Archive for May, 2009

My 22-year-old stepdaughter has never seen The Red Couch book — perhaps because it was published 25 years ago — yet last weekend on a lark she unknowingly echoed it while visiting West Marin. The Red Couch consists of photos of folks sitting on a red couch that had been taken to unlikely locales throughout the US, ranging from the floor of a stock exchange, to a desert, to an urban park. Here’s the story of the echo.

My stepdaughter Anika Zappa, who currently is working and going to college in Minneapolis, was my houseguest for five days this past week, and on Saturday she went shopping in Novato with her traveling companion Adam Pendergraft.

anika-and-flowers1While driving on Novato Boulevard between Hicks Valley and Stafford Lake, Anika was startled to see a purple couch abandoned on the shoulder of the road. (Since then I’ve heard from others who also saw it and were likewise surprised.)

The site seemed “very random,” she later told me, and the couch “was purple, so it totally caught my eye.”

When she drove back from Novato a couple of hours later, “I saw it again,” she said, “and I pulled over, jumped out, and shot a whole bunch of pictures of it.

“It was cool because the couch was purple; the pasture was green behind it; and blue skies.”





Anika Zappa and Adam Pendergraft in their roadside living room. You can see a few photos from The Red Couch Project, which Anika inadvertantly echoed, by clicking here. Unfortunately, using the site is trifle awkward, and its creator apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word cliché, let alone how to spell it (regardless of the accent mark).

Although she is now attending college in Minnesota, Anika grew up in Guatemala where her mother and two sisters still live. In 2003, while all of us were living in Point Reyes Station, Anika at 16 began contributing writing and photography to The Point Reyes Light.

Her most-impressive contributions were shot in the Guatemala City airport. They sensitively documented the confused emotions of an injured Guatemalan laborer and of his family as he arrived home after being beaten nearly to death in Bolinas. The pictures were part of a series that in 2004 won top state and national honors for public service journalism.

She’s been a photographer ever since, and last semester, Anika proudly told me, “I Aced my photography class.”


Behind the couch on the shoulder of Novato Boulevard is Dave Lavaroni’s ranch. Passing motorists “were curious what we were doing,” Anika reported with amusement, “and probably thought we took the couch there.”

Saturday evening two more houseguests arrived at my cabin, Janine Warner and her husband Dave LaFontaine from Los Angeles. They are Internet-media consultants, and Janine herself was a prize-winning reporter at The Light 18 years ago.


As she posed on the couch, Anika noted, ‘people honked, and a truck came around twice to see what we were doing. A bicyclist yelled [encouragement].’

I was showing Janine the photos I had taken that day,” Anika said. “We were talking about what kind of photography interests me, and I said ‘composition.’ And she said, ‘What would you do with this couch?’ I said I just bought a yellow dress, and I’d put someone in a yellow dress on it — with a lamp and some flowers.

“She was intrigued and said, ‘Let’s do it tomorrow.’ I really didn’t think it would go. I thought we’d be busy with something else. I had just met her, so I didn’t know if it was a ‘Let’s go’ for real,” Anika later admitted.

But the next morning, Janine said, “When are we shooting the couch?” and the two of them, along with Adam and Dave, “started doing a scavenger hunt around the house for props. We started thinking about the colors.”

Anika has studied photography at San Marin High, as well as in college, and in choosing props, she said, “one thing that helped a lot is that in both photography classes, the first thing we did was work with a color wheel.”


Janine Warner and Dave LaFontaine take a break from Saturday’s photo shoot. Janine took all the photos here except this one while Dave helped with setups.

Janine said, “‘You have the yellow dress. This can be a self-portrait.’ She let my creative mind go.” Janine’s husband Dave is an old hand at setting up photo shoots, and eventually all three were brainstorming about the project.

After shooting a number of photos that made use of the couch as it was placed, “Adam and I moved the couch around, so we could get a view of the road as well,” Anika noted, explaining that what made the scene interesting was the couch’s being beside Novato Boulevard.


Anika later laughed about having to contend with a “wardrobe malfunction” (one strap to her new dress broke) as she struck various poses on the couch.

The shoot took about an hour and a half, “and the sun was perfect because it was not too bright,” Anika said.

“I had a good time doing it and letting my creative side out. And it was fun being on both sides of the lens.” When the photos were later downloaded onto a computer, she added, “it was awesome seeing on the screen the thing I had in my head.”

My oldest stepdaughter Anika, 22, is about to visit for a week from Minneapolis where she has been attending Normandale Community College. Anika, who holds dual US-Guatemalan citizenship, has received high marks in her classes and has been accepted by the University of Minnesota for the fall semester.

With badgers openly hunting gophers on this hill at the moment, I’ll, of course, warn my soon-to-be Golden Gopher to watch her steps. Thanks to Wikipedia, however, I can at least pass along this tip regarding protection from badgers: “Scandinavian custom is to put eggshells or Styrofoam in one’s boots when walking through badger territory, as badgers are believed to bite down until they can hear a crunch.” And doesn’t that sound like comfortable footwear?


