The Unassuming but Eerie Façade of San Quentin

I got to see it recently while taking a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. There it was, silently glowing gold in the late afternoon sun, with a guard tower nearby. Just a simple building at the edge of the water. There was no one outside that I could see. I had to imagine those inside.

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With only water between us, I almost got a chill seeing San Quentin State Prison in real life. After all, it’s the stuff of 1940s black and white movies, in which gangsters get their due in the end. I immediately had a vision of Humphrey Bogart, dressed in shades of gray, with his classic sneer and heavy five o’clock shadow.

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Among those sent there are all men who have received the death sentence in California. There have been executions in the past, but none have taken place since 2006. In 2019, the governor ordered a moratorium on executions. Almost 700 men remain on “death row.”

The maximum security prison opened in 1852 and is the oldest in California. Pretty tough to escape from there, eh? Some have tried, but no one has ever successfully fled the prison.

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Oddly, the tough prison has served as a setting for numerous films and concerts. Johnny Cash performed for prisoners twice, once with inmate Merle Haggard in the audience. B.B. King and Metallica later performed there.

Bogart was indeed tied to San Quentin: he played an escapee in the 1947 film “Dark Passage.” Several other movies used the facility, including Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”

The prison has evolved somewhat since it opened. There are now programs to rehabilitate prisoners who are able to be released, and they do have access to exercise, education and entertainment. But for me, San Quentin will always be that cold, concrete place swathed in black and white, where the baddest of the bad simmer inside.

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I’m glad to be on the “outside.”

Tom-A-to, Tom-AH-to

There’s an ad jingle in my memory cells that goes something like this, “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who, you know who, who, who.” For some reason, the word Sacramento sticks in my mind along with it.

When I was in the Sacramento, California, area recently, I learned that tomatoes are a huge crop there. A lovely painted vintage-style sign at the tomato processing plant in Woodland verifies that fact.

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Surrounding Woodland are farm fields as far as the eye can see. No doubt many of those perfectly aligned rows get planted with the red fruits every year.

California grows 95 percent of the more than 12 million tons of tomatoes produced in the U.S. Those fruits come to our tables as fresh tomatoes, canned, paste, sauces, juice and ketchup. The state’s Central Valley is the heart of tomato country. The tomatoes are processed – cooked, crushed, diced, canned, etc., right there in the Central Valley.

The plant I saw in Woodland is among the few processors left in California. DSC_0226 (2).JPG

Statistics I found from 2008 show that there were 225 tomato growers in the Central Valley, farming some 277,000 acres, and working with 16 commercial canneries.

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But, in case you didn’t know, the tomato is not native to North America. It is said to have originated in South and Central America. It made its way over to Europe in the 1500s. Not surprisingly, Italians were the first to start growing and eating them. Not too long after that, other countries began growing them, but only as items of curiosity. Using them for food had not really caught on yet.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that tomatoes started to be grown in the young United States. Farmer-gardener that he was, Thomas Jefferson naturally took to growing them. But there was still widespread belief that they were poisonous, as members of the nightshade family.

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Now we know better. Tomatoes, which are mostly water with a little bit of fiber, are  highly nutritious, providing vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K1, lycopene, and beta carotene, among others. And, how about they are just plain delicious! Who doesn’t love a fresh tomato sandwich? Where would pasta be without sauce?

But even as bountiful as the tomato crop appears, and as endless as our appetites are for tomato products, it remains a risky and costly commodity to produce. Tomatoes like sun and heat, but not too much. California is known for a long growing season, but also for a lack of water. Fuel to power mechanical harvesters, fertilizer and water eat into any farmer’s profits. Throw in unpredictable weather.

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Thankfully, we now have small and organic farms growing heirloom tomatoes in almost any state that we can buy locally and at our farmers’ markets. We don’t have to depend on big footprint, long-distance crops, at least part of the year. I, along with millions of other Americans, plant my own in my frontyard garden every year. DSC_0834.JPG

Each season is an exciting unknown: which varieties will I try? Which ones will taste best? I know that plants sold locally will do fine in my zone. My favorites have been Black Krim and Green Zebras, but I always aim to pick at least one new one to try.

