This has been a terrible year for thistles in West Marin. Or perhaps I should say it has been a good year for the thistles and a terrible year for landowners doing battle with them.

By now I’ve had to spend seven full days slashing thistles and then bagging them lest their seeds get picked up by the wind. Even so, new thistles are constantly appearing.

All this made me curious about the identity of the thistles on my property. When I then happened to take several walks through federal parkland just downstream from the Green Bridge in Point Reyes Station, I could immediately see the Park Service has its own thistle problem.

This area is part of the former Giacomini dairy ranch, which the Park Service bought, and is immediately east of the wetland-restoration project. Most of the Park Service’s thistles were the same as mine, so I asked Stacy Carlsen, the county agricultural commissioner, about West Marin’s thistles.

Three of the photos I shot on parkland and emailed Commissioner Carlsen turned out to be Bull thistles, Cirsium vulgare.

Bull thistle,” he wrote back, “is associated with disturbed soils and shaded areas, with moist conditions being preferred.” Bull thistles, he added, are “native to Europe.”

Different stages of Common teasel, Dipascus fullonum, on federal property.

The teasel, Carlsen noted, is also “native to Europe. It is not classified as invasive in California, but some counties take action against the weed.

“Teasel is often associated with moist conditions [and] shallow soil…. The seed heads were [at one time] used to process wool as a combing structure.”

Part of a sizeable thicket of Italian thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus, on Park Service land.

Italian thistle is “native to the Mediterranean region,” the agricultural commissioner noted.

I had written him, “My guess is that with the late dairy rancher Waldo Giacomini — as well as his family and cows — no longer keeping the area clear, thistles have begun moving in.” In his response, Carlsen wrote, “Livestock will eat this plant in the early stages of growth — assuming they have access to it.

“Italian thistle is the most common of the [above] three in Marin County…. The three thistles are not native and — by nature of their wide distribution in the state — are not clearly defined as invasive.

“However, they can be a nuisance and interfere with best use of both agriculture and open-space areas, including your walking trails.”

Wooly distaff thistle.

“Our biggest problem species in Marin County,” Carlsen added, are “Wooly distaff, Purple and Yellowstar thistle.”

Yellowstar thistle (at right).

Yellowstar thistle is especially harmful to horses. If a horse does not have enough feed in its pasture, it may turn to yellowstar thistles.

And if horses eat a large amount of yellow star thistle over one to three months, they can “develop dysfunction of facial, mouth and throat nerves and muscles,” the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine online newsmagazine reports.

Horses reach the point where they can chew but not swallow, which is why the poisoning is often called the “chewing disease.” They have trouble drinking and breathing and often become dehydrated, malnourished, lethargic, and depressed.

Horses next develop lesions, some of which damage the brain and can lead to starvation. There is no treatment for chewing disease, and even if horses partially recover on their own, they never again have their full faculties.

Purple thistle.


Plumeless thistles (at left).

“We have eradicated Plumeless thistles from the Point Reyes National Seashore, but it pops up from time to time from residual seeds,” the county agricultural commissioner wrote.

Some thistle seeds can, in fact, lie dormant for years if buried.

“There are some native thistles in California,” Carlsen reported, “but the vast majority of prickly and spiny types were introduced with feed and livestock from Europe and the Mediterranean areas.”

When thistles began regrouping near Mitchell cabin last month, I warned them in the words of General MacArthur, “I shall return.” True to my word, I have once again engaged the enemy.

With a parade, music, historical exhibits, and sunny weather, Nicasio residents on Saturday celebrated the 150th anniversary of their township’s founding on May 12, 1862, and of their school district’s founding a day later.

An antique paddy wagon in Saturday’s parade.

Although only 96 people live in Nicasio, according to the 2010 census, a variety of businesses have always faced the town square, which is surrounded by prosperous ranches.

The town is at the geographic center of Marin County, and this led its merchants in the 1860s to press for Nicasio to become the county seat with the square to be the site of its Civic Center. Luckily (as is obvious in hindsight) Nicasio lost out to San Rafael because the little town was not easily accessible from the rest of the county.

Its square was subsequently used as “a hayfield, a baseball field (semi-pro and Little League), a pasture, and sleeping quarters for one Nicasio resident, Louie DiGeorgio,” notes Around the Square, an historical pamphlet compiled for Saturday’s celebration.

DiGeorgio “lived there with a bed and other pieces of furniture until the parish priest told him it was inappropriate.”

St. Mary’s Catholic Church was built in 1867 of redwood cut and milled in Nicasio.

St. Mary’s suffered a “near catastrophe” (above) on Christmas Day 1921 when “a severe windstorm blew the church off its foundation and toppled the steeple,” Around the Square notes. However, “repairs were made promptly.”

These days the quaint little church is the subject of more photographs and paintings than any other building in town.

In 1867, construction of the Nicasio Hotel began. It was to become the grandest building in town.

“The hotel in its early days,” notes Around the Square, “was equipped with the latest and best in furnishings for the guests’ use in all areas, including the bar, parlor, dining room, ballroom and guests rooms.” It had “an outdoor dance floor and picnic area.”

On Dec. 15, 1940, a discarded cigarette in the parlor started a fire that destroyed the hotel. “John Mertens, who had purchased the hotel just three months prior to the fire, built the Nicasio Ranch House Restaurant in 1941 on the old hotel’s site.” In 1943, it was renamed Rancho Nicasio.

