The Point Reyes Light Newspaper


In our willingness to do anything to get a photograph, we wildlife photographers, like paparazzi, sometimes seem to have no shame. If you’d seen me on my deck in my shorts Friday snapping pictures of a coyote, I’m sure you would agree.

As it happened, I’d spent the afternoon using a Weed Wacker to cut back grass along both sides of my driveway, which is about a tenth of a mile long. Needing to wash up after the work, I had taken a shower and was just starting to get dressed when I looked out my bedroom window and spotted a large coyote in the field below.

Without pausing to pull on a shirt or trousers, I grabbed my camera and hurried outside as quietly as I could so as not to scare the critter away. By now, the coyote had crossed my field and was nosing around near my parked cars.

I wondered if it was sniffing around for this doe I’d spotted by my cars earlier.

The coyote stuck around long enough for me to take its picture before it disappeared into a clump of (appropriately enough) coyote brush. As soon as it did, I called my neighbor Jay Haas about the sighting, and from his vantage point, he managed to spot the coyote too.

A bobcat wanders around a car belonging to two guests.

I don’t know what it is about my parking area, but it attracts wildlife as if it were a watering hole in the Serengeti Plain.

I’ve been able to photograph both predators and prey hanging around my cars — coyotes and deer, bobcats and rabbits  — as well as wild turkeys, great blue herons, and countless other birds.

A brush rabbit, also known as a cottontail.

Near the bottom of my driveway is the top of my neighbors Skip and Renée Shannon’s driveway, and they have their own ecosystem of squirrels, crows, hawks, and owls.

Fledgling great horned owl. Photo by Renée Shannon

Renée, who is the business manager and ad director for The Point Reyes Light, last month told me Skip had been outside when a young great-horned owl fluttered down from a pine tree and landed in the grass. Skip quickly called to Renée to get her camera, and she was able to photograph the bird before it managed to fly a short distance and land on a woodpile.

Renée then phoned ornithologist Jules Evens of Point Reyes Station, and he caught the fledging owl and took it with him to a Tomales Bay Watershed Council meeting in the National Seashore.

“Someone at the meeting was on her way to San Rafael, so I gave the owl box to her, and she delivered it to Wildcare (Patient #488),” Jules told me later. “Apparently it had a fairly common blood bacterium [found] in owls and hawks.” The “prognosis,” he added, was “not good.”

Mystery skulls. Photo by Linda Petersen

My story took an odd turn a week ago when Renée’s counterpart at The West Marin Citizen, Linda Petersen of Point Reyes Station, discovered two animal skulls on the ground between her garbage cans and back fence. The immediate question was: what kind of animal?

Linda checked skull photos online and decided they looked like pig skulls. I emailed photos of the skulls to Jules and to Chileno Valley rancher Mike Gale, and both agreed Linda was probably right. “They appear to be medium-size porkers,” Mike wrote back.

That, however, doesn’t explain how the skulls ended up on the ground between Linda’s garbage cans and back fence. Did someone hold a luau and chuck pig heads over her fence? “Pretty rude of someone to toss them into her yard, eh?” Jules mused.

A group of mostly West Marin residents calling themselves Marin Media Institute last Friday bought The Point Reyes Light from Robert I. Plotkin, who had owned it four and a half years.

Having owned The Light for 27 of its 62 years, I’ve been following the developments closely.

The paper plans to incorporate as a nonprofit with scientist Corey Goodman of Marshall as chairman of the board and journalist Mark Dowie of Inverness as vice chairman.

Tess Elliott will remain as editor, and ad director Renée Shannon has been promoted to business manager. Missy Patterson, 83, who has worked at The Light for 28 years, will continue as front-office manager.

From left: Missy Patterson shows off the new look of The Light, which once again has the Point Reyes Lighthouse in its front-page flag; editor Tess Elliott; and business manager Renée Shannon, who holds an issue with the  flag Plotkin had used.

Eighty-six contributors ponied up $350,000 to: 1) buy The Light; 2) provide two years of working capital; 3) pay for a professional appraisal; and 4) cover the the legal costs of the sale, of incorporation, and of creating a nonprofit. Goodman said the price of The Light was confidential, but based on all this, I would guess it was in the $150,000 to $175,000 range.

In The Light’s Jan. 15, 2009, issue, Plotkin wrote that although he’d paid me $500,000 for the newspaper three years earlier, he’d been trying to sell it for $275,000 but had found no takers. It would be a “financial bloodbath,” Plotkin added, but “I was prepared to discount the price even more.” The Light at the time was “losing between $5,000 and $15,000 a month,” he reported.

Across the country newspapers were losing money, Plotkin wrote, so “this is not unique to The Light, although there have been some aggravating factors, namely myself….

My sensibility is at odds with many in the community.”

