Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Three dreams for Hallowe’en.

February 19, 1998
The Family of the Rotten Potato


I’m in a kitchen which is bright and full of sunny yellow formica and other people, whose faces I cannot see. The perspective is that of a child, sat at a table and waiting, as adult bodies bustle around me, getting, placing, working: all the absent-minded, purposeful movements of women (I think) in the kitchen doing the work of home. They are cheerful and content, and the kitchen itself is good, a warm, clean place, fine and bright. I sit, waiting. Someone is going to give me something.

Someone puts a plate in front of me. Placed on it is one potato. The outside is fine, but on the inside, there is a big ugly blot of black rot. It’s a sickly little white potato that is rotten. And it has been given to me. I look around to see if anyone has noticed what I’ve been given, what I’ve almost eaten. I feel an excited pride, and no disgust, and no horror. I want the other busy bodies in the kitchen to notice what has been given to me: a rotten potato. I belong to the family of the putrid tuber. I am happy about this.

April 2010
An Púca

(I have no pictures of the Púca. Sorry)

I am relaxing in a bathtub, which is filled with pleasantly hot water and, I realize in a slow fade of comprehension, dirt. And earthworms. I am in submerged in an warm, earthen soup.  There are other things, too, one of which looks very much like a very large coelacanth—a pre-historic walking fish, with stiff fins that looks as if it’s been made from seaweed. This walking fish wants out, and so I oblige it by  unlatching the door. It walks and as it walks, it changes.

Whatever force is directing its transformation—which is rapid and whirling—it is a force fixed on its own event horizon, and has nothing to do with me.  It passes me and steps outside, moving with determination, away from the bathroom and down the hall.

I walk into the kitchen and, lo and behold, my dead Dad strolls in. He is much younger than he was when he died. His eyebrows are black and sharp, and his green eyes vivid and direct. (He almost never makes guest appearances in my dreams, because he doesn’t believe in this stuff).

I say, complainingly, “Dad! What’s happening?” He directs his sharp gaze on me and he replies, “It’s the Púca. That’s what has caused everything”. I realize he is referring to the large walking fish (and maybe himself, too?  with his newfound alacrity and sharp waggling eyebrows and a warning way to him, which is also….light-hearted, and mischievous. Does he mean the fish?)

That isn’t what I thought that was, I think. I thought that was a coelacanth. Welp. Better investigate. At that, I go outside and find the Púca, which has made a shelter for itself under a small grassy knoll in the front yard. It is still fishy-looking, but is starting to look like a young woman, with direct and friendly eyes. We are friendly towards each other, and speak to each other in general pleasantries. I decide to show hospitality to it; to aid it. It is vulnerable and needs things: acknowledgment, food. And wine. Which I brought.

(And then my waking mind asserted itself, and asked  me to reflect on what it might mean to have one of the “gentry” living in a cave, located on my imaginary front lawn. In my ancestral world, fairies are not things to cozy up to. They have their world and we have ours, and although there is a magical tradition that seeks traverse the two worlds, I myself follow the way of my ancestors and prefer to treat them with, to quote Eddie Lenihan, the great seanchaithe of County Claire, with a mixture of “respect, doubt, fear, hesitation, and conviction.” I will always offer hospitality when it is called for and avoidance when it is wise.

In any case, I woke up. As far as I know, the Púca is still there, lonely, but well-provisioned.


When I was eight years old


When I was eight, my great-Grandmother Florence Cerini Creely, whose portrait hangs in the living room of my apartment, introduced herself to me in a dream and we have been friends ever since.

We met in the South Coast Plaza mall, which had just been built and was not the agonizingly glitzy space it is now. In my dream, I sat in a bench, with my hands in my lap in a posture of waiting patience. The light was soft and bright. Florence walked over to me and sat down. I looked up at her. I saw a kind and gentle lady, who was much older, but in a soft, plump, elegant way: there was no wasting of her bones, no harsh marks of age on her face. Her hair was coiffed and softly white and she was dressed the way women used to dress to go out shopping; to be seen in public. I looked up at her, like children look at grandparents, with respect and deference and attention. She spoke to me, and we talked for some time in that bright place. There is no dialogue that I carried back with me, no remembered scrap of information, other than she was Florence, my great-grandmother and she was there specifically to meet me. And that she loved me.

Here is a small, quick story that my grandfather Bunster swore was true. When he was young, Bunster and his friends liked to jump on freight trains passing through Berkeley and ride on them for short trips throughout Alameda County. (He was not supposed to do this.) Florence came to him one night as he was laying down to go to sleep. “Bunny,” she said. “Your father came to me last night and told me you have been jumping on the trains again. You know you are not supposed to do this.” The rebuke was coming from a dead man: Bunny’s father (my great-grandfather) suffered a major heart attack in 1916 and died straightway. Bunny never rode the freight trains again.

Firenze Maria Cerini—her name was Americanized later— my Italian/Irish nonna died in 1950 in Piedmont, CA at the age of 80, fifteen years before I was born. But I have always known her. And this is because she has always been spoken of and remembered with love. Her gentle soul has stayed with us.

This is how I know that this saying is true: what is remembered, lives.


Florence C. Creely with all her children: (from the left) Cerini, Claire, Marion and I think Frank. I’m not sure who the baby is.

October 31, 2016
Oiche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Happy New Year. Open your doors, light your lanterns and go on a cuaird with your beloved dead. Just remember to come back. Boo!




My friend Vicky, who leads the Bernal Heights History Project, just returned from England, which is where she was born. She “mudlarks”, which is to say she goes looking for the past in the mud of tidal marshes or on the banks of rivers. She found an oyster shell and gave it to me, explaining that the hole in the center of the shell might have been made by a person making a button. She also found these pins which are very old, probably Tudor-era, and brought them for me as well. The pins were hand-crafted, as we say today when we want to market an object—chocolate, or beer, or some other comestible— carefully, to separate it from mass production and endow it with artisanal fussiness that is supposed to confer authenticity. A pedigree.

She gave the pins to me and I felt a rush of pure pleasure and love. Oh, I love these! Thank you! I gasped. Pins, needles, and thread are domestic objects I always have on hand. I learned to sew when I was little; basic sewing, like hemming pants, or using a whip-stitch to join cloth together. (My cousin Piet has inherited this industriousness too, and makes entire garments, which I have never done). I have the homely habit of keeping my clothes intact and always have done, even when that was the only part of me that was, especially in the tumultuous years of the nineties when I lived on the corner of 22nd and Valencia Street, frightened at a world which moved at a pace I was unaccustomed to. I remember waking up at 3 AM because the Red Man was sat on a fire hydrant, kicking his legs and singing a song. Fog rolled down Valencia street in thick sheets and I wondered, what will become of me?

Well, one thing that has happened is that I answered the call of the olden days and started working with local history. I have been toggling back and forth between the past and the future this year, with Irish nationalists repping the past, and the San Francisco Bay and the upcoming climate dramas ushering in the (my?) future. There’s been a sense of duty that’s attached itself to both projects. I work with the Irish-American past because their voices have always spoken to me. And it’s easy. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I know where the Project stands, the project of dealing with the Irish in America with their florid patriotism, their long-ass letters to each other, their officious meeting minutes, their pain, their anger, their parades, their picnics. Their determination to not let go.

And the bay? I grew up next to one that was half deep-water harbor, and half engineered estuary, and even though I have a hard time remembering is it 200 or 20 million cubic meters of sediment that needs to be sourced and placed in the San Francisco Bay so it doesn’t drown?, I know in some ways that fact is there and non-negotiable and even if I forget it, I can find it, and what is not so easily retrievable is what I know, personally, about bays: the gloppy mud, the minute and often unlovely plants, the fish that flash through the water unexpectedly, and the mudflats that will grab you and pull you down into an underworld of crablike invertebrates, and the bones of animals and ancient fish and refuse from other people who lived among them thousands of years ago. I, Elizabeth C. Creely, know what belongs to me: that cold mud.

1485 is when Henry VII killed Richard III and in doing initiated the Tudor period. My Tudor-era pins could have been made at any point between 1485 and 1603 on any day, by anyone. These pins ended up in the mud somehow. (I don’t know why people throw useful things away.) When I saw them, I thought oh I want to go to England, I haven’t spent enough time there. I saw the flat yellow light of the air of England and saw out over the North Sea and felt cold air hit my face, and felt my solar plexus contact with love for the homely objects thrust through the red cloth and the history they make because they were made.