Taft House on the south side of the square was built around 1867 by William Miller, who also built the Nicasio Hotel.

Hiram Taft and his family were apparently Miller’s first tenants. Around the Square says, “On April 18, 1870, the “Nicasio Post Office was established with Hiram as the first postmaster.” He also worked as stage driver and Wells Fargo agent from this house.

The Wells Fargo stagecoach in Saturday’s parade.

“When the narrow-gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad was completed from Sausalito to Tomales [in 1875], a station was established in San Geronimo Valley called Nicasio Station, and stage driver Hiram Taft would now meet trains in his wagon to bring people, mail, and freight to and from Nicasio….

“The house has been owned and occupied since 1943 by four generations of the Dinsmore family.”

Unfortunately for Dave Dinsmore, who now lives in there, the house has periodically had to contend with speeding southbound vehicles. Coming at the end of a long straightaway into town, Nicasio Valley Road’s 90-degree turn in front of the house has sent nighttime speeders flying off the road and into his fence and porch.

The building that once housed the Druid’s meeting room was built in 1885. It included on the ground floor a general store that sold “groceries, clothing, over-the-counter remedies, buttons, ribbons, tobacco, cigarettes, candy, soft drinks, and in later days ice cream,” Around the Square notes. The Druid’s meeting room was on the second floor. “There was a very small but active saloon in the back of the first floor,” the historical pamphlet adds.

This photo of Hank LaFranchi in the general store was among dozens of historic photos on display Saturday.

Nicasio Post Office operated in a phone-booth-sized room at the front door of the store from 1885 to 1952. The telephone switchboard for the Nicasio area was on the opposite side of the door. In 1952, a fire that resulted from a short circuit in a fuse box razed the store.

By then, the Druids had (in 1934) built a separate building for themselves next to the store. It was damaged in the fire but was quickly repaired.

A retreat for Ladies of the Night — just north of the square on the west side of Nicasio Valley Road is Madame Labordette’s House mostly hidden by foliage.

Madame Labordette’s house was built in the 1860s, and for “many years around the early 1900s, this was the country home of Madame Marie P. Labordette, a French woman who owned a ‘house’ [brothel] in San Francisco,” Around the Square says.

“According to locals who remembered her, Mme. Labordette would bring her ‘girls’ to Nicasio for a rest, arriving with her entourage, which included a cook, servants, and her business manager.

“Her Nicasio country home was a proper, prim place, and she was a very proper and well-liked heavy-set woman, elegantly attired and covered in diamond rings.”

Saturday’s sesquicentennial celebration was a project of the Nicasio Historical Society. Around the Square: a Walking Tour of Historic Nicasio Town Square was written by Joe McNeil with Elaine Doss and Dewey Livingston.


New software is allowing me to track the countries where this blog’s readers are located, and as was noted in a Jan. 13 posting, people in 23 countries found their way here in the first two weeks after the tracking began.

In the two weeks since then, readers in an additional 24 countries visited this site. They came from: Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Guatemala, Ireland, Israel, Kenya, Latvia, Morocco, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Syria, and Thailand.

Of course, some visitors didn’t stick around long, but some did. The average visit lasts more than two minutes and 20 seconds. Among the foreign readers who first visited this site in the past two weeks, those who spent significant time reading it came from Belgium, China (Shanghai), Guatemala, Morocco, and Thailand.


Finding the door open, three young raccoons consider exploring my kitchen but think better of it when they hear, “Scat.” A Sept. 16 posting on raccoon scat continues to bring visitors to this blog.

What interests visitors? There are lots of ways to find this blog, and Google is obviously an important one. Nor is it surprising that the same Google Analytics software that can track readers’ cities and countries can also track what words people Googled to reach this blog. The top 10 “keywords,” it turns out, were: raccoon scat, dave mitchell the light point reyes, dave mitchell editor, west marin sheriff’s citizen, sparselysageadtimely.com, tony ragona reyes, bolinas clinic, dave mitchell blog, tomales bay association ken fox president, “didi thompson.”

Didi Thompson is my neighbor and has been mentioned in postings. Tony Ragona, a Point Reyes Station innkeeper, is a friend and has also been mentioned. The rest are fairly self explanatory although “west marin sheriff’s citizen” is a bit confused.

But it is downright bizarre that “raccoon scat” tops the list of terms that people around the world Googled last month to end up at this blog with its Sept. 16 posting, Telling the Raccoon ‘Scat.’ The posting discusses the unsightliness of some raccoons’ elevated latrines and the danger of raccoon excrement’s containing eggs of the parasite Baylisascaris procyonis.

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors has reprinted the posting, and I suppose that might explain some interest in the original. In any case, this blog’s Sept. 16 entry has now risen to fifth place in Google’s compendium of 113,000 “raccoon scat” postings. Try Googling the term. You’ll see for yourself.

Bemused by all this, I sent Tony an email congratulating him on ranking almost as high as “raccoon scat” and higher than “dave mitchell blog” in drawing people to this site. “Thanks,” he wrote back, “I guess.”