Of that there was no doubt. “During the first couple of years under the last publisher,” editor Elliott wrote this week, [The Light] lost one third of its subscribers; the effects of those years continue to reverberate. Our reporters still regularly hear complaints and flat out refusals to talk.”

In an article for The Columbia Journalism Review two years ago, Jonathan Rowe of Point Reyes Station wrote: “First, there was the braggadocio and self-dramatization. Most people in his situation would lay low for a bit, speak with everyone and get a feel for the place. Instead, Plotkin came out talking.

“We read that he was going to be the ‘Che Guevara of literary revolutionary journalism.’ The Light would become The New Yorker of the West…. [However] he soon showed a gift for the irritating gesture and off-key note.”

I encountered Plotkin’s “snarkiness” (Rowe’s word) almost as soon as I sold him the paper. When I tried to background him on a land-use planning issue in February 2006, he became abusive, and we had a falling out.

Plotkin (at right) then began publishing such malicious attacks on me that columnist Jon Carroll felt moved to complain in The San Francisco Chronicle about Plotkin’s “sleazy” editing.

I had been volunteering an occasional column after the sale, but I naturally stopped when Plotkin began maligning me. Joel Hack, who owns The Bodega Bay Navigator website in Sonoma County, then invited me to submit stories, and I did.

When I sold The Light to Plotkin, I had agreed not to write for another Marin County newspaper as long as he owned all the stock in The Light. Upset that my writings were now online, Plotkin then claimed in court that a Sonoma County website is no different from a Marin County newspaper. Now-retired Judge Jack Sutro, who appeared not to understand the Internet, agreed and issued injunctions against Hack and me.

But it was a disastrous victory for Plotkin. Hack would eventually respond by launching the competing West Marin Citizen, which cut significantly into The Light’s revenues. The Citizen quickly grew in circulation while The Light’s circulation was plummeting, with many of its readers switching papers. The Citizen likewise picked up a number of Light advertisers who were unhappy with Plotkin’s editorial “sensibility.”

In getting a court to bar my writing for Hack’s website, Plotkin — to paraphrase the Book of Hosea — sewed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

As for Plotkin, how does he explain his publishing debacle? “Sadly, West Marin did not want editorial excellence,” he told The Chronicle this week. “They wanted a newspaper that would record their births, celebrate their accomplishments, and habitually congratulate them on living here.”

Last weekend, the new owners notified the press of Friday’s sale but embargoed their news release until this Thursday. Nonetheless, the moment the sale occurred, word of it spread throughout West Marin. Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station told me she returned home Friday after a month in Paris and in less than 24 hours had been filled in on most details.

Technically, The Light is now owned by The Point Reyes Light Publishing Company L3C (a low-profit limited liability company). It is incorporated in Vermont, which is common for L3Cs. That company is, in turn, owned by Marin Media Institute, which is applying for nonprofit status.

Mark Dowie (left) and Corey Goodman with the sign that once hung over The Light’s front door.

Along with Goodman and Dowie, directors of Marin Media are David Escobar of Contra Costa County, aide to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, also active in Democratic, Latino and Native American politics; Chris Dressler of Marshall, former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Women’s Voices, Women Vote; Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley,  former coastal commissioner and co-founder of Marin Agricultural Land Trust; Jerry Mander of Bolinas, author, former ad agency president, and founder of an anti-globalization think tank; David Miller of Inverness Park, international-development specialist; Scoop Nisker of Oakland, Spirit Rock Meditation Center teacher and former KSAN newsman; Norman Solomon of Inverness Park, journalist and political activist.

There are too many contributors to list here. Contributions ranged “from a few dollars to $50,000,” Goodman said.

The question currently on many people’s minds is what will happen to The Citizen now that The Light is being revitalized. I had hoped to see the two papers merge, but a merged operation became difficult when the new owners of The Light decided to create a nonprofit.

However, both Hack and Goodman told me this week that the option of combining the two papers “is still on the table” although nothing is likely to happen right away.

Hack (above), who is justifiably proud of what The Citizen has accomplished in a little less than three years, isn’t interested in simply selling out and walking away. His paper’s hyper-local coverage of public gatherings and West Marin commerce, along with its publishing of innumerable submissions from readers, has been popular with many residents and merchants.

The Light, in turn, has made its mark with investigative reporting ever since Elliott took full charge of its newsroom.

For the past month, some people have been saying The Citizen is about to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and go out of business, but Hack insists there is no truth to the rumor. The only money he and his wife Kathy Simmons owe is about $25,000 in state and federal income taxes, Hack said. They have filed for Chapter 13 protection, which will allow them to pay off this relatively small amount over three years without incurring additional penalties for late payments.

That’s all that’s going on, and it in no way threatens The Citizen. In fact, the state and federal governments benefit from The Citizen’s staying in business because it gives Hack a source of income to pay the back taxes.