Once thought to be poisonous, tomatoes are beloved and devoured by the tons. The perfect tangy, juicy tomato is the Holy Grail of our summer gardens. Let’s hope that no matter how our climate evolves, we’ll always have tomatoes.

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Friday the 13th Full Moon

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I looked at my calendar to see when the full moon was this month and, bam, there it was. Friday the 13th!

What could this possibly mean? Has this ever occurred before? I had to see what the soothsayers said about it, or “seers” as the priestesses in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books are called. I happen to be reading about the priestesses of Avalon.

The Harvest Moon of September 2019 will occur just as the days morph from the 13th to 14th, shortly after midnight on the east coast.  But for the rest of us, it will still be the 13th.  This phenomenon has happened before, but it’s generally uncommon.

Smaller Yet Powerful Moon

Astronomers say the moon will appear somewhat smaller this month because it’s at its farthest point from earth – apogee.  moon9 No matter. This “micromoon” will still send full-moon energy. A full moon is the ending of a particular cycle, and marks the beginning of a new one.

Full moons are usually known as times when emotions can go awry. People get crazy, wolves howl, werewolves go abroad. Pair that with an equally freaky day, Friday the 13th, and let the games begin!

One “seer” notes that this full moon will rise in the constellation Phoenix, a powerful symbol of rebirth. However, it is tempered with a host of astrological arrangements.

“Jupiter square Neptune” can foster unpleasant things like trusting too much, falling prey to scams, and suffering losses or disappointments. The position with Mars can bring moodiness, anger, delusion and impulsiveness. DSCN4425 - Copy  But while “full moon conjunct Neptune” brings confusion and deception, Neptune rules hopes, dreams and spirituality, and the position of Pluto, our poor little downgraded orb, contributes positive energy for rebirth and moving on from destructive behaviors and emotional baggage.

Just Ancient Superstitions?

The number 13 has long been considered unlucky, so it follows that the 13th day would also be unlucky. And for some, the 13th falling on a Friday is especially worrisome.

The fear of this number is called triskaidekaphobia. Superstitious people generally avoid walking under ladders and spilling salt. DSCN1654Other taboos are opening an umbrella in the house and putting shoes on the table, both things my mother forbade! Even hotels don’t have 13th floors, most buildings don’t have one, and most elevators do not go to a 13th floor! Would you live or work on the 13th floor?

According to some historians, “Western cultures have historically associated the number 12 with completeness (12 days of Christmas, 12 months and zodiac signs, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 gods of Olympus and 12 tribes of Israel, just to name a few).”

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On the other hand, the number 13 is odd and therefore bestowed with incomplete qualities and has not been so celebrated. It is said that the ancient Code of Hammurabi omitted a 13th law from its list of legal rules. This may have been simply a clerical error.

Furthermore, the  seating arrangement at the Last Supper has led to a longstanding Christian superstition that having 13 guests at a table was a bad omen. The day following the Last Supper was a Friday. Many superstitions seem to arise from religious beliefs or events, while others appear linked to practical considerations.

DSCN4415 - CopyBut not everyone subscribes to these notions. In the late 19th century a New Yorker even created an exclusive club called, what else, The Thirteen Club. He thumbed his nose at all the myths surrounding the number, and invited 12 other men to join. They met on the 13th day of each month, in room number 13, and dined on 13 courses. Apparently, they all dodged bad luck.

Are you willing to test it? Go ahead, walk under a ladder, pet that black cat, and spill some salt! I dare you!

Good tidings under the Friday the 13th Full Moon! 

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Textures and Tones

On a recent day that began very overcast, I visited Mount Rainier National Park. There are several rivers in the park, and the Nisqually is one of them.

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Here it is a very narrow, shallow ribbon cutting through a rocky bed. You can see the low clouds over the valley.

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These were shot in color, but I have converted them to black & white, to focus on the patterns in the water and colors and patterns in the rocks.

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The tone of the water reminds me of chocolate milk.

These views were shot from a bridge over the river.

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New Moon, Low Tide

Last June, I roamed the shores of Puget Sound during a super low tide. I spent my time on the harbor side of West Seattle, facing downtown. The scene was memorable and photogenic, with blue sky and white clouds, reflections in pools of water.