The “wildland/urban interface.” One afternoon last week I took care of Sebastian, a 15-year-old Havanese that belongs to Linda Petersen of Inverness. At his age, Sebastian is deaf and legally blind, so when the dog wandered over to this deer, he didn’t see her, and the doe immediately realized he was no threat.

In directing my neighbors and me to make our properties safe from wildfires,  Marin County Fire Chief Ken Massucco last September wrote us that we live in a designated “wildland/urban-interface area.” Despite that being firefighter jargon, the “interface” could as easily describe our interactions with wildlife as our risk of wildfires.

I’ve found it striking how much more wildlife I’m seeing around my property now that I’m retired and at home more. Just by staying alert, I’ve been able to shoot photos for this blog of a coyote and a bobcat, deer and raccoons, foxes and possums, snakes and salamanders, frogs and roof rats. All this wildlife has no doubt been around my home for 30 years, but until three years ago when I stopped editing The Point Reyes Light, I was too busy to see it.

And there’s another noteworthy difference between running a newspaper office and maintaining a blog from home. Once a newspaper article is in print, you can’t change it. I can remember times when I lamented this as a curse; now, however, I think it might have actually been a blessing.

Upgraded WordPress software now counts how many changes I make to a posting after I first put it online. The changes are usually very small, rearranging a sentence or substituting one word for another, but they can add up. A few days after last week’s posting went online, I became curious how many times I’d taken it down and changed it, so I checked: 107 times!

Add this attention to detail to humanity’s natural concern with raccoon scat, and you can see why SparselySageAndTimely.com has caught the attention of some serious readers around the globe: from Bangalore, India, and Palmerton North, New Zealand, to Sandefjord, Norway, and Riga, Latvia.


A view of the coast range from the deck of my friend Karen Ward’s weekend home at Sea Ranch. In yet another reflection of the recession, Karen has reluctantly put the home up for sale.

Last weekend I enjoyed a clear day as a houseguest at Sea Ranch two hours north of here. When I went to take a shower, however, things became foggy. I found the shower stall stocked with skin-conditioning soap etc. but nothing I recognized as meant for shampooing hair.

I called through the door to Karen, asking if I could borrow some shampoo to wash my hair, and she directed me to a bottle of Neutrogena. The label on the bottle, however, said it contained a “body enhancing shampoo,” which sounded like a body wash that builds pecs and tightens abs. If it doesn’t contain steroids, I wondered, why don’t more men use it?

But then I remembered a New England Journal of Medicine report that washing with lavender soap may cause boys to develop breasts. What if this “body enhancing shampoo” was for women and likewise mimicked hormones? I never did learn the answer, and I still don’t know why Karen sounded exasperated when I asked if it had been safe for me to wash my hair with her Neutrogena?


The view of the Pacific from Karen’s living room and deck. Her home is near Sea Ranch’s Shell Beach (there must be a dozen strands around here called Shell Beach), and at night I could hear seals barking outside my window.

Karen’s three-bedroom, two-bath home has been listed for $799,000 by Coldwell Banker agent Lynda O’Brien, 707 884-3591. I’m telling you this as a favor to Karen, but because I’ve been promised another stay at the home sometime in the future, I’m less interested than she is in seeing it sell.

“So many daily newspapers are losing money that a bunch of them are planning another round of newsroom layoffs this year,” my friend Dave LaFontaine told me over the holidays. “That’s no bullsh-t.”

“Why is that noble sh-t?” I demanded. Dave, who’s an Internet media consultant from Los Angeles, calmly replied that several big papers are resigned to sacrificing quality in order to survive. “Do you really think their planning to sacrifice quality is noble?” I asked. Dave said he personally believed it was no bull, and we changed subjects.

I later suggested to Dave that some metropolitan papers’ financial troubles can be blamed on their too eagerly buying up other newspapers during the past 20 years. “The chains thought the good times would never end,” I said, “so they became spendthrifts.”

Having said that, I immediately wondered why we call people who recklessly spend money “spendthrifts.” You’d think we’d call them “extravagant spenders.” When I looked up the origin of the word, however, I discovered that “thrift” is being used in an obsolete sense which meant “accumulated wealth.” The word “spendthrift,” it would therefore appear, reveals something about the way the English-speaking world views wealth. For instance, we’re not much into potlatches.

We can, in fact, learn a considerable amount about different cultures from their vocabulary. For example, in Pashto, Afghanistan’s most-common language, the word for “cousin” is the same as the word for “enemy.” Doesn’t that tell us something about the turmoil there?

Similarly revealing is the German word “Scham,” for depending on the context, it can mean either “vulva” or “shame.” This may suggest it was more than coincidental that Freud grew up speaking German. And God with us, my friends, the correct response to “Gott mit uns” is not, “Yes, we’ve got mittens.”

For the most part, however, German is Greek to me. Or as they say in German, “Ich verstehe nur Bahnof,” which literally means, “I understand only train station.”

current_issueAs long as we’re on the subject of words, Amy Tsaykel of The West Marin Review has asked me to mention a fundraiser in Point Reyes Station for the journal. From 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, in a private home, she writes, an “‘elder statesman of the Beat Generation,’ novelist, and prolific writer Herb Gold will read from his latest work, a memoir entitled Still Alive: A Temporary Condition.

“In the words of the man himself, the book is about ‘love and memory, why both are blessings and sorrows and a form of immortality.’ Our special guest welcomes questions and conversation following his reading. Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served.”