A pin is a finicky thing and slips out of your hand easily unless you have something to grasp. That’s what the tiny head is for: to help you push the metal through the fabric, and sew and sew and sew and bring the thing together. Whoever made these pins knew that and shaped the round heads carefully, so they’d have something to hold onto.These pins and this shell have been buried in the mud of the Thames for a long time, and now, improbably, they’re here, in my house, tiny scraps of a small nation with big problems of its own.

They are small and real, and corroded by time and water and the usage of many hands. They are magic. I am so happy to have them here.

this is the shortest and quickest post I ever wrote, but the days are short and the shadows are quickening. a storm is coming; is your house in order?
Happy October!

Talk of the Mission town: The Memory Club

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

Last Friday the 13th, I walked past a place of great misfortune: the intersection of 22nd and Mission where there had once been an old building wrapped protectively around the intersection. Built in 1907, it had apartments on the top, and shops on the bottom in keeping with the post-earthquake “intensification of commercial properties”, which is how the SF Planning Commission characterizes the urban development that took place on Mission Street. The building burned down in the evening of January 28th, 2015, killing one man and displacing 60 people, among them a boy, who stood on the fire escape for several minutes on that fiery night, with the burning building behind him. He jumped;  like the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there was no other escape open to him. (He was caught safely by a neighbor). There were hopes that the landlord, a man named Lou Hawk, would re-build, but he steadfastly maintained the same level of indifference towards the ruined building that he showed towards his tenants. The building had locked exits, awnings that prevented the fire escapes from descending properly, no functioning fire extinguishers or smoke detectors.

The building caught fire again twice this year. It was finally ripped down by the city a day or two before I walked by it, laying in a heap of huge wooden splinters and twisted rebar and stinking of moldy wood and raw sewage. I continued to walk north on Mission looking at the people milling around in the shadow of the disaster, walking the blocks of Mission Street now as they did one hundred years ago, with one difference: they seem to tour the street more than shop, which is different, I think, from its heyday as a shopping district. The street has become a destination and the demands that people make of a destination are different: while they may crave discovery, they do not want to be too surprised, too affected by unpredictability. The burnt building, which had been an awful eyesore and monument to unpredictable and terrible surprise, was gone now. Soon everyone’s eyes would become more accustomed to the space left behind by the absent building.

Mission Street was called for awhile the “Miracle Mile”, and was the core shopping district between 14th and what was then Army Street, a place where to confirm one’s middle-class prosperity through the act of purchasing.  When I moved into the neighborhood in 1991, the street had lost its luster and was a scrubby mix of Latin American grocers, stores selling Jaffa cosmetics and money orders for remittances, which would be sent back to the cities and villages in South and Central America. Clothing stores lined the blocks, some featuring display mannequins with round, voluptuous butts, all wearing tight pants and facing outward, onto the sidewalk, the better to display the clothes. The stores that sold quinceanera dresses were my favorite: the dresses were opulent and princess-y, with their rhinestone work, and saturated colors. There were jewelry stores, automotive repair garages, and restaurants that served the working class and indigent alike. If I encountered any of my friends on Mission Street, which normally I did not—Valencia was much more of a host to the social scene of the late eighties and nineties—it was in passing, coming in and out of four places: Goodwill, Thrift Town, El Farolitos or the Walgreens at 23rd Street.

For me, Mission Street was not memorable; it was hard and bright and reminded me of too much of downtown Santa Ana, the place I lived before moving to San Francisco, which is to say it reminded me of Southern California, a place I did not want to live. I avoided Mission Street, which remained, for a long time, a series of disconnected locations, with no sense of place. I walked between its blocks without any other consciousness than the desire to arrive at my destination. Siegal’s Clothing was proof that I was at a midway point between 20th and 19th streets. The Dore Studio was the one place I’d stop and stare: its unapologetic depictions of female beauty were arresting, and I’d often wonder what the photographers could do for me. Could they make me as pillow-lipped and doe-eyed as the dark-eyed Latinas featured in their windows, with their flawless skin and that tumbling raven hair?


The Mission’s past was unknown to me mostly because it hadn’t developed a “past” yet. It has now: the story of the neighborhood, told in its marquees, obscured facades and burnt buildings—two actually— is being rapidly overwritten. The disaster site at 22nd and Mission creates a interesting space; sort of a temporal overlap which the onlooker can use to assess where they are in the history of the street, while the ruins are taken away and the past shifts into the future. Can you remember what the building looked like? Did you ever enter the subterranean Mission Market to buy rabbit from the butcher? Had I crossed Mission and walked east, I would have walked in a neighborhood that had hosted my family until 1915. But the caprices and accidents of family memory had discarded any memory of the blacksmith, his wife and their eight children, and their life at 916 Florida Street. Whatever had happened, or not happened, to the Creelys was totally forgotten, and so there was no inducement for me to explore my surroundings more wholeheartedly.

Another sad fact was that I was a suburban xenophobe, something I carried with me into San Francisco, along with my other possessions. And this is weird as well as sad: I was always waiting in those days for a street to turn into a something undiscovered. I didn’t understand that this was impossible: since the city was a man-made artifact, everything that was there—every street, sign, building or alleyway—was known, or had been known to someone. I’ve since realized that the longing for something undiscovered is common to city newcomers: they want to belong and one way to belong to America’s cities is ferret out its secrets, its forgotten locations which, having been located, serves as proof of belonging. The newcomer can claim, as a prize for themselves, the idea that they alone have discovered and deciphered the hidden meaning of the alley that goes nowhere and the old cobblestones that pave it.

Cities that are healthy don’t develop enormously distended underbellies of secret, inaccessible spaces; this happens after they develop great wealth disparities. The city as I knew it in the late eighties and early nineties lacked this particular neurosis: it felt like a stage on which people encountered each other in unrehearsed play. The Redwood Room on Geary had this great Saroyan-esque sweep of humanity: under the panels of redwood and the fake Klimt paintings, there would be fierce drag queens wearing vintage finery, prostitutes having quiet drinks with their clients, men in PG&E uniforms shouting happily at each other, and the bridge and tunnel crowd at the end of their Big Day in the City having a drink, and me, too, canoodling with my current lover or gabbing away with one of my best friends, eating olives, crackers and salted nuts from the little silver cocktail plates that appeared with your drink, which was always good, and never cost more than six bucks.


Maybe Original McCarthys on Mission Street had this wildly eclectic social atmosphere, but I don’t think it did. It was an working-class Irish-American bar with all the clubby insularity of that community, and it was beautiful: wide and deep, brick-lined and cold. Old men with slowly blinking eyes sat at the bar as if they’d never left, speaking briefly to the bartender and the other old men. I never went in until I was enrolled in the Irish Studies Program in New College, in the late nineties. I had just begun to grasp the residual presence of Irish-American culture in the Mission District and I stared at the old alcoholic men and listened to the bartenders with their chewy, growling Mission District accents, and wondered what I’d been missing, being so Valencia-centric.

All lot, as it turns out. But it wasn’t only because of my ignorance. The beautiful, derelict interiors of Mission District businesses were often secured behind locked iron gates, or, as was the case with the New Mission Theater, obscured behind mounds of cheap futons. Now these spaces are being excavated. The lobby of the New Mission theater was cleared of the futons and the doors were open and after some hard work, there emerged a gracious theater that is now in business again, its previous skin of scarred, scrawled-upon mosaic work enclosed in Plexiglas cases as a means of authentication, of provenance, age; to show, literally the scars of its history.

At the other end of Mission Street, past the site of the old Sinn Fein Shoe Store, now a Metro PCS outpost, I walked past a new condo development, located at 1875 Mission. Banners, fluttering in the wind above my head in the unassailable sky, had three words written in bold black: Eminent. Posh. Bold. It was the second word that snapped me out of my reverie: such a gauche and naked appeal to snobbery needs attention paid. What reality, I wondered, do they think they can obliterate by using this ridiculous word? The Navigation Center for the homeless down the street? The tent villages lining the sidewalks? How can a term like “posh”—a word which seems to mock itself every time it’s uttered —exist in a working-class neighborhood?


