The Ringbow

Miner's Lettuce after a midday shower, near the Narrow Gauge Trail, Fairfax

This poem of mine opens the book Three Crows Yelling that I coauthored with two dear friends (and better and more productive poets than me), Bill Keener and Michael Day. The book won the National Looking Glass Award in 1999.

The Ringbow

Out of the woods
into a bright mist filling all the air.
On the far wall of the valley
black massed forest and glowing grass-green hills.
.     A ringbow, soft and shining, floated
just beyond my reach.
I heard the stuttered punt, thun of my boots
on the rocky trail, felt the scarred reluctance
of my old man’s heart, and the fancy came
that I could dive through that ring of colors
to some place of timeless ease.
.     Then my eye caught iris just unfurling,
a twisted manzanita, arms upraised,
ringing with a thousand bells.
The door of airy colors faded,
flower after flower bannering my way
on down that rock-strewn trail.
.     Here, I thought.
.     Right here.

Calypso Orchids: February’s Treasure

Beginning in mid to late February each year, this tiny, vanilla-scented beauty makes an all-too-brief appearance in our forests. I’ve made pilgrimage for over twenty years to my favorite Calypso ‘grove,’ hidden away on steep, trailless land above San Geronimo. In most years, I suspect there are 150 to 200 plants here, with as many as 40 or 50 in bloom at once.

Yesterday, in delightfully damp weather, we found just eight. Notice the rain drips on most of the flowers.

Despite its intricate flower, each plant is just 5 or 6 inches high, with a single ribbed leaf laid flat on the duff. Like many orchids, it’s a trickster: it has elaborate fake nectaries, but no nectar. It specializes in the victimization of ignorant, newly hatched bumblebees, who fumble their way through a few bright, foodless Calypsos, pollinating them,  before learning better.

Calypsos are a single worldwide species in their own genus. They’re circumpolar, found in undisturbed and usually old forest from California and Arizona to Newfoundland in the New World, and from Scandinavia to Japan in the Old, but are nowhere abundant. They’re extremely vulnerable to habitat disturbance, and they’re part of the vast illegal international trade in orchids. The IUCN considers them “globally vulnerable to extinction.”

Do you remember the explosion of hunter-introduced feral pigs in Marin a few decades ago? Part of the motivation for the huge effort that was launched to eliminate them was that Calypsos were a favorite food.

These orchids, also called Fairy Slippers, grow from fingernail-size, bulblike corms, and a corm apparently lives only for about 5 years. Beginning in January, twin roots sprout from the corm, each root housing perhaps a dozen species of mycorrhizal fungi that mobilize mineral nutrients symbiotically for the plant (and probably, in the case of this orchid, also connect to the roots of trees and supply the flower directly with nutrients).

Don’t pick Calypsos: it almost invariably kills the plant. And don’t try to transplant them. Because they need their fungal symbionts to survive, you’re doomed to failure. Instead, find your own sacred grove. What could be better than a contemplative wander through the woods at the very greenest moment of the year?

Here and there, a few people are trying to learn to grow Fairy Slippers from their dust-sized seed. To explore that, here’s a fun link from the Pacific Northwest:

Harbor Porpoises, Back After a Lifetime


Bill Keener works as an environmental attorney, is a former director of the Marine Mammal Center in the Headlands, and is a dear friend; we’ve been fellow poets and part of the same 8-member men’s group for 23 years.

After 65 years, harbor porpoise have returned to San Francisco Bay and are now regular visitors to Marin’s shores.  We’re fortunate—few major metropolitan areas in the world are visited by cetaceans every day.

The last time a population census was taken (in the late 1980s, when I worked as field observer aboard the survey boats), not a single porpoise was sighted east of the Golden Gate.  The species was still suffering the effects of gill net fishing, with its lethal “by-catch” of marine mammals.

Accounts say porpoise used the Bay prior to World War II, but ship traffic, pollution and submarine nets may have put an end to that. Until now. In the past couple of years, harbor porpoise have entered the Bay as far as Angel Island and Alcatraz, with reports as far north as the Tiburon Romberg Center, and even the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

Because porpoise are here to feed on schooling fish, they tend to stay in deepwater areas: the Golden Gate, off Sausalito, or Raccoon Straits, often waiting for the ebb tide to wash fish down out of the Bay.

The best observation spot at the moment? Cavallo Point at East Ft. Baker in GGNRA.  The best time? High tide—consult a tide table for the Gate, and then be willing to wait and watch a while.  Binoculars are a help, but sometimes the porpoises, including mothers with calves, swim very close to the rocky point.

Harbor porpoise are small dark stocky animals about 5 feet long; when they come briefly to the surface, they show a short triangular dorsal fin. They are rather shy, tend to swim quietly, and almost never “porpoise” (leap from the water).  If the water is calm and quiet, you may be able to hear them breathe (sailors called them “puffing pigs”).