One of the original Beats, Gold (born in 1924) was attending college in New York when he first met two other luminaries of the Beat Generation, novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac unfortunately was anti-Semitic, and Gold later said, “I crossed the street to avoid him.” Gold and Ginsberg, however, became fast friends.

41t3ppqyhkl_ss500_1Following a divorce that left Gold a single parent with two daughters to support, he became what he called “a writing factory,” often contributing to Playboy and other men’s magazines.

Playboy — where young men of my generation were most likely to first encounter Gold — paid handsomely. “With a feature inside the magazine,” he now notes, “you could buy a VW, and with a lead feature you could buy a VW convertible.”

Tickets for the afternoon with Gold cost $30 for individuals, $50 per couple. One VIP ticket is available at $250, including: event admission, dinner for two at Café Reyes, one night’s stay at Olema Cottages, Point Reyes Vineyard wine, an autographed copy of Still Alive, and the West Marin Review Vol. 2 when it is published. Tickets are available online at West Marin Review and Point Reyes Books.


Nick’s Cove restaurant and cottages, which Croatian immigrants Nick and Frances Kojich originally opened on the east shore of Tomales Bay in 1931, reopened last week after being closed seven years for remodeling.

This past Sunday, owners Pat Kuleto and Mark Franz held a benefit party for the Tomales Volunteer Fire Department and invited the West Marin community to be the resort’s guests. For me, it was a pleasant reminder of how many oysters I can eat when I’m not paying for them.

The restaurant, bar, and cottages had gone unused for seven years because of an exhausting permit process. The five-year process ran up the cost of refurbishing Nick’s Cove from an initial estimate of $3.5 million to an eventual total of $14 million, investors Pam Klarkowski née West and her husband Rick Klarkowski told me during the party.

When I had a moment to chat with Pat Kuleto, I commented that given all his permit hassles, I suspected there must have been four or five time times when he wished he’d never bought Nick’s Cove from Ruth Gibson (at a cost of $2 million back in 2000). “More like 400 or 500 times,” Pat responded. The restaurateur said that during his career (of more than 35 years) he has designed 190 restaurants. (Among them is San Francisco’s “beloved” Fog City Diner, which opened in 1985, the Nick’s Cove website notes.)


Pat Kuleto with his girlfriend Sarah Livermore, a singer who performed at Sunday’s party.

With 34 government agencies and citizen groups each wanting its own concerns addressed in the permit process, remodeling Nick’s Cove was “three times harder” than even the most difficult of his other restaurants, Pat said. In a sarcastic commentary, the Nick’s Cove menu this week facetiously included red-legged frogs on its list of appetizers. The frogs, which are a “threatened” species because non-native bullfrogs here eat them, supposedly were served with plenty of red tape and cost $2 million apiece.

It’s worth noting that the same county, regional, and state bureaucracies, as well as citizen groups, have managed to intimidate potential buyers from trying to restore the historic Marshall Tavern south of Nick’s Cove. Very few people can afford the red tape Pat encountered.

I asked Pam how many investors Nick’s Cove has. She didn’t know but said there were definitely more than 20. “Even a winery wanted to invest,” she said. “We’re not expecting to make our money back the first year,” her husband added.


Little Rock cottage on pilings over Tomales Bay rents for $975 a night on weekends in August.

Nor is the restaurant alone expected to repay investors. If all goes as planned, more than a third of Nick’s Cove’s income will come from overnight guests staying on both sides of Highway 1. The lodgings include four waterfront cottages, and July and August are high season. On weekends during July, the two-suite cottages rent for $680 per night while the two smaller cottages go for $595. In August, the weekend rates will be $850 per night for the smaller cottages and $975 for the two-suite cottages. On the other hand, the mid-week rate in July for the smaller cottages is a mere $440 per night.

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The bar at Nick’s Cove

Prices in the restaurant at Nick’s Cove range from $7 for a mixed-lettuce salad, to $12 for a gourmet hamburger, to $16 for fish and chips, to $24 for a grilled pork chop with peach chutney, to $32 for a 16-ounce, rib-eye steak.

visionaries_collage.jpgNick’s Cove executive chef Mark Franz (on right with his partner Pat Kuleto), has been on the “culinary scene” for 26 years, notes the resort’s website.

In 1997, Mark opened San Francisco’s Farallon restaurant, which was designed by Pat. Mark’s “coastal cuisine” at Farallon has received acclaim in Bon Appetít, Food & Wine, and similar magazines.

Several hundred guests showed up for Sunday’s party at Nick’s Cove, a lively event with a band and dancing in an outdoor dining area. Singing with the band was Pat’s girlfriend Sara Livermore. Chef Alex Klarkowski (below at right) and his older brother Ben barbecued oysters beside the bay all afternoon. Tomales firefighters, who parked two firetrucks outside the front door, sold raffle tickets while Marshall activist Donna Sheehan worked the crowd, trying to get people to complain to Caltrans about the lack of mowing this year along Highway 1.


Standing at the end of Nick’s Cove’s long dock and looking back at the restaurant and cottages, I remembered happy times when I used to keep a boat in Inverness and would periodically sail to Nick’s Cove for a meal, sometimes sailing home after dark. Thanks to Pat, Mark, and innumerable investors, a new generation of sailors can enjoy the same wonderful outing.

