Monarch Butterflies


Most of us are painfully aware of the number of plants and
animals that become extinct daily. But there is another form of
extinction, the extinction not of individuals but of a phenomena.
These are spectacular life history events involving thousands or
even millions of individuals. One example is the thundering herds
of buffalo that once roamed the North American plains. We rescued
a few buffalo from the slaughter but we have lost the thunder

California is blessed with several natural phenomena– the
migration of 20,000 gray whales past the coast every winter,
massive clusters of ladybugs in coastal forests, and the
overwintering of millions of Monarch butterflies.

Monarchs are the most familiar butterfly of all. The distinctive
orange and black markings and large size guarantee them a place
in every childs’ heart and memory. Monarch caterpillars feed upon
milkweeds, plants that contain poisonous chemicals called cardiac
glycosides. The larvae and the butterflies then become toxic.
Birds throw up when they attempt to eat a monarch. It only takes
one or two awful experiences for a scrub jay to permanently
remove these butterflies from his menu.

Monarchs belong to a large family of butterflies that are largely
tropical. However our particular species is able to migrate north
in the summer to feed and reproduce, but the monarchs cannot
tolerate cold temperatures so they must fly to spend the winter.
Monarchs have special requirements for wintering sites. It must
be cool but not too cold, occassionally warm but never hot. These
stable environments are rare. There are only two regions in all
of North America that meet these exacting requirements — one is
the top of a remote mountain and the other is right next to an
immense ocean.

All of the monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains begin migrating
in late summer. Millions upon millions of butterflies move
through Texas and into Mexico, increasing in numbers as they
funnel south. Their ultimate destination was a mystery for years.
It was finally discovered in 1975. Who can forget that National
Geographic cover of the woman covered with monarch butterflies?

Some butterflies will travel over 3,000 miles to reach a remote
9,000 foot volcanic mountain range in south-central Mexico. That
is very impressive feat for an insect that weighs 1/40th of an
ounce. These peaks are covered with uncut fir forests, a pristine
area that provides the perfect environment for monarchs to
winter. So far only eleven tiny sites have been discovered.
Unfortunately poor rural Mexicans are beginning to log the area;
trees offer their only source of cash income. This precious area
is severely threatened.

The monarchs found west of the Rockies migrate to the coast of
California to winter. In Bolinas and Muir Beach we have several
butterfly trees. These areas are relatively protected from
development and disturbance but many other areas in California
are under siege. Not by the poor merely trying to survive but by
real estate developers.

One such site is in Pacific Grove, a small town in the Monterey
Pennisula. The City Council of Pacific Grove recently voted to
override the recommendations of its own planning commission and
approved the construction of five houses on a major wintering
sites for the Monarch butterfly. The planning commission had
recommended clustering the houses and preserving adequate open
space around the butterfly trees. But the council decided to
spread the houses out. Biologists fear that if the site is
severely altered, the butterflies may perish.

Pacific Grove calls itself the butterfly town. Every letter out
of the post office is canceled with a butterfly and this symbol
plastered on every town sign. Now I’m a firm believer in thinking
globally and acting locally. The citizens of Pacific Grove still
have a chance to make a difference — they will vote on a bond
issue to buy the entire parcel of land and make it a sanctuary.
Let us hope that they have the courage to tax themselves or the
only butterflies left in town will the ones at the post office.

FLASH: Just I was finishing this article the news came that the
City Council of Pacific Grove had reversed its decision. Hurray,
individuals can make a difference! Now if they will just vote for
the money to make it permanent.



It is not difficult to imagine the power that plants have over our lives. Obviously we require them for our daily sustenance. But we also depend on trees, palm fronds, grass, and tules for shelter. We weave cotton and flax into clothing. Even in our modern “sophisticated” culture we regularly injest plants that slightly or even heavily poison us. One of the strongest human urges is to alter our preception of reality. We grind and roll up leaves of certain plants (tobacco or marijuana) and smoke them for pleasure. Powerful hallicingic experiences are gained by eating some fetid fungi erupting out of the rotting ground. And mold growing on bread has given us LSD. But by far the most widespread method of using plants to alter our reality is drinking a beverage made from rotting fruit and vegetables, in other words, wine, beer and grain alcohol. Fermented juices play a central role in many American rituals ‑‑ football games, holiday dinners, rock n’ roll dancing and Holy Communion. Pretty odd combination when you think about it.

Thousands of years ago the most sacred plant in Europe wasn’t the grape but mistletoe (Viscum album). The legends, myths and properties of this plant are numerous. The power associated with this hemiparasite shrub makes sense. Imagine a cold bleak winter, no leaves on any tree, and apparent death throughout the land. There vibrant and alive was the mistletoe, green and with fruit was the mistletoe.

It was considered holy light and was placed in the tree directly from the heavens via lightening bolts. It generally grew on apples, willows, cottonwoods but very rarely would attach to oaks. The Druids, the priestly class of the Celts, considered oak trees scared and oak trees with mistletoe growing in them were doubly sacred.