This year I decided not to try to repeat those images and instead chose to experience the lowest tide around the bend to the south, where people go to look for marine life and volunteer beach naturalists are present to identify creatures.

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I guess it’s the moon phase and summer tilt of the earth that produces these low tides. Lucky for us, that’s a better time to explore near the water’s edge than winter!

During these super low tides, I’d say the tide goes out at least twice as far as it usually does, if not more. This is when Mother Nature reveals the hidden world that exists beneath the sea, and hordes of people young and old come out to witness the spectacle.

Hidden Treasures

I went down for a -3.4 ft. tide, and saw some exciting creatures. For the first time, I found a small fish, a gunnel. gunnel

Gunnels are long and narrow, similar to eels. This one was a saddleback gunnel, Pholis ornate, about four inches long, though they can get to about 11 inches long.

I learned that they are found close to shore areas, on mud bottoms among eelgrass and seaweed, and that they feed on small mollusks and crustaceans. The pattern on its skin made me think of a snake.

I searched for and found several chitons clinging to rocks, though their lovely shell shapes and patterns were completely obscured by coats of seaweed. A stunning find was a “gumboot” chiton, Cryptochitonstelleri, which reminded me of shelf fungi I see growing on logs.

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If it grew above ground, you’d easily mistake it for fungus. Someone had spotted it way under a rock and asked a volunteer what it was. It was huge, as far as any chitons I have seen. In fact, it is the largest chiton in the world, reaching up to 13 inches in length. It has a reddish leathery exterior that covers its shell plates, unlike smaller chitons. How lucky was I to see it!

There were plenty of anemones, with the large bright reddish ones screaming for attention. They come in many shapes and sizes.

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If you were going to make a horror film with sea creatures, anemones would surely be the stars. Remember the movie, The Blob? Exactly. With their slime-like glistening amorphous bodies, they stick to rocks and seem to ooze down to the ground.

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Anemone, left, and sea cucumber

 

The larger ones take on these stretchy shapes, while the smaller species are circular masses that can be easily overlooked among the wet sand.

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Stars and Cucumbers

Also looking soft and squishy were the many bright orange sea cucumbers. They are not large, but easy to spot.

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Sea cucumber

Another orange creature was the delicate looking blood star, Henricia leviuscula, with its narrow rays. It was much smaller than the beefy brown mottled sea star, Evasterias troschelli. This guy eats clams, shells, snails, chitons, barnacles and sea squirts.

 

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Blood star
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Mottled sea star and anemone

Nudibranchs are among the most colorful of undersea creatures. Although the magnificent Opalescent sea slug can be found in Puget Sound, on this day, all we saw were bland beige ones of the genus Doris. They were like big flat worms.

There are many kinds of sea weed along the shore, and one visitor even sampled one!

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Sea weed and shell

With all the commercial tanker traffic, ferries and other vessels, I’m not sure I’d eat anything from that particular body of water.

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Some sea weed reminded me of tire tracks.

 

 

 

 

Always my favorite, a moon snail clung inside its beautiful shell. These gastropods have been called “voracious predators” of clams.

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Moon snail and egg case

 

The snail envelopes the clam with its big foot and then drills a hole in the clam shell. Through the hole, it slowly sucks out the clam.

Oh, what goes on in the undersea world!

A Mystery Solved and the Spring Dance of Green Men

I’m so excited, I’m almost dancing.

Salix viminalis, Osier willow, common willow, osier.

These are names for what I believe is my little tree in the front yard! It has stymied me since I moved in 12 years ago. I suspected it was a kind of willow, but when I searched “willows,” none matched my tree. It’s not weeping and it has really small, narrow leaves. It has catkins in the spring, a willow-like characteristic, and gets lots of suckers and turns yellow in fall.

This morning, I broke off a small branch, including catkins and leaves, ready to send it off the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, for identification.

In one last ditch effort, I searched the internet for “trees with catkins.” This time, It didn’t take long to find a photo that looked like mine! “Osier willow” was what was pictured, a tree native to the United Kingdom and across Europe to western Asia. I am 99.9% certain that this is what it is.

I have a female tree, according to the description of its green catkins.

Male trees have yellow ones. Interesting! These trees favor wet areas and their branches have widely been used for basket making.

