Places, names, and things in California

The moon and I: dispatches from 22nd street

A dispatch from the 22nd street crossroads on the morning after the night of the full moon, October 8th, 2014

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. to hear sounds of distress coming from the sidewalk. At this point, I can tell you exactly where the drunk/hurt/incapacitated person is likely to be (under the stop sign or on my stoop or in the street or slouched against the corner of the building, back slumped, head low.) This time, the young woman, 20 or 23 or 25 years old, was stretched flat on her belly, lying across the sidewalk, her feet hanging over the curb, her toes in the gutter. The sounds she made were soft and frantic. The softness of the sound seemed to match the burnished glow of the moon: everything outside gleamed mildly, even her hair, which covered her face. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open.

I was irritated. I’m having trouble sleeping these days. Between menopause, the security lights on the marquee across the street (I think the owner believes it makes his “bottle-shop” look as though Edward Hopper painted it) and the blare of the neighbor’s late-night television, I had a hard time dropping into sleep. But I was asleep when the girl fell in a heap under the stop sign. And I woke up when she started talking to whatever it was that was telling her things. What things, I don’t know. Self-recrimination for drinking too much? A fight she’d had that night, a contest of wills, desire that wasn’t met by someone she was, even then, still pleading with to listen… listen…listen…. escuchame, she said. Escuchame.

Honey, I said, sweetie? (terms of endearment come easily to me when I’m dealing with someone unconscious.) Can you hear me? I smelled the sour smell of alcohol. Her cheeks were round and shiny. She’d been crying. Her legs kicked up and down, slow at first, and then faster, faster, the tips of her trainers drumming into the gutter, the head shaking, not no, I can’t hear you, but the body telling me I am abandoned.

Her eye opened and rolled up, unfocused. The white flashed at me, then elsewhere, roving, searching. You see her eyes are open? Aye, but their sense is shut. That sort of thing. Her physical agitation was proof that under some circumstances, motor function is pure pretense. ‘Seizing’ is what happens when we are hit too hard on the head, or when we drink too much or when we do too many drugs. Our bodies move uncontrollably. Her head shook and chattered slightly on the cement. I called 911.



How old is she, asked the 911 operator. Is she breathing. And, Ma’am, the operator said, will you ask her if she’s pregnant?

Are you pregnant? I asked, and the girl’s toes drummed in the gutter smoothly without missing a beat.

Stay with her, advised the operator.

Should I touch her? Move her head? I asked.

Don’t touch her. Poor girl, said the operator, a woman with the soft drawl of the south in her voice.

She woke me up, I said. The Mission, I said, is not allowing me to sleep.

Honey, I know, replied the operator. The Mission! we exclaimed in unison.


A taxi driving east on 22nd street saw our little tableau spot-lit by the street light and stopped. I’m on the phone with 911, I said, the ambulance is on the way. He nodded and flashed me a thumbs up. Jay came out, my lovely husband with the glowing silver hair. He is always so calm, so warm. He stood on the stoop, holding one of our bath towels.

Should we move her? Cover her?

The operator told me not to. But she isn’t banging her head, I told him. The girl sobbed and pleaded softly with herself.

I called the police, said the operator. Since you found her like that. I looked up the street and saw the police car coming nearer, with a spotlight sweeping the sidewalks. I got into the middle of 22nd street and danced around in my husband’s ratty green bathrobe, waving my arm. Thank you, they’re here, thank you thank you.

Oh, honey, thank you, she said.


The police car drew to the side of the street in a flourish. Two young men, tall with militant buzz-cut hair, got out. They knelt. Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me? They called to her. They peered into her eyes. Their voices were down-pitched; gentle. One cop cradled her head; the other darted to the car and ran back with a blanket in his hands. Together, they folded it and made a cushion for her head.

I would have done that but the operator told me not to, I said, foolishly. Jay watched, saying nothing.

They knelt beside her in their blue uniforms and stiff belts, holding her head like it was a newborn baby, and muttering quickly into their radios. Did you find her like this, asked the cop and I said yes, I’d come outside and there she was. The ambulance came. Bro, said the paramedic to the cop. What’s up? More hasty consultations, a clipping of a device to her finger, a mask fitted over her face. She was shaking harder. They rolled her over. More muttering into radios, more quick technical talk amongst themselves. She’s seizing, said the paramedic briefly. I can’t get the…and the rest was lost when the girl cried out. The paramedic cut away her blouse; the globes of her breasts, beautiful in a violet demi-cup bra, shone out at once. He put his head down and listened. General, he said curtly, and got a gurney out. There were six of them, police and paramedic alike clustered around the girl, the yellow street light and the silver moon illuminating them all. The girl’s strong young belly rose and fell.

One of the cops fished around in her purse. Nicole, he said. Her name is Nicole.


The paramedics loaded her onto the gurney- one, two, three!- and loaded it into the ambulance. It left the way it came, silently, no siren blaring. The police slowly picked up the scattered wrappings of the emergency medical equipment. They left. I went inside and crawled into bed, next to Jay. Elizabeth’s on the case, he said sleepily. Maybe it’s good you’re not sleeping well.

Earlier that evening, we’d argued about my irregular sleeping habits. You need to go to sleep at 11. You’re getting up too late, he’d said.

I can’t help it, I’d replied. Menopause causes insomnia. I’m trying, I said. I’m doing everything I can. You want me to use Ambien? ’Cause that’s what all my friends do. You get me sleepless or you get me medicated. That’s the deal.

He’d scoffed, hearing me say that. Now, mollified by sleep, he stroked my leg. Did you hear her, he asked. How did you know?

Yes. I heard her. I’d heard everything that night, the whoosh of the cars, the far-off shrieking laughter of late-night techies, and a faint whirr in the distance that was probably the hospital generators, but was maybe, possibly, the sound of the moon itself, the heavenly sphere, twisting and turning in the night.


Dedicated with love and affection to Ray Bradbury, the autumn writer; the lovely moon-man.

-San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2014




Lightning girl


This is the picture of a fool. Call me Loddfafnir, an epithet for an unwise human. Seven minutes after I snapped this selfie, a thunderstorm broke with a bolt of lightning directly over my head.

Here are some words of advice from Odin to Loddfafnir in the Eddic poem Havamal: On mountain or fjord, should you happen to be traveling, make sure you are well fed. So far, so good: I had more food than I needed for a four-day camping trip with my friend, an experienced backpacker. We were exploring the mid-section of the Sierra. The night before we left, I went through the usual round of preparation; tightening this strap, tucking that flap. I considered taking one non-essential item, a pendant which is a replica of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, hanging from a brass chain. I might lose it if I take it with me, I thought. Besides, I don’t want to wear metal. It’s a target for lightning. I left it behind.

My friend and I arrived at Grover Hot Springs State Park mid-afternoon. The sky had been clear up Highway 88, but had darkened while we unpacked. The barometric pressure dropped and rain started spitting from the clouds. Before long, we were fighting our tents which were trying to take flight because of the wind that was whipping through the campsite. We worked hastily to lash down the flapping rainflys. Ever since we’d arrived I’d been hearing mutters and rumbles, and wondered what it was: it had the monotonous sound of routine. Was it a convoy of trucks? I asked my friend what I was hearing. She looked at me, startled. “That’s thunder,” she replied.

Later, tired, we made our way to the hot pool. It was closed indefinitely. We asked why. “The lightning strikes,” said Tara, the gap-toothed lifeguard. “We’ve been watching them all afternoon.”

In my life as a coastal Californian, lightning has always been a special-occasion element. On my 18th birthday, which fell then as it does now, in mid-August, an electrical storm appeared far out in the Pacific ocean. At 2 am, I sat on the cliff above Little Corona, smoked a cigarette and watched the blue forks of lightening illuminate the sky. This is a special birthday, I told myself. The lightning proves it. Why else would lightening appear if not to announce the advent of my future, writ large over the ocean horizon in bolts of pure flame?


Grover Hot Springs was crowded with families which meant that the adolescents shrieking and running throughout the campsite in the early evening were corralled by their parents into their tents by 9 pm  and urged into sleep. The thermal pool was lovely, big and solidly built and wonderful to sit in especially after our first hike: we ascended 1,300 feet in about a mile. Tara, the cheerful lifeguard recommended a trail to us on our second day. “It has a lake, and it’s amaaaazing, “ she said. Her eyes fluttered rapturously. We drove to the trail head the next morning and waited an hour for a thunderstorm to pass.

