Archive for December, 2012

Welcome back for another year. The management of this blog takes great pleasure in announcing that 2013 is being brought to you through arrangements made by SparselySageAndTimely.com. Portions of this year have been pre­recorded. Any resemblance between per­sons living and dead would be ghastly.

Last week’s rainstorms here may have made shopping trips less attractive to residents who had waited until the last minute to buy Christmas presents, but in another vein, so to speak, the rains also brought forth a seldom-seen beauty.

Point Reyes Station received more than 10 inches of rain in December, and outside Mitchell cabin, the downhill entrances to gopher tunnels turned into artesian springs.

Thirteen Turns on Highway 1 north of Dogtown.

The State Highway Commission’s engineering staff half a century ago proposed straightening Highway 1 between Olema and Highway 101 at Richardson Bay. For awhile, West Marin residents were divided over the proposal.

Many residents worried that the character of West Marin would change if it were connected to East Marin and San Francisco by a high-speed highway. On the other hand, many members of the business community reasoned they would get more customers if West Marin were accessible to more people.

To demonstrate the need for a straighter and presumably safer highway, two men, Frank Myer and Lee Sefton, 52 years ago this January counted all the curves on Highway 1 between Point Reyes Station and Highway 101. As was reported at the time in The Baywood Press (the original name of The Point Reyes Light), there are 520 curves in that 30-mile stretch, and “33 of these are blind, sharp curves.”

Kite flying outside Mitchell cabin on Dec. 30.

Here is the Highway 1 survey carried out by Myer and Sefton, whom the newspaper referred to as a “citizens curve-counting committee”:

Point Reyes Station to Olema — 2 miles, 21 curves. Olema to Bolinas — 10 miles, 115 curves. Bolinas to Stinson Beach — 5 miles, 81 curves. Stinson Beach to Muir Beach — 6 miles, 166 curves. Muir Beach to Tam Junction — 6 miles, 132 curves. Tam Junction to Highway 101 — 1 mile, 5 carves.

This abundance of curves prompted a sardonic comment from Baywood Press publisher Don DeWolfe: “Makes us wonder what the motive is behind opposition to the improvement of this wonderful road.”

Despite its support from members of the business community, such as Myer, Sefton, and DeWolfe, most West Marin residents — and finally the Marin County Board of Supervisors — came to oppose straightening Highway 1, and the state abandoned the proposal. In retrospect, most of us are glad it did.

Let me now close by wishing my English-speaking friends and relatives: Happy New Year! And my Spanish-speaking friends and relatives: ¡Prospero año nuevo!

The winter solstice came and went. Civilization obviously didn’t collapse on Friday even though millions of people around the world had been counting on it.

Jungle has risen up to reclaim what it can from Mayan civilization, as I witnessed for myself at Tikal, Guatemala, back in 1983 (above). Despite the deterioration of their buildings, the ancient Mayans, as of Saturday morning, were once again renowned  for civil engineering rather than apocalyptic prognostication.

Superstitious people are easy targets for hoaxes. Witness the 39 Heavens Gate cultists who committed mass suicide in 1997. Their leader, Marshall Applewhite, had convinced them that by doing so they would get a ride in a supposed spaceship trailing the comet Hale-Bopp. Harder to explain are all the people worldwide who believed that civilization would collapse last Friday. Why? Because there were rumors that Mayans more than 1,000 years ago had predicted it.

Wait a minute! Mayan civilization itself collapsed before 900 AD. If the Mayans could look more than 1,200 years into the future, why couldn’t they have seen their own impending demise and avoided it? Significantly, today’s descendants of those ancient Mayans didn’t expect Armageddon last Friday — merely the start of a new era.

Fall’s finale — Sunset over Inverness Ridge.

Like a modern Mayan, I’m ready for the challenges of a new era. In these parts, that new era is called winter. The era began with heavy rain, strong wind, thunder, and lightning on Friday night. The house lights flickered but stayed on.

A curious blacktail doe at Mitchell cabin.

With the rains has come green grass, and an abundance of wildlife is showing up around the cabin. Along with wintering birds and a healthy supply deer, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, jackrabbits, tree frogs, and salamanders, there is evidence of a badger. It’s a zoo said a first-time visitor last week.

Keeping an eye on the does is a good-sized blacktail buck, who often drops by to graze before lying down to chew his cud.