Why are they back? The reasons are unclear, but we are now beginning to study them. I am currently working with two other marine mammalogists to obtain a permit from National Marine Fisheries Service that will allow us to approach the porpoises in boats and photograph them for individual identification.  We want to understand their movements and use of this new habitat.  Theories on the return range from the positive: the Bay is cleaner; restrictions on gill-netting spurred a population increase — to the negative: the drought of the past few years allows saltwater into the Bay, bringing marine fish with it; porpoise could also be fleeing the recent coastal invasion of jumbo squid which may be depleting fish stocks.

To learn more, a good reference guide, with excellent illustrations and photos, is Marine Mammals of the World by Jefferson, Webber & Pitman, Academic Press 2008.

Remembering Kate Wolf

It’s hard to believe Kate died in 1986, a quarter-century ago. Time spins past us these days, helter-skelter. But one of the sweet miracles of my lifetime is the way Kate’s family and fellow musicians have kept her music and her voice so intimately alive. It wouldn’t be in the least surprising, one of these sunny mornings, to spot Kate tromping across our front yard, guitar in hand, to ask if we had time to hear a brand-new song.

This poem has a bit of history, and a smidge of honor. In 1998, Roys Redwoods was the site of a 25th anniversary gathering celebrating the founding of the Marin County Open Space District. Poet Laureate Bob Hass read, and so did local poet and publisher Greg Darms. I was out of town, so it was several weeks before I heard, quite by accident, that Greg had chosen my poem, “Kate’s Hawk,” as the poem he read in that bright and shadowed grove of redwoods.

Kate’s Hawk
.    for Kate Wolf (1942-1986)
You would die within months
though none of us knew it
that gentle sunny day.
No one had named the thing
that stalked you in your blood.
Step by labored step
we climbed through spring–
trillium and twisted stalk,
the tiny bells of madrone
strewn beneath our feet.
Just below the ridge
a Cooper’s hawk flashed
and landed in the crook of an oak,
an arm’s-length from us, eye to eye.
Time was merciful, and stopped.
The shape of swiftness and certainty,
that hawk: her carnelian eye
had death in it, and life.
An innocent troop of chickadees
passed over and around her.
A jay shouted once and fled.
Then she was gone.
When we come upon this place
after all these seasons,
there still comes a prickling
at the back of our necks,
as if you’d step from behind that tree
and climb singing up the hill.
We almost hear your songs, Kate,
and the sudden sound of wings.

February Week 3: Triangulating Marin

This week took us on an odyssey north, then west, and finally, on Friday, south: Mount Burdell in Novato, Inverness Ridge and Muddy Hollow in Point Reyes Seashore, and Gerbode Valley in the Marin Headlands. The bloom is accelerating, everywhere, but it’s still merely hinting at what’s to come.

Mount Burdell is Novato’s Tamalpais, with a huge Open Space preserve and, on its Bayside, Olompali State Park. Biologically, culturally and politically, Novato represents a transition toward Sonoma County. Land saving came late and imperfectly here, without the assistance of the vast Federal landholdings that bulwarked preservation in Southern Marin, and the community is more conservative and a bit less environmentally inclined, with a contentious city council that flips unproductively left and right decade after decade. But Burdell has been saved, and it is a treasure.

2-16-10 The first Mission Bells, or Checker Lilies, next to the Dwarf Oak Trail below Mt Burdell.

2-16-10 Hedge Nettles coming into bloom on Mt Burdell. Not a nettle (it doesn't sting), but a typically square-stemmed mint, alas with a quite unattractive scent.

One of our misty mornings this week, I slipped out of bed at first light and headed to Point Reyes. I parked at the top of the Limantour Road, ambled down the Bayview trail, poked around Muddy Hollow, and hiked back up the road to my car. I was back home a little after nine for breakfast with Tina. A couple of hours of stolen solitude in the midst of beauty is worth a month in church.

Much of my hike took me through the aftermath of the Mount Vision fire–impenetrable thickets of young, fire-spawned Bishop Pine, massed Ceanothus (Blueblossom) that will flood the air with its sweet musk in a few weeks. We should trust ourselves to life more than we ordinarily do: its capacity for self-renewal and healing is (almost) infinite.

On the way home, a burly male bobcat was taking a dignified stroll beside Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on the Olema Hill. He didn’t so much as give me a glance.

2-17-10 Flowering Currant in the soft chaparral along the Bayview Trail, with Red Elderberry leafing out right behind it

2-17-10 Salmonberry, named for its berries that are the bright orange-red of salmon roe. Great thickets of it adorn Muddy Hollow

2-17-10 The inconspicuous flowers and dark bronzy leaves of Coffeeberry beside Limantour Road

Friday was a complicated day. We crossed the Golden Gate to one of Tina’s regular appointments for an Alzheimer’s vaccine study she’s volunteered for. The drug has the gloriously indigestible name of bapineuzimab. This appointment was primarily for an MRI, so she spent 45 minutes motionless in a claustrophobic metal tube, having her brain imaged.