On the trail, we saw a granite slab, rough-hewn, and oddly symmetrical, an obvious stage to step on, and perform ritual on the roofless rock. (Were we to be driven out of our minds and dwell in the mountains forever?) The lake was indeed very beautiful with blue water and a deep stillness in the dead center that spoke of depth. I cast a quick circle to the four elements and jumped in. We were deeply contented, even though it rained. The wildflowers were lush and the lake was rewarding. We’ve both hiked and backpacked long enough to know that Nature can sprout fangs. But we were reading the signs correctly and there had been no trouble.

But there was always a storm. During those three days, the slate-grey clouds coiled in the northern section of the sky, grumbling, and tetchy. Sometimes I looked at the mass directly, marveling at the intensity of the clouds, and noting the way the high green of the meadow was set off to perfection by a color which seemed indescribable. I became accustomed to it: the storm in the corner of my eye.


On the last day, we broke camp, ate breakfast in Markleeville, and drove on Highway Four to the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, so-called because of the large iceberg-shaped peak located in its western reach. There’s a meadow I want you to see, my friend said the day before, with a large flat stone that has grinding holes, made by native Washoe women thousands of years ago. It’s beautiful. Let’s look. Before we entered the trail head, we waited for a group of men to enter first; one of them had taken off his shirt and was twerking enthusiastically. I pulled out my compass and checked our position. Emily had given it to me at a family Thanksgiving two years before. I treated it like a magic toy: something I used without much comprehension. But I knew to hold it flat, and wait as the red needle swung around, wobbled and resolved itself. We entered the Lower Gardner meadow (elevation: 8,640) around 11:30, walking almost exactly north-east. The west was at our back.

Of course the first meadow was beautiful. What else would it be? I began to discern the pattern of the trail: a long stretch of the grassy, flowery field connected by tree-covered knolls. The trail was fine-grained and narrow and crossed at several points by water, which was falling, though not heavily, down the sides of the basalt peaks. Here and there were cow-patties, big plops of shit. ( Most meadows in the Sierra are in recovery from cattle grazing.) It was the classic Sierran subalpine meadow: wet patches in low-lying areas, creeks running diagonally over the trail. In fact, the trail and the creek seemed to be interchangeable. Tall bunches of Corn Lilies were scattered throughout the meadow. Flowers. Birds.

The birds: they were tiny and nervous and on constant alert, flitting and flying and sounding alarms. My friend and I listened as a pair of Clark’s nutcrackers positioned themselves in two trees opposite each other, throwing their songs back and forth over our heads. The trees stood at the entrance of the last meadow we’d enter- the one that had the fabled grinding rock. We entered the last meadow.


It stretched out before us, beautiful, yes. Was it also monotonous? Doesn’t beauty need balance to keep it from becoming too much of a good thing, I wondered, something so easily digestible it loses distinction? There was nothing ugly in sight. Grass, corn lilies, flowers: everything, every detail, was ruthlessly be-dazzling. There was nothing to mar the verdant loveliness, not even mosquitoes. Was this because of the wind that was kicking up from the west? I wondered. I stopped and took a selfie.

The light was changing. I took another picture. The sky was in a state of becoming. I’m wrong about the monotony, I decided. Look up. There’s lots of contrast there. The clouds, the light, the sky: these nouns denote different objects; but under the influence of wonder (which is based, in part, on ignorance), their differences become insignificant, and they merge into one thing. I saw without perceiving.

I took another picture of the clouds, which were now bigger than ever, majestic, full-bellied and swarming directly towards me. The thunder muttered.

My friend stopped. “We’re almost at the end of the meadow,” she said. “ The  grinding stone rock is over there.” I could see a rock jutting into the field a half a mile away.

“We can have lunch there,” she said. The wind ruffled her hair. Overhead, the clouds shuddered and ground their way west.

I don’t remember what we said next.

Did we agree that the weather seemed to be changing; getting worse? Did we acknowledge the inevitability of the storm? Was it even slightly raining at this point? I had a song playing in my head at the time- it’s part of the trance-like state that descends upon me as I walk- and it was playing the same passage over and over again. I told it to shut up as my friend said something about lightning. Had I seen any, she asked? No, I answered. I had not.


“I haven’t seen any lightning either,” she said, just as a bolt of lightning, bright beyond belief almost un-seeable exploded in the air above our heads illuminating the valley with a bright, white light. A clap of thunder sounded simultaneously; the crack was so loud that it seemed to strike my bones with tectonic resonance. The heated air that was forced apart by the lightning roared. I smelled a bright, high scent. I gasped; covered my face. Mine eyes were dazzled. She died young, I thought and then turned and ran after my friend.

My friend had shown me a few days before what the lightning position was a deep crouch with only the soles of your feet touching the earth, or, if you can pull it off, the balls of your feet. The position tries to limit your contact to the ground to the bare minimum. Levitating would be even better. (I haven’t mastered that yet.) The pose is submissive, which suited the occasion and my state of utter panic. Fear  galloped into my body, unchecked and wild.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Lightening Risk Management” booklet, only 3% of all lightning fatalities are caused by a direct lightening strike. Most people are injured or killed because of the ground current: the voltage that travels from the bolt through the earth and up into the human body. Or the fatality happens because of a side flash. The lighting jumps sideways from whatever tall object it hit first to anything else that happens to be around, like a human body. “Lightening Risk Management” makes it clear there’s actually very little “management” one can do. “No place outdoors is safe from lightening,” say the booklet’s authors. “Lightning Risk Management”, perhaps one of the most pessimistic safety manuals I’ve ever read, could be summarized this way: if you’re outside in a lightning strike, well… good luck with that, champ. You might be fucked.

I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice… You should never look upwards in battle. The sons of men become panicked. So do the daughters. I crouched under a small pine tree, snuffling back tears, with my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see anything: the idea of witnessing the lightning had become unbelievably frightening. So, when the hail came, I heard it rattling down rather than saw it. We were soon soaked with melted hail and then with rain. The air temperature dropped noticeably. My body shook. The lightning flashed and the thunder boomed. About four miles away a strike or “downward leader” touched the earth. My friend drew a sharp breath. “Oh. I didn’t want to see that,” she said.


There are no atheists in foxholes. It turns out there are no atheist witches in lightning storms, either. Maybe I shouldn’t have left my Mjölnir behind, I thought. I’d loved Thor since I was a child. I’ve posted my favorite childhood picture of him on my Facebook wall many times: the image of him from the D’AulairesBook of Norse Myths, the book I’d had as a child and still owned. He’s sitting in his cart, drawn by his two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr who are snorting and snarling. Thor is barrel-chested with bristling hair and a bright countenance, and has his fist upraised with Mjölnir held firmly in his gloved hand. I had just written a feature interview with Maria Kvilhaug, a Norwegian folklorist and novelist who studies the ritual structures in the Poetic and Prose Eddas and old Norse poetry. “Today, I’m going to talk about Thor, the thunder god, the great he-man of the old Norse pantheon,” says Maria in her “Lore of Thor” YouTube lecture. “What is all this masculinity about? It is all about protection.”

That’s right. Thor, sometimes called Thor Fjorgynsson (son of Earth), throws his hammer because he loves us. He battles giants in the mountains on behalf of humanity. “Great would be the giant race if they all lived, mankind would be as nothing on the earth,” he tells Odin angrily. He’s a good guy. He’s on our side, hammer and all.

This love of humanity costs him respect from the other Aesir. In the poem Harbard’s Song, Odin laughs at Thor’s humble garb and jeeringly tells him his followers are “serfs”. I might be a serf, but at least I’m Thor’s serf. My childish adoration of the irate, barrel-chested, red-haired god, plus hours spent listening to Maria’s YouTube lectures had led me to this singular moment in the stormy meadow: was it time to take our relationship public?

He was certainly relating to us. Perhaps we’d blundered, uninvited, into his dwelling place, Thrudvangr, the field of power, where Thor resides in his hall, Bilskirnir. (This means “lightning crack and it has 540 rooms. Nordic poetry is notable for its willingness to name and number everything.) After each explosion of pure white light, the air produced sonic booms that tangibly shook the atmosphere. It crossed my mind that there are no stories of human beings who accidentally wander around inside Asgard. Let me out. Thor Fjorgynsson, give us safe passage. Your daughter wants to walk across the meadow in safety, I said silently. Another lightning flash, another shuddering boom-crack.