Anika has been working her way through school at a Best Buy store in Minneapolis. A while back, the company wanted a Latina model for a photo, and she was picked. To her surprise, the picture ended up in an ad recruiting staff for a new Best Buy store in Mexico City.

But getting back to my story…. While Anika is here, I’m going to let her use my second car, a 17-year-old Nissan that I seldom drive. Years of grime and pine sap had become embedded in the paint, so last Friday I took the Nissan over the hill to a car wash, thinking she should have a clean vehicle to drive.

The Nissan came out looking great, but as I was driving home through San Anselmo I noticed something wrong. I was in slow traffic, but my speedometer read 40 mph. I had no way to judge my true speed, and to my dismay, I realized I was about to enter Fairfax where local law enforcement frequently ambush unwary travelers. Driving in that border town without a working speedometer seemed like going on patrol in Kabul without a flak jacket.

Luckily there were three or four cars ahead of me, and by keeping my place in the convoy, I made it through unscathed. However, when the convoy went through the San Geronimo Valley and got up to about 55 mph, my speedometer said I was doing almost 90. I kept looking for cops but fortunately encountered none.

Back in Point Reyes Station, it was already too late to have the speedometer worked on that day. Worse yet, if the speedometer was failing because the odometer was failing, the work could not be done any time soon. State government has to give an okay in advance for odometers to be replaced. As a result, I spent half the weekend cursing my misfortune.

Come Monday morning early, I took the car to mechanic Sean Bracken, and to my delight he quickly solved the problem. It turned out a 1992 Nissan lets you set the speedometer to read in either miles per hour or kilometers, and during the car wash, the switch had apparently been reset. It was a lesson gladly learned, and Sean was good enough not to charge me for it.

But then, several weird things happened last week. While my car was being washed, I read in that day’s Marin Independent Journal, “Two women were arrested on animal cruelty allegations Thursday in the ritualistic killing of chickens near Mill Valley.” The article goes on to quote a law professor who says religious belief is usually not a defense in criminal cases. What the hell was going on?

Dominating Friday’s IJ was a lengthy account of FBI agents raiding Novato Sanitary District offices. Odd — especially since no reason was given. Odder yet was a comment deep in the story that the raid on the sewer district “has nothing to do with an ongoing bank fraud investigation after more than $500,000 was electronically lifted from Novato Sanitary accounts at Bank of Marin. Some of the funds have been tracked to former Soviet republics, and some money has been recovered.” I wonder which republics did it.

Were columnist Herb Caen still alive, an article in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle would have provided him with an obvious “namephreak.” Paparazzi in Miami have reportedly managed to get photos of a Catholic priest cuddling on a beach with his girlfriend. The article noted, “The Rev. Alberto Cutie [is] a celebrity among Latino Catholics for his good looks, media savvy, and advice about relationships.” Accompanying the story was a photo of Cutie, and indeed he is one.

“Make me chaste and continent,” said Saint Augustine, “but not just yet.” Or maybe never, says the Rev. Cutie, who believes priestly celibacy is not necessarily a blessing.

My thrill at seeing a badger close to my cabin a couple of weeks ago was renewed Sunday when I saw two. A mother badger (known as a “sow”), along with her cub (sometimes known as a “kit”), was sunning herself on the mound of dirt around their burrow (known as a “sett”).


Adult badgers are similar to raccoons in length and weight but are noticeably shorter. Although badgers excavated a couple of setts in my pasture earlier this spring, the mound seen here is on the adjoining Giacomini family land. I’ve now shown this family to three of my neighbors, all of whom were surprised to learn there were badgers denning nearby.

Badgers live in burrows up to 30 feet long and 10 feet deep, for they are remarkably efficient diggers thanks to long claws and short, strong legs.  Although they can run up to 17 or 18 mph for short distances, they generally hunt by digging fast enough to pursue rodents into their burrows.

It is not uncommon for badgers to take over the burrows of prey they’ve eaten, so the overabundance of gophers on this hill could explain all the setts.

Badgers belong to the Mustelidae family, which also includes wolverines, otters, and weasels. Like skunks, which once were considered part of that family, badgers have perineal glands that emit quite a stench. What with the stench, the claws, and extremely strong jaws, adult badgers can hold their own against any potential attackers — including bears and coyotes — although they’d rather hide.

And while coyotes and badgers have been observed fighting over prey, they have also been observed “hunting together in a cooperative fashion,” Wikipedia reports, citing a 1950 article in The Journal of Mammalogy.

Although badgers are hunted in some parts of the United States and the rest of the world, in this state, the California Department of Fish and Game has protected them as a “species of special concern” for more than 30 years.

