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

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!

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

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.

March Week 2: Redwoods, Badgers & Bluebirds . . . Oh Yes, and Trilliums

3-14-10 A Western Bluebird in Roys Redwoods Open Space Preserve

To give us patience in a changeable season, here are two familiar stanzas from Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song is pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

This week was shortened by our desert trip and by a favorite 9-mile hike I took on a day that rained so hard I had to keep my camera and phone hidden safely away. But Tina and I got to romp at Roys Redwoods (this enchanted corner of the world, San Geronimo Valley’s plein air cathedral — and not Muir Woods — is the home of Marin’s biggest redwood tree), stick our noses in a fresh badger dig, and spend about 10 minutes in the midst of a group of 6 helicoptering bluebirds.

3-14-10 A glimpse of the several acres of Stream Violet on the redwood flats at Roys

 You’re Not Cleistogamous, Are You?

Violets have a secret. To uncover it, lie down on the ground next to a violet that’s almost finished blooming. Ignore the yummy edible flowers the plant’s waving at you in some shade of blue, purple, yellow or white  (this is about science, not lunch). Look underneath the charming, heart-shaped leaves. Sprawled on the ground or even burrowing colorless in the duff, you’ll find 3- or 4-inch long “stalks” with little, sometimes recurved bumps at the end.

The bumps are the violet’s backup reproductive strategy: its hidden cleistogamous flowers. They’re flowers that never open, secret and self-pollinating. The plant makes them at a mere third the cost of its showy, often fragrant, pollinator-seducing flowers high above.

When Utah’s first delegates were sent to the US Senate, there was a move to refuse to seat them because of anger and ill-will over polygamy. Hiram Bingham of New York, one of the powers of the Senate, stood to make the first speech. “I know these gentlemen, and their wives, of whom they each have one, and to whom they cleave.  I cannot speak for others in this august chamber, but for myself, I would rather consort with polygamists who don’t polyg than with monogamists who don’t monog.”

They were seated without further discussion.

But what if they’d been accused of cleistogamy?

3-12-10 Red Delphinium in the rain along the Yolanda Trail

When I worked at College of Marin, I ran nearly every day, and a long loop that included the Yolanda Trail from Phoenix Lake was among my favorites. Around this time of year, I ran it often, in large part ot try to catch the first Red Delphiniums as they opened on one particular beetle-browed, sun-soaked cliff. The Yolanda was also one of my favorite places for the Douglas Iris show. Alas, that’s rapidly being lost as invasive broom overgrows the entire ridge that was one a splendor of multicolored iris blossoms. (There are still surviving iris, and I’ll be back to shoot them when they’re at their peak, for my promised second gallery of native iris.)

Tina perched hobbit-like in the lap of a stately Ent.

And now for our second trillium species, Trillium ovatum, Wake Robin, demurely showing some of its lovely variation to hikers near the Natalie Coffin Greene Picnic Area in Ross:

3-14-10 And finally, just because they're lovely and familiar, and because they give us some of our best close-to-home wildflower displays, the California Buttercup, here on Thorner Ridge Open Space Preserve.


Lebkuchen much like our family's own, appropriated from the website 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.

The Fourth of March

3-1-10 Fairy Bells: yet another lily on the Miwok Trail in Franks Valley

The Fourth of March

Just an ordinary day, the milkmaids
holding up their blank white signs
(they’re in full support of Spring),
the trilliums half open, barely pink enough
to tease: a California day that begs
apology to rubber-booted mittened souls
inhabiting the more refrigerated states.

I head up grinning toward the woods
thinking cold air, warm sun, hearing
all three noisy clans of tipsy nuthatch,
beenters, tootlers and yankers,
and two sex-crazed ravens’ firtop mumble.

There’s sun all right, but better bet on rain:
the lichen and the moss, the coral fungi,
those spit-shined, shocking-orange toadstools
look about as happy as cryptogams can be.

I put my ear against a wood-rat’s
twiggy palace just to hear him gnawing.

Each and every spilling creek acts about
half-drunk. Buckeyes wave hands stuffed full
of leaves, salads stolen from a three-fork diner.

Right here, shameless on the mudded track,
I find a scrape. I sniff and stand and brush
my knees: Bobcat! (And I bet he’s up there
lying along one of those meadows
spilled over the ridge, eyes blinked
almost shut, one paw curled under.)

So, what the hell.

I perch myself in a little tree-walled bald
grown up to rock and manzanita
and give up all control to sun and spring.

I let the sunshine tickle with her tongue
that place between my shoulder blades,
I suck the syrup from a little manzanita
bell and commence to contemplate my life,
my half-laced boots clunked upon a rock.

I contemplate. I suck. And then, by God,
I spare the time I need to suck another.

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.

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.

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