I came to 14th and Mission where the Armory squats solidly, another building that wraps around the intersection. Across the street is a bar. On the outside wall is a sign, looking vaguely like a heraldic device. My near-sighted eyes lit on the sign, which I automatically tried to read, even I knew I’d read it before, and should have known what it said. But the tour of Mission Street, with its absences and additions, had obliterated my memory and created a amnesia-like feeling. I am forgetting what used to be anywhere, I told a friend last month. Every time a building is resuscitated or new building gets constructed, my memory seems get wiped clean.

I stared at the sign which swam into focus as I moved closer to it. Memory Club, I read. I stepped closer and read it again. Armory Club, it said.


“How noisy everything grows”
—Karl Kraus

I Wanna Be Your Lover.

Prince artworks-000023659152-4045nb-original

The first time— let me emphasize: it was the absolute first time— I heard Prince, I was an awkward twelve year old heading awkwardly into adolescence: a terrible time of life in my opinion, a unlovely & ignorant state, where one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. Some people had a better time. Not me. I didn’t love it, that raw, unfinished ignorance.

I like knowing.

I was spending the night at my friend’s house in Hemet, California, which is the low desert. In those days, Hemet was almost wholly undeveloped. There was no ambient light. There was no urban noise. It was still.

We had opted to sleep in the family RV, the better to talk and giggle and complain and muse over all the stuff: boys, relationships, discontents, our annoying siblings, lies about who we’d kissed, fictional boyfriends, wonderings about our period (when?) breasts (WHEN? And how big?)…all the stuff. She fell asleep. The scratchy radio was still on. I was still awake. I was laying under a window and I could see the stars, the ivory-colored stars in the midnight blue sky of the desert.

I can’t describe the opening strains of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”; I don’t remember them because I heard Prince’s voice first, breathy, high-pitched and telling me things. I ain’t got no money, he informed me, and then went on to muse, complain, and finally declaim: I don’t wanna pressure you baby. But all I ever wanted to do…He wanted to be my lover. I said yes to that voice.

It’s a full body memory, remembering that amazing voice, which I knew was not his “normal” voice: he was singing that way because he was possessed of desire and was encouraging the listener to be possessed as well. The synthesizer, the bass, the voice, the words…they all combined to create the amazing and terrible beauty of sexual desire, which was so strong and so beautiful to me, as I lay there in my unfinished state, that my heart seemed as if it was pushing aside the bony confines of my body, to leave me and my child’s body behind, to float through the aether, to join the song, humming and swimming through the air.

It was the first time I ever felt beauteous desire and yearning. And it strikes me how inadequate any other word is for what I felt: beauty is the only word that suits. Glamour, grace, exquisiteness, elegance: none of these terms work to describe the absolute beauty of desire in his voice. I was in the presence of pure beauty, such as drives Salieri to tears in that moment in the movie “Amadeus” when he reads Mozart’s music and is thunderstruck: he is humbled, yet elevated to state of shocked exhilaration and astonishment. It was beyond belief. As if he were just taking dictation. And music. Finished as no music is ever finished.

I closed my eyes, and my heart trembled and leapt. This is what I don’t know, I thought. I don’t know this. What is it? I understood desire in one moment and it entered me, piercing my heart. I was listening, through the cage of my unfinished & unknowing mind and body, to an absolute beauty.


Years later, I moved into the Mission District in San Francisco. There was an apartment on the corner of 24th and Bartlett, and in the door of that apartment was a full length poster of Prince from the album cover of Controversy.  The impact of the poster was always exactly what he intended: you were forced to run your eyes over Prince’s beautiful, wiry, small-framed body, with that chest, those doe eyes, those thighs. He was dressed in black bikini thong and his eyes looked straight at you. My friend Alexis and I often remarked on the sense of place the poster evoked: you knew where you were when you saw it—in the Mission, probably running for BART. The poster (which got progressively more sun-bleached and faded as the years went by) made Prince the unofficial genius loci of the neighborhood in that spot, to our way of thinking, capturing the Mission as it was, sensual, embodied, louche, smutty, occasionally orgiastic in one way or another, but always with a sense of purposefulness.

It sounds glib to say that the Mission went when the poster got taken down, but it feels  sort of true for me, anyway. It was at least a strong sign that a corner had been turned. There was no going back. Alexis and I and everyone else who lived in the Mission for a long time had been watching the changes come, and we knew that the cleaner-whiter-brighter tide which was busily scrubbing down the Mission was going to take cherished placeholders like the poster with it. This is exactly what happened. One day, not long after the turn of the century, the poster and the apartment (and probably the tenants, too) vanished under a thick shroud of black netting and scaffolding. The apartment re-emerged a few months later, with a shiny new paint job. The door where Prince’s body was displayed, was painted in sober shades of brown with an tasteful accent trim of marigold orange. No more Prince in all his glorious provocation, inviting  passers bye to—just for a minute— hear, in their heads, his music, those forbidden and frequently censured words, hear that knowing and amused voice, feel for a just minute, in the middle of their busy workday, a flash of ecstasy, a bolt of rapture. The pure, pure beauty of total desire.

Revelation is total disclosure immediately unified with absolute comprehension; a sweet, sweet union, indeed. It is divine intervention, essentially, and Prince and his song of pure undiluted erotic longing intervened with me in the best possible way. I did not know what erotic desire was before I heard him sing, and afterward I was filled with the knowledge of it.  “…so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…” said Saint Theresa, speaking of her encounter with the seraph and its golden lance.

I know how Theresa felt. I felt as Prince intended I feel, I think. O Holy, O most Holy. Beauty, beauty, beauty.

I have never wished to be rid of it.

Rest in peace, Prince. Rest in pure beauty.

Prince artworks-000023659152-4045nb-original

The news is breaking and so is my heart; they don’t know yet why he died, but what really matters right now is that people are listening to his music. And a rainbow appeared over the Paisley Palace this afternoon.
written as the moon strains towards full in Scorpio.


Talk of the Mission Town: The Death of Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat


The Laborers Local Union 261 on 18th Street was full of angry people on Wednesday, April 13, at high noon. Around the corner, on Shotwell Street, six days earlier on April 7, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a slightly built, 45-year-old Yucatec Mayan man, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers after staff with HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) had summoned them. HOT staff decided Gongora was acting erratically—they described him as swinging a knife and bouncing a ball with too much vigor off walls and cars. The police responded. Within 30 seconds he was dead. These are the facts.

The Mission District been the scene of some high profile police killings in the last year. Alejandro Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Mario Woods, all black or brown men, are also all dead. None of them were armed with a gun. These are also the facts.

The angry people had gathered because Police Chief Greg Suhr had convened a “town hall meeting”: a panel of police officers to discuss these facts and the state of the investigation with the community. Accordingly people crowded into the hall, which looks different from labor halls of yore. No more wood-paneled walls with men smoking, sipping coffee, and squinting at the jobs board. It’s a modern and airy space with open floor plan and lots of natural light. Large posters hung on the wall, showing the laboring men of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which describes itself as “The Most Progressive, Aggressive and Fastest-Growing Union of Construction Workers.” The men wore the uniform of the blue collar worker: hard hats, big boots, and work-shirts, looking hunky, healthy and cheerful, outtakes from a beefcake calendar, perhaps. The grins in the posters contrasted sharply with the grim faces of the people sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the wall, arms folded or thrust into the air holding signs. No one was smiling. Some participants were holding black and white Xeroxes of Luis Gongora’s only known photo. His face, unsmiling and spectral, hung in the air.


Adriana Camarena was querying the police, politely, but pointedly. They know her; she knows them. She’s an attorney, author and human rights activist who became involved with police shootings after the death of Nieto on March 21, 2014, one day after the vernal equinox. Nieto was eating a burrito on Bernal Heights when a man walking his dog decided he was “behaving erratically” (Nieto had just encountered that scourge of San Francisco’s open spaces, an aggressive and unleashed dog and an indifferent owner) and called the police. They arrived and shot him 59 times. Camarena helped his parents to mount a civil suit, which they lost this year.

Almost a year later, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was shot four times in the back and in the back of the head by the police on Folsom Street, about four houses down from where Camarena lives.