I have friends at both papers, and I hope both have profitable futures. Most of Marin Media’s directors are known to me, and I respect them. I also have a high regard for the contributors. I’m delighted they are reinvigorating my old newspaper and wish them well.

I also hope the community continues to support The Citizen. The changes at The Light have obviously changed the dynamics between the two papers, and I would be surprised if each didn’t find its own niche — which will probably require some adapting.

The Light and The Citizen have each invited me to periodically submit columns and articles, and I’ve agreed to write for both. It’s been a long winter, but springtime has finally arrived.

Former Point Reyes Light reporter Ivan Gale married Annalene MacLew Sept. 5 in Johannasburg, South Africa, and he is now briefly back in West Marin introducing her to friends and relatives.

Family gathering (back row from left): Ivan Gale, Annalene Gale née MacLew, Mike Gale, Sally Gale, Amy Culver née Gale holding daughter Izzy, Rohan Gordon, Katie Gordon née Gale. Front row: Brent Culver and daughter Sarah Culver.

After he left my newsroom in 2004, Ivan earned two master’s degrees at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. When he finished his second year at Columbia, Ivan was hired by The Gulf News, an English-language newspaper in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

A year ago, Ivan was hired away by a new daily newspaper, The National, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

As it happens, Annalene works for Etihad Airways, which is based in Abu Dhabi.

The Gale ranch house in Chileno Valley.

Mike and Sally talk with Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey (right) during a party Saturday  for Ivan and Annalene.

Ivan is the son of Chileno Valley ranchers Mike and Sally Gale, and on Saturday a throng of ranchers, artists, local officials, journalists, relatives, and other friends showed up at Gale Ranch to wish the newlyweds well.

Of course, not everything at Gale Ranch has been warm and cozy of late. Today Mike told me it was so cold in Chileno Valley during the night that the cattle had frost on them this morning.

By noon, however, the day was sunny and getting warmer. At least Annalene can now understand the old West Marin expression, “If you don’t like the weather here, just stick around a few minutes, and it’ll be different.”

As for the rest of you, happy holidays and try to stay warm.

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Last Thursday when I dropped by Linda Petersen’s temporary digs, Tim Weed and Debbie Daly were entertaining the recuperating crash victim with a mix of country and folk music.

The Point Reyes Station couple are among many people who have stepped forward to help Linda, ad manager of The West Marin Citizen, since her horrific wreck June 13 near Motel Inverness.  A dozen West Marin residents have been taking turns cooking meals for her, and several have provided her with transportation.

100_2628_1Linda suffered 11 broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, a broken leg, a broken kneecap, a broken arm, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel and hit a utility pole. The injuries required three months of hospitalization, including seven weeks wearing a steel-and-carbon halo that immobilized her head and neck.

Linda was released from the hospital Aug, 22 and has been temporarily staying in ground-floor quarters at Karen Gray’s place in Point Reyes Station prior to moving into an upstairs apartment.

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For the past month, Linda has been living out of boxes and is excited about the prospect of settling into her new apartment as soon as she can regularly climb the stairs.

Linda, 61, who works at the front desk in The Citizen office, can by now walk short distances with just a cane, and West Marin Senior Services has loaned her an electric scooter to get around town.

100_0148By chance, Missy Patterson, 82, who works at the front desk of the competing Point Reyes Light, also uses a scooter to get around downtown. The coincidence has led more than a few townspeople to suggest the two have a race.

“Missy said she would beat me, which is probably true,” Linda told me with a laugh. “Her scooter is bigger and more powerful.” Missy (seen here in the 2005 Western Weekend Parade) had started out with a donated scooter but a few years back moved up to a high-performance model.

Linda during her hospitalization accumulated several thousand dollars worth of bills that her insurer, Kaiser Permanente, is refusing to cover. To help raise money to pay those bills, a benefit with food, drinks, and entertainment will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at Toby’s Feed Barn. More about this later…

Four years ago while I still published The Point Reyes Light, readers on their own gave birth to a new genre of first-person writing, Tall Tales of Intelligent Dogs.

The genre faded shortly before the grand old newspaper changed ownership, but the tales have now inspired me to try replicating with wildlife around my cabin what West Marin residents had reported accomplishing with their pets.

possum-with-placematGood table manners being a sine qua non for participating in polite society, last week I began teaching the local possum proper dining etiquette.

“I am teaching my dog to drive,” Ed Fielding of Bolinas wrote in a June 9, 2005, letter to the editor of The Light. “I am 81 years old, and my strength is ebbing, my reflexes are slowing, my vision is fading, and my hearing is deteriorating. The qualities I am losing my dog Juno possesses in superb degree. She is a 145-pound Rhodesian ridgeback – strong, quick, and very intelligent.

