in the parade every year.

Papermill Creek Children’s Corner preschool won the first-place ribbon in the kids’ drill team category.

Taking the first-place ribbon in kids’ music were 7th and 8th graders from West Marin School. The 6th graders won the second-place ribbon.

County Supervisor Steve Kinsey (second from left in foreground) led the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) float, which took the first-place ribbon for an adult float.

The trophy plus a first-place ribbon in the kids’ float judging went to the 4-H Bake Sale float.

Pirates and Crew with Carol Rossi received a first-palace ribbon in the adult-animal division.

Straus Family Creamery in Marshall used the parade to promote its new banana-flavored ice cream, passing out free samples to spectators along the parade route.

The Staus entry won a third-place ribbon in the adult vehicle category.

The judges for this year’s Western Weekend parade were Matt Murphy, Carol Friedman, Laurie Monserrat, and Kristi Edwards.

Robert Cardwell, as always, was the announcer at the judges’ stand in front of Toby’s Feed Barn.

Winning entries can pick up ribbons and trophies at The West Marin Citizen office on Fourth Street in Point Reyes Station.

Western Weekend got off to a wet start Saturday, which contributed to the large-animal livestock show being canceled. Because only three cows were entered this year, people didn’t have much incentive to show up in the rain for the judging, one of the organizers told me.

In the 1970s and 80s, 4-H members would show dozens of cows and horses outside Point Reyes Station’s Red Barn, which has now been painted green. Back then, the building (which had been the engine house for the narrow-gauge railroad) was owned by the West Marin Lions Club and the center of many community events. No more.

Talking to rancher Sharon Doughty, I lamented how few cows and horses have been entered in the 4-H Fair in recent years. “Well, look what’s happened to the ranching community,” was her response. It’s true. The number of ranches in West Marin has dropped drastically as a result of economics, residential development, and the continuing expansion of federal parkland.

Nowadays rabbits and chickens are the main animals shown at the 4-H Fair.

Nor is the coronation ball as large as it was when it was held in the cavernous Red Barn. Back then it was a boisterous affair, with a bar and dancing plus illicit gambling. The crowds were huge, and there were often fights in the parking lot.

Nowadays, the coronation “ball” is a smaller, less rowdy barn dance in Toby’s Feed Barn. This year a bluegrass band and caller kept the crowd on its feet with square and line dances.

After being crowned queen of Western Weekend, Alyssa Tanner, 17, led off the second half of the evening, dancing to the Queen’s Waltz.

The winner is chosen based on how many Western Weekend raffle tickets she sells.

Alyssa sold $7,391 worth of tickets, the most in the 62-year history of Western Weekend.

Runnerup Jessica Arndt sold $4,870, which is well above average.

She will be the Princess of Western Weekend and have her own car to ride in during Sunday’s parade down the main street of Point Reyes Station.

The parade will begin at noon, and those planning to attend are hoping that the rain which has been predicted holds off.

In the history of Western Weekend, it has never rained on the parade. Some years it rained right up to starting time but then quit. In other years, winds have been so strong they blew floats apart.

Jessica’s sister Ashley was last year’s Western Weekend queen. Here Ashley is at the far left, with Jessica standing next to her.

In recent years, the judging of small animals, as well as 4-H crafts projects, has been held at the Dance Palace.

Erin Rose Charlton, 12, of Lucas Valley with her rabbit Sir Blue, which the 4-H Fair judges named Best in Show.










Brinlee Stevens, 5, of Point Reyes Station won a blue ribbon in the Sewing Division for her red-and-white apron at right. In addition, she won a gold ribbon for her pin cushion.

Phoebe Blantz of Nicasio, who won a second-place ribbon in poultry competition, entered a white Old English rooster named Chief and a brown Old English game hen named Princess.