Camarena visited the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street three days after the shooting, filming the police and a worker with the Department of Public Works as they dismantled the camp at night, smashing candles and ripping tents. As she filmed them doing this, a police officer shone his flashlight in her face and her camera until she moved. Later, she described her encounter with the SFPD. “When I questioned him, he said … he was concerned for his safety because I was pointing an object at him. In other words he used the SFPD General Order language that would justify him shooting me to death.”

At the meeting she was quiet, focused and imperturbable, impressive for someone who’d been threatened with summary execution four days earlier. She quizzed the police: What prompted officers to go to Shotwell Street? Did they describe the person as Latino and possibly a Spanish speaker? What is the crisis intervention protocol followed by the police station in confronting escalated individuals? Did the SF HOT Team refer to a person with a knife or a person brandishing a knife? And, importantly: What exactly did they say about the presumed weapon?

“Chief Suhr, one of your men threatened me last Saturday,” she said calmly. “Are you going to investigate this threat? I have the badge number.” Suhr said he would. Her allotted time was up, she sat down.

The small noises in the labor hall suddenly coalesced and became one noise, a roar of anger. “Fire Chief Suhr! Fire Chief Suhr!” People walked through the door and got into the line of speakers waiting to give testimony. A woman wearing a red baseball cap yelled, “You have blood on your hands!”


A man in a green sweater turned to me. His eyes were bright. “I can’t believe so many people are here,” he said, almost conspiratorially. “What do you think they’re thinking?” He meant the police officers, who mostly looked impassive. Chief Suhr, who has the fierce and fixed gaze of a hawk, looked at the crowd and waited. The police rested their hands on their belts and rocked back on their heels, carefully looking at nothing, their faces impassive, their gazes directed skyward. The man in the green sweater said bitterly, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit. Nothing’s going to change.”

David Campos, San Francisco Supervisor for District Nine, which is where the killing took place, was the next speaker. Campos, a thoughtful, quiet man, was visibly annoyed. “Chief, I have to tell you: I’m very disappointed. If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed?” The crowd erupted. “I know if I wasn’t informed of it, then there are many members of this community who don’t even know that this meeting is happening.” More shouts of encouragement. “If the objective,” Campos went on, the sternness in his voice increasing, “is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon?”

“Supervisor Campos, when we have these town halls, they are in the area and at the time that’s closely proximate to the officer-involved shooting,” Suhr replied flatly.

“I’m sorry, chief, but if someone gets shot at two in the morning, I doubt you’re going to have a meeting at two in the morning,” Campos replied. Angry shouts of “liar” rang through the hall. He pressed on, in sentences that were increasingly staccato, and compact. “This is really important. This is really important. You have an ongoing investigation. Supposedly to find out what happened in this incident.” He paused, staring at Suhr. “And yet, you’ve had a number of press conferences where you are already prejudging what happened in this case.”

The audience started chanting. Suhr’s eyes widened, and for the first time, he unfolded his arms and put out his hand. “I’m not going to allow that,” he said sharply. Was he referring to the tumult in the audience, or the charge that his department was spreading misinformation? The audience yelled back in disbelief and defiance: You’re fired. Murderer. Liar.


Campos spoke above the shouts. He pointed his finger at the chief. “I’m asking the SFPD: stop putting out facts until your own investigation is completed, because it is absolutely doing a disservice.” The clapping continued. Campos’s voice was momentarily drowned out by the waves of sound sweeping through the halls. The policeman sitting next to Suhr looked at the crowd, his eyes round and his face blank. Campos continued to press his point. “…You’re really saying, This is what we believe happened.”

Suhr interrupted Campos. “I didn’t say what I ‘believed’ happened. I’ve given the facts that came from interviews, simply.” He hit the word “simply” hard, as if to say: I’m trying to keep this simple.

“You are prejudging,” Campos responded. A man yelled something, the syllables of his words distorted by the acoustics of the spaciousness and hard concrete floor of the hall. Campos held up his hand. “I want to say this.” The restive crowd quietened. “I’m saying this as a former police commissioner, and I’ve said this to the president of the police commission. I think that we need to change this policy. Of actually having police come out and hold these press conferences. I don’t want you to prove anything. I am not jumping to conclusions about what happened. But I also think it’s irresponsible for SFPD to do that. So I ask you: PLEASE. Stop saying anything until your own investigation is complete.” Clapping, shouts. “And if you are not willing to do that, I ask the police commission and I ask the Mayor to, please, direct the police department to stop trying this case in the public.”

A cheer went up. A woman cried out in ringing tones: The police cannot police themselves!

“We need the Mayor to step up and show leadership on this point. Why isn’t the Mayor calling on the Federal government—not the cops!—but the civil rights division of the Justice Department to come in and actually do a legally binding investigation of this police department.” A policewoman next to him indicated that his time was up. He nodded. “I will end by saying this. Blaming the homeless for what happened, by cracking down on the homeless, is not a solution.” He stepped away from the microphone and walked to the back of the room.

More speakers stepped up to the microphone: Brother Damien Joseph, a Franciscan brother wearing his brown robe, works with the homeless in the Haight. “I need to know that your officers are going to act rationally, slowly and in a measured manner,” he told Suhr. “If they won’t, I would risk my safety rather than that of the person on the street.” Daryl Rodgers, a third-generation San Franciscan, and activist, asked what “excessive force” was. He didn’t get an answer. Another man described being harassed by the police as he ate a sandwich. “This harassment is nothing new! This has been happening for a long time,” he said, “but now we have video. We deserve to live,” he yelled. “Stop being so trigger happy! C’mon! What happened to batons?” An organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition fired Police Chief Suhr. The statements of fact came thick and fast from the speakers: You don’t care. You aren’t changing. You’re lying. You are attacking our bodies. We deserve to live.

The man in the green sweater, who had been standing next to me, appeared at the microphone. He started to speak, then stopped and tried again, though his throat was constricted with tears. He’d worked with Luis, he told the panel, in a diner. In a voice that wavered with grief, he described his friendship: “We worked together. I’d have him over to dinner. We were friends. He was docile. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. He would never hurt anybody. Luis was kind.”

The audience stilled for a moment, listening to the words that re-made the dead man: Gentle. Docile. Kind. He would never hurt anybody. The rage left the room as the man spoke and grief crept in. People wept.

In less than three years—25 months to be prissily exact, starting with Nieto’s death and pausing (only temporarily, one fears) with Gongora’s— six men have been shot and killed in what amount to public executions. All were witnessed by at least one member of the public. One death (Mario Woods) was documented, cinéma-vérité style, with a cell phone standing in for a hand-held camera, held by an eyewitness who swears and sobs as she is forced to witness the extra-judicial killing in broad daylight. Last Thursday, a woman named Ellen can be seen in the grainy video, scrambling to get out of the way as shots ring out which killed Gongora.

There are black-and-white posters of Nieto, Woods and Perez-Lopez hanging on the wall of the Red Poppy Art House on Folsom at 23rd. The posters were created by Justice For Our Lives, a collective that has immortalized the faces of 49 black and brown men and women killed by police violence nationwide.

Will Gongora be the fiftieth in the series? Probably. Will he be the last?




From the Justice for Luis site: Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat was born in Teabo, Yucatan on 4/25/1970; he was nearly 46 years old at the time of his death.  A Yucatecan Mayan, he is survived by his spouse, three grown children and his elderly parents in Yucatan, Mexico. Luis is also survived by brothers and cousins in San Francisco. Family called him Luis or by his nickname Sapo.

Luis’s wake is scheduled for Saturday April 23. 5-9pm Duggan’s on 17th and Valencia in the Mission.

Yabilaaj yeteel jeetsambaal u tial Luis Góngora Pat.


Sarah Maria Griffin: Eat Your Heart Out

Oh, yeah. This is great.