After that thoroughly urban experience, we did what any normal human beings would do: we fled to the Headlands for a contemplative 10-mile hike, up and all the way round the rim of the vast bowl of Gerbode Valley. Up on the ridge, two territorial ravens nipped and screamed at an unfortunate young redtail twenty feet above our heads. Slaty-black storms threatened to swallow Mt Tam, but pale-gold sun angled in to fill our valley.

2-19-10 A Rough-Skinned Newt clambers up the clear rill beside the Bobcat Trail. Newts can afford to be so clumsy and public because they carry in their skin the same powerful toxin that protects pufferfish. What a convenience to be inedible!

2-19-10 Wind-shorn Oregon Grape in a rocky crevice near Hawk Camp

2-19-10 Twinberry flowering in a willow thicket by the Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 If you like chewy names for flowers, it's hard to beat Sticky Monkeyflower. And if you like tough, beautiful plants, ditto. Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 We tramped 10 miles and saw perhaps a thousand gigantic Cow Parsnips heaving themselves up from the earth, but this was the only one in bloom. Hawk Camp

In the cool, foggy climate of the Headlands, forest denizens creep out onto the open hillsides. We usually associate Salal with the shady understory of redwoods and bishop pines

2-19-10 Two tangled Grass Iris in a remnant native grassland on the hillsides near the Miwok Trail

Douglas Iris: Gallery One

Here is the first of two or three iris galleries I’ll post through the spring, this for Inverness Ridge. Later, I may do a purely coastal one, and in a few weeks another, for the resplendent variety of color and form that will be exploding inland.

2-16-10 Grass Iris on the Dwarf Oak Trail at Mt Burdell. Not Douglas Iris at all, but a relative that's contributed its genes to Marin's hybrid swarm. Grass Iris has slender leaves, blossoms snuggled close to the ground, and an ineffable scent, worth getting on hands and knees for: 'orris,' a fragrance unique to a handful of iris species.

Iris is Greek for rainbow. Of the 300 kinds of iris in Old World and New, none is more a rainbow than Iris douglasiana—every color in the genus displays itself in this single species. Even better, Marin’s inland populations of Douglas Iris are by far the most rainbow-like of any from its range, Santa Barbara northward to central Oregon. The Douglas Iris of the Marin Peninsula (not including Point Reyes) have even been honored with their own name: Marin Iris.

Why the rainbow locally? Until suburbanization, Marin’s forests and woodlands were a biological island, cut off northward by broad grasslands that stretched into Sonoma. (Did you know we even had our own unique subspecies of chickadee, now swamped and lost in just a few decades as chickadees from the north colonized tree plantings southward?)

Botanists think Marin Iris are a ‘hybrid swarm,’ mostly Doug Iris, like the ones in this gallery from Inverness Ridge, but with abundant genes from Grass Iris (Iris macrosiphon), and, in central Marin, from another species now, curiously, found only far north and east of us, Iris fernaldii. Not much influenced genetically by the swarm, Douglas Iris on the headlands and the Point Reyes coastal plain are nearly uniform deep purples and blues.

Iris terminology: The three upright petals, called the standards, are actually the flower’s three petals. The three falls—usually marked with lovely white or black venation as a signal to pollinators—are the flower’s sepals, and not petals at all.

A dewy Douglas Iris on Point Reyes' Bayview Trail, showing standards and falls.

iFlowers for the iPhone

2-17-10 Flowering Currant on the Bayview Trail at Point Reyes. The thread of trail from Inverness Ridge to Muddy Hollow may be the best place in Marin for this magnificent early-flowering shrub. Today, giddy with spring sun, I found hundreds of them, the biggest 8 feet high and nearly as wide, garlanded in pink.

So far, the pictures on this blog have all been taken with an iPhone, then mailed to my computer. Why? Ease. The phone is always in my pocket, wherever I am, and it has admirable depth of field. But it certainly has limitations: highlights get blasted out at the slightest excuse; it’s hard to tell when detail is sharp (until you download the picture); and, as in the shot above it tends to create halo around brightest flowers. Its 3/16 inch lens is frustratingly hard to clean.

For $20, I got a simple slip-on case made by Griffin that has a slide-in-place close-up lens that gets me within about 5 inches of my subject. I use that a lot, as you can see.

I have several photographic apps on the phone that could give me a little more control and a Gorillapod mini-tripod Jenny gave me for Christmas . . . but I haven’t started using them yet. Generationally challenged? Maybe.  🙂

My photographer/backpacker daughter Martha, who’s superb at capturing flowers–usually in the High Sierra–has promised to guest blog here sometime soon. Maybe her much more polished shots will shame me into hanging my camera around my neck when I venture out. Meantime, I’ll be all iPhone, all the time.