A young raccoon watches me from a safe distance up a pine tree next to the cabin.

Social grooming — Youthful raccoons on my deck clean each other’s coat of insects, parasites, and anything grubby. This is done for not only hygiene and appearance but also as a way of bonding, of reinforcing relationships.

This was the advice our late President gave the public at Christmastime in 1950, but I don’t follow it. Sixty years ago, it may well have been just as thoughtful to give friends cigarettes at Christmas as to have fruitcakes mailed to them. But those were simpler times.

My partner Lynn Axelrod and I next to our Christmas tree.

We invited two people, including one visiting from overseas, to help trim our Christmas tree. The inter-nondenominational group included a non-practicing Jew, a non-practicing Muslim, a non-practicing Catholic, and a non-practicing Christian Scientist. Afterward we sat around the fire and sang Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Harry Belafonte songs. Plus a couple in Turkish with which I wasn’t familiar. In Mitchell cabin too, the yuletide is evolving.

What remains unchanged is the pleasure we get in extending Season’s Greeting to all of you. Merry Christmas! Heri za Kwanzaa! And a Happy New Year!

Shoreline School District’s departing superintendent, Steve Rosenthal, received a warm sendoff Friday in Tomales’ William Tell House restaurant and bar.

By grim coincidence, it was the same day a mentally ill young man shot to death 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and that tragedy was on the minds of many of Rosenthal’s well-wishers.

Friday in Tomales, Steve Rosenthal received an etched-glass plaque honoring him for his 14 years as superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District. The guests included representatives of the district and the county schools office, as well as friends from the community.

School officials who arrived early at the party (from left): Jill Manning-Sartori, Shoreline School District trustee; Jane Realon, principal at Tomales Elementary and Bodega Bay schools; Tim Kehoe, president of Shoreline’s board of trustees; Jane Healy, trustee; Susan Skipp, Shoreline business manager; Penny Valentine, special education director for the county office of education; Steve Rosenthal, retiring superintendent; Adam Jennings, Tomales High’s principal; Nancy Neu, Shoreline’s incoming interim superintendent; and Matt Nagle, principal of West Marin-Inverness schools. Other trustees showed up later.

Shoreline, like school districts everywhere, has periodically had its problems, but compared with too many schools elsewhere, the district was almost idyllic during Rosenthal’s tenure. As it happened, the superintendent’s farewell party unfortunately coincided with not one but two attacks on school children.

In China’s Henan Province, a mentally ill man stabbed 22 grammar-school students as they arrived for classes. Most private citizens in China cannot own guns, so the attacker could only knife the children. All of them survived although seven had to be hospitalized. “No motive was given for the stabbings, which echo a string of similar assaults against [Chinese] schoolchildren in 2010 that killed nearly 20 and wounded more than 50 people,” the Huffington Post reported.

And you’ll recall that here in the Bay Area a former student killed seven people in a shooting rampage at a private Christian university in Oakland last April 2. A month earlier on Feb. 27, a gun-toting 17 year old killed two students and wounded two others in a Chardon, Ohio, school cafeteria.

In a 2008 shooting spree, a former student killed five students and wounded 18 others at Northern Illinois University, and just 10 months before those murders, a 23-year-old gunman killed 32 people in a Virginia Tech dormitory before killing himself. Even an Amish School in Pennsylvania was the scene of a mass shooting in 2006 when a 32-year-old man killed five girls and then himself.

Probably the most-infamous massacre at a US school in recent years occurred in April 1999 when two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher, as well as wounded 26 others, at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado.

A Newton Bee photo seen round the world shows students being kept in a conga line while being evacuated from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Although he was also carrying two semi-automatic handguns, the killer, Adam Lanza, 20, shot his victims with an M-4 assault rifle designed for urban combat. Under current US law, civilians can buy such weapons, and apparently Lanza’s mother owned at least five. She also taught Adam how to fire them, supposedly to give him a sense of responsibility. Instead he took three of her guns and murdered her before heading to the school.

Among those Lanza shot to death at Sandy Hook School was principal Dawn Hochsprung, who heroically tried to overpower him. On Sunday a Republican congressman from Texas, Louie Gohmert, wildly claimed that what really went wrong was that Hochsprung didn’t have her own assault rifle to shoot it out with Lanza inside the school. Gohmert told Fox News he could imagine Lanza going down in a hail of Hochsprung’s gunfire: “She takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.”

