Summer Begins before the Solstice

Farewell to Spring blooming at Rush Creek in Novato

After a wet cool spring, the hills are suddenly straw, yet every afternoon the fog reaches its arms over the coastal hills. Summer in California has more sense of ending than any other time of year. In the Land of Seven Month Springs, we discover that even grass is mortal.

The red salamander in this contemplative poem is a Red Eft, the land stage of the East Coast cousin of our newts.


The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander,
so cold and so easy
to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

.        –Denise Levertov

Some Farewell flowers have a brilliant red bloodspot at the base of each of their four petals


Our Surprise: Sylvia Pippen’s Exquisite Quilt!

An unexpected gift for Tina and myself manifested in yesterday’s mail, all the way from the coast south of Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island — one of Sylvia Pippen’s flower quilts, arriving unannounced and without any special occasion to justify it.

The three blossoms on this 1 1/2 by 2 foot quilt are Rocky Mountain columbine, a reminder of Sylvia’s more than four decades of deep friendship with us, and of the love all three us of share for the high mountains.

I’d bet my bottom dollar Sylvia was remembering as she stiched the very stand of columbine that rose instantly to mind from my own forty-year-old memory: Not far from the summit of Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico is a hidden dell, its walls a wild tumble of talus boulders; each year in August, masses of white-and-blue columbine — hundreds upon hundreds of glorious blossoms — fountain from every crevice in this tiny place, their colors mirroring the cumulus-dotted alpine sky.

I marvel the quality and precision of Sylvia’s work. Everything you see is hand-stitched. The stamens of the flowers — each stamen separately — is embroidered with two or three colors, topped by bright yellow, pollen-heavy anthers. And look in the detail below at the quilting itself.

Sylvia and her near-ninety-year-old mother, Kitty (who still quilts and teaches), are among the Olympians of North American quilt-making. You can see more of their master craft at

And you can find their books at Amazon:

Paradise Stitched: Sashiko & Applique Quilts. Sylvia Pippen

Asian Elegance: Quilting with Japanese Fabrics and More.  Kitty & Sylvia Pippen

Quilting with Japanese Fabrics. Kitty Pippen

We’re on our way to the hardware store right now to get a dowel and wooden brackets to give this marvel its place of honor on our living room wall.

Thrush Music

Red Ribbons, one of our loveliest Clarkias, on a steep bank in song-filled Creamery Canyon

This will be a brief post, with a promise, hopefully over this long weekend, to catch up with flowerblogging that’s nearly six weeks behind.

This morning I got up at first light and headed all by myself out to my old stomping grounds on the ridges and redwood canyons above San Geronimo Valley. It was my first early-morning hike in weeks. The Valley was filled with translucent silver mist that magnified the space around me as I began to walk. Its uppermost reaches were already caressed by the sun slanting in over the hills. The world glowed.

In the course of not much more than five minutes my ears were bathed in most of the most beautiful birdsong to be heard in Marin:

The lush riparian fringing the creek was filled with the even lusher proclamations of Black-headed Grosbeaks — robins trained and conducted by Toscanini. Up the side canyon I began to climb, Swainson’s Thrushes’ echoy, ethereal songs spiraled up and up till I could almost believe they ascended ultimately to some higher sphere of existence (if one was imaginable on a morning like this). As the redwood colonnades began, the sword fern thickets trembled with the endless tinkling song of the Winter Wren. And higher still on the Valley’s flanks, I began to catch the mournful verses of Hermit Thrushes.

A Frost poem came to mind — a lovely poem of dusk, not dawn, but one certainly written about the Hermit Thrush.

Come In

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn’t been.

–Robert Frost

Why am I so certain this poem is about Hermit Thrushes? The Eastern forest has two “versifying” thrushes, the Wood Thrush and the Hermit. Each bird begins each verse of its song with a long, clear note, followed by a musically complex, silvery phrase that sounds as if it’s sung in the lofty spaces of a cathedral.

But the two species’ songs have a critical difference: listen to the initial notes, in sequence, of any three of a Wood Thrush’s phrases, and they make a major chord, giving the whole song a sunny, happy air.

