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.

Kaleidoscope: The Douglas Iris Show across Marin

I’ll  begin this long-promised post on the variety of color and form among our native iris with an exploration of the iris flower’s curious complexity. Here, for comparison, is the standard formula for how a flower is structured:

o   Farthest from the flower’s center are the sepals, typically green and leaflike.

o   Next toward the center are petals, the flower’s unabashed bid for attention.

o   Next in, add a ring of stamens, bearing dust-like male pollen.

o   In the center stands the female part, the pistil. Pollen grains, usually transported by insects, birds or wind, get deposited on the sticky cap, the stigma, and long pollen tubes grow down inside the pistil’s stalk, the style, to fertilize the flower’s eggs.

Now take a close-up look into an iris (above). Hard to fit to the standard model, isn’t it? First are three broad sepals, splendidly striped, and splashed with color. We call them falls, because they hold themselves out horizontally and bend gracefully downward at their tips. They’re landing pads for pollinators, conspicuously marked to guide arriving insects into the reproductive and nectar-producing parts of the flower.

Next are the three more-or-less upright petals–the standards–beautiful but far less assertive than the falls. They add a vertical dimension to the flower’s advertising.

Now look at the three bright, petal-like things that lie on top of the inner parts of the falls. Without a hand lens and a detailed knowledge of flower anatomy, you’d never guess what each is: a colorful, flattened, highly modified style! Underneath, the sticky stigma has become a simple cross-wise ridge that the pollinator has to squeeze itself under, scraping off the pollen it’s transported.

The stamens–the male parts, remember?–are snuggled, half-wrapped in the style’s folds. In the super close-up below, you can just glimpse the tips of the stamens, the anthers, loaded in this particular flower with royal purple pollen (in others it may be white or yellow).

So that’s how an iris’s beauty is assembled.

With that under our belt, let’s tour Marin, from Mount Burdell in the north, near the border with Sonoma, south to the Golden Gate Bridge, and from China Camp, on the silty eastward brink of San Pablo Bay, to Chimney Rock, far west at the end of Point Reyes.

The variety you see here from here on down the page–all from the last month and a half–is, as I said in February, the result of the complex hybridization Douglas Iris has done, uniquely in Marin, with Grass Iris (mostly around Inverness Ridge) and (strangely, because the species no longer occurs anywhere near Marin) with the pale Fernald’s Iris throughout much of the interior and eastern parts of the county.

The only double iris I've ever seen in the wild, along the Laguna Trail in Point Reyes

The Place That Inhabits Us

San Francisco Bay's smallest, loveliest, least elegantly named island, Rat Rock, off China Camp.

Sixteen Rivers Press is a non-profit co-op of Bay Area poets. It publishes elegant books of poetry and invites community support for their endeavor. They’ve outdone themselves this year with a lush, wide-ranging anthology of poetry about our neighborhood: The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed. You can find it at bookstores or at

My copy just arrived yesterday, and I want to showcase it here. I got permission from Bill Keener (see his earlier Harbor Porpoise post) to reprint his poem from the anthology. Bill’s a certifiable Renaissance man: a poet (obviously), a book editor, part of my 23-year-old men’s group, an accomplished rock guitarist, an avocational ornithologist and treasure trove of bird lore, an environmental attorney, and a former director of the Marin Mammal Center in the Headlands.

Here’s his poem, first published in West Marin Review, 2009, followed by another he wrote for us men.   

Bolinas Lagoon

Sink into a salt marsh. Walk out
and stand on black fragrant mud.

It will hold you, suck you down
with its slow viscous grip
until your rubber boots succumb.

Let your gaze go where it’s deep,
past cordgrass and pickleweed,
where curlews press their runes
in newlaid silt, and bivalves
leave their bubbles in the ooze.

Watch the clouds cream up
in a cerulean sky, as the light
comes gliding in from the west
to land like a flock at your feet.

The ebb tide’s last remaining
lamina of water makes the mud
a mirror where avocets walk
with ease, each bird tipping down
to touch its upcurved bill.

And you can’t take another step,
transfixed in the sumptuous muck.

The second poem isn’t from the anthology. Our men’s group has a straw basket filled with pocket-sized rocks, one for each meeting we hope to have through to the statistically calculated end of life of the last of us. Here’s our closing ritual each month captured in the music of Bill’s poem, first published in Sacred Stones, Maril Crabtree, ed., 2005.

The Pebble Clock

We gather round the basket
every month, and one of us,
without a word, reaches in,
lifts a little stone. Cool
and smooth, its weight lies
in his hand. He takes this
gift to carry in his pocket,
leave atop some distant peak,

or set on temple steps–
his to place upon a grave,
or throw into the sea. One
man chooses for all eight,
a rock a month to mark
the bond as friends. Time
will leave just one of us
to hold that final stone.

The basket we have filled
with wave-worn pebbles
is our slow impassive clock,
an hour-glass to measure
lives. Instead of sand, out
go pebbles, reminding us
that everything we love
will tick, tock, rock away.