My hands and legs were numb. I was soaked to the bone and my body was shaking so much it looked like I was convulsing. “Usually these are 20-minute storms. Unless they’re 12-hour ones,” my friend said wryly. She looked at me. “We’re getting out, Elizabeth. Don’t worry.” The muscles of my head tightened, pulling my wet hair up off my neck. I wasn’t sure if this was hypothermia or the charge in the air. Thor Fjorgynsson, open your doors and let me out of your hall, I said silently.

Like uninvited guests, we started trying to leave without attracting attention. We decided to run-walk from knoll to knoll to stay under the smallest trees. We were good at doing this, so good, in fact, that we lost the trail, a fact that went undiscovered for at least twenty minutes. An old cattle crossing alerted me. “I don’t remember seeing this!” I said. My friend looked around at the scenery in the next knot of trees. “We’re going the wrong way,” she said. Her face was set. “Let’s eat. We need to fuel up.” My hands were shaking as I pulled out a nut bar-I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. Make sure you are well fed! – and ate it. My friend bent her head over her iPhone which, miracle of miracles, was functioning. She had downloaded the map of the trail onto her iPhone and I had compassed the direction of the car before we left; working together with old and new technology, we made our way back to the trail, which was doing double duty as a creek.

On the way, there was a another flash of light in the distance. I experienced a spasm of pure irritation. Enough! I thought. I turned my face skywards. “Thor, your daughter seeks safe passage. Will you let us walk in safety?” It was less of a question, and more of a demand: a petulant daughter yelling at an annoying parent. (Dad! Stop bothering me!) My voice sounded strained. The storm unhurriedly made its way south-west as we walked the last twenty minutes back to the car.

In the car, my friend and I looked at each other, shivering and amazed that we were finally sitting down, safely, in a car (cars are safe places in lightning storm, by the way. The lightning hits the roof, and flows down the sides of the car.) It was a sort of Thelma and Louise moment: pure elation mixed with a sense of retrospective dread. What had we done? We started the post-hike debrief as she drove, very slowly, up the now-treacherously muddy and water-soaked road.

My friend expounded on the difference between information and knowledge. “All those people who are the experts…how do you think they got that way? It wasn’t from reading a book! This is what happens. This is how you learn.” She also informed me that I was probably in the early stages of hypothermia because I’d said something to her which made no sense. “There was no content,” she said. “It was like you were in a dream.” Maybe I had been in a dream, I thought. It wasn’t unheard of for people to have dreams that allowed them walk between the worlds. A dream would perhaps allow me to walk unknowingly into the hall of a excitable god.

But this fanciful explanation, while satisfyingly mystical to that non-secular part of myself is also a cop out. (At home, under my roof, it’s easier being an atheist.) What matters more is that blind ignorance (mine) met a weather front. I was wholly ignorant about what a lightning storm is and how they work. I now understand lightning; it’s a discharge of static electricity that tries to resolve the differences in discharged voltage between two objects by moving through a “ground”: whether that’s the earth, a tree or your body is up to you. Theological interpretations have a place and a great deal of meaning from the safety of your own home, or within a ritual. But the more sobering truth is that I was an unwitting participant in a meteorological event because I failed to read the signs. Or didn’t care to. I’m still working that out.

I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. It will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: I tell you to be cautious, but not over-cautious. Take my advice, Odin says to Loddfafnir. Be pragmatic. And know what you’re doing.

That’s good advice. Yes. I’ll listen.


(Hail Thor!)


San Francisco, CA

Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark.


This morning, at 10:30 am, I saw four busy people congregating on my corner. The first, a tall thin woman dressed in casual-corporate garb, scurried around to each of the four cardinal points of the 22nd/Florida crossroads with her camera, taking pictures of 992 Florida street, a six-unit apartment building that houses hipsters, immigrant families and long-time Missionites. She walked off. Three men, dressed in banker’s drag, ambled up the street behind her and stopped below my window. They were mid-conversation, but it was clear that the subject of discussion was my little corner of the world: The East Mission, or as Jay and I privately call it, the Ea-Mi. (Everyone else makes up stupid names for old neighborhoods. So we did, too.)

I heard one of the men say to the other two, “San Francisco is the one place where you can get away with doing what you do- selling apartments without…” before a noisy Honda drowned out his words. They talked some more but the street noise prevented me from hearing what they said. The men walked off. My heart beat fast. I sat down to digest what I’d seen, and what I’d heard. Pictures being taken. Casual conversations on street corners. The neighborhood reviewed, assessed.

And as I sat thinking, another guy wearing a white shirt and a blue tie walked into the middle of the crossroads and raised his phone. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. You could hear the soft warble of the tiny camera capturing 992 Florida Street and swallowing it whole.

I’d had enough. “Excuse me,” I called to him in a hoarse voice. (My voice is barely audible because I’ve been ill.) “Excuse me!” The man looked startled, but, upon seeing me, pocketed his camera and walked over to my window.

“Why are people taking pictures of this neighborhood?” I asked him in a nice voice. He looked like he was preparing to dissemble.

“Oh, well…we’re doing an inspection of the neighborhood,” he said.

“An inspection? Who are you with?”

“The Bank of Guam. We’re looking at buildings.” He clearly wanted to leave.

“Are you looking at that building?” I pointed to 992 Florida.

“Uh, yeah. Yep.” His face was much younger than mine, but his stance and expression were solidly middle aged.

I looked at the 6-unit apartment building, my neighborhood nemesis. Its inhabitants have kept me awake for more nights than I care to remember. I’ve called the police on Sophie, the tenant who lives in unit 992, at least six times to bust up her MDMA-fueled late night raves. I’ve yelled at Manny the affable house painter, who loves to blast the stereo in his truck to shut the fuck up, man, it’s 11 o’clock at night, some of us are trying to sleep, where the hell is your sense, etc…

(…sometimes, early in the morning, the tenant in the lower unit will open the window, particularly if it’s a sunny day, and play dreamy love songs in Spanish. She wakes me up. I feel cranky. Then I look at her, bustling busily around apartment with her capable arms and know it’s time I was awake.

…..another time, late at night: the same woman opened her window to a young man on the sidewalk who was pleading his case. “Te amo,” he said in a stage whisper over and over again. She laughed and told him to go home.)

I’m pretty sure that the ex-gang member who used to live in on the second floor threw a firecracker through my window on the 4th of July because I asked him to stop blasting music for hours on end from his bedroom. (I was born here, he told me.)

I looked back at the nervous guy below my window, a mere foot soldier in the campaign to dislodge the Mission of its long term residents. “Thanks,” I said flatly. He walked off.

So he was taking pictures for the Bank of Guam. Really? Is that tiny country really looking for profit in the streets of the Mission?

I called the Bank of Guam at their office on Montgomery Street. The nice lady told me they weren’t looking for residential properties to purchase in San Francisco, only commercial properties.

I’d been lied to. The foot soldier had dissembled: made some rapid calculations (how much should she know?) and done some fast talking, which would make sense, since real estate speculators in contested areas like the Mission must develop a keen sense of how to obscure, disguise, confusticate and deny. To lie- at first. Later on, there’s no need to lie.

Be careful what you wish for is the moral of this story. I have wished, fervently for quiet. And this is okay: there’s nothing wrong with needing sharp distinction between the noise of the day and the lovely hush of the night, even and especially in a big city. As San Francisco strains towards density, living arrangements between its projected 969,000 inhabitants will have to undergo a series of re-negotiations; between motorists and pedestrians, between locals and newcomers, light and dark, noise and silence.

But the people who have lived in these spacious multi-unit apartments for many years- for entire lifetimes and many generations- need protection. And the machinations of real estate speculators must be exposed to the bright light of scrutiny.

Today, I glared at the foot soldier. In the larger scheme of things, this is a meaningless action, free of consequence for him (it was nice to see him so visibly nervous) but, conjoined with my still-in-the future-action of contacting Eviction Free San Francisco, my momentary intervention into the speculator’s seamless act of swallowing whole neighborhoods may prove to be challenging (to them).

I feel good about stopping his smooth shark-like movements on the streets of my neighborhood and asking him a basic question: what are you doing? And why?

The above image is my re-working of a metaphor-rich WPA poster I found in the Library of Congress archives earlier this week: Displacement strikes like a man-eating shark led by its pilot fish the common speculator.