But the Hermit Thrush carries another mood: Any three of its initial notes make a minor chord — the “lament” called up for Frost.

Of course, neither bird is singing for us. They’re both proclaiming the same thing: this piece of forest, this mate, this nest, these babies, all the food we glean — are mine!

Tina’s 1983 Adventures in Mongolia

Portrait of a 19th Century Cossak Horseman

Cristina Kessler Noble, PhD. On one of  Tina’s long solo trips through China, she spent several weeks exploring remote, traditional regions of Inner Mongolia and Mongolian Tibet. Among her many adventures was gifting her wristwatch to the Panchen Lama in front of an audience of several thousand.

But the story I most treasure is her account of pushing her way through a crowded train station in a remote Mongolian town. Suddenly, she was startled by loud, prolonged laughter from a deep male voice. (Han Chinese simply don’t do such things in public, ever.) She turned and saw a tall, mustachioed, middle-aged man with high leather boots, colorful tribal clothing, and Caucasian features. He was looking right back at her and roaring with laughter.

She shouldered herself toward him and stared up into his face. “Why are you laughing?” she asked in Mandarin. “I am Kazakh,” he boomed. “And all my life people say I am ugly. At last,” he said, eyeing her pale hair and blue eyes, “I find someone uglier than me!” They became fast friends and traveled together for several days.

When you hear “Kazakh,” think “Cossack,” the Russian name for the fierce, independent raiders who for several centuries dominated the borderlands between Russia and China. The Cossak rider’s picture, I found here:

Here’s a brief excerpt about that trip directly from Tina’s journals:

Sunday, September 25, 1983: On the Multi-day Train Ride from Beijing

At 6 AM, the lights go on in the train and loudspeakers crackle to life with deafening revolutionary songs. We stop at Kangzhuang to take on water and let off passengers. The sky is already bright. Distant mountains are outlined against a rosy dawn.

Two teenagers come out of the train station to hook up hoses to the boilers: a tiny girl who looks no more than fourteen but handles the hoses like a pro, and a fresh-faced boy who yawns, glances up at the sunrise, then throws back his head to sing as he works.

In the train, I rub sleep from my eyes and look around at the sixty faces that surround me, some sleeping, some blinking out the windows at the dawn. Low chatter and the high music of babies. The woman next to me on our bunk is deeply asleep, her face close to mine. Her six-month-old baby is asleep beside her on the narrow bunk, his chubby hands tangled in her hair.

These are the people who only ten years ago our government refused to acknowledge diplomatically, who our people feared as ravening communist hordes. These are the same people who ten years ago considered me their mortal enemy. War: how trivial in motivation, how economic in origin, how insanely illogical. Unless actually invaded, how can any nation justify the slaughter of human beings whose only difference is their skin, or their belief, or their political membership. How easily, at any time in the last turbulent century, we might have found ourselves at war with these same people who sleep and stir around me.

Sunrise now, as we pass through enclosing mountains, glimpsing crumbling fragments of the Great Wall that catch the early sun. The train is alive with kids and cries of “ma!” The air fills with cigarette smoke and the human noise reaches ‘normal’ levels, a mix of earnest conversation and blaring propaganda. At one end of our car is a single sink, a small boiler of hot water, and a tiny closet with a hole in the floor through which you can watch railroad ties whizzing by a couple of feet below your bum. People patiently wait their turn to clean up, to make tea in mugs or jars they have brought with them.

There is such quiet cooperation among these sixty strangers packed together like sardines, such gentleness and assumption of mutual consideration: men, women, and children of all ages, soldiers and policemen, herdsmen and farmers and bureaucrats. Everyone but the infants have slept tightly bundled in their clothes in this still-prudish country, but bare baby bottoms are everywhere.

The Mystery of Dragon Mountain

At Desiree’s yesterday, her granddaughter Briana asked me to write a story with her, and then to perform it for the family. So we hid ourselves away in a back room, created a genuine, if telescoped, saga, and then delivered Oscar-worthy performances for the assembled faithful.

Here it is, published for the first time on the Internet!