The Coven

My mother cuts a hole in the bottom of a black plastic bag, and places it over my head. I surface, my hands by my side, the deep smell of it all over me.  She cuts a hole at each shoulder for my arms, which I pull through. The kitchen scissors at the time had a deep red handle and long, blunt blades. You can see the sleeves of my sweater now, pink and teal and patterned. Mam tapes me in at the waist with sellotape to give an illusion of a skirt. It almost goes to my feet – my ankles, my white socks, my shiny patent leather shoes from Clarks. My eyebrows are penciled dark, a long, severe plastic nose from the pound shop placed over my own – the elastic white and catching in my hair, still curly, still mouse brown. On my head she crowns…

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2015: Excuses and Rebuttals


The term “Excuses and Rebuttals” will be familiar to anyone who has ever raised money for a non-profit. It refers to the most delicate aspect of canvassing: how to get a person to part with their money. There is a dance the zealous canvasser and the reluctant canvassee perform, at the door or over the phone, in which the potential donor/member excuses themselves from giving money and the canvasser counters each excuse with a rebuttal. In the ideal version of things, the canvasser comes out on top and finishes the encounter with cash, a check or a credit card number in hand. I thought of this phrase more than once this year as 2015, the most annoying, scramblingly unquiet and occasionally murderous year EVER, ground on and on to its uncertain end. It was like a game of excuses and rebuttals between me and 2015. I can’t give you anything at this time. I don’t have money. My resources are scarce. No thank you, not today, tonight or ever, I’d murmur, and try to close the door against each new development. But the year blocked my excuses, everything I offered up in defense, with cosmic rebuttals, guiding each interaction with a cool determination that left my own wishes in the dust.

Even now as I write this, I’m aware that there are more hours in this day, in this malevolent year and that perhaps I should cool it with the name calling. Well, sorry Fortuna. You are a capricious bitch (everyone says this behind your back) and I’m not into placation, especially not after this year. No matter what I did or said to you this year, you refused to right your wheel or get off my doorstep.

It’s like the episode on 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon, after declaring that’s she’s going to have a great day, has a shitty one. “Can everyone just act normal?” she asks her staff plaintively. The answer is no, we cannot. WE CANNOT BE NORMAL. This was 2015.

It wouldn’t have been so bad had I not paid attention to astrologers who declared chirpily that 2015 was going to be the best year ever, especially for Leos. I’m sorry I read horoscopes, but I’m a Californian (and also it’s my mother’s fault for looking at me when I was 3 and telling me I was her “little Leo”.) Anyway- astrologers and their inflated optimism. It’s their fault. They said I was going to have a great year because Jupiter, the big planet with all the moons, was in my sign and everyone knows that’s a good thing. It took until September for a more level-headed astrologer friend of mine to say, actually you know…it just means that whatever is happening ….well, more of that will happen. Expansion, she went on to explain, isn’t always a good thing. Clearly.

About expansion: yeah, it’s not great, especially not when it’s a bunch of cancer cells acting like imperialistic little despots and fucking around with people’s bodies. Excuse me! My mom lives here. Get out of her house! GET OFF OF HER PLANE. The cancer was removed and she didn’t have to get chemo and has lived to tell the tale and that’s a blessing that even in my most irate, freaked-out moments (many of which happened just before, during and directly after her surgery) I never failed to wonder at. My mother’s doughty, indomitable spirit carried her through a lot this year: first-stage lung cancer, grueling surgery, the tragic death of her nephew to brain cancer (two months and he was gone.), the death a week later of her last sibling and Ricky’s father, my uncle Richard. Add to this the difficulty of being a mother to five Creelys, all still in the process of growing, and you could be forgiven for thinking that if anyone has a right to complain, it would be my mother. But she’s got too much sense for that.

Also. Jay lost his job. Also, two people I knew, one very well, and respected highly, died of cancer. Also: I may have lost a friend. Also: I mishandled a situation with an online publisher for the first time since I started moving my writing “out there” (as they say) and, well, that totally sucked. Also: friends of mine lost family members and old friends in grossly tragic ways that left them bereft and heartsick and the rest of us wondering how we could ever be enough in the face of such godawful loss. Also: Syrian refugees sensibly started getting the fuck out of an intolerable situation while various heads of state debated whether or not this was a legit response to war, war, war. Also: Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. All victims of extra-judicial killing, the magnitude of which should invite the attention of the Special Rapporteur from the United Nations Human Rights Council. It’s performed this service before, notably in the North of Ireland, when an out-of-control police force (whose shadow life as a Loyalist paramilitary organization was well known to human rights activists) proved unable to reform itself and was forced to reform through international intervention.

And indiscriminate bombs in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, Kabul. And Syria. I am now old enough to grasp exactly what all this means. And it is sobering.

Also, also, also. I turned fifty. And that’s the moment, I feel, when Fortuna, the capricious you-know-what, slackened her grip a bit and things started to lighten up. I turned fifty, a blessed age, I think. I have the face I want and the soul I deserve. I have a husband who thinks I’m pretty, and sexy, and really fucking smart and he likes my writing. And I love him and his big brown eyes, and shambling gait and willingness to sing with me and love me. I have many, many amazing friends, two of whom called me during Christmas to tell me they loved me (this is such a gift. If you love your friend, TELL THEM). And I danced with many of them this year (don’t ever underestimate the dancing-naked-round-a-fire-in-the-woods scenario: it delivers, without fail, every time.) And I gave two public talks this year about a teeny tiny but almost unknown episode about the San Francisco Irish at the Panama Pacific International Exposition for the California Historical Society and the Mechanics Institute, two prestigious cultural spaces in San Francisco that I never thought I’d do work—the labor of my mind and my intellect, which is the most important work I do— in or with. And based on those two talks, I wrote one of the better essays I’ve written: It’s called Erin-Go-Blah: The Shamrock Isle at the Panama Pacific International Exposition and the end of the Irish Village, and you can find it over at Found SF.org. (I would link to it, in the modern style, but WordPress is a wildly unstable platform and simply refuses to provide the link properly.)

I am bloody proud of the work I did in the middle of some hard financial chaos and soulful trouble.

I’m writing this hurriedly on the 31st. In one hour, I’ll be at the United Irish Cultural Center, weaving the threads of next year and doing research for my next event for the Irish American Crossroads festival, an organization that’s given me an cultural and institutional home for the work I want to keep doing, the work that is unpaid, but enriching in ways I couldn’t have ever anticipated. This work will keep me busy from now until March and beyond maybe up until April 24th. It will bring me stress and uncertainty. It will cause me to second guess myself and my skill in navigating relationships, information, and communal ecologies, large and small. And this is proper: it is my work.

And I do my work, large and small. That in some ways is what 2015 was all about.

Yeah, so I paid too much attention to bloviating, gaseous Jupiter, incoherent accounts of the future, and the unaccountable and enigmatic Dama Fortuna. But I did also pay attention to the things in my life that I love, that that love me: family, friends, community and one of my oldest and strongest allies, the sea. Throughout this year, I took to the water when the terrain of my life was tough and uncertain. The Ocean took me in, all right, and held me. I sucked that saltwater in and it came out as the Holy Trinity of the human body: snot, sweat and tears. I picked myself out of the whitewash and turned and looked at the mad ocean that I love so much and waded back in.

So, this game of excuses and rebuttals is at an end. 2015? I mostly agree with your aims and objectives, but it’s been twelve months and I don’t want to talk anymore. Give me your literature. I’ll totally read it. I’ll think about it. But I’m not giving you any money.

Get off my phone. Get off my doorstep. Get out of my house. And, finally, FINALLY: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

written during the waning moon in Virgo and with love to Rene Gibbons, Mary Brown, Richard Williams, son and father, Justin Chen, Teo Coleman and family, and all the others. Consider the parting glass raised.


The snow pack is growing. All Hail Snow!


"Applaud" poster by artist Heather Ault. Taken from her "4,000 Years for Choice" poster series.

“Applaud” featuring legendary abortion rights activist Patrica Maginnis. Poster by artist Heather Ault. Taken from her “4,000 Years for Choice” poster series.

I had a dream last night; a dream of impotent, but potent rage: I —a woman who has used abortion as well as contraception to ensure I had no children—showed up to a Planned Parenthood clinic to confront a 40 Days For Life protester. Keep in mind the following account is a dream, but so fantastic is the current reality of anti-choice terrorism that my brain has no need to make anything up.