“I have made special metal cups and attached two of these to the steering wheel in the recommended ‘10-to-2’ position. The cups are well padded so that her front paws fit snugly, and she is able to steer the car with ease. I have also modified the accelerator and the brake pedal. With her long legs and great strength, she has no trouble operating these two mechanisms.”

It was an obvious spoof, but Fielding presented it with flair. “[Juno] just loves driving the car,” he wrote, “and the highlight of her day is when she gets behind the wheel and we go for a short spin. Of course, she drives with her head out the window, a habit I have been unable to break, but it seems to be no problem, and she handles the car with skill….

“If any readers of this letter have also taught their dogs to drive, I would appreciate hearing from you…”

The Light never heard from anyone else teaching his dog to drive, but the next issue carried a letter from David Miller of Inverness Park, who wrote, “I was pleased to learn from Ed Fielding’s letter that there are others who are training their pets to handle moving vehicles. In my case, I have been training my dog Bela to ride a bicycle.

“It all started when I would ride my bike and Bela would run on the path beside me on a leash. So many times I would hear angry people telling me I should get off the bike and let Bela ride that I decided that if I trained Bela to ride, we could mountain bike together and avoid the scorn of passersby…

“Bela is still on training wheels, and I have had to address a few mechanical problems. For example, I had to deal with her tail. It was always getting caught in the spokes of the back wheel. I solved that problem by tying a string to her tail and connecting it to her collar. I had to make sleeves on the handlebars into which she could comfortably slide her front legs for steering. Bela uses her mouth to manipulate the hand brake.”

Miller went on to say that his “real problem” is the policy of local parks to prohibit mountain bikes on certain trails and dogs on others, leaving Bela with few choices. This letter writer too asked to hear from others in his situation.

No other owners of canine mountain bikers responded, but Robin Bradford of Bolinas on June 30 wrote, “For quite some time, Frank and Winston, my Yorkshire Terriers, have tried to convince me to allow them free access to our Toro gasoline-powered lawn mower. Naturally, I refused….

“Recently, Frank and Winston brought me the letters to the editor from The Point Reyes Light written by Ed Fielding and David Miller. I can tell you, some fairly biting accusations were hurled… [and] I finally acquiesced.

“Much to my surprise, Frank and Winston operated the Toro as though they’d been doing it for years, which it turned out they had been. My teenage son had been taking the credit (and the allowance) for the job for an extended period of time, but it was actually Winston at the steering wheel and Frank running ahead to ensure straight lines on the grass…”

Through no effort on its part, The Light had suddenly become a weekly publisher of tall tales of canine cunning, all written in the form of letters to the editor.

Carl Dern of Stinson Beach on July 14, 2005, wrote, “I taught my dog Billie to weld. I realized that she had a great interest in welding when she was a pup because she would hang around my studio watching me weld. I made her a self-darkening helmet and a small leather apron so she wouldn’t hurt her eyes or burn her fur. As time went by, I noticed that she would try to nudge me away from what I was welding and try to take the welding torch from me.

“I soon caught on that she wanted to do the welding. I made her some small, padded cups for her paws to hold the welding gun. She worked the controls with her mouth and right-rear leg. I soon found myself holding the work while she welded it with beautiful precision and skill.

“Billie died last winter at the age of 16 and a half, which is 115 years human. I have not had the courage to disclose this information until now because I was afraid that I would be accused of exploitation. In my own defense, I paid Billie minimum wage and registered her as a Democrat. She voted for Kerry and missed Clinton very much. Our grandchildren inherited her estate.”

raccoon-bartenderBack in 2007, I myself taught a local raccoon to tend bar. Before long it could mix a margarita, Manhattan, or martini as fast as it could shake a tail. When government began enforcing a ban on smoking in bars, however, the raccoon quit to take an outdoor job.

As the parade of talented-dog stories continued, I was amazed not merely by the phenomena itself but also by their wit. “I think too many exceptional canines have gone unrecognized because the fear of low-cost dog labor is so prevalent,” Cory Griffith of Bolinas wrote on July 28.

“My confession was especially hard to make before now because it would have cost me my job. More accurately, my dog Rona’s job. I used to work as a dishwasher and occasional cook in an unnamed Stinson restaurant…. Rona always liked to follow me around the kitchen and beg for treats.

“After we’d been together for a few years, something strange began to happen; I noticed she’d alert me with a bark whenever the water was about to boil. From there it was just a few months of practice until a dog who couldn’t crack an egg transformed into one who was putting a shrimp on the Barbie. She’d grab a whisk in her mouth, and a few hours later we’d have a beautiful cake with only a few dog hairs in the frosting.”

For the same edition, Hawk Weston of Bolinas sent in a photo of herself and her pug Scrunchie. While practicing her guitar, Weston wrote, she noticed that “Scrunchie was spending an inordinate amount of time watching my fingers – especially the left-hand chord positions…

“I decided to teach her to play folk music, figuring if I could play it, how hard could it be? Actually, it wasn’t hard at all, especially after she suggested that I lay the guitar flat on the floor so she could play it like a Dobro with a flat-pick held tightly between her tiny teeth. She also developed her signature ‘softer sound’ by brushing across the strings gently with her little tail.”

