Archive for May, 2007

I ran into a snake near the foot of my driveway last Thursday. Or, to be more precise, I managed to avoid running over it.

A Pacific gopher snake three to four feet long was warming itself on sunny patch of Campolindo Drive near the ends of Skip and Renée Shannon’s driveway, Jay Haas and Didi Thompson’s driveway, and my driveway.


Two other neighbors, George and Earlene Grimm, walked up when they saw me taking the snake’s picture, and Earlene told me she and George have counted as many as 15 gopher snakes in their yard.

Another neighbor, George Stamoulis, later told me he had picked up a gopher snake a few days earlier and found its scales to be pleasantly smooth as it wiggled around in his hands before he set it back down.

Gopher snakes are found coast to coast from southern Canada to the central Mexican state of Sinaloa. They are non-venomous although they don’t want you to know this.


“When disturbed, the gopher snake will rise to a striking position, flatten its head into a triangular shape, hiss loudly and shake its tail at the intruder,” the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum reports. “These defensive behaviors, along with its body markings, frequently cause the gopher snake to be mistaken for a rattlesnake.”

However, the museum adds, “the tapered tail, the absence of a rattle, the lack of a facial pit, and the round pupils all distinguish the gopher snake from the rattlesnake.”

The gopher snake is a constrictor, and it plays an important role in keeping my hill’s rodent population under control. However, it can also climb trees, and it will eat birds and eggs when the opportunity arises.


With all the birds, people, and snakes on my hill, this is sometimes a busy neighborhood. My stepdaughter Anika Zappa, who just visited me for a week, spotted a female raccoon on my firewood box looking in the dining-room window one evening and shot this photo.

No sooner had Anika departed than former Point Reyes Light reporter Janine Warner and her husband Dave LaFontaine showed up for a four-day stay. They had been here only a couple of days when Janine looked out my kitchen window and saw a blacktail doe looking back at her.


Like the raccoon, the deer was unfazed at being able to see humans just inside the window. However, were I to open an outside door, the wildlife would quickly back off.

Apparently, the wildlife on my hill have come to consider my cabin a cage. As long as my doors to the outdoors are closed, they presume I’m safely locked inside, leaving them free to wander wherever they please. When my cage door opens, however, they act as if we on the inside may be on the verge of escaping.

ivan_1_1.jpgFew Point Reyes Light reporters have received as many awards as Ivan Gale (upper left) of Chileno Valley, winning five state and national journalism awards in 2004 alone. The Light’s new owner, Robert Plotkin, on May 3 announced he will no longer display the awards won over the years by Gale and other Light staff. Gale left The Light to earn two master’s degrees from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is now a business writer for the Gulf News in Dubai, the rapidly growing financial and tourist center in the United Arab Emirates. Here he attends a press conference where Shaikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum, the uncle of the ruler of Dubai, talks about Emirates airline’s annual results.

When I sold The Point Reyes Light to Robert Israel Plotkin in November 2005, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jesse Hamlin asked me how I felt about leaving the paper in new hands.

“One thing that gives me confidence,” I replied, “is that the citizens of West Marin know what they want in a newspaper. And if you’re not giving it to ‘em, they’ll let you know.”

100_0459.jpg Eighteen months have now past, and West Marin residents have repeatedly let Plotkin (at right) know he is not providing the community newspaper they need and expect. How much longer The Light can survive in its present form is now a topic of much speculation around the community.

Nor is The Light the newspaper it appears to be. Some merchants have been mistakenly billed for ads that had been canceled, and Plotkin’s former printer Scot Caldwell has told others and me that a number of merchants are refusing to pay for these and other ads. Innumerable people have stopped subscribing to The Light — some as long ago as last year, but they have kept receiving the paper each week, Caldwell added. I have heard the same thing from dozens of readers who stopped subscribing to The Light months ago but continue to get it free in the mail.

Meanwhile, with financial help from his landlord, Plotkin is in the midst of refurbishing his office while also publishing dozens of vapid, but relatively expensive, color photos and not paying off creditors to whom he owes significant amounts of money.
When Plotkin’s debt to Caldwell’s Marin Sun Printing reached $11,000, the printer told me, Plotkin changed printers. Plotkin has now paid off $4,000 of that debt, but the damage has been done, and Caldwell will soon be part owner of a new weekly newspaper based in Point Reyes Station. More about that in a moment.

• Last year, Plotkin’s inaccurate reporting so offended the Stinson Beach Volunteer Fire Department that Chief Kenny Stephens had t-shirts and bumper stickers printed that say: “Put out The Light until he gets it right.”

