History


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This is a belated review of an entertaining linguistic book, A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings. It was originally published five years ago by Ten-Speed Press. My wife Lynn gave it to me for Christmas.  The author, Matt Sewell, is a Canadian ornithologist, illustrator, and artist who has exhibited in London, Manchester, New York, Tokyo, and Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As most of us know, a group of geese is called a “gaggle” — but if the geese are flying in formation — the proper term is “skein,” writes Sewell. The term “comes from an old French word for ‘V’ Formation.”

Some group names are grim but accurate. Here a “wake” of vultures divvy up a skunk killed by an owl.

Virtually every night at Mitchell cabin we can hear a “band” of coyotes howling.

Groups of coyotes are called “bands” although to my mind, “choirs” would be more accurate. Sewell notes that “outside of their guarded family units, coyotes hang together in unrelated gangs, scavenging and doing whatever coyotes do.”

A “sulk” of foxes atop a shed at Toby’s Feed Barn. These were spotted by postal staff outside a postoffice window.

 

A “plague” of rats. Given my recent experience with roof rats, I would second the group name “plague.” Roof rats found their way into my car’s engine compartment around Christmas and chewed wiring, piled up debris, and damaged the car’s computer. The final tab at garages in Point Reyes Staton and Santa Rosa to repair the damage came to more than $2,500.

 

A “trip” of rabbits.

Sewell frequently indulges his ironic sense of humor. Describing how groups of rabbits came to be called “trips,” Sewell writes: “Now, some of you may be thinking: the trip would be to follow the white rabbit down the rabbit hole.  Sadly not: this term is from the 15th century, not the 1960s Jefferson Airplane lyric, or even Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which inspired the song. It is, in fact, about as psychedelic as a turnip patch.

“A colony of rabbits is a flighty bunch — not surprisingly, as the whole world is their enemy…. They are rarely safe for long, not when they’re hunted by hawks and owls, weasels, foxes, domestic pets, and humans, to name just a few.”

As noted previously, “jackrabbit” is short for “jackass rabbit,” a nickname it got because of its ears.

A “lounge” of lizards. This is a blue-belly lizard on the wall of our cabin.

 

Lizards are cold-blooded “so they need to warm up from the sun or on warm stones.”

“It’s this lounging that gets them into trouble though as lizards are easy prey in this laid-back state.

“If they are cruelly snatched, lizards at least have a last-gasp mechanism for freedom: they can release their tail, which will wriggle around in the predator’s mouth, confusing the daylights out of it while the lizard makes a dash for the undergrowth.”

I hope it gets there safely.

Caveat lectorem: When readers submit comments, they are asked if they want to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. A number of people have said they do. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.

This week’s puns are from a book, which (to my surprise) I found at West Marin Pharmacy, and gave Lynn for Christmas: Dad Jokes, the Good, The Bad, The Terrible, by Jimmy Niro. Most of this posting outlines the various minor calamities that have befallen this household of late. Also included are three amazing photos of wildlife.

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Yesterday a clown held the door open for me. I thought it was a nice jester.

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My wife Lynn was cooking Christmas dinner when our oven quit working. She had finished most of the meal but never got to bake any potatoes. Nor was there any baked turkey. None was available after Thanksgiving. Nor could she find fresh cranberries. Supply chain issues? 

Having grown up in a Jewish household, Christmas was not part of her holidays. Lynn opted to cook eggnog-coated, breaded pork cutlets instead. Pork was a frequent meal in her childhood household, notwithstanding some stereotypes. The faux-kosher meal, which included previously baked yams and turkey stuffing sans turkey, was delicious.

After we ate, Lynn contacted large-appliance repairman David Brast of Inverness. She told him a section of the oven coil had gotten very bright, and a huge amount of steam had emerged from a stovetop coil. Then the oven stopped working. He said, “That wasn’t steam. That was smoke.” Brast quickly figured out the problem, sent away for parts, and agreed to come over and fix it this Thursday, which he did. 

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The lady helping me at the bank has a big stain on her blouse. Should I teller?

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The day after Christmas my car developed its own problems. Dashboard lights started telling me to “check engine” and showed tires skidding. Monday when I took my 12-year-old Lexus to Cheda’s Garage, mechanic Tim Bunce quickly figured out the problem. Rats had gotten into the engine compartment, chewed on the wiring, and started to build a nest.

Cheda’s too had to send away for parts, but it turned out the rats had also damaged an injector harness for the engine’s computer. Now I have to take the car to Santa Rosa to get the harness replaced and the computer reprogrammed. Goddamn, it doesn’t sound cheap! Which raises the question….