Other tales came in from Kent Goodwin of New York City, who wrote that his yellow lab Trapper had developed expertise in corporate management while living in Stinson Beach. Scott Leslie of Point Reyes Station, however, growled, “Enough already.” He suggested that all the tales of canine accomplishments indicated a dog had taken over the editor’s desk.

But virtually all other letters were in the style of one by Inverness resident Laura Brainard of Planned Feralhood (the humane program for reducing the number of stray cats). Brainard on Aug. 4 wrote she’d read the letters aloud to cats in the program’s shelter to give them “inspiration.” The cats, however, “were not impressed,” she noted.

Cats, in fact, were beginning to creep into coverage that had been limited to a dog’s world. Sandra Wallace of Inverness on July 28 wrote, “I do hope someone is making a collection of the letters recounting the accomplishments of these exceptional dogs. One of my dogs – the one that reads – is fascinated and inspired by these accounts. The cats, however, remain incredulous.”

I’d would have been incredulous about all this too had I not seen it myself. In fact, now that I’ve tried it myself, civilizing the animal world doesn’t seem that difficult.

Editor’s note: The readers’ letters were previously summarized in my Aug. 8, 2005, Sparsely Sage and Timely column in The Light. The possum-and-table-setting photo was shot Wednesday.

What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there.” That was Walter Cronkite’s weekly signoff in the 1950s when he hosted TV docu-dramas, You Are There, which reenacted historic events.

Here in no particular order are some of the events that altered and illuminated the past week or so in West Marin. And now, thanks to the wonders of photography and the Internet, you were there.

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The little possum which almost every night drops by for a visit is often a bit intimidated by the larger raccoons which also show up. Last Wednesday the possum was particularly chagrined when a raccoon walked overhead on the railing of my deck en route to the birdbath.

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A joyful Linda Petersen, the advertising manager of The West Marin Citizen, came home to Point Reyes Station Saturday after two and a half months of hospitalization.

Linda suffered 11 broken ribs, two broken vertebrae, two broken ankles, a broken leg, a broken kneecap, a broken arm, and a punctured lung when she fell asleep at the wheel June 13 and hit a utility pole in Inverness.

Linda’s left leg is still in a cast, and she continues to need a wheelchair to get around. However, she no longer wears casts on her right leg and left arm or the steel-and-carbon halo that had immobilized her head and neck for seven weeks.

Today she spent a few minutes in The Citizen office and expects to now spend a few hours at her desk most weekdays. Friends and West Marin Senior Services are providing her with meals until she can cook again.

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Redwood Empire Disposal, which is franchised to pick up garbage throughout West Marin, this week held its “summer community cleanup.” It was a chance for us customers to stack up to 14 bags, boxes, or cans of bulky waste at curbside to be carted off.

On Campolindo Way, our friendly garbageman Víctor showed up today to haul away the neighborhood’s junk. I had just spent two days cleaning out the basement in preparation for his arrival. Every time the garbage company holds these infrequent events, I scramble to collect half-forgotten stuff I’m finally ready to get rid of.

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Here Víctor uses neighbors Skip and Renée Shannon’s recycling bin to hoist their junk into the garbage truck.

Like many West Marin residents, I spend several days each summer trimming trees and brush to make my property safer from wildfires, and here too my personal schedule is regulated by Redwood Empire Disposal’s schedule. The garbage company picks up yard waste only every other week. That invariably leads to a lot of limb lopping just before each pickup.

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Mornings have been foggy most days recently in West Marin with the fog (seen here over Inverness Ridge and along Papermill Creek) typically burning off before noon.

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The view from my deck reminded me of the wildfires that have been burning elsewhere in California. But it was merely the sun setting behind a fog bank. Gracias a Dios por eso.

dave-dinsmore-homeWindstorm destruction. The historic house where Dave Dinsmore lives on Nicasio Square has withstood more than a couple of blows over the years from 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 the  fence and porch. This week, however, the blow came from a gale that sent half a tree crashing down onto the porch’s roof. No doubt the resilient residence will recover from this blow too.

West Marin’s gales of Spring are back. In response to last week’s posting about Google’s inaccurate current-weather reports for Point Reyes Station, reader Linda Sturdivant phoned me around 3 p.m. Tuesday to talk about the weather.

Linda, who lives on Portola Avenue in neighboring Inverness Park, was concerned about the gathering windstorm, for she could hear limbs cracking in the bishop pine canopy over her home. Linda’s partner Terry Gray told me he too was concerned and then went outside to move his pickup truck. A large branch had broken and momentarily was caught in other branches, but it was hanging over the truck.