The Mystery of Dragon Mountain 

by Briana Fayard 

“Where is Huckleberry Finn?” the Queen wondered. She hadn’t seen Huckleberry, the most ancient of all the dragons, in a hundred years—a long time, even for a Dragon. 

“Slumgullion! Find Huckleberry. We need him.” 

Slumgullion said, “Yes, your Highness.”  So he sent warriors to find him. “Hurry,” said Slumgullion. They searched and searched but couldn’t find Huckleberry. 

They searched the farthest reaches of the Great Blue Sea. The searched the Iron Mountains and the Silver Mountains and the Mountains of Diamonds. No Huckleberry. 

“So,” said the Queen with a sad frown, “n-n-n-no Huckleberry?” 

A huge Dragon tear rolled down Slumgullion’s scaly cheek. “I have failed you, your Majesty.” 


“Fine, fine,” said he, hurrying away. 

But then a flash of lightning shot out of the sky. It was Huckleberry. “I’m home,” he said happily. 

“Where were you?” shouted the Queen, showing all her seven hundred teeth. 

“Nowhere special,” said Huckleberry, shrugging. 

And the next day he went back to school, and lived happily—and scalily—ever after.

(editor’s note: And so did the Queen, who discovered she could now do her Times Tables perfectly.)

Happy Birthday, Cristina Kessler Noble

Photo: Wren Noble, from an album honoring her mom. At Histrionics:

Yesterday our daughter Martha and her partner Lisel took us out for early dinner in San Anselmo — delicious mole at a place with the unlikely name of Taco Jane’s. We sat outdoors in the late sun, right next to a tall Altissimo rose. Altissimo has single flowers the size of salad plates, flowers of a vibrant, saturated true red that ping  your eyeballs.

Then this morning, just after we’re off the phone with Jenny from New York, Tina’s brother calls — today is his birthday too, two years older than his kid sister — and another rollicking conversation ensues.

Brendan and I are putting breakfast on as I type this (I can hear the water about to boil). After, we set off for a birthday hike at one of Tina’s favorite places, Ring Mountain, above Tiburon.

Next weekend, a more formal family birthday party, and on Monday Jenny (Wren) arrives, breathless, for a five-day visit, fresh from producing a show in LA.

Here’s a poem from 2002. Happy birthday, Tina!

Pancakes and Syrup

.     for Cristina on our 28th Valentine’s day

Gabby Pahinui’s spilling us the music of He’eia,
King Kalakaua’s sad-sweet timelorn anthem:
an ocean passage long ago, love and sighing surf,
a mistaken woman, but ‘o Halala i ka nuku mana
.     –what a big bird’s beak he had!

It’s our fourteenth day of February; just outside
bright and careless plums are bursting all their buds,
one a breathless fountain, snowy white, its sister
pink and flaunting, shameless and extravagant,
.     to provoke the starveling bees.

I’ve brought to you these dinnerplatter pancakes,
red-lipped apple slices, medallions of emerald kiwi;
the rounded shoulders of the fresh-spilled syrup
lenses to magnify the steaming nut-brown crusts,
.     to tease our taste and tongues.

A flannel nightgown and the fullness of your breasts,
the morning’s sunslant caught in two blue eyes,
your long-loved face: who knows what prompts me?
I lean and kiss the syrup from your open smiling lips
.     before a single petal has a chance to fall.

And here’s part of an e-card that just arrived from our grandaughter and her family:

 Happy Birthday, Tina!

We hope you have a wonderful day. You are so special to us and have taught this family so much.  You are an inspiration to us all. Thank you for always supporting our family, and reminding us to keep our sense of humor! You have modeled the importance of cherishing those you love. We hope that you know how much we cherish you.

 Love always,
Keith, Amaris, Terence and Kenneth

Infidelitus Geographicus – Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve

We escaped Marin yesterday for a romantic interlude with the wanton flowers in Yolo County.