Too many rainbows? The first week of April, it rained at my cabin virtually every day or night. A factoid reflected in this photo from my deck is that the sky is always darkest outside the arc of a rainbow. The reason is a bit complex, but if you want a good explanation, check the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research website: http://www.eo.ucar.edu/rainbows/

Rain having fallen almost every day or night since April began, the grass in my pasture is high, and neighbor Toby Giacomini’s stockpond is full. Water districts like late rains so their reservoirs are full going into the dry months.

All the same, I’m already ready for May. So are half the people in West Marin. The other half (apart from ranchers and water district operators) are a contrary lot; more than a few of them are here because they’re not wanted someplace else — or because they are.

mikedn_1_1.jpgIn any case, the minute someone mentions being tired of rain, someone else pops up with with Al Jolson’s (at left) 1947 lyrics: “Though April showers may come your way,/ They bring the flowers that bloom in May./ So if it’s raining, have no regrets/ Because it isn’t raining rain you know. It’s raining violets….”

On the other hand, April showers may cause some of us, who in school had to plow through the field of English literature, to instead recall the grim opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Wasteland:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

In the late 1960s, I taught English Literature, World Literature, and Journalism at Upper Iowa College. I liked teaching the poetry of Eliot (below right), but I prefer listening to Chaucer’s, the masterpiece of which is The Canterbury Tales written in Middle English during the late 1300s.


So I was a bit surprised when almost 40 years after I left teaching for newspapering, it suddenly dawned on me last week that the opening lines of The Wasteland satirize the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,/ And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour….”

In Modern English, that would be something along the lines of: “When April with its showers sweet has pierced to the root the drought of March and bathed every vein the moisture whose essence begets the flower….”

200px-geoffrey_chaucer_-_illustration_from_cassells_history_of_england_-_century_edition_-_published_circa_1902_1_1.jpgWith all this going on and the “smale foweles maken melody,” wrote Chaucer (right), “thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”

Eliot naturally saw April more darkly and went on in The Wasteland to ask, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?”

Personally, I am not one of those folk longing to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury or anywhere else (too much walking); my view of April is certainly less gloomy than Eliot’s; so I was almost taken in by Jolson’s advice:

“When you see clouds upon the hills,/ You soon will see crowds of daffodils./ So keep on looking for a bluebird/ And listening for his song/ Whenever April showers come along.”


As it happens, I planted daffodils along my driveway last October. Five weeks ago, Dee Goodman, formerly a Point Reyes Station innkeeper and now living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, arrived for a visit. On her first day back in town (above), the daffodils I’d planted came into bloom.

Dee, however, observed that if West Marin residents were to follow Jolson’s advice and search the hills for daffodils following April’s showers, they’d miss them by at least month. “A better flower for April would be the Forget-Me-Not,” Dee suggested, having just noticed them in profusion along Nicasio Valley Road north of Moon Hill.

Eliot, no doubt, would have agreed.


One of the odder events in this long-running saga called Nature’s Two Acres occurred Saturday night. (The two acres, of course, is my pasture surrounding this cabin in the hills above Point Reyes Station.)

It all began when Dee Goodman, who is visiting from Mexico, and I went out on my deck at twilight Saturday to enjoy the view. For a while, we sat on patio chairs drinking coffee, but as the evening grew chilly, we went back inside.

While outside, I had set a nearly full mug of coffee on the deck, and probably because Dee and I were talking when we went indoors, I forgot to take the mug with me.

As it happens, I drink my coffee with a fair amount of those sweet, flavored (hazelnut, vanilla nut, or crème brulée) creamers made by Nestle. I am not alone in enjoying coffee thus diluted nor — as I’ve now discovered — is my species.

Later last Saturday I was working at my computer when around midnight I went downstairs for a bite, and to my surprise, a possum was on my deck lapping up my forgotten coffee. Before long, he had emptied the mug. I wasn’t worried and laughed to myself that if a possum could digest roadkill, it could digest a mug of coffee.

Still writing in my loft at 2 a.m., I went back down to the kitchen, and as I headed toward the refrigerator, I immediately spotted the possum. It had returned and was now outside my kitchen door.

It’s fairly common to see a possum scurry when scared, but I can’t say that I’d ever seen a perky possum before. One mug of coffee, and this little guy was wired.


The possum was pacing back and forth outside my door, climbing on and off the railing, and occasionally poking around my covered firewood (above). Again amused, I decided to give the perky possum a slice of bread. The possum started when he heard me unlatch the kitchen door, but rather than scurrying off, he made a dash toward the opening.

From what I’ve observed, possums don’t see diddly squat at night (although they’re supposed to) and depend almost entirely on smells to guide them. I’m not at all sure this possum even saw me, but he sure smelled food in my kitchen. I had to bean him with a piece of bread to keep him from running into the cabin.

As he ate it, I tossed out a few more pieces and he spent the next 10 minutes running around the deck, sniffing for crusts.


The moral to all this, I suppose, is that if your neighborhood marsupial is too prone to playing possum, just serve him a cup of coffee.

SparselySageAndTimely.com previously quoted Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens as saying, the “common opossum” is not native to California but rather the Deep South and was introduced into the San Jose area around 1900 “for meat, delicious with sweet potatoes.” By 1931, possums had spread as far south as the Mexican border but did not reach Point Reyes until 1968.