100_2077I’ve see badgers for sale as food in a Guangzhou, China, marketplace. And badgers were once a staple of the Native American, as well as colonial, diet. Even today they’re commonly eaten in France, Russia, and other European countries, as well as China.

Around here, however, the most-common form of badger consumption is as shaving brushes.

The badger’s stiff bristles have long been considered ideal for both shaving and paint brushes. These days most of the hair is imported from China.

Badgers mate in late summer,” notes the Parks Canada website. “However, the fertilized egg does not implant into the uterus and begin to develop until February. This delayed implantation’ means that breeding can occur in the summer when the adults are most active, and young are born in the spring when food is abundant.

“Two to five furry blind kits are born around April. [ N.B. These dates apply in Canada, and judging from the size of the cub I saw, births may be somewhat earlier in West Marin.] They live off their mother’s milk until August when they strike off to establish their own home range.”

Leaving home is a hair-raising transition for young badgers as they learn how to fend for themselves and not become somebody’s food or shaving brush. Many don’t survive.

The National Research Council on Tuesday released a report which found “a lack of strong scientific evidence that the present level of oyster-farming operations by Drakes Bay Oyster Company has major adverse effects on the ecosystem of Drakes Estero.”

Notwithstanding Park Service statements, oyster growing appears to instead provide a significant environmental benefit, the council’s report concluded. An announcement of the 100-page report’s release noted, “To some extent, the oysters in Drakes Estero replace the filtering and material processing that was lost more than a hundred years ago when the native Olympia oysters were over-harvested.”

225px-dianne_feinstein_official_senate_photoIn 2007, Marin County supervisors asked Senator Dianne Feinstein (right) to intervene after the Point Reyes National Seashore administration began harassing the oyster company.

That July, Feinstein responded by convening a meeting in West Marin attended by top Park Service officials, oyster company owner Kevin Lunny, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, and others.

As a result of the meeting, Lunny was allowed to get some permits he needed, and the Park Service agreed to finance a National Research Council study of whether oyster cultivation in Drakes Estero was, in fact, doing any environmental damage, as the park had been claiming.

(The National Research Council, along with the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine make up the national academies. They describe themselves as “independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter.”)

100_0405The conflict began with an ideological shift within the Park Service over the past 12 years, which led to a decision to close the oyster company.

In an attempt to build public support for the decision, the National Seashore administration three years ago began publicly accusing the company of doing environmental damage.

But it was mostly hogwash. An October 2006 park report titled A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary contained so many misleading statements (some of which were caught by the scientists it cited) that the park had to keep posting revised versions online — four in all, along with two “correction” and “clarification” postings.

Commenting on the National Seashore’s maligning the oyster company, the National Research Council wrote, “In several instances, the agency selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misinterpreted the available scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation.”

Comments such as these in the report prompted The San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday to note, “The findings mark the second time in a year that the Park Service has been put under the spotlight for essentially fudging data in its attempts to show that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company harmed the environment.”

100_7740The first exposure occurred in July 2008 when the Inspector General’s Office of the Interior Department issued a report that concluded National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher and his senior science advisor had misled county officials and the public about the oyster company’s effect on seals, eelgrass, and sedimentation.

Oyster company owner Kevin Lunny (right) under siege from a park administration that doesn’t play by the rules.

After the National Research Council report was issued this week, Senator Feinstein wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, “I find it troubling and unacceptable that the National Park Service exaggerated the effects of the oyster population on the… ecosystem,” The Chronicle reported.

However, The Chronicle also quoted Neubacher’s boss Jon Jarvis, director of the Pacific West Region of the Park Service, as saying he still won’t extend the oyster company’s use permit for its onshore facilities when the permit comes up for renewal in 2012.

nps-jon-jarvis1“That really is a policy and law issue,” said Jarvis (right), “not a science issue.”

Which begs the question: if it’s not a science issue, why did the park administration go to such lengths to misrepresent science in its dispute with the oyster company?

As for the policy and legal issue, Jarvis is relying on the opinion of a field solicitor in the San Francisco Field Office, who says the bottomlands of the estero can be designated federal wilderness despite state government’s retaining fishing (including aquaculture) rights over them.

In 1976, then-Assistant Interior Secretary John Kyle told Congress the wilderness bill they were about to pass could not include the estero’s bottomlands because the state owned them. Now we have a presumptuous federal lawyer in San Francisco saying that the Assistant Secretary of the Interior Department and his legal staff got it all wrong and that he, in his outlying field office on the West Coast, knows better.

Assistant Secretary Kyle’s written statement to Congress was “inaccurate,”  field solicitor Ralph Mihan has decided, and Congress’ new concept of “potential wilderness” overrode it anyhow.

However, attorney Mihan wrote this opinion in 2007 during the Bush Administration, and in it he acknowledged his reasoning was based not only on law but also on “present-day National Park Service director’s orders and management policies.”

In short, the oyster company is haunted by the ghost of the Bush Administration’s Park Service.