100_1667.jpg• Three weeks ago former Light publisher Michael Gahagan, who sold the paper to me in 1975, described one of Plotkin’s self-promotions as “meglomaniacal,” adding: “It saddens me that [Plotkin has] so mistakenly misunderstood, dishonored, and continue[s] to defile a community legacy.”

Part of the legacy that Plotkin has taken off The Light’s walls are state and national honors won by Victoria Schlesinger (at left), who like Gale left The Light to earn two master’s degrees in Journalism from Columbia University. The May issue of Harper’s magazine published a whopping nine-page exposé by Schlesinger of the so-called Millenium Villages Project that is supposed to lead the Third World out of poverty. Ironically, Columbia’s Journalism Department paid her way to Kenya to investigate a pilot project run by the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, Jeffrey Sachs. The former Light reporter revealed Sach’s project is a poorly administered fiasco which is trying to replicate a failed experiment from a quarter century ago.

• Meanwhile, journalist Elizabeth Whitney of Inverness, who last December organized a community meeting to discuss The Light’s inadequate coverage of local news, is now organizing a public protest. “I think it is time to TAKE BACK THE LIGHT,” Whitney wrote in an announcement she began circulating last week.

“I am now initiating a focused protest on Monday, June 11, as TAKE BACK THE LIGHT DAY. If you have strong opinions about the Point Reyes Light, take your paper back to the editor at the office in Point Reyes Station and communicate verbally or in writing why you feel as you do. You can also mail your paper back with your comments to Box 210, Point Reyes Station 94956, if you find this easier.”

• On Monday of this week, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll wrote that the redesigned Light, which is heavy on color and light on local news, “looks like an alumni bulletin… The writing is terrible, but Plotkin is apparently not a words guy. Plotkin is a Plotkin guy.”

Plotkin’s malicious coverage of a deputy’s taking me into custody a year ago and having the county psych ward check to see if I was suicidal was “sleazy,” Carroll wrote in Monday’s Chronicle.

(In fact, as soon as county staff talked to me, they determined I was not suicidal, had no signs of emerging psychological problems, and should be immediately sent home in a taxi, which I was at county expense.)

Light reporter Micah Maidenberg, who wrote the story under Plotkin’s direction, knew all this from the public record, for I had emailed him copies. Maidenberg also knew the deputy went to my house after Plotkin made a bogus claim that I was suicidal. In addition, Maidenberg interviewed me, and I gave him straightforward answers.

However, neither the facts contained in the public record, nor my answers to his questions, nor his boss’ involvement were included in Maidenberg’s story, which instead lumped me in with a violent man from Bolinas who was taken to the psych ward and attacked a doctor.

• Maidenberg, by the way, is the same reporter who in March wrote the story identifying various Latino residents of West Marin as documented or undocumented immigrants.

Community leaders including Sacred Heart Church’s Father Jack O’Neill, Toby’s Feed Barn owner Chris Giacomini and his manager Oscar Gamez, Marin Community Foundation director Carlos Porrata and his wife Rebecca, Point Reyes Books owner Steve Costa, Cabaline Saddlery owner Vicki Leeds, 13 prominent Latinos, and a number of other well-known townspeople have publicly questioned Plotkin’s “journalistic ethics” in publishing Maidenberg’s story.

Not surprisingly, Maidenberg has given notice he’s leaving as of the end of this week. Maidenberg’s departure, however, is the least of The Light’s problems.

• Don Deane, publisher of The Coastal Post in Bolinas, has brought in Jeanette Pontacq of Point Reyes Station as editor. Under her, The Coastal Post has introduced color photos, is covering more West Marin news, and is picking up more advertisers.

On Wednesday, Deane told me he and Pontacq are also discussing publishing twice as often, fortnightly instead of monthly. However, he noted, no final decision has been made.

• One decision that is final was made by Joel Hack, owner of The Bodega Bay Navigator website, and Caldwell of Marin Sun Printing. They are about to start a new weekly newspaper in West Marin.

Debuting Friday, June 1, will be The West Marin Pilot. At least that is its tentative name. The public will be asked to submit suggestions for the final name. Hack said the first issue will be an eight-page introductory copy. Each week from July 1 on, it will be published full size and sell for $1 a copy.

dscn2329_1.jpgFormer Light editor Jim Kravets of Fairfax (left) will edit the weekly. Former Light advertising representative Sandy Duveen of Woodacre will sell advertisng.