Luckily for possums, the Point Reyes National Seashore hasn’t any plans to exterminate the hundreds, if not thousands, of them in the park although like the white deer they’re not native.

When the National Seashore opened in 1965, possums were just arriving in the park while the non-native white (fallow) and spotted (axis) deer had been living on Point Reyes for 20 years. But unlike the white deer, the public hasn’t shown particular interest in possums, and the National Seashore administration in its perverse fashion targets its eradication programs on non-natives that appeal to members of the public.

Why? It’s simply a matter of Calvanism reminiscent of the Puritans’ ban on bear baiting (siccing dogs on a chained bear). The Puritans weren’t particularly upset by cruelty but didn’t like to have the public enjoying itself so much.

Writer John Grissim (left), formerly of West Marin, with the late pornographic filmmaker and theater owner Artie Mitchell (no relation) 22 years ago. The occasion was a gala party for the opening of The Grafenberg Spot. Grissim wrote the screenplay.

For eight years, The Point Reyes Light carried a column called West Marin Diary by John Grissim, who wrote from a wine-barrel studio above Stinson Beach, where he was a volunteer firefighter for 12 years, 2.5 years of that as head of the fire department’s ambulance corps. As a columnist, his topics ranged from running on the beach to watching Behind the Green Door star Marilyn Chambers use an Uzi to shred paper targets in Nevada.

John eventually married therapist Susan Robinson, and the couple lived in Point Reyes Station along the levee road in one of those houses where every time Papermill Creek flooded, they needed a rowboat to reach their front steps. Luckily, the main part of their house was on the second floor and didn’t get wet.

In 2000, John and Susan moved to Sequim near Port Angeles on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. After much shopping, they bought a manufactured home, and John — as is his wont — turned the search into yet another book: The Complete Buyer’s Guide to Manufactured Homes and Land – How to Find a Reputable Dealer and Negotiate a Fair Price on the Best-kept Secret in American Housing. The book has turned out to be a best seller and John is in demand on the speakers’ circuit.

In previous incarnations, John wrote eight books on topics as varied as surfing and billiards, was an editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and wrote articles for publications as diverse as Playboy, Smithsonian, Sports Afield, Surfer, and National Fisherman. In his younger days, he was a communications officer on a Navy fleet oiler and later was on the dive team that discovered the $20 million Spanish treasure galleon Concepcion off of the Dominican Republic.

200px-10504755110907657454.jpgHe also snorted cocaine with gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, the basis for the character Duke in Doonesbury. Seen here in a Wikipedia photo by Allen G. Arpadi, Thompson had gained widespread literary recognition in 1971 with his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In a facetious column for the old San Francisco Examiner, Thompson in 1986 described a party in Burbank’s Sheraton-Premier Hotel where “a man named Grissim tried to jump off a fifth floor balcony with a bottle of gin, but he was restrained by police, then forced under a cold shower in the hospitality lounge. His friends and associates laughed as he was taken away in a neck hold.”

John answered in his own column that while he was complimented at rating a mention from (now deceased) Hunter Thompson, “I rarely drink gin, and there are no balconies at the Sheraton-Premier.” As for the neck hold, “that lithe arm around my neck belonged to my dear friend Seka, the ash-blonde superstar who at that moment was whispering to me some small confidence. All I remember is the heat of her breath in my ear as [the then-porno actress] confessed she too was into TM — tan maintenance.”

For seven years, John was executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. For two more years, he published a lively quarterly titled Marine Watch. And in 1985, he wrote the screenplay for Jim and Artie Mitchells’ pornographic comedy The Grafenberg Spot.

100_3740.jpgIn March 1985, the film premiered at “a gala opening party,” in the words of the invitations we in the press received.

It was a media event I wouldn’t have missed.

Searchlights lit the sky in front of the O’Farrell Theater while guests inside, such as the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen (seen at right during the gala), the old San Francisco Examiner’s columnist Warren Hinkle, and writer Hunter Thompson mingled with porno stars Annette Haven and Juliet (Aunt Peg) Anderson, as well as the men and women of San Francisco’s liberal establishment.

This debut of Grissim’s film parodying the G-spot was meant to be the ultimate in porno chic. The Mitchell brothers served champagne, cracked crab, calamari cocktails, and endless mixed drinks.


Examiner columnist Warren Hinkle at the gala for The Grafenberg Spot. The G-spot is named after German gynaecologist Ernst Gräfenberg, who in 1950 claimed to have discovered it.

Of course, things went downhill from there. In a move to rein in his brother Artie, who had become addicted to cocaine and was drinking heavily, Jim in 1991 went to Artie’s house one night armed with a rifle (supposedly for his own protection) to have a talk. Instead he ended up shooting his brother. A jury convicted Jim of voluntary manslaughter, but he served only a three-year sentence in San Quentin after San Francisco’s Mayor Frank Jordan, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, and former Police Chief Richard Hongisto all urged leniency for the prominent pornographer.