I walked to the front of the clinic and focused on the single woman standing there. She was in the dark, standing primly in front of the clinic, holding a sign upon which some anti-abortion message was written.  Words were exchanged. My center tightened and coalesced around my rage, much of which comes from a sense of disbelief that another woman would use the language of the oppressors to categorize and thus oppress me. How dare you, I said, or something like that and then reeled off a series of truths: that she was perpetuating violence against women, that she had taken inside of herself obscene, life-leaching misogyny like a poison pill and was poisoning others instead of spitting it out of her, and, most importantly, that she was wrong that abortion is murder and that there is no way I am a murderer, or she is, or that my wrongs include seeking access to abortion or contraception.

I sensed a crowd growing. I turned around.

Standing behind me was a knot of men wearing paramilitary-looking clothing the color of Raw Umber, with pale faces and buzzed-cut heads. They stood in serried rank. There were maybe 15 or 50 of them. All I could see were their straight bodies standing in long lines like tall trees. Their height was unnatural. Behind them was a bus.

They were looking over my head with wonder and delight. I was given to understand that they were an anti-choice organization that was touring the United States in order to witness all acts of anti-choice harassment and terrorism, and—moreover— that they were associated with the so-called Center for Medical Progress, the misogynist organization whose cohorts snuck into a National Abortion Federation conference last year to sneakily record Planned Parenthood doctors who— in the anti-choice telling of things— fell into an open trap and openly discussed selling “baby parts”, aka fetal tissue. This heavily redacted and edited narrative is as much of a fantasy as my dream, of course, but sadly in these United States this sort of fantasy is now selling tickets. In a just world the Center for Medical Progress would be on trial for sponsoring terrorism. But that time has not come (yet.)

These upright men gazed admiringly on their handiwork—the lone woman, receptive to their misogynist fantasies, who stood by herself, isolated and alone, in front of a reproductive healthcare clinic attempting to stop other women from becoming themselves by the act of choosing abortion. Some of the men’s faces were upraised. They looked awed, as if they were viewing fireworks or some spectacular event in the sky. An Aurora Borealis, maybe. A comet. Some supernatural harbinger of fate, of affirmation from some god, written in large symbols and signs against the rounded blue vault of the night sky.

Get out of my way, I hissed like a snake ready to strike. Get out of my way. Fools. I shoved them aside, showing myself to be ready to fight, to strike. My anger was divine; incandescent. Was I in danger? Is it possible to really know or care about this when one’s divinity is fully engaged and radiant? (is this my own fundamentalism?)I stood in the middle of them, trying to disrupt their enraptured state. But I could not. They stood and looked admiringly at the sky up above and their handmaiden standing stolidly on the ground with her sign. My baby, I thought I heard one sigh.

Re-reading the above, I can see that it is a loosely knit blog post indeed, with no hope of any ending and composed equally of anger, contempt, panic and disbelief at the antics of that community which will do anything—anything at all—to criminalize legal abortion and contraception. They seem outlandish and childish to me and yet they exist and they have political power. My sense of contempt is simply not enough. But I have realized one thing, upon waking: I do not want and do not need the attention of those men standing in serried rank and military attitude who intend to do no good, but simply to control.

I want the attention of women who are the subjects of that control. Contempt will not achieve this.

What might achieve this is thirty-one years of pretty damn consistent (if I say so myself) non-institutionalized, “personal” activism. And, about that thirty-year history: the provenance of all my thinking and cogitating about…. California history, Irish republicanism in the Mission District, wetlands conservation, nature, the lack of funding for pedestrian improvements, the future of water and fire in this here state … anything at all I might want to think or speak about comes courtesy of many different sources, one of them being access to legal abortion. Likewise, my willingness to love.

If I had a manifesto, it would go something like this: 1. honor your ancestor’s reproductive journeys and stories. 2. share your voice and tell your story. 3. if you can, out yourself as one of the 1 in in 3 women who have had an abortion. 4. make people uncomfortable. 5. embrace complexity. 6. argue vociferously for funding for supported parenthood. 7. pay attention to the quality of your school district’s free lunches. 8. offer solace when it is needed and congratulations when it is called for. 9. don’t buy Eden Organics. 10. be clear with everyone you clash with over this issue that only you are allowed to allowed to assign meaning to your abortion. 11. don’t ever tell a pregnant woman what she should do unless she asks you to weigh in and even then. 12. believe in the radical individuality of experience and know that it can create a spiritual and legal commons. 13. claim your truth (or risk someone claiming it for you.) 14. don’t use your truth to deprive others of their rights. 15. don’t sideline yourself—your voice IS enough. 16. listen, but don’t be passive. remember to talk, too. 17. fuck it up. try and fail. 18. what you feel or have felt, or experience or have experienced is the basis for personal gnosis. 19. understand that abortion, contraception and mother/parenthood are all related phenomena happening within and to the same body; the same physical/psychic/political terrain. our bodies are crossroads, with many different and related paths that travel in and out of them.

Grab the handmaiden behind the sign and do your best to bring her with you. Warning: She may choose to stay behind in the world that is more recognizable to her. Also, she may not be a handmaiden at all. See point number 5.

In any case, we need to stay together because we never can—it’s simply impossible— go back.


Elizabeth Creely, Society for Humane Abortion founder Patricia Maginnis and artist Heather Ault at Alley Cat Books in the Mission District of San Francisco in 2013 at a reception for Heather’s “4000 Years for Choice” poster series. For more information go to: http://www.4000yearsforchoice.com

written during the 1st day of Advent and as the waning moon rests in Cancer, the sign of the universal Mother.With deep grief, respect and love to those who were murdered by thought-in-action at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.


Meeting the Empress, part 3: Return to Manzanita Mountain


Arctostaphylos, common name Manzanita, is a shrub (or a small tree—more on that in a moment) with at least sixty known species, several sub-species and an ability to crossbreed in the wild, which produces still more subspecies. Manzanita means “little apples” when translated into Spanish. It’s a euphonious and affectionate word. I invite you: take a moment and sing out the quartet of syllables. You will find that the third syllable naturally stretches out into an operatic warble. If you are in a place with excellent acoustics, the EEeeeee vocable will be snatched up eagerly by the ether and will float away, blending into all the other sounds of this earth.

Last week, I sang the name of the manzanita species I found four years ago on the grounds of the Four Springs Retreat Center, outside of Middletown. Here is some science that will ground this ethereal essay in stolid Saturnine science: the name of the manzanita of Four Springs is Arctostaphylos manzanita, ssp. konocti, named for the nearby volcano. It grows in “closed pygmy forests” in the mountain ranges above Napa and Lake Counties according to the Forest Service. Lacking the conclusive agreement of a field biologist, I believe it does just this on the Lindquist ridge, which is the south-east-facing ridge that encircles the retreat grounds. This USGS topographical map details the area. I gotta say: All hail the USGS and their indefatigable surveyors and map makers! This is the great thing about the witchy gaze: with the right tools to hand— memory, personal mythos, gut understanding and science-based information— all modes of knowledge may be reconciled.

The pygmy manzanita forest of Four Springs begins on a trail which leads to the top of Lindquist Ridge, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level. It’s one of the lower ridges of all the volcanically constructed ridgelines of the Mayacamas, but a beautiful one with a view to the southwest. It’s hard to tell how old the trees are. One of the manzanitas had a 29-inch diameter trunk, which indicates age. The retreat was founded in 1955. So maybe the trees are sixty years old? Or maybe some of the trees have lived a solid century.


Measured in urban development years, a century-old manzanita, whatever the species, is a very old and very venerable plant indeed. Many manzanitas have gone missing in the last 100 years, as development has increased. Lester Rowntree, a female botanist who disguised her gender to assure the publication of her field work, lamented the almost certain fate of A. franciscana, the sole native manzanita of San Francisco which used to grow plentifully among the San Miguel range in the middle of San Francisco. “Almost in the heart of San Francisco grows another creeping Arctostaphylos,” she noted in her 1938 book Flowering Shrubs of California. A rare serpentine endemic, A. franciscana grew on Mount Davidson and in the Laurel Hill cemetery, the site she chose to document its existence, which at that point was tenuous.