Caldwell told me Kravets and Duveen will both share in the ownership. Like Caldwell, both of them have had a hard time collecting thousands of dollars Plotkin owes them.

As for The Navigator’s Hack, Plotkin is suing him and me for Hack’s letting me post items on his Sonoma County website. Plotkin has claimed that the postings violated The Light’s sales agreement in which I agreed not to work for another Marin County newspaper.

In a ruling that defies common sense — and presumably the law — Marin Superior Court Judge Jack Sutro last fall ruled a Sonoma County website is the same as a Marin County newspaper and ordered me to stop posting on it. That ruling is now before an appeals court.

img_3174_1.jpgAlso planning to work for The Pilot are: Missy Patterson of Point Reyes Station, who for 25 years has handled the front desk at The Light; former Light historian Dewey Livingston of Inverness, who used to contribute West Marin’s Past; feature writer Ellen Shehadeh of Inverness, who had been a frequent contributor to The Light; obituary writer Larken Bradley of San Rafael, who had won a variety of state and national journalism awards while at The Light; and Charlie Morgan of Inverness Park, who covers sports events for KWMR, will be the sports writer.

Caldwell told me The Pilot is still deciding where to have its office and might even move into the Creamery Building, where The Light is also located. As Duveen (right) remarked with a laugh: “That would be a hoot.”

moon-over-tomales_2.jpg Tomales cartoonist Kathryn LeMieux drew an enthusiastic crowd to Bodega Landmark Gallery in the town of Bodega Saturday when she opened a two-week exhibit of her surrealistic and often-whimsical oil paintings.

The final days are this Friday through Monday.

Not surprisingly, two of her favorite subjects — cows (such as Moonrise Over Tomales seen here, copyright K. LeMieux) and the California Mermaids — not only attracted the most attention but also the most buyers.

West Marin residents who read Feral West on The Bodega Bay Navigator website or read it for 10 years in The Point Reyes Light are familiar with two of her California Mermaids, Fera with her pet shark Fluffy, and Lana with her cigar and cocktail glass.


copyright K. LeMieux

For this exhibit, Kathryn added some unfamiliar and even more voluptuous mermaids, rendering them in a painterly, rather than cartoon, style.


Although Mavis the cow was missing, Kathryn’s paintings of cows jamming the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge (copyright K. LeMieux) and grazing around Point Reyes Station’s old, brick Grandi Building were on display and selling.

Kathryn claims Mavis the cow is her alter ego in Feral West, but many of us, including her husband Don Armstrong, believe she’s really a California Mermaid — as the photo below, which I took of her at the Marshall Store, would tend to confirm.

100_1796.jpgKathryn, along with five other women cartoonists, also draws the nationally syndicated cartoon Six Chix for King Features. The strip formerly appeared in The Press Democrat and now appears on if you go to this link.
Other websites around the country also buy Six Chix from King Features, which has created a subscriber service “with perks,” Kathryn noted. One of the perquisites is that readers who miss seeing the cartoon in print can have it delivered by email to their computer daily. In addition, they can call up past installments of the cartoon.

Since the cartoonists get a cut of what King Features sells, drawing for online readers is becoming an increasingly significant part of their income, Kathryn told me.

100_4300_1.jpgMore Internet news: Horizon Cable, which provides television, FM radio, and Internet service to more than 1,200 homes and businesses in Point Reyes Station and Olema, Inverness and Inverness Park, Dillon Beach and Stinson Beach (as well as roughly 375 customers in Novato) has moved its headquarters from Novato to the Farm Bureau building in Point Reyes Station.

Like many other Horizon customers, I was without Internet service for extended periods last week, but the outages were not related to the move. Susan Daniels of Fairfax, who with her husband Kevin owns Horizon, on Tuesday told me Horizon is in the midst of a major upgrade. “Every active component in the system will be changed,” she said, explaining this will increase the system’s bandwidth. Along with this will come improved Internet service, high-definition television, and more channels, she added.

This being West Marin, however, not everything that recently interrupted Horizon’s Internet service can be blamed on its being upgraded. On Monday night, a PG&E transformer exploded near the Red Barn in Point Reyes Station. Only a handful of nearby customers lost power, but one of them happened to be the Horizon cable system headquartered next door. It was down for several hours.

Indeed, there has always been a wild-west aspect to providing West Marin with a cable system. The original system, West Marin Cable, was created strictly to improve television reception. John Robbins, then of Inverness, began the system in 1983 and sold it to Kevin and Susan in 1991. John’s was not an entirely conventional system.