When the winds finally knocked the broken limb to the ground, Terry later told me, it turned out to be about 13 feet long and about 10 inches in diameter at the break. That’s enough to dent the roof of a truck’s cab or break a windshield or both.

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Less fortunate were at least one or two birds that apparently could not get out of the way in time when branches snapped — or flew into something while trying to escape the chaos. Leo Gilberti of Woodacre, who was doing some cleanup work for Linda Wednesday, found two dead little birds on the ground outside her home.

One had a broken neck, which can happen when a bird flies into a window pane, but the right side of the other bird’s chest was crushed although there were no puncture wounds.

Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evans has tentatively identified the birds as pine siskins based on this bird’s “cleft tail, streaked breast, and finch-like bill.” I had emailed Jules the photo above, which he viewed on his handheld BlackBerry, leading him to caution that the bird was “kind of hard to ID on my phone.”

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As it did elsewhere in West Marin, Tuesday’s gale brought down limbs all along Portola Avenue in Inverness Park, keeping part of the road closed throughout Wednesday.

Although gales blow through West Marin every spring, I’m not particularly fond of them. Wildlife and livestock obviously aren’t either.

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Life looked pretty tranquil for cows along the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road until this week’s windstorm.

100_1840Reflected in the windows of neighbors Dan and Mary Huntsmans’ potting shed, a cat that could never have perched on their gatepost in this week’s gale could sit there nonchalantly last week.

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In a gale, there is no such thing as “straight as the crow flies.” These feathered flying machines may not be as fast as fighter jets, but they’re even more maneuverable. Once the gusts built up, the crow approach to the birdbath on my deck resembled dogfight maneuvers more than a landing pattern.

Against my better judgment I showed up for Friday’s “Community Conversation” concerning the Point Reyes National Seashore’s intention to close Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Since retiring three years ago, I’ve continued to write about public issues in West Marin, but I haven’t taken part in many political events. Having achieved Nirvana, I’d rather not disturb it.

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But Friday evening, I was one of 125 or so West Marin residents who filled the Inverness Yacht Club for a heavily structured discussion of the park.

Sounding like marriage counselors, a team of moderators started the meeting by telling us we were there to express our feelings, not to present facts.

To avoid bad feelings, we couldn’t criticize anybody by name (e.g. National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher) but could only refer to his organization (e.g. “the park”). In fact, the moderators later called me out for naming names when I said President Obama is an improvement over President Bush.

The members of a “community” need to “communicate,” the moderators said more than once. No speaker should hog the microphone, they added, but were themselves slow to relinquish it. After more than half an hour of a two-hour meeting had been spent on these introductory comments with no letup in sight, I began eying the door next to me only to discover it merely went to a fire escape. On the other hand, the moderators’ efforts to ensure parlor-like decorum did pay off. I can recall more acrimony during a public discussion of museum hours.

Phyllis Faber told the group that Supt. Neubacher was away but had said that even if he were in town, he wouldn’t attend.

Faber added that Neubacher also said the park’s associate superintendent was likewise out of town but would have attended were she here. (Faber is co-founder of MALT, a fellow of the California Native Plant Society, and an author of a botanical guide, so her account is probably reliable.)

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At the Drakes Bay Oyster Company site (seen here), oysters are sold and canned. A Park Service use permit, which expires in 2012, is strictly for these onshore facilities and not for oyster growing in the estero itself, which has been designated “potential wilderness.” Neubacher supporters have claimed that extending the onshore facilities’ use permit would be a threat to wilderness nationwide because of the precedent it would set. Others claim that makes neither legal nor logical sense.

Gordon Bennett, a member of the Marin Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the national Sierra Club, has been carrying Neubacher’s water (not always with the support of his group) ever since the park superintendent three years ago first proposed shutting down the oyster company come 2012. On the eve of Friday’s meeting, Bennett sent an email to those sympathetic to Neubacher, warning them off by claiming the meeting was a “set-up” which had been “organized by proponents” of the oyster company.

It’s hard to tell whether the email had any effect. Some members of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which supports Neubacher’s position, were on hand, including its president and a former board member. A couple of people, including forester Tom Gaman of Inverness, said the park should get rid of the oyster company to create wilderness.

Most of those who spoke, however, like most West Marin residents one hears on the street, supported the company. Several people, such as innkeeper Frank Borodic of Olema, said the oyster company is well run and good for the environment.

After two hours, however, only a couple of proposals got  virtually unanimous support from the audience: 1) have additional oyster-company critics at future Community Conversations in order to create more of a dialogue; 2) get Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey to introduce legislation resurrecting the Citizens Advisory Commission to the GGNRA and Point Reyes National Seashore.

Because the two parks were established to serve the Bay Area’s mostly urban population, Congress in 1972 decided that Bay Area local governments should nominate candidates for a Citizens Advisory Commission, which would then be appointed by the US Secretary of the Interior.