And as for my frequently expressed umbrage regarding the occupants of 992 Florida Street? I’ll let Sondheim have the last word:

Careful the wish you make/Wishes are children
Careful the path they take/Wishes come true, not free

Careful the spell you cast/Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last/Past what you can see
And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell….
That is the spell

See any pilot fish in your neighborhood? Contact your local housing activist.


A panegyric to the San Francisco Bay and what it feels like to swim in it.

My first time swimming in the San Francisco bay was like this: I showed up to the South End Club (the Dolphin Club was closed) and peered inside. Out of nowhere, a man walked up. “Come in,” he said gruffly and opened the door. I followed him into a long room filled with old boats. No one stopped me and asked what I was doing there, no one demanded that I pay anything to walk through that room. I walked on through and came out onto a small seating area and then a boardwalk and then a tiny cove. In front of me was the bay.

Joan Brown "The Crawl"

I tried to jump in once, twice, three times. It was solidly cold, maybe 58 degrees. My body didn’t shriek in protest, but it did  yell in surprise. I was on the verge of contenting myself with simply wetting my feet. But then a woman with a red bathing cap dove in and swam rapidly for the open water. I’ll have what she’s having, I thought. I dove in.

I surfaced, shaking the hair out of my eyes. You know what to do, I muttered to myself. Get Moving. I swam out to the open water. The cold turned to burning warm. The yells of surprise from my body faded. I thought of Joan Brown, the San Francisco figurative painter who died tragically when a temple in India fell on her, crushing her and her assistant. She painted pictures of women swimming in the San Francisco Bay, their bathing caps visible above the choppy waves. I swam steadily until the Maritime Museum came into view, on my left. I looked at it and thought of the public money that was spent constructing and beautifying it, and the amphitheater where, it was thought, people could sit after taking a refreshing dip in the swimming area which was created by a breakwater that curves protectively around the cove.


Public money brought me here, I thought hazily. Someone wanted me here. Someone thought I might like it. I flipped and swam this way and that and the scenery kept changing: the museum gave way to Fort Mason and then the Bridge. And then Sausalito. And then Mount Tam rearing up, and then all the blue grey islands of the bay. It was a perfect picture, bordered by the greeny-yellow water trembling below my eyes, a perspective which is formed by the act of immersion. I shape-changed the moment I dove in. I was now a sea creature coming up from below briefly to survey the sky and the surrounding earth before submerging myself again in all that wonderful brine.

I thought of my friend Grant, who has the joyous spirit of a dolphin. “Please float on your back and look at the Golden Gate bridge for me,” he’d asked me earlier when I said I was going to go swimming. Reader, I did that: I thought of Grant and his joyous swimming inside the cove, slicing his way across the open water. I dove down again and popped up. I loved everyone I laid eyes on.

A man swimming by looked at me. “I thought you were a mermaid,” he said. I laughed and told him I felt like one.

All around me bathing caps bobbed in the choppy wake as people toiled their way across the bay. I floated on my back and wondered how it was I’d come to this moment: how during the last few hours of reading and fretting and chewing over various insults and injuries and miscalculations, the sure and insistent instinct I’ve possessed since I was a child led me straight to the water, the embracing water. I have good ideas, I thought, the right values. I bobbed and laughed and looked at the purple-headed ducks and then when the current pushed me just so, my tired muscles murmured I’ve had enough now, thank you.

I made my way back in.

Elizabeth in the water

Elizabeth in the water

May 15th, the day of the Full Flower Moon, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a video of Joan Brown discussing the pictures she painted of swimmers in the bay.

Notes from the field: The seedbank of Mount Sutro.

My essay “The seedbank of Mount Sutro” has been published: it appears in The Fourth River, a journal of “nature and place-based writing” according to Chatham University, which publishes the journal. This was my first serious attempt to work with the biologists and their findings to describe and explain the bizarrely fraught conflict between California’s native plant advocates and those who prefer non-native plants. The piece straddles two genres. It’s both a traditional feature article with an interview as a framing device and an attempt, which is the true spirit of essays, I think, to understand and explore the murk of public sentiment as it relates (or chooses not to) to ecological restoration in California. And trees. Eucalyptus trees, specifically.

I like eucalyptus. I’ve been looking at them my whole life, first from a car window speeding down the 405 freeway in Southern California. There, standing in straight lines on the flood plains that sweep down from the Santa Ana mountains, stood eucalyptus trees, frozen in their role as wind breaks for the now-vanished farms of Irvine. My father told me of the folly of the men who imported the eucalyptus. “They brought ‘em here for wood,” he said. “They didn’t know the wood was no good!” He laughed openly at the idiots who spent lots of money making this mistake.

The lesson was clear: know what you’re getting yourself into. The guys who brought these trees here didn’t.

But California are generous and so they decided to love the newcomer trees and also, there’s an idea that …well. How do I say this delicately? Eucalyptus trees were and are considered more attractive than California’s native plants, which are apparently ugly. Take a look at some of the public comments on UCSF’s draft Environmental Impact Report which was intended to describe the university’s long-term management plan of Mount Sutro. They demonstrate a surprising negativity reactions to form, not ecological function, of California’s native plant life. One opponent warned UCSF that those who favored restoration didn’t know what they were getting into.[1] “They do not realize,” the writer intones, “that this city looked like the Marin headlands,” before the eucalyptus were planted.

“Ugly” is a word that occurs four times in the public comments, always with reference to native vegetation. “Barren” is another favored adjective. “Virtually bare” is still another pejorative description of California in her native state. “Please don’t tear it down for scrub and grasses…” pleads yet another commenter [2] (“scrub” and “grasses” being synonymous, one may assume, with the words “barren” and “ugly”.) In a state that prizes beauty, persons, trees and shrubs alike are ranked according to looks.  The cries, lamentations and warnings of the anonymous commentators to stay away from California’s ugly plants should not be underestimated. Beauty has brought mighty men trembling at her feet; she can do the same thing to entire swatches of California’s last-remaining native grasslands and coastal shrub communities as well. Last fall, UCSF abandoned their plan to restore less than eight acres of the sixty-three acre preserve to native plants. Only one acre was going to be planted with native plants.

What do Coyote bush or Coast Live Oak contribute, really, to the beautification of this state? Our native trees and shrubs are small, modest in shape and outline. They cannot compete with other trees and shrubs on the image-obsessed coast of California. In Newport Beach, coconut palms line the bluffs above Corona Del Mar Beach, a landscape inspired by western notions of the hot blue nights of Araby and Scheherazade, instead of what was probably there. That would be California’s Live oak, a tough little tree, with many different bio-realms dependent on it, larval, avian and mammalian.

To the indigenous peoples of the San Francisco peninsula,” declared historian Pete Halloran in the excellent anthology Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics, Culturethe Coast live oak was more than a symbol; it was perhaps the single most important plant species.”[3] The same is true for the acorn woodpecker and numerous microlepidoptera, or the tiny moths. Fifteen different species have been shown to be dependent on Coast live oak leaves on Mount San Bruno[4]. This tiny Yggdrasil was cut down across California  as colonial settlements were transformed into sprawling coastal cities. The acorns could find no purchase in the soil shaded by the new, tall, dramatic trees, real drama queens, with huge canopies that kept the ground underneath them dark and the sun out of the blinking eyes of California’s settlers, many of whom hailed from the deciduously rich East Coast. They were unused to the sun’s frank regard. They needed shade. California with its lush spreads of coastal scrub communities was derided as “barren.” And so the acorns were deprived of the future as mothers-to-many, as trees from all parts of the world were pressed into service.

Today, San Franciscans need a different sort of shade: privacy, a get-away, refuge from city neighborhoods that are getting more crowded as more people pour into the seven square and inflexible miles of the city. San Francisco can be an extroverted city, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t introverts amongst us who want away from the madding crowd. That’s where Sutro Forest comes in. “It is a quiet, secluded introspective space,[5]” writes one San Franciscan. “Loss of such a space will be detrimental to the emotional health of San Francisco.” In order to escape, some San Franciscans need the deception that Mount Sutro (which is really a hill) is an actual forest (it’s a “forest” in much the same way that a reservoir is a “lake”) in order to be soothed.