Creating a viable cable system for such sparsely populated towns as West Marin’s was daunting. Sometimes John had to string cable on power poles for more than a mile to reach just one ranch. In awkward locations, John had to string his cable on barbed-wire fences.


Horizon Cable office manager Andrea Clark fields the calls when customers need help. Her motherly manner makes it difficult for most of us, even when frustrated, to get annoyed with her. Owner Susan Daniels and system technician Jim Townsend standing behind behind Andrea say major improvements to Horizon’s television and Internet services are being implemented now that the company has relocated its office to Point Reyes Station in the center of its service area.

John had been building the Stinson Beach part of his system when he sold West Marin Cable to Horizon. As it happened, county supervisors had issued John a cable franchise for Stinson Beach, but Seadrift subdivision developer Don Beacock had his own deal with Wonder Cable, which at the time served Bolinas.

Horizon had no sooner taken over the system when something like the Oklahoma Land Rush began on Seadrift Spit. Within the subdivision, cables had to be buried. Both Horizon and Wonder showed up with trenching equipment, and “it was a race for the spit,” Susan recalled, with each company trying to lay claim to the land first. With two cable companies digging parallel trenches on opposite sides of Seadrift’s roads, county supervisors intervened and ruled that Horizon’s franchise for Stinson Beach was communitywide.

That sort of cable conflict, however, pales in comparison to what is currently happening in the former Soviet Republic of Estonia.

For those of you who don’t follow politics in the Baltics, you should realize that at this moment a new and economically crippling form of warfare is being waged by Russia. It’s serious enough that the May 12-18 Economist warns that stopping the assault “is not yet NATO’s job, but it may be soon.”

As Britain’s Economist explains, “For a small, high-tech country such as Estonia, the Internet is vital. But for the past two weeks, Estonia’s state websites (and some private ones) have been hit by ‘denial of service’ attacks, in which a target site is bombarded with so many bogus requests for information that it crashes.

“The Internet warfare broke out … amid a furious row between Estonia and Russia over the removal of a Soviet war monument from the centre of the capital, Tallinn, to a military cemetery.

100_1771.jpg“The move sparked rioting and looting by several thousand protesters from large population of ethnic Russians, who tend to see the statue as a cherished memorial to a wartime sacrifice. Estonians mostly see it rather as a symbol of a hated foreign occupation.”

The attack, which is sabotaging Estonia’s Internet commerce, as well as government operations, was initially launched by computers traceable to the government of (Ras?)Putin (seen here in an Economist photo). But the assault has now been taken over by sympathetic supporters, some of whom plant viruses in other people’s computers so that innocent users unknowingly help sabotage Estonian institutions.

The assault would be called an “act of war” if carried out with a missile instead with computers, one senior NATO official told The Economist. NATO and the US have rushed observers to Estonia to figure out how a country can fend off such an attack.

In the meantime, “the best defence is to have strong networks of servers in many countries,” a Finnish expert is quoted as saying.


“Nature has wit humor, fantasy etc.,” wrote Novalis (1772-1801). “Among animals and plants, one finds natural caricatures.” His observation came to mind last week when I photographed this great blue heron standing watch over a World War II army bunker at the Muir Beach Overlook.

Novalis, by the way, was the nom de plume of Baron Frederich von Hardenberg, who was “one of the greatest early German romantic poets,” to quote The Encyclopedia Americana, and “exerted a strong influence on 19th century romanticism and the neo-romantics of the 20th century.”

In The Novices of Sais (a city in ancient Egypt), Novalis wrote (using the encyclopedia’s translation) that “the secret of nature is to be the fulfilled longing of a loving heart.”

I was reminded of Novalis’ second observation last weekend when I spotted a possum near one of my trees in broad daylight. Possums are mostly nocturnal, and I typically notice them around my cabin long after sunset.

Peeking possum

This possum soon hid behind the tree and began peeking around the trunk at something under my deck. I was naturally curious what that was but didn’t want to disturb the scene.

So I stayed inside, and presently a small, female possum came waddling onto my deck. I immediately recognized her, for most nights she checks my deck for scraps and birdseed, often climbing a lattice in order to drink from a birdbath on my railing.

Sorry, not interested!

The male hesitantly joined her on my deck, but there was nothing to eat and she showed little interest in him, so the timid male sadly waddled back into the grass. Courtship in nature — as among us humans — is seldom easy.

100_1384.jpgAlso like us humans, much of the animal world in West Marin was sweltering in this week’s “heat wave.”

Whenever the days get as hot as they did Monday and Tuesday, the horses in Toby Giacomini’s pasture next to mine go splashing in his stockpond.