Since they were appointed by a member of the president’s cabinet, the commissioners’ decisions, while only advisory, carried weight with the park administration. A superintendent could not ignore them without risking his job, former Supt. John Sansing once told me.

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Supt. Neubacher and his staff have tried to discredit Drakes Bay Oyster Company by telling county and federal officials that seals are frightened away by the growing and harvesting of oysters. Apparently not having heard about this, the 18 harbor seals seen here are sunning themselves on oyster racks in neighboring Tomales Bay.

The advisory commission had needed Congressional reauthorization every few years, and for almost three decades, Congress approved it. However, in 2002, its term expired, and with Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, the commission was allowed to die.

“This time [then-Interior Secretary] Gale Norton and the Park Service said, ‘It’s been a very good commission for 29 years, but we don’t need it anymore,’” former Commissioner Amy Meyer told me in 2007. National Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso in 2004 had already told me the park administration did not want the commission revived because it sometimes interfered with what the Park Service felt should be done.

The Neubacher administration has also argued that local residents don’t speak for all Americans. It’s a specious argument since most park visitors are from the nine-county Bay Area and are far more familiar with the park — and with anything going wrong in it — than are people in other parts of the country, who seldom, if ever, see the National Seashore.

100_1815Closely following Friday’s discussion are oyster company owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny.

Meyer noted the commission had acted as an “interface” between the public and the park, and its absence has been felt. In the past four years, there has been widespread public dissatisfaction with the National Seashore over: 1) a 2004 ranger-pepper-spray scandal; 2) the inhumane slaughter of non-indigenous deer a year ago; 3) the present oyster-company dispute. Without the advisory commission to provide the public with a forum for resolving these issues, they have become so contentious that Supt. Neubacher is seldom seen around town anymore.

Congresswoman Woolsey four years ago introduced legislation to resurrect the commission, and it was attached to a House bill (which was being pushed by now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others) to acquire land in San Mateo County for the GGNRA. The bill passed in 2005, but when it did, the rider resurrecting the commission was gone.

Meyer said she and other people went to Congresswomen Pelosi and Woolsey, asking that they temporarily drop the advisory-commission legislation. The fear, Meyer said, was that the Bush Administration would pack the advisory commission with people who shared his ideology.

On Friday night, I suggested that since we now have the Obama administration, the time is ripe to resurrect the commission. A number of other speakers, including Liza Crosse, aide to Marin County Supervior Steve Kinsey, agreed. And when a show of hands was taken later, almost everyone supported the idea, regardless of where they stood on the oyster-company issue.

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When the lot beside Tomales Town Hall came up for sale a while back, the Town Hall board took advantage of the opportunity to acquire yard space that came with an ancient shade tree. Having now paid off well over $100,000 of the note and needing only $20,000 more, the Town Hall on Saturday held a fundraising pig roast, barbecue, and silent action.

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Two bands played, one in the yard and one in the hall. Performing here is the band Blue Holstein with (from left) Charlie Morgan on guitar, Vic Marcotte on drums,  Don Armstrong on guitar (seen here as lead singer on a Bob Dylan reprise), and Cheshire Mahoney on sax. A former West Marin resident, Cheshire now lives in Ashland.

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The roasted pig, which was carved next to Highway 1 outside the Town Hall, was a hit with townspeople, and the line waiting to get in on the feast ran the length of the hall and out the front door.

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Meanwhile a couple of blocks away, cartoonist Kathryn LeMieux was holding a moving sale. The sale will resume from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Sunday, March 8, at 31 Carrie St.

Why is she moving? In his day job, her husband Don Armstrong of Blue Holstein is now superintendent of Fort Bragg Unified School District, having previously been a teacher in Bolinas and later a superintendent in Petaluma. Kathryn told me the couple is tired of maintaining two homes and having to live apart much of the time, so they’re going to live in Westport (north of Fort Bragg) and rent out their home in Tomales until he retires.

For 11 years during the time I owned The Point Reyes Light, Kathryn drew the comic strip Feral West for the newspaper, and she now draws it for The West Marin Citizen. The move will bring an end to the strip, she said.

Kathryn is also one of six women who 10 years ago started the cartoon Six Chix, which is syndicated by King Features and appears locally in The Marin Independent Journal. Each cartoonist draws one strip a week and takes turns drawing the Sunday cartoon. Kathryn told me her last Six Chix strip will be published Friday.

Frustrated by the “hard work” of producing on deadline while her earnings from newspapers shrink because of changes in the industry, Kathryn said she will give up cartooning to concentrate on her oil painting.

I happened to run into Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evans at Kathryn’s moving sale, and he was fascinated by some of the non-artwork she was also selling. “Where else can you buy a possum skull?” he asked me.