Artie, sadly, is dead, but as John Grissim wrote me this week, “The G-spot lives.” His comment came in response to a March 17 Economist article on President Bush’s week-long tour of Latin America:

“Mr. Bush and Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [seen below in a UN photo], agreed to promote ethanol production and use across the region, and to cooperate on research. By fixing purity standards, they hope to make ethanol a globally tradable commodity. But Mr. Bush refused to talk about the high tariff that protects American corn farmers, whose ethanol is more costly and carbon-emitting to produce than Brazil’s.


“There was no visible progress on the Doha round of world trade talks [aimed at lowering trade barriers between countries of different wealth], though the American trade representative, Susan Schwab, spent an extra day in São Paulo to talk to Brazilian officials and industrialists. And Lula, somewhat mystifyingly, insisted that ‘we’re going firmly toward finding the so-called G-spot for making a deal.'”

The Brazilian president’s startling comment prompted Janine Warner, a former reporter at The Light, to write from Los Angeles, “To see the term G-spot used in the vernacular like that shows how far that concept has come.” To which she added, “No, I didn’t mean a pun there, really.”


Life in the wild includes a fair amount of suffering, as this raccoon with a third its tail missing bears evidence.

A couple of raccoons cut across my upper deck almost night every night an hour or two apart. In fact, a fair number of nocturnal creatures take shortcuts across my deck to avoid having to go around my cabin, and I’ve also spotted a roof rat, numerous possums, and from time to time a family of foxes.

During the day, my deck gets an entirely different crowd of visitors — mostly birds on my upper deck, lizards and frogs on my lower deck.

Not surprisingly, I’ve come to recognize which raccoon is which and tell one crow from another. So a week ago I noticed when my 8:30 p.m. raccoon failed to show up for three nights. When it finally reappeared the fourth night, the raccoon seemed more skittish than usual as it passed by.

100_3520.jpgI threw several crackers on my deck, and the raccoon returned so I could give it a closer look.

What I saw was grim. At first glance, it appeared to have lost its left eye; the socket was filled with mucous.

I snapped a photo of it to study the injury further, hoping to determine if the raccoon had been in a fight.

From all appearances, it had not, for only tissue at the front corner of the eye was torn. There were no other injuries. I kept watching for the raccoon the next few nights, and Mac Guru Keith Mathews of Point Reyes Station happened to be visiting when it showed up the second night and by then was already starting to recover.

100_3618.jpgKeith’s guess was that the raccoon had poked herself in the eye — possibly while nosing around in a hole. Made sense to me although I wouldn’t rule out a fight. I’ve seen raccoons fight, and they are ferocious in battle.

About the time the 8:30 p.m. raccoon’s eye seemed to be almost back to normal (at left), former Point Reyes Station innkeeper Dee Goodman, who is visiting from Mexico, noticed something odd about the 10:30 p.m. raccoon. Its tail looked unusually short.

I agreed and snapped another photo. Horrified, I realized the 10:30 p.m. raccoon had lost a third of its tail. This time a fight definitely seemed the most probable cause.

Losing a third of its tail would be, of course, a painful injury, but naturalist Jules Evans of Point Reyes Station on Sunday told Dee the loss should not be a permanent problem for the raccoon. Still, I pitied both animals, and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” kept coming to mind this week.


Having two injured raccoons around my cabin naturally made me wonder if they had gotten into a scrap with each other. At 1 a.m. this Thursday, however, both showed up on my deck together. While they growled at each other over crackers a few times, in general they tolerated each other, and neither appeared to fear a serious attack.

When it comes to birds, on the other hand, the casualties I see are less likely to result from the “law of the jungle” than the spread of civilization. Like most West Marin residents, I periodically flinch upon hearing a bird slam into a windowpane. Luckily at my cabin, birds usually survive their collisions unless they’ve taken off in desperation (e.g. to avoid a pouncing cat). Rather than breaking their necks by flying into the glass head-on, birds generally glance off my windows— perhaps stunned but at least able to fly.

Perhaps the oddest case of this I’ve ever seen involved a mourning dove, which glanced off an upstairs window and flew away.


What makes this incident particularly odd is that the bird left on the window not only a print of its body, wings, and head, the print included its eyeball and the ring around it. More amazing yet, the image reveals the dark feathers and light feathers on the dove’s upper wing, as well as a bit of its eyeball’s color.

So far, I have been unable to find any scientist who can explain the image on my window. The smudge is not mere dust because it could not be hosed off. If any of you know the answer, please send a comment. I’d be fascinated to learn the explanation.


I happened to photograph three Brewer’s blackbirds last Sept. 20, the day Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez drew applause at the UN by comparing President Bush’s supposed sulphuric stench to the devil’s and the day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and President Bush clashed in the General Assembly over Iran’s nuclear program. Chavez’s sarcastic comments were, in fact, mild given that the Bush Administration had taken part in a 2002 coup that tossed Chavez out of office — only to have Venezuela’s poor take to the streets and reinstall him two days later. The widespread applause Chavez and Amadinejad received in the UN General Assembly made this picture seem symbolic: Chavez (at left) eats the lunch of a frustrated President Bush (center) while Ahmadinejad ominously looks on.

Now that the Park Service has bought the farm, and rancher Rich Giacomini’s cows no longer give Point Reyes Station its traditional redolence, perhaps it’s time for a new town mascot to replace the Holstein.