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How does the Vatican pay bills? They use Papal.

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The car and oven breakdowns came on the heels of the smoke detector in Mitchell cabin starting to give off a bird-like chirp every minute or so when the air was cold. That has now been fixed, but I’m wondering what will go wrong next.

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“Dad, I’m cold,” his son said. “Go stand in the corner,” replied the father. “It’s 90 degrees.”

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There are times reality can be as humorous as puns. We’ve been hearing coyotes howl every night for months, so I was particularly intrigued by the “People’s Choice” award winner of this year’s Living with Wildlife photo contest sponsored by WildCare. 

Photographer Janet Kessler managed to snap a shot of a coyote knocking down a “Don’t Feed Coyotes” sign.                                                                                                      

 

This photo of a peregrine falcon taken by Carlos Porrata of Inverness won the “Best in Show” award.

And this photo of a badger, which Porrata also submitted, was among the contest’s finalists.

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A doctor made it his regular habit to stop at a bar for a hazelnut daiquiri on his way home from work each night. The bartender knew of his habit and would alway have the drink waiting at precisely 5:03 p.m.

One afternoon, as the end of the workday approached, the bartender was dismayed to find that he was out of hazelnut extract. Thinking quickly, he threw together a daiquiri made with hickory nuts and set it on the bar.

The doctor came in at his regular time, took one sip of the drink, and exclaimed, “This isn’t a hazelnut daiquiri.”

“No, I’m sorry,” replied the bartender. “It’s a hickory daiquiri, Doc.”

 

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Birthday lunch. Maddy Sobel of Point Reyes Station (standing) took my wife Lynn and me out for lunch at the Station House Cafe Tuesday to celebrate my 78th birthday.

Because of Covid restrictions, the cafe’s only seating was outdoors in the garden, which was attractive but chilly enough to warrant my wearing a hood while eating.

Now in my 79th year, I’m enjoying myself but have problems walking and remembering things. In short, I am definitely slowing down.

When I was born on Nov. 23, 1943, the US was about halfway through our involvement in World War II. My parents and I were living in the Marina District of San Francisco, and though I was too young to understand what I was seeing, my parents later told of freight trains chugging past the Marina Green carrying tanks and other military vehicles to ships heading off for the war in the Pacific.

The one thing I do remember of the war was the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. China had been our ally against Japan, and the surrender prompted a massive celebration in Chinatown. Hearing about it, my mother loaded great aunt Amy and me into our family’s Pontiac and drove across town so we could see it first hand. The merriment no doubt was exciting, but as a two year old, I found it terrifying. Firecrackers were exploding everywhere, and as we headed up Grant Avenue, they started raining down on our car from overhead balconies. The traffic was so heavy, mom couldn’t immediately drive away, and for the next couple of years, loud noises — even from kids’ cap guns — frightened me.

Merely growing up in the United States has meant my lifetime’s been filled with warfare: World War II (1941-45); the Korean War (1950-53); the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian Wars (1956-75); two wars in Iraq (1990-91 and 2014-17); and the Afghan War (2001-present). I never fought in any of these wars, but I did witness a couple of others. In 1984, while working as a reporter for The San Francisco Examiner, I was sent to Central America to cover the wars then being fought in El Salvador and Guatemala. All this left me with a sense that the world is never going to be peaceful, at least not in my lifetime.

Just keeping happy is enough for me these days. I spend afternoons carrying armloads of firewood into the living room and spend evenings sitting by the fireplace, smoking, listening to jazz from an earlier era, and chatting with Lynn when she’s not in the bedroom watching British murder mysteries on the TV. Keep calm and carry on, she says.

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Seven of the nine deer that often show up together these days in the field below Mitchell cabin.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated that well over half the roughly 560,000 deer in California are Columbian blacktails, the deer native to West Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.

For years many people believed (and many websites still say) that blacktails are a subspecies of mule deer, a species found from the Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest and as far east as the Dakotas. DNA tests, however, have now found mule deer to be a hybrid of female whitetail deer and blacktail bucks. Or so says author Valerius Geist in Mule Deer Country.

Whitetails first appeared on the East Coast about 3.5 million years ago. DNA evidence suggests they spread south and then west, arriving in California about 1.5 million years ago.

In moving up the coast, whitetails evolved into blacktails, which resemble them in appearance and temperament. Blacktails eventually extended their range eastward, meeting up with more whitetails coming from the east. 