Speaking more rationally, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), announced on Sunday that she will introduce legislation to restore the federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004.

The Associated Press on Monday reported: “Gun control was a hot topic in the early 1990s, when Congress enacted a 10-year ban on assault weapons. But since that ban expired in 2004, few Americans have wanted stricter laws, and politicians say they don’t want to become targets of a powerful gun-rights lobby.”

AP, however, added that gun-control politics may now change. The National Rifle Association (NRA) eight years ago pressured supporters in Congress not to renew the ban on assault rifles. In the wake of the Sandy Hook School shooting, however, Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and a prominent gun-rights advocate, told MSNBC: “Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. It’s never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage….

“Anybody that’s a proud gun owner, a proud member of the NRA, they’re also proud parents, they’re proud grandparents. They understand this has changed where we go from here.”

Supt. Rosenthal said he will begin his retirement with a visit to his vacation home in Arizona. “It’s the only home I own,” he told me with a laugh. Many of us will miss him.

Rosenthal leaves a school district that is debating its future, especially how best to educate students from Spanish-speaking homes.

Many teachers, parents, and other community members disagree over what approach to take, but debate is central to the operation of a public school. It’s how school personnel and the community air opinions, warn of potential problems, and suggest solutions. But there are no crystal balls.

Sandy Hook Elementary thought it had taken all the proper security measures to keep students and staff safe; however, almost nothing could have protected them from a sociopath with an assault rifle who entered the school by shooting his way through a locked glass door.

The simultaneous merriment in Tomales and suffering in Connecticut last Friday once again demonstrated that even at schools that are well run, outside forces — good or bad — can sometimes determine whether all goes well.

“What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times….” — Walter Cronkite

The USS Arizona burning after Japanese torpedo bombers attacked the battleship on Dec. 7, 1941.

Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killed 2,402 people and wounded another 1,247, plunging the US into a war that ultimately cost America and its allies more than 61 million military and civilian lives. Axis countries lost more than 12 million lives.

My father used to tell me about from coming home from church in San Francisco that Sunday, Dec. 7, when a neighbor shouted out the window to him that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. Friday was the 71st anniversary of the attack, and heavily attended memorial ceremonies were held from Pearl Harbor, to the Coast Guard Station in Alameda, to New York and Washington, DC.

Some West Marin’s responses to the attack were described in a Tomales Regional History Center bulletin earlier this year: Tomales High “student Kathie Nuckols (Lawson) clearly remembered the Monday morning of Dec. 8, 1941 — little more than 24 hours after Pearl Harbor was bombed. ‘Our principal called all the students… into the auditorium to hear President Roosevelt call our country to war. His voice came through a small radio, and we strained to hear his words, overwhelmed by the drama as only teenagers can be.’

“Blackout shades lowered in the auditorium, tanks passing the school on their way to occupy Dillon Beach, the imposed limits on travel because of gas rationing, especially affecting the sports programs…. These are some of the things students of the war years remembered. Yet these events were undoubtedly put into perspective by the biggest effect of all, the nine Tomales High students who did not come home from the war.”

The annual Christmas-tree lighting in Point Reyes Station drew a large crowd Friday evening. The tree is on the landscaped median between the Palace Market parking lot and the parking lot of Wells Fargo Bank, which handed out hot chocolate and sweets.

Phyllis Faber

Meanwhile at the Dance Palace community center, Marin Agricultural Land Trust held its annual dinner Friday. Now an octogenarian, Phyllis Faber, a biologist, and the late Ellen Straus, a rancher, founded MALT in 1984 to give permanent protection to family farms. It was a time when economic pressure to subdivide the coast was spurring ranchers to sell their land to developers. The farmland trust became the first of its kind in the nation.

A red-shouldered hawk is still able to hunt the pastures around Mitchell cabin thanks to a century and a half of ranching, which served to protect much of West Marin from over-development.

Bob Berner, who has been MALT’s executive director since its founding 28 years ago, will retire next month, and Friday he gave an emotional farewell to MALT supporters in the Dance Palace.

Under Berner’s leadership, MALT has bought agricultural easements from 69 ranchers, guaranteeing that at least half of all Marin County’s family farms will forever remain in agriculture.