“The manzanita has been there longer than the buildings and longer probably than the oldest graves. None of it grows on the graves (which are unmarked, neglected, and usually encircled by rickety old wooden palings) though nothing,” she averred, “could be more suitable and enduring.” She knew she was looking at one individual plant where there had been many. The old cemetery had been slated for destruction. The human bodies were disinterred and shipped to Colma and the bodies of the plants had been scraped from their rocky beds and tossed, probably, on a pile of brush. Rowntree said of the ghost plant that “…the manzanita and the dead belong to another era…Now it is being regarded impatiently by the folk to whom any land is just so many building lots. If they can, they will eradicate it as a cemetery and that will be the last of an old San Francisco record and certainly the last of Arctostaphylos franciscana.”

This story has a happy ending. A lone A. franciscana was re-discovered marooned on a median strip on Doyle Drive during a construction project in 2010. It was subsequently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and moved to the Presidio. It’s a great story, the finding and rescuing of this plant, and one that I think demonstrates the tenacity of the native plant seedbank in San Francisco. (It also demonstrates the willingness of the Republican party to spiral into a pearl-clutching tizzy at the slightest provocation—always so gratifying to watch, I feel.) I urge you, gentle reader, to watch this video and discover the true story of A. franciscana.

Within the precincts of Four Springs, there has been no development, other than the construction of the small wooden cabins that dot the meadow and ravine. Enormous trees ring the retreat buildings, which made the grounds “indefensible” in the opinion of Cal Fire, but very defended indeed for the manzanita groves, the madrones, oaks, conifers and probably many more trees I took no notice of. I imagine that in the early spring, the grounds and ridgeline are probably incredibly fragrant, with that beautiful warm, leathery-lemony smell of coastal range chaparral and maybe the smell of the fruit of the manzanita. I once walked among patches of Greenleaf manzanita (A. patula), a species Rowntree would include in the “the low-growing” manzanita of California. I noticed it swarming over the granite, but had not associated the plant with the ripe odor of berries that seemed to be everywhere. After absently mindedly sniffing the rich smell of fruit—raspberry? Strawberry? Someone’s highly scented lip-gloss? —I finally asked my friend Cypress what it was. “You’re smelling manzanita berries,’ she replied.

Manzanita is a tree of fire, especially as it occurs in Lake County. A. konocti is growing in the pulverized igneous rock of Lake County, rocks that were formed in the Great Magma Chamber of the Clear Lake Volcanic Region and spat out during the eruptions that ended 200,000 years ago. The fires of the earth, made manifest in these rocks, became friable under the softening influence of water and air. The formerly inhospitable became positively welcoming under the influence of the sibling elements, becoming soil first and later a whole environment, in which many hundreds of plants species, including manzanita, rooted themselves and began to grow, synchronistically and symphonically (the sonic quality of the trees under the influence of wind waving and moving all the branches is absolutely mesmerizing.)

It is because of California’s fiery belly that an environment for manzanitas exists and the design and look of the manzanita seem to acknowledge this fiery DNA. Manzanitas are famous for their ruddy suppleness. Their supple,  burgundy-red branches wave away from the main bole of the plant to make branch formations that, because of their color, could easily be understood as flames emanating from a fire. Manzanita treasures its beauty and ensures that no one can take advantage of it by means of losing its vivid color and smooth skin when the plant dies. The red branches become rough and as grey as fire ash. Acquisitive hoarders looking to collect beautiful objects from nature must look elsewhere for their trophies. “People used to cut manzanitas down to make furniture,” my dad told me on one of our walks in the Santa Ana mountains, probably in response to my own covetous response to the plant (I would have been about seven or eight when we had this conversation.) “But they learned the hard way that it wasn’t suitable.” I looked at manzanitas ever after, knowing that to maintain their beauty, they must be left alone. It’s interesting how the mundane gets transformed into the magical. I glanced at a plant once as a child and my father’s words made it into something visible but unobtainable, untouchable.

Fire destroys most manzanitas. (Those with burls can re-sprout, but most manzanitas don’t have burls.) But fire breaks seed dormancy, and allows the native seedbanks, California’s landscape-in-waiting, often buried under invasives, to re-establish plant communities. Fire may make seventy-five year old manzanitas rare for a year or so, but ideally, the grove will reemerge as seedlings after a fire, often in greater numbers than before. But this re-growth depends on time. The interval between fires must be long enough for the seedlings to grow. Californian’s who care about the native landscape will often nod their heads knowingly when fire is mentioned and talk about fire’s role in creating the conditions necessary for the California’s floristic province to thrive in. But for that to happen and for the old-growth manzanita groves to thrive, fire must be, if not exactly rare, certainly not everyday, (or every week, or every month.) The question facing us might not be can we contain fire, but more can we manage time?

Because time, that scarce resource, is what the manzanita (and the oak, and the madrone and all other plants of coastal and montane chaparral) needs the most. The manzanitas of the Four Springs Retreat Center are old-growth manzanitas. And we should term them as such; give them this distinctive endowment, this charismatic identity. The ongoing destruction of California’s chaparral—of which manzanita is a indicator species—is further justified by characterizing California’s chaparral as fire-prone and dangerous to urban development, an inversion of logic painful to hear and depends, in part, on the dismissive words “brush” or “scrub”, used to describe this endangered landscape. California used to be covered in a lot of old-growth chaparral, a term usually reserved for the big trees of the North Coast and the interior. It surprises people to hear the term “old-growth” applied to a system described, rather brusquely as “brush”. Even those parts of California where chaparral is protected, such as the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego county, the inaccurate term “forest” is used to describe a landscape that is dominated by old-growth chaparral. That probably isn’t semantic laziness: just try getting the public to fund the conservation of a bush or a shrub. I have never seen a bush beloved as a tree.

We all have some catching up to do—Californians and their understanding of how fire creates and destroys the landscapes of our state, and what plants we prize as memorable, charismatic and worth conserving. And especially the trees and shrubs that were undoubtedly lost in the great triad of Lake County fires: the Jerusalem, Rocky and Valley fires, all likely to make repeat appearances in the years to come. The seeds of future Great Manzanita Forests lie in the ancient fiery soil of Lake and Napa county, having been released from their stiff jackets by fire. Now they are waiting for the rains to come and, once wetted, will try to catch up to the venerable elders lining the ridges of Four Springs.

With love to the California Chaparral Institute. They deserve your funding. Written while Mars works with Uranus and dedicated with love to journeying Fools everywhere.

Step quick, step light.


Elizabeth C. Creely in an old-growth manzanita grove at the Four Springs Retreat center in Middletown, CA.

Meeting the Empress, part 2: What I saw at the fair.

I went to the Napa County fairground two days ago in Calistoga to check in with—and on—Tim Locke, the cheerful Executive Director of Four Springs Retreat, the small center located where the oaks met the pines on September 12th and formed a flaming alliance. No one was sure if Four Springs managed to escape being burned, but—mirabile dictu!—it had. Tim’s first posting, which confirmed the survival of Four Springs, mentioned Chaz the cat’s continued material existence first. “People are asking about our cat, and he is OK,” wrote Tim. “That rascal wouldn’t get in the truck!” Chaz, the rascally cat, is extremely lucky. The fire burned right up to the vineyard that borders the property. Firefighters used the vineyard’s irrigation system as a firebreak. A much bigger firebreak in the shape of  a storm front subsequently moved in, bringing rain with it, which fell copiously on Middletown and Four Springs. Chaz the cat, inconvenienced by fire and padding around in a rain-soaked compound, is perhaps wondering in his catlike way why things have been so fucking turbulent lately.


Forty-six miles away, the Napa County fairgrounds in Calistoga had been re-purposed as an evacuee center. It bustled with activity. “Welcome Evacuees” read a hand-painted sign. The large field next to the parking lot was packed with tents. The exhibit hall had been turned into a medical station. Inside the concrete hall, about hundred cots were lined up next to each other. People lay on them, many elderly.

“How are people doing?” I asked a volunteer nurse named Sue, rather lamely. (The supine bodies worried me.) “They’re okay,” replied Sue. “People are mostly dealing with smoke inhalation.”

Sue had a sensible haircut and luminous, kindly blue eyes. I suspected her bedside manner was reassuring. There were a lot of volunteers in the room, which was no surprise: on the Lake County Office of Emergency Facebook wall, there was offer after offer of help, like this posting from Kathleen Bisaccio: “I am a retired nurse and will volunteer where ever you need me.” Sue had clearly heard the call and come down to help. She looked like she’d never become unnerved by the demands on her time and attention; would never scatter and run. She’d stay put.