Mount Sutro is a tree plantation masquerading as a “cloud forest”, a definition used only by its boosters in defiance of the scientific definition of a cloud forest: a delicate ecological space that boasts of a dense display of fog-fed plants with a species denseness that often numbers in the thousands. Mount Sutro, which has little biological diversity, is a place with a falsified past (old growth eucalyptus trees! A forest that is hundreds of years old!) and a thoroughly marketed present. It is a site to wander wrapped in a dream of illusion and no-whereness, a place that is virtual rather than actual.

As a teenager in Southern California, I loved spaces like these, places I could co-exist with my fevered, racing brain. So, too, the adult inhabitants of San Francisco still seek “reposeful places” for “solace, sweet and inspirational, in the song-haunted shadows.”[6] (Can a bush do that for you? Who can hide in coastal chaparral with its frank regard for the open sky?)

You can live in the city and yet leave the city, be not of the city. This is what the landscape of Mount Sutro guarantees, assuming the people who live in the expensive neighborhoods that rim the perimeter of Mount Sutro accept your presence. “I can see no benefits from this action…” says a man named Michael of the proposed management, “only distress to the local residents…and general peace and quiet and enjoyment of our homes.”[7]

Acorns can’t grow in this private, shaded space some call a forest. Funny, that. What makes a forest a forest is its diverse nature. Actual forests make room for all kinds of plants.

Like a manzanita. The manzanita is the first plant that identified for me by my father when I was young. I admired it and wanted to snap off a branch to take home with me. He didn’t let me to touch it. “That’s what everyone wants to do,” he said. People liked its glossy burgundy red wood, he told me. They liked it too much. “They used to cut it down to make furniture from it,” he told me. “But the wood’s not good for that,” he said. Manzanita has grown in the Presidio- in fact, a remnant stand of Franciscan manzanita, a species long thought to be extinct, was discovered during the re-build of Doyle Drive back in 2010. A few may have once grown on the flanks of Mount Sutro. On Mount Sutro’s Draft EIR there are five arctostaphylos (manzanita) species listed as “potentially” occurring in the reserve[8]. Two species grow in serpentinite soils. Since Mount Sutro is made of Franciscan chert, these species are not expected to be present. Three other species (A. imbricate, A. montaraensi and A. pacifica) could grow, but probably won’t grow “due to the density of competing non-native vegetation.”

I think Manzanita wins on looks. It is beautiful, this shrubby and sometimes tree-like plant with its glossy oxblood-red limbs. But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the bedazzled beholder. In the case of Mount Sutro, Beauty has a tenacious grip, with public opinion clutched firmly in one hand and an entire ecosystem held fast in the other.


Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

Elizabeth and an Arctostaphylos densiflora outside of Calistoga

For more information about the Sutro Stewards and their vision of  ecological restoration, go to: http://sutrostewards.org

[1] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf, Comment # 4

[2] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #48

[3] Holloran, Pete. Seeing the trees through the forest: oaks and history in the Presidio. Reclaiming San Francisco. Brook, Carlsson and Peters. City Light Books San Francisco CA

[4] http://jeffreycaldwell.blogspot.com/2004/12/plant-diversity-supports-animal.html

[5] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #387

[6] http://www.sfmuseum.net/sutro/bio.html

[7] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/MtSutroDEIRCommentLetters.pdf. See comment #115

[8] http://campusplanning.ucsf.edu/pdf/Mount_Sutro_EIR_1_18_13_with_Appendices.pdf

Chronicles of Ubo: Private Road, Newport Beach

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA


There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How stupid, I thought irritably, looking up at it. How prosaic. Who names a road “Private”?

A land developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Southern California, that’s who. I don’t know who it was that coined the name, but it’s likely that he (it was probably a he) looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, a prized feature. The view was public and thus unprotected from the gaze of many people. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)

The name worked like a charm. I had never known or noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its frowning, finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created a psychic space I called home.

Private Road, which is on a grade, curves up from Irvine Avenue, the long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which tallies with the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic, heaven-bound and unapproachable for un-monied mortals.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, which seems to be the fate of many neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are, of course, stratospheric and the spatial dimensions of the houses are similarly unbound: they’re huge and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.

This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I come home and everything has changed, says the adult, who left while they were still young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.

I can’t complain about Private Road (I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private…?). It is protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked by the name-spell. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It had (and has) small pink and blue houses with many people living in in them and chickens in the front yard. I lived on, and therefore had first-hand knowledge of Croftdon Street, which was the first house my parents owned in Costa Mesa. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. The kids they brought were total assholes, as it turned out. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.

The namer/developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Privacy accomplished this.

The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, forestalling not only my physical presence, but stopping me before I could make and hold in the commons of my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived in together with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I vant to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The other streets and roads and avenues that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re open, friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso…or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.

Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.

Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?

Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with avid public curiosity.

Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, sure isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.

What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?

Private Road, Newport Beach, CA

The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.

“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”

“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”

Diddie’s house

From a 2001 entry in my dream journal: “Diddie died last October. On the weekend that she died, Emily and Anne and I were supposed to spend a weekend together in San Francisco. Anne wasn’t coming ‘til Saturday morning, so Emily and I took off for Orr Hot Springs, and drove back Saturday morning to meet Anne at my house on Alvarado Street. My poor sister had to tell us. She had been told 10 minutes she stepped on the plane before by my mother.”

Diddie in her garden

Diddie in her garden

I dreamt about Diddie’s house two nights ago. She was my Grandmother, and her real name is not Diddie, but that doesn’t matter. The dream was produced under the influence of a few things: a late night conversation with my sister who was describing her house to me –“It reminds me of Diddie’s,” she said excitedly- and also the sort of vivid dreams one has in the early morning, after not sleeping so well during the night. The dream was not a happy return to a beloved place: there was strange man warning me that I might well have to leave California. The house was hard to describe even in the first few minutes of waking consciousness. It was inchoate; mesmerizing. I wondered why and how, if the house was no longer standing, I returned to it so often.
Diddie’s house recurs often in my dreams, usually in a different shape or in a different locale. There are secret rooms that appear, that I didn’t know existed, and these rooms give me hope that the house is has grown; is living. I explore them curiously, tenderly. There’s a backyard, always. The interior of the house- the painting, the large medallion of Shakespeare, the picture of the geraniums, the small watercolor of Charity Farms, the farm in Hogsthorpe, England where her Grandfather grew up- does not appear.

Bunny's desk with painting of Charity Farms

Bunny’s desk with painting of Charity Farms

This inventory of objects makes this entire recollection sound like another version of Goodnight Moon, the items that get noticed everyday, every night: things that your memory catches and snags on. We all have items from the house. They are not lost. But the house is.

Another entry reads: “Last night I walked into Diddie’s bedroom. To the left hand side of the door was a hole from which a rickety staircase descended. There was a basement I’d never seen before. I stared at it, wondering what was down there. It wasn’t dank, dark or scary. It was, instead, illuminated with the light of the mid-afternoon sun. I began to weep, hugely, almost athletically, pulling energy up from my diaphragm and shoving it out the front of my face. I pounded the ground, I hugged my knees and crouched and howled and when there were no more tears, I still tried to cry…”

The house is lost. I watched it go. I watched the insides get taken out and disposed of (a process that was not easy and provoked an scary and unprecedented fight between my beloved Aunt and myself. And my poor Father.)

I knew our family couldn’t keep it. It was too valuable to keep. It was located in Newport Heights in Newport Beach, a sleepy seaside town when my grandparents arrived there in the early forties. Diddie’s house was on Aliso Street, just east of a bluff that overlooked Pacific Coast Highway. When the weather was clear, you could walk down the street and look at Catalina, crisp and clear, and smoky blue in the distance. Developers, looking to monetize the perspective of bluff-ocean-island, built huge homes on the edge of the bluff and privatized the view. The city of Newport beach grew and asserted itself. Ranch style homes and pseudo-Eichlers started to appear alongside the square little bungalows that were built after the war. And then bigger homes got built. Skyscrapers appeared to the south. Fashion Island, the modernist outdoor mall, was built.

The house was screened by a pepper tree and a hedge of toxic and fragrant white oleander. It didn’t call attention to itself. None of the houses on Aliso Street did at that time. They were smaller, low-slung, relaxed. It was Newport Beach. The outdoors was the attention-grabber. Not high-ceilinged houses with vasty interiors and heavy furniture. People didn’t live in Newport Beach because they wanted to be entombed in heavy houses. You lived there because you didn’t need to be protected from the elements. The night didn’t bring bone-crushing cold and the sun set, it seemed, just forty miles away over the long spine of the submerged mountain range that is the Channel Islands. The winds blew calmly over that small white house with the redwood rafters.