Osiers and Green Men

But, more interesting is the folklore associated with osiers. According to one British website, Chediston, Suffolk, has a local custom known as a ‘willow stripping’ ceremony. Typically held at the first full moon in May, this Druid-like event features a ‘Green George” figure dressed in willow strippings, who dances around and is then ceremoniously thrown into the local pond.

Wow! May Day is coming. Perhaps I should dance around my tree, though where it’s planted makes that impossible.

I wonder if Green George is what we also call Green Man? I have several versions of Green Man in my garden.

Myths abound about Green Man or “Jack-in-the-Green.”

Figures of Green Man can seen in numerous churches, cathedrals and abbeys, largely in Britain and France. He is variously depicted as good or evil, frequently with vegetation coming out of his mouth. This can represent life returning each spring, fertility, nature and in general faith and hope.

Obversely, Green Man has been depicted as a demon, devouring all of nature, instead of bestowing it.

Whether you know him by Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green, I prefer to think of him as a spirit who guides us back to our nurturing relationship with Mother Earth.

Jethro Tull did a delightful little song about Jack. It always makes me smile and imagine the little people living in my garden.

By the way, in case you  didn’t know, the name Jethro Tull pays homage to an 18th century English farmer and agricultural pioneer, credited with inventing a horse-drawn seed drill, an improved plow, and a horse-drawn hoe. So, he was a bit of a Green Man himself!

Here are some of the lyrics for the song by Jethro Tull, the rock band. Have a listen sometime!

 

Have you seen Jack-In-The-Green?
With his long tail hanging down.
He quietly sits under every tree
in the folds of his velvet gown. . .

He drinks from the empty acorn cup
the dew that dawn sweetly bestows.
And taps his cane upon the ground
signals the snowdrops it’s time to grow.

It’s no fun being Jack-In-The-Green
no place to dance, no time for song.
He wears the colours of the summer soldier
carries the green flag all the winter long . . .

Jack, do you never sleep
does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times.
motorways, powerlines,
keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today . . .

The rowan, the oak and the holly tree
are the charges left for you to groom.
Each blade of grass whispers Jack-In-The-Green . . .

Have you spotted Jack yet?

Spring Equinox and the Super Worm Moon

March 20, 2019: the first day of spring – the equinox, full moon and the third and final Super Moon of the year. That’s a lot of weight for one little day to carry. I was curious about what it all means, so I consulted those most in touch with and knowledgable about the cosmos – astrologers, of course!

This is what they had to say about this overwhelming energy.

Under this Libra Super Moon, “we are going to be guided to enter into the new.” Under these three Super Moons, they say, “we have been encouraged to tune into our intuition . . . to purge and release all that is holding us back.”

Under these Super Moons, they say we have been guided to clear the slate and set ourselves “back to zero” and prepare for the new chapter that is ahead.

March’s Full Moon “opens a portal to a new wave of energy. It falls around the same time as the Equinox, which is the start of the astrological year and the beginning of a new cycle.”

And, get this! “Zero is the number of infinite potential, and it’s no coincidence that the March Full Moon falls at zero degrees of Libra. At the time of the Full Moon, we will actually have three planets in the cosmos aligned at the vibration of number zero, which means the Universe is just going to be blossoming with potential.”

Wow!

“. . . the Libra Moon will be calling us to take inventory of how we are using our energy and to assess whether we are using it in a way that serves us or drains us . . . we may realize that we need to let things go, and to do away with things take up too much of our precious energy reserves” This is interesting because that’s exactly what I’ve been called to do during the past week.

This Full Moon reminds us to center ourselves, to return to the blank slate . . . get perfectly balanced, so we can feel more peaceful and in tune with our lives.

Stay on this path, one astrologer says, because April also brings another Libra Full Moon, and this will bring the closing of the portal.

We will have one lunar cycle to integrate these new energies and walk into the new.

A final warning from one seer:

“Full moons tend to make us purge and release things from our lives, The bright light of the sun throws a spotlight on our subconscious and our shadow. This can feel uncomfortable as the Sun literally blasts out the demons who have nowhere to hide. Often the full moon is a time when we reap what we sowed at the new moon . . .  for good or for ill.”

“The veils between the worlds are thinnest around a full Moon, so be very careful what you invite in.”

Happy Spring!