A herd of blacktail deer take advantage of West Marin’s open land to graze near Mitchell cabin.

MALT’s new executive director as of Jan. 14 will be Jamison Watts, who happens to be a great, great grandson of naturalist John Muir’s sister, Margaret Muir Reid. Watts for the past six years has been the executive director of the Northern California Regional Land Trust (NCRLT).

Watts, who inherited the Muir family’s interest in conservation, earned a degree from UC Davis in Environmental Biology with an emphasis in Conservation Biology. He spent the next 12 years as a field and wildlife biologist, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in Biological Sciences, before going to work for NCRLT in 2006.

Much of the Rich Readimix plant was under water when Papermill Creek overflowed its banks on New Year’s Eve 2005.

In sadder news this week, The West Marin Citizen reported that the Rich Readimix plant on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road is about to close after more than 60 years in operation.

Don and Doug Joslin created the cement plant during the 1950s, and it was so well known throughout West Marin that nearby Platform Bridge was commonly referred to as Joslin Bridge. After 35 years, the Joslins sold the plant to Rich Readimix, which also has a plant in Greenbrae. All the workers at the West Marin plant will now be transferred to Greenbrae.

They were also au naturel, of course; if they hadn’t been, that would have been the topic of this posting. In any case, here for the third week in a row is a small gallery of new wildlife photos shot at Mitchell cabin.

A lone peacock has been hanging around this hill for almost a month. One or twice I’ve heard him scream, but for the most part he’s been unusually quiet.

I don’t know where this wanderer came from. Is he an escapee from somewhere? Perhaps he’s a remnant of a flock that once congregated near Nicasio Square. Whatever the case, the variety of peafowl seen in West Marin originated in India and were introduced into California back in 1879.

The Indian peafowl belong to a family of birds called Phasianidae, which includes West Marin’s wild turkeys.

Family members have now taken the lonely peacock under their wing, and he has become a member of a local flock of wild turkeys. Their companionship seems to have bolstered the once-shy peacock’s self-confidence, for just last week I saw him boldly scanning the world from atop a neighbor’s fence post.

A coyote has begun showing up on the shoulders of Point Reyes Station’s heavily used levee road. It’s a bit unusual but not altogether surprising. For much of its length, the levee road is what separates US Park Service-owned Olema Marsh from the county park at White House Pool. My partner Lynn and others had reported seeing the coyote along the road, and on Tuesday, I finally got a chance to see it for myself. Which gets us back to wild turkeys.

While Lynn and I watched from our deck last Wednesday, a flock of wild turkeys in a neighboring field drove off a different coyote.

When the coyote approached the flock, which was hunting and pecking in the field, the turkeys rather than taking flight turned and confronted him en masse. This stopped the coyote in his tracks. Wild turkeys are big, aggressive birds, and when the flock held its ground, the coyote apparently realized there would be no easy pickings. A couple of large toms followed by the rest of the flock then advanced a step or two toward the coyote, which turned tail and trotted off.

Later that day I told this story to LeeRoy Brock of Point Reyes Station, retired chief ranger for the National Seashore, and he told me he’d once seen a flock of wild turkeys chase away a blacktail buck.

The week’s rainstorms have filled the two stockponds near Mitchell cabin, and yesterday Lynn and I saw a Great egret hunting in the closer pond. Nor was the egret alone. I also spotted a Green heron taking cover in the reeds.

Although it was drizzling at the time, the egret in its red and green surroundings provided an unexpected bit of yuletide cheer.

Great egrets hunt primarily for frogs and fish although they also eat insects, small reptiles, and an occasional small rodent. Their hunting consists of slowly stalking their prey or of standing motionless, waiting for their prey to approach them. Once their prey is within striking distance, the egrets spear it with their sharp bills.

Gray foxes, which show up at Mitchell cabin in the evening, continue to fascinate me, as regular readers of this blog know. These days, at least one fox drops by almost every night, sometimes accompanied by a second.

The foxes are so comfortable around the cabin that during a break in the storms last Monday, this fox chose the picnic table on our deck for a snooze in the sun.

Gray foxes tend to be nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and twilight). That no doubt explains why this fox was so inactive during the middle of the day, which was fine with me. I believe in the old saying: “Let sleeping foxes lie.”