From the dream journal later in 2001: “I dreamt that Diddie’s house, with the knowledge and connivance of Diddie, Dad and Cerini, had been blasted to make way for a new structure. ..somebody had cut down the ancient pepper tree in the front yard. That is what sent me over the edge. The tree had been ripped asunder, torn apart. It was a horrible dream. Not only did I rail at Dad and Cerini, I screamed at Diddie…”

The house was torn down. I knew it would happen. My father and I made a last tour of the house, shortly before it went up for sale. I couldn’t believe at the time that it was going away forever. I took pictures of the house and the grounds it sat on. I took pictures of the glassware that still sat on her dining room table, the way the light hit it.

I ran water in the sink and remembered a time when I was an eight year old that I washed dishes next to Diddie. The water flowed over my hands and the sunlight that came in through the window above the sink illuminated it. I looked up at Diddie. “Look at this!” I said to her. I  meant: look at this incredible element in your house. Look at the liquid light that’s running over my hands.

Diddie nodded and said, yes. She saw the light too.

Diddie's house is full of light.

The table in the dining room

The last recorded entry in my journal is this one, and it’s the dream that the other dreams made, the logical end point to the ripped-out pepper tree and the wailing and the snarling rage: My brother Jim and I stood looking at the house, which was pale green. It stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. There was a narrow path on the right that bordered a sheer drop – one misstep, and you’d be over the edge, falling to your death. The house was very old and very loved and it was very beautiful. I became aware of a stained glass window- old and ecclesiastically English looking.

I was given to understand that the house was condemned. It was going to be destroyed. Jim and I walked around the house looking at it and noting the visible signs of decay. There was a clear sense of danger. It was structurally unsound. The ground was crumbling under my feet. The sides of the house were slick with moisture. Green vegetation was shooting out of the house, slowly covering the wooden boards. The house was being reclaimed by natural forces, not ripped apart or dismantled by mechanical forces: re-enfolded in verdant green vegetation. I remember crying as the house began to fall.

And then Jim and I pushed the house and helped it fall, right down into the ocean, which was bright blue and sparkling.


It seems that the death of Diddie and the destruction of the house hasn’t foreclosed the possibility of someone still living in it.

I think I go there more often than I know.

Have the people who live in the new, modern house heard the quiet sound of a door being closed? Muffled conversations in a living room that isn’t there any longer? Do they hear the sound of running feet? Are the secret rooms I find in my dreams about Diddie’s house passageways into the new house? Have the current occupants seen a elderly woman with blonde bobbed hair who walks briskly from room to room?
Do they sense my presence? Hers?

The house that used to be there?


Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918

Charity Farms, Hogsthorpe, England, circa 1918




Birds call; Dominik Mosur listens

Dominik Mosur stood in the middle of schoolchildren, who were busily running through San Francisco’s Randall Museum wildlife exhibit. A tall, powerfully built man with a mild expression, he wore a tee shirt that read  “Made in Poland”. Mosur was born in Poland and although he has the laid back attitude and accent common to most coastal Californians, he pronounces his surname with a distinctive Eastern European lilt.

Just then he looked tired. “There aren’t usually this many kids at once,” he explained. “I think there are actually two classes here at the same time. Someone’s always gotta be on the floor with all these kids.”

As an animal care attendant for the museum, he’d also dealt with an emergency that morning: a sick Great Horned owl.  The Randall Museum, which functions both as a natural history museum and as a refuge for the city’s wildlife, has had the owl in residence for many years. (Born blind, the owl would have died in the wilderness.) The stress of transporting a sick owl to a wildlife vet showed on Mosur’s face. “I’m pretty behind right now,” he said.

Mosur has the distinction of identifying the most bird species in one year in San Francisco County and has mastered the art of bird identification by listening rather than looking. This is sometimes the only way a bird can be identified. Songbirds like the Pygmy Nuthatch measure three inches in size and roost in the tops of mature conifer stands. “If you’re lucky, you might see one fly by,” observed Mosur, sounding doubtful. Listening for bird calls depends on a sonic atmosphere uncluttered by anthropogenic noise. In San Francisco, this can be a challenge.


A Pygmy Nuthatch

“Up here in Corona Heights, I take a walk at noon and I hear construction noise, like nail guns and jackhammers, pretty much the whole time,” he said, sitting down outside the museum. Behind him, schoolchildren ran around, emitting high pitched squeals of delight. “A lot of times, I need to really listen carefully. Am I hearing a bird or is that a truck backing up? Is that really a woodpecker banging away at a tree or is that someone hammering?”

It follows that if Mosur has a hard time hearing the birds, they probably don’t hear each other, either. “There’s definitely a negative effect specifically on birds from man made noise. Birds communicate visually, but also by sound. Bird song is typically a male bird trying to attract a mate. Having noise can really reduce the chance of the male bird finding a mate and reproducing. In areas where there’s constant noise, a number of birds become less successful in nesting. Some birds have completely abandoned these areas.” A car alarm went off in the distance.

One bird that’s vanished from San Francisco because of noise is the Black-headed grosbeak. This songbird migrates from Mexico and arrives in the Bay Area in late March. Once they’ve recovered from their journey, the male grosbeaks will sing continuously from hidden spots in bushes and coastal scrub. “There hasn’t been a confirmed record of them nesting here in San Francisco since 1918,” said Mosur.  “But if you go over the Golden Gate to Bolinas, to the stands of willows in Pine Gulch, you find the Black-headed grosbeak. Over there, they’re one of the most common birds.”

A black-headed grosbeak

A black-headed grosbeak

“I’ve learned to filter out the sounds of anthropogenic noise but when I do get to bird in places where I don’t hear traffic, it’s almost like I’m on a holiday,” he said. Mosur’s ability to hear the sounds of natural life over the din of machinery started early. He spent his early childhood in Poland, living in a Communist-era apartment block. “I guess you’d call them tenements,” he says now. As a child, he listened to the songs of house sparrows, Passer domesticus, a small sparrow common to most parts of the world that nested in the nooks and crannies of the apartment walls. “I would hear their chirping from the moment I stepped outside.” His family applied for political asylum and ended up in Encinitas, a small Southern California beach community north of San Diego, when he was seven. The song of house sparrows remains fresh in his memory. “When I bike or walk around certain neighborhoods in San Francisco where there are a lot of House sparrows, it brings me back to that time as a kid. It’s like, Oh wow, I really know that sound! That is so ingrained in my memory.” A bee buzzed past his head.

Mosur started birding when  he moved to San Francisco. “Initially the first year or two, it was a very visual thing. And then, watching other birders, the realization came to me that the majority of bird detections they were making was through sound. That’s when I really tried to train my ear.” He was working at the VA Hospital on Clement Street in the Outer Richmond District of San Francisco. “Every lunch break I would go out there and for 15 or 20 minutes and I would practice trying to identity every single call that I heard.”  A bird trilled from the middle of a coyote bush. Mosur jerked his head in the direction of the sound “That, right there- that’s a white-crowned sparrow, right behind you.” The sparrow trilled again and flew away.

Corona Heights hosts a centuries-old clan of the white-crowned sparrow, a home-loving bird with a fine, high whistle. “The white-crowned sparrow is the emblematic bird of San Francisco,” explained Mosur. “They rarely go more than 500 yards from where they were hatched. This clan of white-crowned sparrows have lived here for hundreds of years.” As he spoke, ambulances sped up Market Street below us, the wails bouncing and echoing off the cliff walls of Corona Heights.

A White-crowned-Sparrow

A White-crowned-Sparrow

The sparrows might follow the example set by San Francisco songbirds who left their ancestral home because of too much noise: the Black-headed grosbeak, and the Orange-crowned warbler to name just two. Should the noise levels start affecting the quiet hilltops of San Francisco, the sparrows  might leave, too. “Once they leave, it’s not easy to get that diversity back,” observed Mosur.

The song of California is perhaps best understood not by the screech of seagulls or the croaking of corvids, but instead as the trills and warbles of vireos, juncos, finches, sparrows and meadowlarks, small- to medium-sized birds that like grasslands and meadows, not heavily forested areas, like the large-scale tree plantations that now dominate the city’s open spaces like Golden Gate Park, Mount Sutro and the Presidio. The invisible, intangible habitat of air is being occupied by the same city-building forces that ripped out the coastal scrub which once covered San Francisco.