“Apparently the blacktail bucks [as seen here] were able to horn in on the harems of their parent species. The result: mule deer. Mule deer are so named because of their long ears.

Our word “deer” comes from the Old English word “deor,” which referred to animals in general, of course including deer. In Middle English, the language of Chaucer (c.1343-1400), the word was spelled “der,” and The American Heritage Dictionary notes it could refer to all manner of creatures, including “a fish, an ant, or a fox.” Or as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Mice and rats, and such small deer,/ Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.”

A buck sniffs a doe to determine whether she’s in heat.

“Deer rely heavily on scent for communication, especially during the mating season,” writes Jane Meggitt in Mating and Communication Behavior of Deer. “Certain gland secretions mix with urine, which gives deer information about the sex and reproductive state of other deer in their vicinity.”

“Before the actual mating, does play ‘hard to get’ for several days. The buck chases a doe, and she eventually allows him to ‘catch’ her.

“After copulating several times over a period of a few days, the buck stays with the doe for a few more days until she is [no longer in heat]. He stays by her to keep other bucks away,” Meggitt writes.

“When he leaves, he might go on to find other does with which to mate. If the doe doesn’t get pregnant during that cycle, she goes into another estrus cycle within three to four weeks…. After an approximately seven-month pregnancy, a doe gives birth to her fawn, or fawns.

“It isn’t unusual for healthy, well-nourished does to give birth to twins or triplets. Fawns found alone aren’t usually abandoned. Their mother is nearby, but out of sight. Does and fawns vocalize to let each other know of their whereabouts. If a predator threatens a fawn, the mother stamps her forefeet, snorts and might try to drive the threatening animal — or person — away,” Meggitt adds.

Two bucks ignore each in passing. The older deer in the foreground initially eyed the younger buck to see if it would try to horn in on his harem. It didn’t, and the old guy soon lost interest.

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A Cal Fire helicopter on Thursday crosses Inverness Ridge to drop water on a containment line for the Woodward Fire in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Smoke from back-burns rises through the forest.

The Woodward Fire, which was started by a lightning strike Aug. 18, was 85 percent contained by this evening after having grown to more than 4,800 acres. Part of the containment has included setting back-burns along Limantour Road. Full containment is expected by Tuesday.

Smoke from the fire has at times made the air in much of West Marin unhealthy, and smoke from hot spots may last for months, the Park Service has warned.

Vidas Negras Importan

The Black Lives Matter movement is sometimes getting overshadowed by the chaos at just a very few of the hundreds of protests around the country. In these isolated cases, looters and vandals have taken advantage of there being crowds in downtown areas. On at least one occasion, however, a covert white supremacist damaged property during a protest to discredit the protesters. Despite all this, only 7 percent of all the protests nationwide have had such problems, The Washington Post reported this past week.

 In an effort to refocus public attention on what the movement is really all about — stopping the unwarranted killing of Black people by overly aggressive police officers in several cities — I came up with a sign in Spanish. Its intent is to show that criticism of the killings transcends the Black and Anglo Saxon communities.

Maddy Sobel, who often sell jams and jellies in front of the Point Reyes Station post office, is also an artist, and she illustrated one of my signs. Her thought is that if I make some copies of her illustration, she can give them to kids to color with crayons. Sounds good to me. I gave another copy to Toby’s Coffee Bar, and you can see it displayed there without illustration.

Bumping elbows but not shaking handsFrom left: Phil Jennings, yours truly, and Gordon Jones

Before the pandemic and sheltering in place, I went to the No Name Bar in Sausalito to listen to live jazz every Friday night. Sunday afternoon, two friends from the No Name dropped by for an outdoor visit. I gave them both copies of the sign, and Jones was so enthusiastic he said he may have it imprinted on t-shirts.

My own family’s efforts to get justice for Blacks date from before the Civil War. My great-grandfather Luke Parsons was a member of John Brown’s Army but did not take part in the debacle at Harper’s Ferry. Instead he went on to command a Union Army company of Native Americans fighting in the Oklahoma Territory.

My late father was a Republican who supported the NAACP.  I formally joined the movement in the spring of 1968 while I was teaching high school in Leesburg, Florida. At the time, Willis V. McCall was the sheriff of Lake County, Florida, where Leesburg is located. He had come to be called the worst sheriff in the US and in private bragged he’d “killed more n-ggers” than any other man.

When McCall came up for reelection in 1968, a well-regarded Leesburg police officer ran against him, and I signed up to canvass voters in Black neighborhoods for the challenger. Unfortunately, McCall again won but was defeated four years later after yet another cruelty: a mentally impaired Black man was kicked to death in the Lake County jail.

