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

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 Jacob@WalkingCounsel.org

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.

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.

Another Joyful Boy

Sam Toland, Poet

Laurie Durnell, our friend of nearly 40 years, responded to “Slug-Newt Day” by sending me this lovely tanka by her son Sam. Sam is 11 years old, in the sixth grade, and has formally authorized this publication. Tankas are Japanese; think of them as long-form haiku.

I’m guessing the picture is somewhere in the Tuolumne Sierra (maybe that’s the Clark Range in the background). Laurie says that Sam’s either writing or sketching, but it’s pretty clear to me that he’s thinking.


Sapphire, sad, unfeeling
Splashing into the dusty road
No thoughts, no voice, no mind.

–Sam Toland, February 2010