Along with an original Feral West cartoon from 2004, I myself picked up a 1960 issue of The Baywood Press, as The Light was called until September 1966. A Page 1 story in the issue reported that sheriff’s deputies were looking for an arsonist who used a blanket soaked with kerosine to set fire to the house immediately north of West Marin School. Assistant fire chief Louis Bloom estimated that $250 worth of damage was done to the home, which belonged to Robert Worthington and his family. They were on a two-week trip to the Central Valley when the fire broke out around midnight.

Another Page 1 story reported that dogs from homes along Highway 1 had killed seven sheep belonging to now-deceased Elmer Martinelli, father Point Reyes Station’s Patricia, Stan, and Leroy Martinelli.

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Nor were Kathryn’s sale and the Town Hall pig roast the only fun around Tomales. On the Tomales-Petaluma Road, a succession of motorists kept stopping to photograph Veanna Silva’s camel grazing with a couple of cows. Two-humped Bactrian camels are native to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China.

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Also intriguing motorists along the Tomales-Petaluma Road is this sign outside the former Aurora School (built in 1873), which is now the home of Jerry and Leslie Swallow. What the sign really signifies, townspeople told me, is that the Swallows’ driveway has a blind turnout onto the the road — and that the Swallows have a sense of humor.

Here are a few other intriguing facets of Tomales, as reported by City-Data.com. The town as of July 2007 had 210 residents whose median age was 46.1 years old. The estimated median household income was $61,107 compared with $59,948 statewide.

Some 94.3 percent of townspeople are non-Hispanic white, 2.4 percent are Hispanic, 1 percent are Japanese, and 1 percent are American Indian. The average household size is 2.4 people compared with 2.9 statewide. Some 56.2 percent of these are “family households” compared with 68.9 percent statewide.

As of a year and a half ago, 11 percent of the households consisted of unmarried partners compared with 5.9 percent statewide. Another 1.4 percent of Tomales’ households reported being lesbian, and 1.4 percent reported being gay men.

City-Data.com calls the cost of living in Tomales “very high.” On the national cost-of-living index, 100 represents the US average, and Tomales comes in at a whopping 168.6.

But here’s what I find to be the most surprising statistics reported by City-Data.com. Back in 2007 before the recession hit, the proportion of Tomales residents with incomes below the poverty level (14.3 percent) was virtually the same as the state average (14.2 percent) while the proportion of residents with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty level (9.5 percent) was far worse than the state as a whole (6.3 percent).

That one in seven townspeople have incomes below the poverty level is all the more surprising given that Tomales is one of the better educated towns anywhere. Nine out of 10 residents 25 and older have completed high school, and 43.3 percent have completed college. More than one in five residents (21 percent) hold graduate or professional degrees.

The only thing I can think of that might explain this disparity between high education and low income could be the ascetic lifestyles of the 30 or so people living at the Blue Mountain Meditation Center off the Tomales-Petaluma Road.

But it’s incongruities such as this that make Tomales so interesting: from a pig roast to finance real estate for the Town Hall, to a camel and a “blind driver” along the Tomales-Petaluma Road, to possum, deer, and horse skulls plus artwork, antiques, and artifacts for sale in a cartoonist’s studio. It’s a great town, and — by the way — it’s going to miss you while you’re gone, Don and Kathryn.

Having just spent a three-day weekend in Los Angeles, I returned home to discover I’d missed out on quite a storm in West Marin while I was gone.

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On the upside, water districts and ranchers got up to eight inches of badly needed rain over the weekend. Nicasio Reservoir has come up dramatically, as have the flowers around my cabin. Seemingly out of nowhere, daffodils are starting to bloom everywhere.

On the downside, high winds worked mischief early Sunday. At the Point Reyes lighthouse, a gust was clocked at 66 mph at 1:22 a.m. That’s the wind speed of a violent storm on the Beaufort Scale and just 7 mph short of a hurricane-force gust. At 4:01 a.m., a 37 mph gust (gale force on the Beaufort Scale) was clocked in Point Reyes Station. At my cabin, the winds tore grommets out of the tarpaulin over my woodpile, shredded the tarp in places, and allowed some of my kindling to get wet.

100_1473Worse yet, a terra cotta pot more than two feet high and holding a palm tree was blown over and busted on my deck. The last time wind busted a big pot at my cabin was just over two years ago, and it wasn’t this big. Finding a replacement large enough to hold the root ball required a trip over the hill Wednesday and a lot of driving around. After extensive searching, I was able to find exactly one that was big enough.

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In contrast to nature’s fury…. Just before I flew off to LA, I happened to look out my kitchen window and see a young buck sleeping unusually soundly for a deer out in the open. I guess it felt secure on this hill where there are neither hunters nor loose dogs. The only large predators around my cabin are bobcats, which I’ve seen three or four times, and coyotes, which I often hear at night but have seen only once.

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