Civil rights activist Julian Bond (center) in 1970 with members of an Upper Iowa University group, the Brotherhood, who had invited him to speak on campus. While he was studying at Morehouse College in the early 1960s, Bond had established the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a.k.a. SNCC (pronounced “Snick”).

In the fall of 1968 I began teaching English and journalism at Upper Iowa University and the next semester became a faculty advisor to the new Black student union. As the group explained in a flyer: “The Brotherhood was founded and chartered in February 1969. It is an organized group open to anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of Black culture…

“Under the able leadership of our past president, Rick Weber, and the helpful assistance of our advisors, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. [Robert] Schenck, the Brotherhood has enriched campus life by promoting various social functions, such as the annual Black Night.” Besides that variety show, the Brotherhood has sponsored “an inter-racial forum, and a play, A Raisin in the Sun. Our biggest accomplishment was, of course, acquisition of a Black Cultural House.”

Half a century later, I still recall advising the Brotherhood as one of my most informative experiences.

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Last week’s drama of wildfire, politics, and coronavirus continues, and none of it is better.

The Woodward Fire in the Point Reyes National Seashore had grown to more than 2,800 acres and was only 8 percent contained as of this morning despite more than 10 days of ground and aerial (seen above) firefighting. Residents south of Inverness Park on Silverhills Road, Fox Drive, and Noren Way have been ordered to evacuate.

Because the fire started near the Woodward Valley Trail on the ocean side of Inverness Ridge, it was named the Woodward Fire. And where does that name come from? In 1890, some members of San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club formed what they called “the Country Club” in the area for hunting, fishing, and socializing, Inverness historian Dewey Livingston told me this week. The hunting club building was at Divide Meadow. As it happened, two of the original members were brothers, Henry and Robert Woodward, and the trail is named after them.

A red moon rose through the smoke Monday.

A pin given to me by Inverness friends Sunday takes note of a serious national security problem.

And while the fire raged,  Republicans again nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate although on Sunday night he retweeted misleading Russian propaganda about his Democratic opponent Joe Biden’s communications with the Ukraine. Significantly, the US intelligence community had already identified the propaganda as part of Moscow’s ongoing effort to “denigrate” the Democrat ahead of the November election.

“The President of the United States should never be a willing mouthpiece for Russian propaganda,” responded Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

More bad news. Osteria Stellina on Point Reyes Station’s main street served its last meals Tuesday. Lynn and I had one last dinner there Monday. (She’s placing her order with a masked waitress at left.)

In the midst of the pandemic, with customers having been relocated to tables set up in a parking lane of C Street, owner Christian Caiazzo announced that for financial reasons he was closing the upscale Italian restaurant. He will now operate a pizzeria in Petaluma.

Deer Naked Ladies. In front of Mitchell cabin Saturday, two does, each with a fawn, grazed beside a patch of Naked Ladies, as Belladonna Lilies are commonly called. They were all very cute.

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The rainbow-striped LGBTQ pride flag was created in 1978, and three years ago in Philadelphia, a black stripe and a brown stripe were added. The flag initially symbolized support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, who are often discriminated against. The black stripe and the brown stripe were added to explicitly support brown and black LGBTQ people.

Three weeks ago, our board of supervisors voted to fly the Philadelphia flag at county buildings throughout Marin during national Pride Month, which is June. I first saw it last week flying in front of the firehouse and sheriff’s substation in Point Reyes Station. Few other people seem to have noticed; today while I was doing my “essential business” at the Palace Market, the post office, the gas station, and the pharmacy, I didn’t encounter anyone who was aware of the flag flying in town. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

A flock of Brown Pelicans over Mitchell cabin Sunday evening, probably headed for Drakes Estero.

A family of quail in our field Sunday. Perhaps because quail once had a reputation for being particularly amorous, “quail” in times past also was a word for “harlot.” In “Troilus and Cressida,” for example, Shakespeare wrote that Agamemnon is “an honest fellow and one who loves quails.”

A female wild turkey landed on the railing of our deck Friday to partake of seeds we’d scattered there for other, smaller birds.

It would be hard to imagine an uglier neck than a wild turkey’s — unless you’re another wild turkey. “When the male turkey gets to courting the hens,” the Audubon Society reports, “extra blood rushes in, and the wattle glows bright scarlet for maximum visual impact.”