Yesterday was our great-grandson Terence’s first communion (and the column of flowers above is, of course, Chinese Houses. We spent the day with them in the Sacramento Valley town of Winters, about 20 miles west of Davis, along Putah Creek. After gorging on more-than-plentiful homecooked food, our son Brendan barely surviving hours of dreadful lightsaber wars in the backyard with knee-high Jedis, and catching up on everyon’e lives, four of us — Tina, Sarah, Brendan and myself — headed about 15 minutes up Route 128 to Montecillo Dam, which creates Lake Berryessa.

Here’s our grinny granddaughter, Maciel (on the right), sitting on the steps of Terence’s house with her buddy Haley. (Terence rents out part of the house to his mom and dad, Amaris and Keith, to his thoroughly Irish grandfather Terry, and to his brother Kenneth.

Just past the dam are two undistinguished dusty, rutted parking lots. But right across the road are two intriguing trailheads. Flowers and tumbled greenery are everywhere: redbud (in flagrant bloom, above) and blueblossom, mounds of creamy clematis heaped on bushes and trees, roadcuts splashed with every color of the rainbow.

Golden Fairy Lanterns, a delightful relative of Mariposa Lilies

Venture up the trails a few dozen yards and you come to signs and interpretive material introducing you to one of the gems of the University of California Natural Reserve system, the G. Ledyard Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.

Ledyard Stebbins (1906-2000) was a near-legendary botanist at UC Davis and one of ther foremost evolutionary biologists of the last century. I had several times the privilege of being in the field with him in his older years, once on a California Native Plant Society outing where he outwalked nearly everyone in the group, straight up a hogback on Mt Tam, talking to us about Ceanothus the whole way.

Clematis or Virgin's Bower

Clematis showing its silky seed plumes

To find out lots and lots more about the Reserve (and the public education programs there) go to Or to be a volunteer or guide there contact jfalyn (at)

A creamy-white Clematis vine graces the crown of an enormous Blue Blossom shrub

The ordinary blue-purple flowers of Blue-eyed Grass, and interspersed among them, flowers of a rare white variant of the plant.

Here and there, hillsides were thronged with this beautiful native Clover.

All the plants in Cold Canyon seemed just a bit bigger than life. Even the Sticky Monkey Flowers were nearly twice normal size, and California Pipevine was everywhere, green and luxuriant, hung with striped fruits. We found one leaf of Big-Leaf Maple that was nearly a foot across. The soil was springy and deep underfoot; a handful of it was a fragrant as the loam in a well-tended vegetable patch. Why the exuberance? I’m going to have to find out!

Harvest Brodiaea

A Gray Pine in the foreground, and far above it, a peek at a slope covered with Blue Buckbrush.

We all know the littleairy parachutes of Dandelions. Here's a beautiful variant on that theme. The inconsequential flowers of Blow Wives mature into these spectacular satiny papusses with a single glossy black seed dangling beneath it when it takes flight.

We’ll end with another white oddity. Here’s an albino seedling of Buckeye. Somewhere, perhaps in the original production of the egg cell that gave rise to the huge Buckeye seed, its chloroplasts were lost.

Chloroplasts are the green organelles inside plant cells that do the work of photosynthesis. They were, in ancient evolutionary time, once-independent algal cells that formed an intimate symbiosis with the plant.

This little plant is growing off the food reserves of its seed. But it cannot make its own food fron sun, water and air. When its reserves are exhausted, it will die.

An Alternative Natural History

San Geronimo Valley, where my family lived for more than three decades, is a vigorous, connected, loving, and sometimes contentious very human community in the midst of an extraordinary natural environment — its four villages dwell almost entirely encircled by Open Space, State Park and Marin Municipal Water District lands.

The Valley boasts the most active and functional community email list I know of in Marin; its postings span the spectrum from practical governance to New Age giddiness.

This morning turned up something brand-new on the list. Here, with the author’s permission, is its subject line and content. May you enjoy it as much as I did: 

Decomposing Entrails of Enormous Industrial Beast Discovered in West Marin Open Space

Caution!: Parental Discretion Advised

Here’s what I found inside the email:

The photo is the inspired work of Jacob Barnett, taken somewhere on the Valley’s surrounding hills. You can express appreciation and belly laughs to Jacob at

Green, Greener and Greener: March Week 3 – April Week 2

I’ve had three topical posts up during this three-week period, but here’s a belated catch-up overall for this transition between our early and late bloomers. These weeks have seen the first major flush of migrant songbirds arriving back from Mexico and the deep tropics.