February Week 2: Blue Dicks & Osoberry

This week is a time of frustration and excitement for flowerbloggers, in equal part. The weather is opening up; it’s clearly no longer January . . . and the world seems suspended, swollen and aching to bloom. In town, the plums are throwing snowy mantles around their shoulders, the first enormous magnolia blossoms are breaking open, but narcissus are already admitting that the season is passing.

Here’s a poem by AE Housman, from A Shropshire Lad, that becomes more precious to me year by year:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It leaves me only fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs is little room,
About the woodland I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

2-11-10 Osoberry on a cutbank along Olema Road in Fairfax. Every year it's a hold-your-breath delight to find that this uncommon native has survived right on the edge of a well-traveled street.

2-11-10 The first Blue Dicks of the year, early on the slopes of Baywood Canyon. Native Americans harvested the bulb of this familiar beauty in a way that consciously increased its abundance year by year.

2-13-10 The solitary jelly-red female flowers of Hazelnut side by side with pendant male catkins on Pam's Blue Ridge

2-12-10 A Tree Poppy bloom sheltering itself from rain on the Southern Marin Line Road

2-13-10 Not a flower, but a deer-coppiced Bay Laurel on Pam's Blue Ridge, looking like a Druid momument

2-12-10 Silkytassel on Knob Hill above Kentfield

2-12-10 A surprise! The first very early Huckleberries have burst into bloom along the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail, bush after bush of them

2-11-10 California Saxifrage beside the Narrow Gauge Trail above Fairfax

2-12-10 A second look at a Slinky Pod blossom and its leopard-spotted leaf on the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo

2-12-10 Rain-jeweled Tree Lupine, Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail

2-11-10 Every spring we bring a Buckeye branch indoors to unfurl in the middle of our kitchen table

2-11-10 Our oldest daughter Sarah Orantes with Tina and a grandmotherly live oak on the Narrow Gauge Trail

Valentine’s Day

Owl Love

.            for Desiree, who I know was listening

Walking along willows so thick and deep
that the winter creek could scarcely say its name,
willows so bright in twig with spring’s promise —
red and yellow, green and gold—that the lingering sun
bathing the high fall of hills was scarcely needed,

long before the hour when owls should fly, or sing,
or cease to hide from lesser birds, two February owls,
though they had spent their blinking day apart,
one on a twiggy nest, one in a broom of branches,
began to boom their joy in being mated.

I was miles from you, miles and hours and more,
and scarcely in a hurry to leave a world readying itself
for bloom. But still, beloved, am I wrong to guess
you glanced, once, or more than once, from your window?
Wrong to guess you listened for my hollow song?

A Misty Moisty Morning

My title line, from a traditional British ballad, seems perfect for the winter we’ve been having, a winter itself perfect for non-flowers. So today is my Nonflowerblogging day. Hail the Cryptogams, a laundry-basket term for lichens and mosses and ferns and fungi and all their motley relatives, organisms that reproduce not with flowers and seeds, but with spores, created asexually (don’t worry, the poor things do have sex, but in a process that’s completely separate from spore production). This lack of flowers was so mysterious to our medieval forbears they believed that on one singular night each year–it might have been St. John’s Eve but don’t quote me–if you crept into the woods, you could spy the ferns wantonly blossoming.

Try this with your kids before the winter wanes: pick a fresh, perky mushroom, bring it home, cut off the stem and set it overnight on a sheet of white (or black) paper. In the morning, on the paper, you’ll find a perfect, richly detailed image of the mushroom’s gills or pores. That image is made of countless microscopic spores that matured and were shed during the night. Sometimes the image is a real surprise: independent of the color of the cap, the print may be brown or black, purple, pink or lavender, snowy white or creamy. Float a little hairspray gently over it and you can keep it as a permanent memento of our misty moisty weather.

Here’s our crypto gallery:

2-13-10 Pom Pom Mushroom on Pam's Blue Ridge, Fairfax. These capless, 'toothed' mushrooms are choice edibles also used widely in Chinese medicine. The several species are variously called Lion's Manes, Bear's Teeth and more. This fine specimen was graced a fallen bay laurel trunk.

2-12-10 A fire-scarred manzanita limb with glowing red-brown bark, wearing epaulets of lichen.

1-28-10 Mixed mosses and lichens on a rock near Bon Tempe Lake.

2-12-10 Feather moss on a rain-drenched bay tree on the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. Our mosses get so bone-dry in summer that their protoplasm shrinks away from the cell walls into a brittle ball, but add water and the moss greens up and begins to photosynthesize in mere minutes. YOU try that!

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