How many native birds still nest in San Francisco? An electric saw roared to life, as Mosur considered the question. He shook his head. “That’s the question. Are we producing the birds around here? Are they being locally grown? You know?” He laughed grimly. “The sad truth is that not that many birds nest in San Francisco anymore.”

-reposted from Paper Tape online magazine

Eel grass

Sedges have edges

Rushes are round

Grasses are jointed

Where willows abound…


 This lovely little mnemonic is scribbled in the fly leaf of An Island Called California, a book written by Elna Bakker that once belonged to my sister Emily. It’s a guide to California’s ecological habitats. California’s native eel grass, Zostera marina, appears in the third chapter which describes salt marshes. Bakker uses an evolutionary perspective to structure the book: she starts describing the state’s 20 or so different habitats from within the ocean and moves upland from there.

Eel grass is picky about its environment. It grows underwater and must be submerged at all times, but it needs access to the sun to photosynthesize and so the water must be shallow and clear for the grass to thrive. Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush dumped 1.5 billion cubic yards of pulverized Sierra batholith into the bay. Like separated lovers, the grass and the sun couldn’t see each other through the haze of the suspended matter, which ended the relationship. Was there a mass die-off? It certainly wasn’t captured in any scientific observations or surveys (there had only been one survey of the vegetation of the bay done in the 1920s.) The Bay wasn’t scrutinized as a living organism for its health until after 1965. So the historic locations and extent of the eel grass beds aren’t known with any precision until late in the 20th century. 

Eel grassIt’s enough to say that at one time eel grass beds were commonplace and now they are not. There were probably beds that grew around the margins of the bay starting in the San Pablo bay, continuing into the central Bay, and growing down inside the southern end.

Eel grass might not have been around much in the 20th century, but with the advent of the 21st, that changed. In 1987, scientists surveying the bay found 316 acres of eel grass. Before then it was thought to be rare; after this discovery, bay scientists started taking note of what the eel grass was doing (growing mostly) unassisted and unaided. The number of eel grass beds rose with subsequent surveys. Since the plant’s spirit seemed to be willing (and also because the bay is much cleaner) major restoration projects were initiated by a host of public and private agencies with the hopes of bringing back the historic eel grass beds of San Francisco Bay, 23,440 underwater acres if the restoration project works.

Eel grass Eel grass affixes itself to the bay floor by means of a rhizomatous network. The rhizomes produce roots that shoot horizontally through the mud, which anchors the plant. Mud and sediment cluster around the roots.

This rooting is a mighty act of creation, lengthy and— in contrast to the fabled seven-day creation of the earth— distinctly non-impetuous. Eel grass works in long increments of time to build that most basic locale: the bottom of the bay, unseen by most humans. Thousands of geologic years yawned between each other as the eel grass beds grew thickly and pushed back against the current, forcing the water to slow down.

“Water is lazy,” says my sister Emily. When the water slows, it drops what it’s carrying, which is called silt: mud and clay from the eroded granite of Sierra riverbeds to the alluvial soil of the Central Valley. This interaction between the water and the grass builds the bay from the bottom up (an encouraging image for activists of all persuasions, surely). And the bottom is where things live, and where they slowly navigate the terrain that makes their home. The soft bottom of the bay is a place to crawl, or to a make a bed to burrow into, for native and non-native species alike. Both use the mud of the bay floor to crawl, to nest, to siphon and to prey. Eelgrass beds build structure (commonly called habitat) within an otherwise undefined space.

Eel grassHabitat, in turn, builds institutions: cohorts of invertebrates, fish and birds that consort and contend with each other within the structure of blade, bed and water.

The margin of the bay is a popular place for institution-building. The institutions built by eel grass gave way to the small fishing industries of the late 19th century that lined the bay from China Camp to Hunter Point. Trawling, dredging and boating destroyed the beds. And then other major industrial endeavors moved in, namely the wartime shipbuilding industry that brought people and machinery to the Bay Area in WWII in the waters where eel grass grew. Along the shores of Sausalito, and Points Richmond and Molate, 3,000,000 cubic yards of bay mud got ripped out so that Marinship Corporation, owned by the W.A. Bechtel Company, might build 93 enormous ships.

A lengthy aside: union films from this period of fast and furious shipbuilding, wishing to encourage union efforts, were not shy about showing the consequences of non-unionized labor: the traumatized bodies of the shipbuilders. In the film Golden Lands, Working Hands, a shipbuilder flexes his knee, moving the remnant stub of his lower leg as he prepares to be fitted for a prosthetic limb at the doctor’s office. Another man shows the camera his hand. Most of his fingers are missing. Shipbuilding was good for unionized labor, occasionally catastrophic for the human body and absolutely merciless to estuarine habit. The blades of the grass and the fingers, hands and legs of shipbuilders went missing in the same space, the margins of the bay.

Eel grassScientists are fond of comparing estuaries to nurseries, an appropriate metaphor for the quiet, protected waters of an estuary. Adult fish, like the Pacific herring, enter the estuary and make a beeline for the waving blades of eel grass (if any are around.) The females attach their eggs to the grass, the males release milt, and the beds become incubators, literally, as the herring larvae subsist on their yolk sacs and continue to grow. They hatch in two to three weeks.

But the relative protection of the estuary doesn’t create a absolute sanctuary: the young of any avian, mammalian or epifaunal species will always be at risk from something bigger.

The reproductive cycle of the Pacific herring attracts other animals that like to eat the Pacific herring and their young. Gulls, for instance, which are notoriously rapacious birds, feed directly on the tiny eggs. Diving ducks eat them, too. So do Surf scoters. So do some invertebrates like Clapper Hydromedusa. Or crabs. Or sturgeon, smelt, and juvenile salmonids.   Brant Geese eat the grass itself, ripping it up in huge chunks. “Life flows so rapidly into life,” Loren Eisley once observed in astonishment. Death pursues life with the same avidity. Eel grass beds are nurseries for some animals and a game preserve for others. What is the difference between taking shelter and hiding? In an estuary, the line is very thin.

Eel grassThe story of the eel grass’s comeback is the story of the bay.  If you improve water quality and stop industrial and urban development from infringing on the sub-tidal bay lands, history will repeat itself. The eel grass beds came back with little direct support and the project to restore them has, so far, has been promising. “We’re still learning,” said Marilyn Latta, Project manager for the The San Francisco Bay Subtidal Habitat Goals Project, the lead agency involved in the restoration effort. “The project is in the pilot stage, but we’ve seen good success at a variety of sites, particularly at Point Molate. And we’ve just started restoration efforts on the San Rafael shoreline and have seen good results there, too.”

The pastoral image of acres of waving eel grass is echoed in other endangered ecological systems in the state of California. Grass is literally underfoot, always getting in the way of other, bigger things: ships. Or cows. The largest contiguous grassland in the state, the Great Valley Grassland, covers 2,826 acres outside the small town of Gustine. This parcel is a remnant of an ecosystem that stretched throughout the Central Valley before the arrival of Europeans.

Then, native bunchgrasses and fescue grew throughout the Central Valley. This changed with the onset of pasturage economies: the native grass was replaced by pasturage that was more nutritious for cattle, and now only a few parcels of land with any native assemblages remain. Eel grass has one thing in its favor: it isn’t fighting off any non-native variant of itself. The native sister grass of eel grass, Spartina foliosa, must contend with Spartina alterniflora, an introduced grass from the East Coast which has dominated the native Spartina ecology by means of producing a hybridized variant, thus delivering a one-two punch to that system. So far, eel grass has held its own against outsiders.

Eel grass isn’t rare. It is simply absent. If the readers of this blog want to see eel grass, consider visiting Tomales Bay. There, you can rent a kayak and explore one of the most pristine bays in California. Near the rocky edge, the eel grass is visible, its blades flowing sinuously in the water. It isn’t hard to see the current running through the blades as a submerged prairie, with the wind whipping over the plains. The grass is richly green and very lovely.