It’s been unsettled weather — a few days of sun and warming, then bluster accented here and there by intense and in some cases record-setting rains. Just when we might be watching for the first tenative suggestions of browning on the distant hills, they seem, impossibly, to be getting greener and greener.

3-21-10 My first Thimbleberry blossom hangs above the Laguna Trail in PRNS.

Thimbleberries and Salmonberries are two of our summer treats, their mild delights often bypassed for the more sugary seductions of the Old-World blackberries that are rampant along every byway. They’re also quite beautiful plants, in contrast to the aggressive  thorny sprawl of balckberries.

3-26-10 Fiddlenecks unfurl their gold in Eliot Preserve, part of Cascade Canyon Open Space.

Fiddlenecks are part of the Borage family, which includes Hounds Tongue, Popcorn Flowers, and the garden escapees, Forget-Me-Nots.

A Western Fence Lizard, or Blue Belly, regards the camera (or the cameraman) with reptilian mistrust in Eliot Preserve.

3-27-10 Johnny-Jump-Up, China Camp

Some of our vioets aren’t violet, of course, just as some of our evening primroses have decided to bloom in the mornings. Johnny-Jump-Ups are one of Marin’s two large-flowered yellow kinds, the other having an equally engaging name, Western Heart’s Ease. (I just haven’t hiked to one of my good places for them yet. Be patient).

3-27-10 Here's Madrone with its countless thousands of nectared bells, most of the way through its spring bloom in China Camp

For the last three weeks I’ve been prowling for the perfect shot of one of my favorite spring delights: the snow of Madrone bells that will eventually be strewn under each tree. I’ve come close, but I haven’t found it yet.

Later in the year, each of these blossoms will yield a plump orange berry, and with a sound like distant summer thunder, clouds of Band-tailed Pigeons will wheel in for the harvest.

As nesting season begins, Scrub Jays spend longer and longer times sitting at the top of trees and tall shrubs, quietly observing. Are they betraying a meditational bent? Nope.

Crows, jays and magpies, as a family, rival the parrots in intelligence, and in fact evidence seems to be accumulating that the brightest of them rival all but the higher primates in thoughtful resourcefulness.

Scrub Jays are watching for nest building by other birds. From extensive studies, many of them conducted in Marin by Point Reyes Bird Observatory scientists, we know they’ll remember where the nest are, many nests — but they won’t necessarily slip in and steal eggs as soon as they’re laid (well, maybe a few). Instead, they’ll treat many of the nests as long-term resources and return to harvest nestlings after parents have established a sunstantial “value-added” by feeding their young up to good, plump size.

Think of it as a sort of proto-animal husbandry.

4-1-10 Finally, I found my first Larkspur, along the Fairfax end of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 One of our several species of Lotus, or Deerweed, a legune and a 'belly flower' just an inch or so high, at the edge of the Yolanda Loop

4-1-10 Another belly flower, a Locoweed

4-3-10 A jewel-like unidentified moth on Giant Chain Fern, in Blackstone Canyon above Marinwood.

4-6-10 A native poppy, Creamy Cups, on the Bay Ridge north of Whites Hill

4-6-10 Owls Clover on Whites Hill. See the tiny owl faces on this relative of Snapdragons and Paint Brush?

This orange-capped rock is at Camp Tamarancho, a extensive, ecologically rich  Boy Scout property above Fairfax. Why is it orange? Bird poop.

This Xanthoria lichen is a cosmopolitan species that is highly tolerant of the high salts and nitrogen residues of . . . bird poop, so it’s often found atop rocks like this where birds like kestrels (our smallest falcon) routinely perch. just between us, let’s call it Bird-Poop Lichen.

4-9-10 Goldfields, California Poppies on serpentine soil at Tamarancho

As we hiked Tamarancho, I spotted this striking but too common scene: two lovely Madrones flanking several of our magnificent Live Oaks, killed in the last two seasons by Sudden Oak Death Syndrome (SODS).