Having often sat on the bench in front of the Bovine while eating a sweet roll, I would vote for the Point Reyes Station’s ubiquitous blackbird. Not only do Brewer’s blackbirds strut about the sidewalk in front of the bakery looking for crumbs, hundreds of them often flock across the street in the Bank of Petaluma’s pine trees, where their chirping creates a din that’s audible a block away.


Although set off by several white feathers, the red on a Tricolored blackbird’s wing is far less noticeable than on a Red-winged blackbird’s. Tricolors are often found in the company of Brewer’s and Red-winged blackbirds.

On Point Reyes Station’s main street, the blackbirds’ best show occurs in Spring when they brood in the trees and hedges around the bank and neighboring market. The typical drama consists of Palace Market customers parking their cars and walking through the store’s parking lot, only to suddenly flinch and look around in bewilderment after an unobserved blackbird pecks them on the head as it flies by.

Indeed, Brewer’s blackbirds seem fearless during the brooding season. I once saw a blackbird peck a housecat on the head along Mesa Road behind the bank. When a second blackbird pecked it, the cat ran across the bank’s parking lot and ducked under a car.

I was impressed that two birds could have a cat on the run, but the show was just getting underway. There was no stopping one particularly aggressive blackbird that landed under one side of the car, causing — to my amazement — the cat to dash out from under the opposite side.

Blackbirds are members of the Icteridae family, and “the big flocks of Icterids in West Marin,” Point Reyes Station ornithologist Rich Stallcup told me this week, “are made up mostly of Red-winged blackbirds — invariably with a sprinkling of Brewer’s and Tricolors.


A mix of Brewer’s and Red-winged blackbirds on my railing.

The flocks that gather on powerlines along the levee road around sunset each evening, are Red-winged blackbirds, Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evans pointed out Wednesday when we ran into each other at the post office.

100_1408.jpgBlackbirds typically head to their roosting site “from 30 minutes before sunset to 15 minutes after sunset,” researcher Gordon Boudreau of Santa Rita Technology in Menlo Park reported to the Third Vertebrate Pest Conference 40 years ago at the University of Nebraska.

Boudreau added that although the bulk of a Red-winged flock has reached the roost site by 15 minutes after sunset, “stragglers continue to arrive for an additional 15 minutes…. All but the late stragglers habitually ‘pre-roost’ on elevated perches nearby for varying lengths of time before moving into the night roosts.


“These pre-roosts may be atop their roost vegetation; it may be in trees or on powerlines a quarter to a half mile away…. Late-arriving stragglers fly directly to the night roost.”

Why do blackbirds chatter so much when they flock together? Both Stallcup and Evans attributed the noise to their being “gregarious.” Said Stallcup, “They chatter incessantly as do all animal groups that can.”

Evans added that even small shorebirds continually chatter when in flocks although usually too softly for us to hear.


The Brewer’s blackbird (seen here) is named after 19th century ornithologist Thomas Mayo Brewer of Boston. Brewer’s blackbirds (Euphagus cynanocephalus) are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but their survival, Wikipedia notes, is of the “least concern” among protected birds.

In fact, most ornithologists don’t consider the Brewer’s blackbird a “migratory species” at all. The birds do, however, move from place to place seeking abundant sources of food, which for them is mostly insects, spiders, and (particularly in Fall and Winter) seeds.

“During the day,” Boudreau reported, “wintering blackbirds alternately feed and then loaf, depending on the availability of food. Feeding in open fields is usually [done] in leapfrog fashion, in which all move in one direction, the rear birds rising and landing ahead of [those in front].

“If undisturbed, this feeding pattern continues until the end of the field is reached whereupon the flock may move to another spot in the field or fly to a different area.”


Ornithologist Rich Stallcup of Point Reyes Station on Wednesday noted that “at least some of the birds” in this field uphill from my cabin are Tricolored blackbirds.” (At upper right, for example.) Tricolors are nearly “endemic” in California although their worldwide population is small, Stallcup added.

While blackbirds benefit agriculture by eating enormous amounts of caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and other destructive insects, they can also consume large amounts of grain and seed. And when in season, fruit and nuts are also part of their diets.

At the third Vertebrate Pest Conference held back in 1967, researcher Boudreau revealed he had found a way for farmers and ranchers to avoid losing grain, seed, and nuts to Red-winged blackbirds. After experimenting with scarecrows, explosions, shotguns etc., he concluded the only control that works is “biosonic.”

The trick is to tape record the alarm call of each kind of blackbird, which is quite “species specific,” Boudreau reported. These alarm sounds are then “amplified and projected at the birds through loudspeakers. The method is highly effective if the proper sounds are used….

“[An alarm call] indicates the presence of a predator and is usually well developed in gregarious species.” Blackbirds tend, Boudreau had observed, “to avoid areas where these sounds are present.”

Interesting aside: By 1979, twelve years after Boudreau presented his findings, Lee Martin of BlueBird Enterprises in Fresno told a subsequent University of Nebraska conference that by then biosonic controls were in use internationally to keep gulls away from major airports. He suggested they also be used to keep migrating birds from resting at industrial-waste ponds where they frequently ingest lethal amounts of waste materials.

I’ve yet to hear any biosonic blasts of bird alarms in West Marin, which suggests the local blackbird population isn’t too serious a problem for all the ranches, airports, and industry here. Just for housecats and springtime shoppers at the Palace Market.

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