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 http://sylviapippendesigns.com/

And you can find their books at Amazon:

Paradise Stitched: Sashiko & Applique Quilts. Sylvia Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Paradise-Stitched-Sashiko-Applique-Quilts-Sylvia/dp/1571206175/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-1

Asian Elegance: Quilting with Japanese Fabrics and More.  Kitty & Sylvia Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Asian-Elegance-Quilting-Japanese-Patchwork/dp/156477483X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-3

Quilting with Japanese Fabrics. Kitty Pippen  http://www.amazon.com/Quilting-Japanese-Fabrics-Kitty-Pippen/dp/1564772977/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275609171&sr=1-2

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.

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: http://www.flamesofwar.com/Portals/0/all_images/Historical/Za-Stalina/Cossack-05.jpg

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: http://wrennoble.wordpress.com/

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 http://nrs.ucdavis.edu/stebbins.html. Or to be a volunteer or guide there contact jfalyn (at) ucdavis.edu.

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.

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 www.sixteenrivers.org.

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.


Lebkuchen much like our family's own, appropriated from the website whatscookingamerica.com with grave appreciation

Reading a novel today for a few minutes as I ate lunch, I stumbled across the quote that compelled me to sit down and write this (first draft of a) poem and then send it off to my kids. It’s about as out-of-season as I could possibly manage, and it means I may not get the laundry done. My only imaginable defense might be to mutter darkly about the creative process.

Merry Christmas!


. Macaroon Hats, Hazelnut Fingers, Vanilla Paisleys:
. c
ookies listed in a bachelor shepherd’s cookbook,
. f
rom James D. Doss’s novel The Shaman Laughs

She was my first wife’s Oma, grandmother, a quiet angular
twinkling kitchen presence, heart and hands dispensing
sustenance she’d brought within her all the way from Berne.

The greatest of her cookies, the sturdy redolent foundation
of every Christmas of my grown-up life, the file card
with its hallowed recipe now dog-eared and yellow with age,

were her Berner lebkuchen: citron, honey, coffee,
cinnamon and cloves, the rinds of orange and lemon,
all worked into a stiff dough that was pounded in a crock

and set covered at the back of a closet for a month or two.
Roll it out half an inch thick to bake slow and long,
then glaze it, barely, with egg white and powdered sugar.

She’s gone, of course, with most of her recipes. Her daughter,
too. And this next generation of us are already marching away.
But every winter solstice, two of our daughters bring a tin

of lebkuchen to the family Christmas. When I google its name,
I get stuffy etymologies alleging its connection to Egyptians,
or the word ‘loaf,’ or something about crystallized honey.

My family has no time for that. Some say it’s leben, life,
but others of us tsk: It’s obvious! It nourishes the body, leib.
No good at all at sweise Deutsch, and far too academic

in far too much of my life, I let them enjoy their argument,
one of the ways we tribes of primates practice bonding.
Bring your tins of cookies, daughters. The word means love.

Berner Lebkuchen: The Recipe

2 lb sugar
2 lb flour
5 eggs
1/2 lb shelled nuts
1/2 lb citron
5 T honey
3 T milk
1 tsp baking soda, dissolved in a little cooled coffee
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
grated rinds of 1 orange and 1 lemon
juice of one lemon

Mix the ingredients then knead vigorously on a floured board. Pound into a ceramic crock and let rest in a cool place for 3 weeks or more. Then roll out 1/2 inch thick on a heavily floured board. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Let the finished cookies cool.

Glaze: 1 egg white with as much powdered sugar as can be worked in. Brush on lightly and flash in a hot oven for about 1 minute. When the glazed cookies have cooled again, cut them into 3/4 x 3 inch bars. Potentially, they’ll keep for months in a covered tin, but you won’t have the will power to let that happen.

Brendan & the Desert

On March 2nd, Tina and I picked up our son Brendan at San Francisco Airport after he’d spent 30 hours traveling home from New Zealand. At 5 AM on the 5th, after unpacking, packing and provisioning, he and I set out on an 8-day trek in the Anza-Borrego Desert.

But best laid plans . . . On the 9th, in the midst of a sunrise sandstorm with wind gusting to 60 miles an hour, Brendan woke with a severe, painful ear infection. We drove 80 miles to a doctor, then steamed straight for home, arriving goggle-eyed and gritty at 9 that night. With a strategic mix of drugs and TLC, Brendan is recovering — and gearing up to launch himself on the next major challenges of his 19-year-old life.

We’ll post a selection of pictures tomorrow from the three days of exploration we wrangled from the desert, but right now, I want to honor Brendan’s homecoming and our time together in rock-strewn, flower-bedecked solitude with a poem scratched out for him one much less windy morning long, long ago:

Gog and Burr

Six-thirty in the morning
the twenty-eighth of February.
Frost last night,
blue sky this morning
glowing above the mist that floats among our trees.
I am fifty-four
and you, my son, are two.
We are in a cave
that anyone else might mistake for bedclothes
tented up by knees.
I am growling
and looking at least a little stranger than usual,
shaggy, big-pawed, ponderous.
You have let your tongue
wander almost completely free of your mouth.
Your face has a deliberate look, attentive
but superbly stupid.
You are a gog
a spaniel, a basset —
and I, with a rumbly growl, am a burr,
as anyone with half a brain could see.

Reading this some long time from now
you will remember nothing
except perhaps that you have read this once or twice before,
but it is a fact
that this particular day
began in this particular way.

Love is not a declaration.
It is an accumulation of acts.

Off to the Desert!

At 5:00 am tomorrow, my son Brendan and I set off on an 8-day backcountry odyssey in Anza-Borrego State Park, near the border with Baja California del Norte. We arrive at the absolute peak of bloom, and given the extraordinary rainfall this winter, we expect it to be at least a once-in-50-years display.

So, no posts until sometime shortly after March 13, but then, in addition to my usual Marin explorations, I should have a backlog of hundreds of spectacular pictures, taken with an actual camera instead of my iPhone — countless thousands of massed flowers in every color of the rainbow, carpeting the desert, along with palm oases, wilderness canyons, desert bighorn sheep, and more. Anza-Borrego is the only US park with four species of rattlesnake! And we’re bringing a powerful blacklight along to photograph fluourescing scorpions! (A swirl on the Wurlitzer! A roll of drums!)

Stay tuned!

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.

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