By now the story of SODS, at least as far as we understand it, is pretty well known: an exotic fungal disease, likely introduced on horticultural plants, began to infect native trees on the slopes of mount Tam. It is now spreading north and south in California, killing live oaks and tanoaks, sometimes destroying an individual tree in a matter of weeks.

Will our oaks go the way of the American chestnut? No one knows.

4-9-10 Our native chaparral Morning Glory at Tamarancho

4-9-10 The curious blossoms of the somewhat funky-smelling Pitcher Sage.

4-13-10 "Linear Montia" Pams Blue Ridge

Pacific States Wildflowers, in the Peterson Field Guide Series, is the best book for identifying Western plants, but between the inevitable shifts in the scientific naming of some of our common plants as our knowledge expands, and the egregious disrespect (or botanists’ lack of interest) in common names by this book’s authors, some of our loveliest plants have very odd and unbecoming names.

Take this pink beauty, for instance, that, especially after fires can paint acres of our thin serpentine soils in brilliant color. “Linear Montia.” Not very evocative, is it? Beyond that, other problems. It’s now been moved to the genus Claytonia from Montia (where it and Miner’s Lettuce used to live. And its “specific epithet” — the second part of its scientific name — has had to change, too.

Common names belong to us, not the scientists. They’ll always know what Claytonia gypsophiloides is. But what do we want to call it? Please suggest a name.    🙂

4-14-10 A male Lesser Goldfinch nibbles the (probably delicious) flower buds of Valley Oak on Mount Burdell.

4-14-10 Yellow (or Streamside) Monkey Flower & a visiting insect on the slopes of Mt Burdell

4-14-10 Another name-challenged flower, glorifying a wet meadowy spot below Mount Burdell. Let's call it Yellow Owls Clover.

4-13-10 on Pams Blue Ridge, a picture-perfect bouguet of Mules Ears & Red Delphinium.

4-14-10 Miners Lettuce flowering in the lap of a Live Oak on Mt Burdell

At the Edge of the Bay

A Black-necked Stilt in the treatment ponds at Las Gallinas.

On this perfect spring day, I took an early-morning stroll at Las Gallinas Valley Santitary District’s sewage treatment ponds, one of the richest places on Marin’s bayshore for wildlife (sewage ponds, worldwide, are a favorite habitat for finding birdwatchers).

The light was crystalline, the air warm and still but ringing with birdsound. At the bridge where the trails begin, several hundred Cliff Swallows whirled and filled the air with twitter. They rushed en masse under the low bridge where they build their colony of mud-gourd nests and streamed back out the other side. Safe  in numbers, they ignored a pale merlin that flew directly under them.

Red- winged Blackbirds clacked and konk-a-reed from every cattail clump, Marsh Wrens chattered like demented sewing machines, hundreds of musical Salt-Marsh Song Sparrows competed for female attention. A summer-butter Wilson’s Warbler perched for an instant a handspan from a masked male Yellowthroat, who ignored his bursting into song.

Ducks. They arrowed in twos and threes over the narsh in pursuit of sex, bringing the embarrassing rubber-ducky squeaks of male Wigeon and the reedy quacks of Gadwall.

A Greater Yellowlegs called out beyond the saltmarsh, geese honked. I heard the serial grunts of Virginia Rails and the endangered Clapper Rail.

American Goldfinches have arrived; a dozen or more like this one sang from weed patches. Can you see his imperfect black crown? Goldfinches are among the few small songbirds to take several years to achieve full, resplendent male plumage.

This wasn’t a flower walk, though there were plenty of flowers: millions of white, yellow, brassy or lavender blossoms of Corkseed, the European ancestor of radishes, and muddy patches here and there golden with the massed bloon of salt-tolerant Brass Buttons, an arrival from South Africa. But in an hour of walking, except for the vegatation in saltmarshes and the sloughs, I saw only three native plants: Coyote Bush, California Bee Plant (one clump) and California Poppies (probably seeded from horticultural stock).

It was still a grand tour of the living world at the verge of San Pablo Bay. And just to keep me in line, this Raven supervised my visit in silence.

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