Mothers and daughters, life and death at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

A white egret stalks a fish in Arcata's marsh and wildlife refuge

Last week, a friend of long standing and most excellent intelligence picked me up in San Francisco. Equipped with backpacks, food and her mother’s ashes, we were headed to Arcata’s Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, which is linked to a waste-water treatment plant- in flows the shit and out flows disinfected waste into the wetland and Humboldt Bay after (hopefully) all of the E.Coli and Enterococcus bacteria have been removed. You can smell the sewage at the marsh, but it’s a familiar enough odor, although a bit (ahem) concentrated. It’s not at all unpleasant as an olfactory backdrop. And it’s yet another prompt to think about death in all its stages.

Wetlands are also easy places to think about death and the cycle of life, as we pagans like to term it. The processes of reproduction, digestion and decomposition are in rapid and constant dialogue with each other in a wetland. The cycle is vastly sped up. There are organisms in a wetland that may only live for a few hours before becoming food for another organism. And wetlands are visually striking- long, flat places that reach into the distance; immortality’s portal flung wide, opening for the soul embarking on a long journey, if indeed, you hold dear the notion that the soul travels after death. Californian wetlands almost always have a western orientation: in Celtic mythology, the West is a sort of directional/elemental psycho pomp that guides souls.


My friend’s mother had died of acute myeloid leukemia back in October, ten months before we set about laying her to rest. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She lived alone in McKinleyville, a small town 5 minutes north of Arcata named after the nation’s 25th President William McKinley. McKinleyville is not a good place: it seems to  be a small town filled with people who in my friend’s words “never smiled”. I saw a woman walking along a dirt road with a freshly blackened eye and a split lip which just deepened my dislike for the place. McKinleyville did not strike me as cheerfully disposed and seemed, in fact, to be a place that would worsen the condition of someone with mental illness.

“My mother used to sit in a room and talk to herself,” said my friend later. McKinleyville is the perfect place to do things like that. She had been estranged from my friend and I think most of the rest of her family. She could not get up the short flight of stairs one day; this is when she knew something was terribly wrong. She called a neighbor for help and was ultimately medi-vacced to Stanford hospital in Palo Alto where she died, in stubborn denial of the physical catastrophe that was rapidly sinking her ship.SAM_1068

My friend had fought long and hard to maintain contact with her mom. This was tough because in the throes of schizophrenia her mother had turned back to the Catholicism of her youth, which didn’t leave much room for understanding my friend’s particular arc; my friend is, in the words of semi-famous sign she held aloft at an anti Gulf War rally, a “transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk” which is at totally at odds, any way you slice it, with conservative Catholicism.

My friend tried her best to maintain contact, but about two years ago said “you really must stop treating me the way you do” in so many words in an elegant, eloquent letter to her mother, who responded to the letter by calling her and scolding her. It was hard to tell- and I myself had wondered- how long her relationship with her mother would last. I was sorry when it happened but not surprised.

The death of the mother made the future of verbal communication an impossibility, and so my friend’s decision to stop speaking to her mother was given an unexpected and final seal of approval from the tall skinny guy who walks around carrying a scythe. Her funeral was complicated, too- my friend was dis-invited to spare the feelings of some family members who, for one reason or another, agreed that the inclusion of the mother’s transsexual, vegan, lesbian, epidemiologist punk daughter would introduce an unnecessary note of controversy. “Blood is not thicker than water,” my friend said. I agreed with her.

Her mother had made her wishes clear; scatter my ashes in the north Humboldt coast, she’d told my friend. So off we went, like thistledown on the wind, or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, free-bootin’ our way up north, achieving a rare blend of focused and goal-driven indolence. We were a bit giddy, mostly because we both like these time-outs from everyday life. My friend is a tenure track academic, who does not live to work (a rarity in that field, I think). She had eulogized her mother expertly two days earlier, on a hillside in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness in San Ramon. I had read the 23rd psalm. I fell under the spell of this song and its calm certainty: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. The ash scattering in Arcata was the final act in the process of laying her to rest.


After we passed Ukiah, the smoke from a distant fire in Oregon turned the blue sky white and tinted the ground a faint but distinct shade of pure orange. We stopped at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area. The South Fork of the Eel River is at low-ebb now, judging by the enormous expanse of bare alluvium that lies exposed to the sun on the broad banks. But there was enough water in the river to form spectacular swimming holes in Standish-Hickey SRA. My friend and I walked down to the swimming hole, unsure whether we were going to do much more than stretch our legs and look around. When I walked out onto the small beach that fronts the swimming hole, I knew we’d be there for at least twenty minutes. I ripped my clothes off and jumped in.

“How’s the water?” called my friend. Her face was bright.

“It’s perfect,” I replied. “Get in here!” She got in.

We saw small juvenile fish darting around, probably Steelhead trout. There was no sign of the rivers’ namesake, the monstrous-looking Pacific Lamprey, an anadromous fish with a serpentine body and a mouth part straight out of hell. I saw them once, almost twenty years ago when I first visited Standish-Hickey with my sister. They were dead, having just spawned, belly up, mouths gaping. My sister and I stared in fascinated horror.

My friend and I swam. We jumped off rocks. I dove underwater and pulled her legs. I imitated a lamprey. We pulled ourselves up on a rock next to a small rapid. My friend sat looking up the river, thinking. She looked at me. She was content, and her eyes were calm, but I’d seen weary sadness in them all week. That emotion was there now. “We should hit it,” she said. We waded out, retrieved our clothes and left.SAM_1061

We pulled into the marsh at 3:40. My friend walked to the trunk, unlocked it and pulled the box of ashes out. “Hold this for a sec,” she said, handing it to me. Human ashes are weighty, I thought.  I’d noticed this when I scattered my dad’s ashes back in 2007: an entire human body reduced to rubble and grit still had some heft to it. On one the side of the box, someone had used a black sharpie to scrawl the word “fly”. Was this an order to my friend’s dead mother?  We started walking briskly up a narrow path. The smell of crap and organic matter rotting in the marsh hung low in my nostrils. I didn’t know what the plan was, or where we were headed. Neither did my friend.

“I’m looking for a good place,” she told me.

“Be careful of the wind direction,” I said.

“Like the Big Lebowski?” she replied. We cracked up. “I’m thinking we’ll do a little at a time,” she said and she made a gesture, like a person scattering sugar in their coffee.


I got distracted by the Himalayan blackberries bordering the path. They are a nuisance plant, and wildly invasive, but they do have large blackberries, which I began to pick. When I turned around she was opening the box. At her feet was a small pond, fed by the hydrological system but totally enclosed by reeds. Duckweed floated on the surface.

What took my breath away was not the shape but the color: mint, peridot, jade, leaf, lichen- every tint, color and hue of green was packed tightly into one small spot. Green, as a color, lives or dies according to the material it’s composed of. Cotton jersey, for instance, is not kind to green. It doesn’t distribute light at all, which is why green cotton always looks Gumby-green. Green needs light to animate it.

This little pond was absolutely glowing: the woody, herbaceous materials of leaves, reeds and duckweed were translucent and shot with a fierce vibrancy. It was a green chapel in the marsh, ready to receive. “I feel like I’m in the Emerald City,” I said to my friend.

She opened the box and shook the contents of it into the pool carefully. A mist of fine grey dust floated through the air. Light hit the ashes and illuminated them.



From an interpretive sign at the marsh:

“Coastal Mudflats… transition zones between land and sea, are among the most nutrient-rich ecosystems on earth.”

Waste is different than death, I thought, wincing at how obvious this was when I said it out loud to myself. A person may die and be turned to dust, but there’s no real waste involved, is there?

“The essential elements that contribute to this wealth are present in abundance: deep penetrable mud; oxygen; sunlight; and a dependable supply of mineral-laden water from the sea.”

A friend who is famously agnostic about almost everything, said to my friend and I a week before we left that he had arrived at a feeling of certainly about the question of whether there’s life after death. “Of course there is. Everything is food for something. It makes total sense,” he said. We nodded.  It does. The body just gets taken up by something else.

At a glance, the acres of mudflats appear to be a wasteland suitable only for garbage dumps and landfill. However, this oozy mixture of life supporting elements creates an eco-system far from desolate.

It was a good thing that my friend’s mother was here.

“Billions of microscopic plants known as diatoms transform sunlight into literally tons of energy.”

She had lived by herself for a long time, and now she was part of a system that had room for her.

“Since we are part of the food chain it makes sense that we protect what remains of this habitat that feeds us.”

Blood is thicker than water. My friend is a good daughter.

RIP, Catherine Anne Dinno.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 350 other followers