I felt an almost desperate gratitude to Sue and the others: the people at the volunteer table, the woman sitting behind the State Farm insurance table, the volunteers who were calmly sifting through all the goods that came flooding in. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps and mounds of clothing, tents, books, pallets of water, art supplies, toys for the kids. It looked like a massive garage sale. The volunteers were picking and sorting and schlepping and dealing with all the stuff that that been donated. The only thing that was missing from the growing pile of stuff was arguably what the people in the camp needed the most. A home.

Lake County is really on the map right now. I’m not sure how the people in Lake County feel about that: the place is mysteriously mysterious. To get to Lake County from San Francisco, you exit from the 101 at Hopland  and take the 175, a dizzying (and potentially nauseating) mountain road and drop down into a long, broad lake basin. Sonoma county lies to the west and Napa county is directly below it. The county is proximate to the wine county, yet… not of it. Lake County is not a wealthy county, though there is wealth in it. The median household income is 36,000 dollars. My friend Gail wrote, “The economy has always been sluggish and a great number of the population is on some kind of assistance. Lots of meth labs and pot farms. But through it all, a core of good middle-class workers. I always liked Middletown. It was diverse with Harbin Hot Springs new-ager’s and blue-collar steam power workers, teachers, farmers, retirees and lately winery folks.” Hard to believe, living and writing from the culturally denuded landscape of San Francisco, that there are still small towns in California that possess this cast of characters; this sort of unconscious eclecticism.


Lake County has the distinction of having California’s largest natural lake in it, called Clearlake, a startlingly huge body of water that a surprising number of Californians know nothing about. The first time I saw it, I gaped at it. I was in Lakeport for a friend’s funeral, Marla Ruzika, who was a human rights activist killed by an IED in Iraq in 2005. Years earlier, Marla told me where she was from. When I said I’d never heard of it, she told me not to feel bad about my ignorance. “No one knows about it, ’cause it isn’t off 101,” she said.

This isn’t really the time or place to go into a long tangent about the fascinating geologic and hydrologic history of Lake County, but I’m going to, because it’s wild. Did you know Lake County has a volcano, Mount Konocti? It does and it’s still a threat. The USGS says, of the volcano, that “intermittent seismic activity and the presence of heat at depth indicate that the system is still active and eruptions are likely.” (Good to know.) The next time you’re in Calistoga, stand on the main street, and lift your eyes east to perceive the basalt crowns ridging the western escarpment of the Mayacamas mountains to the north, and the Palisades range to the south. Think about Mount Konocti. Then, consider the area known as the “geysers”, the largest geothermal field in California which is spread liberally over the crest of the Mayacamas. It supplies power to Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The earth belches steam and heats water because of a large magma chamber that sits four miles below the ground of Lake County. Harbin Hot Springs, Four Springs and probably lots of other anonymous hot springs owe their existence to the eight-mile wide magma chamber of Mount Koncocti.

Lake County averages at least 12 small earthquakes a day, because of Calpine’s practice of injecting effluent into the ground—fracking, in other words—to increase the output of steam. Since Calpine started doing this, the number of earthquake has steadily crept upward. Lake County and its residents experience the by-products of the fiery volatility underfoot each day in the form of cluster earthquakes and the healing waters of the hot springs resorts in the area. I wonder how many small hot springs, not contained in private resorts like Harbin, are known and used by the residents of Hidden Valley and Cobb and the other small settlements of the Mayacamas mountain. I bet if you asked locals, you’d get tips on places to bathe in the healing waters of Lake County; places you didn’t have to pay to access. But they’d have to like you to give that kind of information up. One gets the feeling that the people who live in Lake County like it quiet. They don’t want a bunch of people tromping in and settling down.


The Lake Countians, though, like being settled down just fine. Arguably, this might be hard to do in a place where earthquakes shake the ground every hour or so. Throughout the Mayacamas, they’ve made places for themselves in small towns like Cobb, and sometimes not in small towns, but in ad-hoc settlements so typical of California’s foothill and mountain communities. This is a pleasant way to live when nature is cooperating. “We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven,” a evacuee The Sacramento Bee. When it isn’t, it can be deadly. The Valley Fire was exactly that for three people, as of this writing. There will likely be more. It displaced 17,000 people and destroyed 535 residences. The tents in the evacuees camp are place-markers for the homes that burned as the fire barreled though the hills above Middletown.

In trying to understand the disadvantage of being burnt out of your home, it might be wise to consult with recent census data, math combined with a Google drive down Highway 175 on Google maps. That’s how I found a pre-fire shot of a mobile home tucked away off McKinley Drive, a short street that runs parallel to 175 for a few yards (Lake County, according to the 2000 census, has the highest percentage of mobile homes of any California county.) I’m going to posit a fictional, but totally plausible scenario: A single mom lived in this now-destroyed mobile home, with her two children and several dogs. She works as a sales associate at Walmart. This is also plausible: Walmart is one of the top employers in Lake County. The current wage for a sales associate at Walmart is $9.32. It will rise to ten bucks after January 1st, 2016 because of AB 10, which raised the minimum wage. But as of this writing, it’s $9.32. If this fictional mom —whom I’m sure exists and is maybe even living at the Napa County fairgrounds with her two kids in a tent—works forty hours a week, at $9.34 an hour, she makes, after taxes, 433.90 a week. Annually, that’s 20,827.20 a year. The Living Wage calculator for Lake County says that an hourly living wage for an adult with two kids is twenty-five bucks an hour. Annually, that’s about forty-seven thousand (again, after taxes.) My fictional mom is obviously not making that. She’s probably on assistance, Medical, most likely.

This construct is ponderously tendentious, but you have to start somewhere. It’s hard to re-situate yourself in a dwelling with all the costs it takes (first month, last month, deposit) making 20, 827 a year, especially after losing everything. It’s hard to make ends meet on twenty thousand a year just staying put, but the day-to-day routines, scenarios and situations of life give you at least a chance to plan for the change headed your way.  (If you see it. In this right-to-work state, you may not.) Staying put within your admittedly constrained economic limits at least gives you the ability to think, perchance to dream, of stepping up one rung in the economic ladder. Displacement bursts those limits wide open.


What is the difference between an evacuee and a refugee in Lake County, CA? Is it just a matter of closing the gap between the current minimum wage and a livable wage? Or is it a designation assigned by time and locale? The longer you sleep on a cot in a concrete room, the more likely it is that your identity, destroyed by disaster, reconstructs itself around other people’s diminished expectations for your long-term prospects. My friend Christie astutely pointed out that volunteer help was more likely to be needed in a few weeks, after the first flush of altruism wears thin, compassion fatigue sets in and people stop volunteering. Do you stop being an evacuee the morning you wake up and realize that the act of seeking refuge for too long has turned you into something troublesome and unwanted, something people build walls to keep out?

Here’s a quote from Jelani Cobb: “History, social science and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are natural phenomena; disasters , however, are often the work of humankind.”

Which also means that the work of humankind can prevent disaster. I think of the weird mixture of gratitude and desperation I felt looking into the calm blue eyes of Sue, the volunteer nurse. Later, well-meaning friends thanked me, with the same gasping relief (thank god that someone’s doing something!) I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t performed a single act of support. I just observed.

Later I thought, we’re all so afraid we won’t do the right thing. However we define that.


Right now, the “right thing” might be giving money to North Coast Opportunities for relief efforts for fire victims. FEMA has given a grant to assist with the huge job of fighting the fire, and providing some evacuee support. But nothing I’ve read makes it sounds like FEMA re-builds homes. How will they get rebuilt? For those with private fire insurance, this might not be a question. But for those without? A natural phenomena—exacerbated by climate change and drought—will do exactly what all the other fires, floods and famines of the past have done: metastasize into a disaster. “Crap! Looks like we’re homeless!” an evacuee wrote on the Facebook page of Lake County Office of Emergency Assistance. “It was a good little house that protected us well.” They didn’t mention anything about re-building it.



Written on the night of the waxing, first-quarter moon, which is moving into Sagittarius. Let’s all be outward-bound. Here’s to Chaz the cat!