The wattle consists of a “wrinkly mass of bumpy, warty-looking red skin,” Audubon notes. “On a hot day, with the sun bearing down, the bare skin of neck and wattle helps release excess heat. Birds don’t sweat.”

News that the Station House Café in Point Reyes Station will close at the end of this month has shocked many of us in West Marin and has generated newspaper and TV attention throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Owner Sheryl Cahill says the new owner of the restaurant building wants to up the rent to approximately $700 per day, which she can’t afford. She hopes she can eventually reopen somewhere else.

For years while I edited and published The Point Reyes Light, I ate breakfast there almost daily and often used my mealtime to also pick up news tips, so I’m particularly chagrined by the upcoming closure. In fact, the newspaper and the restaurant have been associated in various ways for more than 50 years, beginning when the paper was published by Don DeWolfe and called The Baywood Press. Back then, the restaurant, which was located where Osteria Stellina is today, was operated by historian Jack Mason of Inverness, a retired Oakland Tribune editor.

Mason, who bought the restaurant in 1966, also wrote Funny Old World for DeWolfe’s paper, and years later in the same column, he described what the restaurant and DeWolfe were like back then. The column was reprinted in our 2013 book, The Light on the Coast. In case you missed it, here it is again:

By Jack Mason

“I’ve got an idea,” Don DeWolfe said.

I laid his medium-rare hamburger on the counter in front of him. “If so, it’s the first time,” I said, in the kidding tone one uses with an old friend, even if he is the local editor.

He didn’t bother to parry the thrust, but handed me a mustard container he had been fiddling with. “This one’s empty,” he said.

I gave him another from under the counter.

“What’s your idea?” I said. My interest was only lukewarm. Certainly I was not flattered that he would ask me for my opinion. Editors do that — ask everybody in the place what they think, then do their own thing regardless. It’s the way Great Battles have been fought and lost since the dawn of time.

He squeezed some of the brown stuff onto his hamburger patty, then pressed down hard on the bun as if afraid the meat might get away. Those were quarter-pound hamburgers I served at the Station House in 1966 — and the buns all had sesame seeds on top.

Jack Mason as owner of the Station House Café in 1967.

“The coffee will be ready in a minute,” I said. “We had a couple of customers in here awhile back, and they drank it like it was going out of style.”

“You mean you have other customers?” Don exclaimed. He dug into his burger, reaching for a napkin. “This napkin holder is empty,” he said.

I pushed one towards him from further down the counter, just as the phone rang. “Probably Willi Reinhardt,” I said. “The toilets are plugged up. That ought to take care of your crack about other customers!”

But it was Bob Vilas at the bank. “Jack,” he said, “these checks you wrote Farmer Brothers and Schwartz’ Meat Company last week. What do you expect me to do with them?”

In red-faced confusion, I told Bob it was good of him to call, and said I would be right over to take care of it, as soon as I got rid of my customer.

“You have a customer?”

“Yeah, Don DeWolfe.”

Standing beside his printing press, DeWolfe in 1967 looks over his recently renamed newspaper. Back then the newspaper was produced in the building where Rob Janes Tax Service, Coastal Marin Real Estate, and Epicenter clothing boutique are today.

“Well, tell Don for me, will you, that I think his new idea is great!”

I was really taken aback. “You mean he’s tried the idea out on you? What is it?”

“You don’t know?” Bob cried. “I thought everybody on the street was in on it.”

I hung up, stung, and stood there for a moment letting my anger cool. Here I’d been writing a column for DeWolfe — free. Writing editorials in my spare time, absolutely free of charge! And I’m the last one on the street to know about this great, world-shaking idea of his!

“What is it — I mean, your idea?” I demanded.

He was wiping his hands on four paper napkins at once. Finally he rolled them up into one big ball and dropped them in the green hamburger basket.

“Oh,” he said. “The idea.”

“Yeah, you’ve told everybody else. How about telling old Jack?”

He worked his way off the stool, and pulled some small change out of his pocket — and I mean small. “How much is a hamburger?”

“Did you have cheese on it?”

“No, I can’t eat cheese.”

“Fifty cents. And don’t bother to leave a tip.” I dropped his five dimes and three pennies in the cash drawer. The spring was broken, so we always left the drawer open.

“My idea,” he said, “is to change the name of the paper.”

I felt let down. “What’s wrong with The Baywood Press. It’s been called that for 16 years. It has tradition behind it. People are used to it. Why change it?”

“I thought Point Reyes Light would tie in better with the area,” he said. He inspected me momentarily for my reaction. “I’ll think it over,” I said.