But to repeat Novalis’ observation, “Among animals … one finds natural caricatures,” and I occasionally see a horse immerse itself in the stockpond as if for a baptism.

Nor is that comparison as far-fetched as it may sound.


“If … horses … had hands or were able to draw with their feet and produce the works which men do,” wrote the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570-475 BC), “horses would draw the forms of gods like horses.”

“The world, dear Agnes, is a strange affair,” wrote the French playwright Jean Baptiste Poqulin Molière (1622-73). Indeed it is, and I’ve been keeping a record.


Now I don’t claim to believe in such miracles, but a recognizable apparition of Jesus (or is it Moammar Khadafy?) appears on the glass door of my woodstove almost every time I light a fire.

I’ve repeatedly cleaned all traces of soot and creosote off the glass, only to have the apparition’s sad visage reappear again and again.

Pilgrims, supplicants, and expatriated Libyans are invited to send comments to in order to receive information on visiting hours and donations expected at the door.

In an article on “biological clocks,” the Feb. 17-23 Economist noted, “People produce urine fastest at 6 p.m. They are most likely to develop an allergic reaction at 11 p.m. And 1 a.m. is a prime time for pregnant women to go into labour.” (The Economist is British, hence the un-American spelling of “labor.”)

If all this is true, I reasoned, 6 p.m. must begin a flush hour that follows the rush hour, so I called North Marin Water District and talked to Ryan Grisso in water operations. Is there, I asked, a spike in water use at 6 p.m. each day à la the supposed spike at halftime during the Super Bowl?

Ryan checked with his supervisor Brad Stompe and called back to say water use does indeed spike at 6 p.m. However, he added, it also spikes at 6 a.m., so he and Brad were unable to attribute the spikes simply to flushing. They could also have to do with people starting to cook, Ryan said.

It occurred to me, however, that numerous people get out of bed around 6 a.m., and at that hour too, their bodies would function in time with their biological clocks. All the same, the 6 a.m. spike wouldn’t necessarily conflict with the cooking theory, for much of the commuter crowd also starts fixing breakfast around 6 a.m.

For now, I guess, we’ll just have to leave it all dangling and pose another question.


Last week I photographed a raven perched on my birdbath as it tore apart some long, worm-like prey.

What was the prey? All I could tell for sure was that its hide was segmented, its flesh was bright pink, and it was surprisingly long. So I asked Point Reyes Station ornithologist Rich Stallcup what the bird was eating.

He wrote back that he although could not tell me “precisely, it is probably a big grub (beetle larva) or possibly a larval ceanothus silk worm.

“It is not a snake, lamprey, or eel,” Stallcup added with good humor.


As it happened, I photographed a ceanothus silkmoth on my kitchen door a few weeks ago.

If that was one of its larvae being eaten, West Marin just lost a soon-to-be beautiful resident.

But then, there’s no figuring out animals — at least some of the time.

When I moved to Point Reyes Station 32 years ago, my former wife Cathy and I owned a Rhodesian ridgeback named Maria. Despite her size, 120 pounds, Maria was hardly an aggressive dog, but she was a guard dog. We had gotten her after finding prowlers peering in our windows while we were still living in Monte Rio. However, once we moved to Point Reyes Station, Maria’s main guard duties were reduced to scaring stray cats off our deck and lying on our steps keeping watch for our return.

When we did return up our driveway at the end of each workday, I always found it reassuring to spot Maria lying in the grass between the railroad-tie treads of our stairs.

Maria’s died almost three decades ago, so I felt a bit of déjà vu last week when I noticed a blacktail deer had taken over her lookout spot.


I’d never had a guard deer before, but I felt confident it would have caused a commotion had a prowler tried to climb my stairs while it was lying there.

We’ll end with another item from The Economist, which curiously refers to itself as a “newspaper” and not a news “magazine,” which it is.

The word “notorious” has been used facetiously so often that some people have forgotten what it really means. Just as a reminder, The American Heritage Dictionary defines “notorious” as “known widely and usually unfavorably; infamous: a notorious gangster; a district notorious for vice.”

Given what the word means, I was surprised this week by a large advertisement in the April 28-May 4 issue of The Economist for “the São Paulo Ethanol Summit 2007.” The ad proclaims that “Brazil [is] ahead once again” in “renewable energy” and describes the summit as “the first event of global expression on this matter with the notorious presence of worldwide leaders, CEOs, scientists, researchers, economical and political authorities.”

Sounds like a “notorious” gathering, all right.