He had to bring all his weight to bear against the door before he could let himself out — the pneumatic catch was stuck. Then he stood there a moment screwing his mouth into an odd shape.

“This is the only hamburger joint I was ever in,” he said, “that didn’t have toothpicks by the cash register.”

The name Baywood Press was changed to Point Reyes Light with the issue of September 8, 1966.

— March 2, 1978

The next posting on SparselySageAndTimely.com will reminisce about the restaurant in more recent times.

Well, hello there. In West Marin, the past couple of weeks have been full of surprises, such as this inquisitive gopher snake which greeted me as I headed down the driveway Thursday.

It was a good-sized snake, more than four feet long. The snake eyed me as I leaned over it but made no attempt to slither off.

Smoke from a fire at the old Foresters Hall in Point Reyes Station drifted over the town on Friday, April 24. The blaze damaged the northeastern exterior of the landmark, including a porch and staircase. Water damage to two apartments forced the tenants to move out. (Marin County Fire provided this photo)

The Foresters of America, a benevolent group, opened a chapter, Court No. 219, in Point Reyes Station in 1905. Its members began designing the hall in 1916. When I arrived in West Marin 45 years ago, the building was called the Sandcastle Gallery, which Jeanne Booras and her husband Bill operated. Kathryn de Laszlo and Stephen Marshall of Petaluma now own the building. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. (Sheriff’s artistic photo)

Another surprise. Sheriff’s deputies in Bolinas on Sunday, April 27, arrested a bicyclist allegedly toting bags of methamphetamine and armed with a loaded revolver, as well as multiple knives, on charges he had just stabbed a friend during an argument. The suspect, Derek James, 39, of Bolinas was jailed with bail set at $50,000.

Last week, Marin County eased the coronavirus lockdown enough at golf courses to allow residents here to play but with groups limited to two people. No doubt many golfers were happy, but evidence for the Marin Independent Journal’s headline was hard to spot in its photo of golfer Nate Siedman from Bolinas.

A small bone surprised us by showing up beside our birdbath Wednesday, and I’m fairly sure a raven brought it there for rinsing. From appearances, it is a chicken bone probably found in someone’s garbage.

For a few years now, ravens have occasionally used our birdbath for preparing dinner. Here a raven brings a mouse’s head to the birdbath for washing.

Obviously feeling at home, raccoons often take naps on our deck at night, which makes us feel — surprise — like housemates.

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This posting was written in 2011, and year in and year out since then, it has continued to draw surprisingly steady readership. With Easter Sunday coming up this weekend, I thought it might be fun to post it again.

Easter will be celebrated on Sunday, making this an appropriate time to ask: do you know where the word comes from? Easter is never mentioned in the Bible. In fact, Easter as we know it originated in the pagan world.

This story begins with Gregory the Great (above), who was pope from 590 to 604. At the time, England was populated by pagan Anglo-Saxons, and this prompted Pope Gregory to send a mission to England to convert them to Catholicism.

The conversions would be easier, Pope Gregory wrote Archbishop Mellitus, if those being converted were allowed to retain their pagan traditions. They would simply be told that their rituals, in fact, honored the Christian God.

Missionaries should accommodate the Anglo-Saxons in this way, as the pope put it, “to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.”

Among the “gratifications” permitted were Easter festivities, which had been a pagan celebration of spring. Because the actual date of Jesus’ death is unknown, the missionaries could tell the Anglo-Saxons that their spring celebration should go on as always but to understand it was really all about Jesus’ resurrection.

This redirecting of traditions was so successful that the church then used it to convert pagans in the Netherlands and Germany.

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The Venerable Bede is responsible for our knowing the origin of the word Easter.

A Christian scholar, the Venerable Bede (672-735), a century later wrote that Easter took its name from Eostre, also known as Eastre. Eostre  was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe.

Similarly, some of the Teutonic names for the goddess of dawn and fertility (above) were Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, and Eastur. These names were derived from an old Germanic word for spring, “eastre.”

Since ancient times, spring has been seen as a time of fertility, so it was not surprising that among the pagan symbols of the season were rabbits (because large litters are born in early spring) and decorated eggs (because wild birds lay eggs in spring).

Bizarrely, these pagan symbols became so intertwined that Easter Bunnies ended up distributing Easter Eggs.

And so it was that in this roundabout way Pope Gregory I unintentionally helped bring about a goofy bunny’s becoming associated with….

the resurrection of Jesus, who is seen appearing to Mary Magdalene as she weeps outside his tomb.

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