Halloween 2008_009

Mars – 1988


There are now four planets visible in the night sky. After dusk
Saturn shines in the southwest between the constellations
Scorpius and Sagittarius. By 9:00 Mars glitters red just above
the horizon toward the east. A couple of hours later radiant
Jupiter makes his appearance. And finally in the predawn sky
brilliant Venus arrives.

Usually the brightest planets are Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn
and Mercury in that order. But for a few days around September
22nd Mars actually outshines Jupiter. Not since 1971 has this
cold desert planet shone so brightly.

The ancients associated Mars with the darker side of man. Perhaps
its red color subliminally suggests blood and evil. Mars was
Nergal, lord of the underworld, for the Babylonians. The Greeks
called it Ares, the god of War. Mars also reigned over the
bloodstained battlefields of the militant Romans.

Mars has long fascinated sky watchers. At the turn of the century
the famed astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell
Observatory in Arizona, was certain there was life on Mars. In a
powerful new telescope he saw perfectly straight canals over 100
miles long. He noted the varying color of Mars through the year
and attributed the change to the seasonal growth of vegetation.
The esteemed Lowell boldly concluded that the canals were built
by intelligent creatures to irrigate fields of crops. This
conjures up fantastic images of Martian melons, Astral
artichokes, Canal corn, God o’ War beets and Cosmic cucumbers.

Scientists using stronger telescopes and unmanned spaceships have
dispelled most of the far-fetched Martian notions. The canals are
a result of an optical illusion. Humans have a tendency to create
order and patterns out of a random array of shapes. That’s
apparently what Percival did. The seasonal color change is not
from growing and dying plants but is from gigantic dust storms
that rage across the planet’s surface. And, with apologies to
H.G. and Orsen Wells, no detectable evidence of life has yet been

Beginning with Mariner 4 in 1965 a succession of spacecraft has
flown by or landed on Mars. The two orbiting Viking spacecraft in
1976 sent Landers (not Ann, but vehicles the size of small
houses) parachuting down to the surface. Sophisticated
instruments chemically analyzed soil and rocks. The red color of
the planet is not from Martian blood but from iron oxide in the
soil. Mars is rusty. Other experiments tested for the presence of
complex molecules associated with life. The results were negative
but far from conclusive.

Close-up photographs of Mars reveal surface features of immense
proportions. The tallest mountain in the solar system, Olympus
Mons, bursts from the Martian plain. It rises 17 miles, that’s 3
times higher than Mt. Everest! And after growing for a billion
years this vast volcano may still be active. You could drop the
entire state of Rhode Island into its massive caldera. However I
suggest you start with Washington, D.C..

A canyon or actually a series of canyons–3,000 miles long and
13,000 feet deep–rips across the planet’s exterior. This gorge
dwarfs the Grand Canyon and would stretch from San Francisco to
Philadelphia. Numerous other channels resemble meandering earthly
streambeds. This evidence suggests that powerful rivers, larger
than any on Earth, once etched the Martian surface.

The prominent polar caps of Mars are frozen carbon dioxide (dry
ice) and underneath lies permanently frozen water (permafrost).
The canyons, rust and ice all suggest that Mars may once have
been a much wetter planet. Where there is liquid water, life can
exist. The next spacecraft to visit Mars will continue to search
for evidence of past life by performing more sensitive soil

This month’s exceptional brightness of Mars, caused by the
coincidental positions of the Earth, Mars and the Sun, will not
happen again until the fall of 2003. Don’t wait until then. Take
an evening stroll and enjoy our brilliant sanguinary neighbor.

Galapagos 1989


I just spent ten days on a boat owned by a cave man. The captain of the Tip Top II, Rolf Wittmer, is the only person that I ever met who was actually born in a cave. His parents, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, sailed from Germany in 1932 to carve a home out of a remote tropical island in the mid-Pacific.

The Galapagos Archipelago consists of about 11 islands located right on the equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador. They were well-known to Germans because of a Dr. Ritter. Ritter and one of his followers had moved to the island of Floreana several years earlier. German newspapers were carrying his accounts of the “Garden of Eden”. According to Ritter Floreana was a paradise where he could live without clothes, grow all his own food, and not have to deal with the negative effects a degraded civilization. This version of utopia appealed to many people feeling the moral decay of post-World War I Germany, the economic effects of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism.

And it appealed to the Wittmers. Their twelve year old son, Harry was in poor health, and Heinz thought the tropical climate would be good for him. So with very few words to their friends and family, the Wittmers sold their house, bought supplies and headed to the Galapagos. Margret was five months pregnant. When they finally arrived at Floreana, they moved into a cave. This tiny cave had been carved out of the lava by pirates visiting the island hundreds of years earlier. It was located by one of the few sources of fresh water anywhere in the Galapagos, a spring where the giant tortoises had gathered for thousands of years. The buccaneers collected water and slaughtered tortoises. The water still flows but there are no tortoises left on Floreana.

After four months of struggle, setting up house and planting a few crops, Margret was ready. With no doctor or midwife to help, she suffered through a 72 hour labor and gave birth to a son. Now nearly 60 years later, little Rolfe was piloting our boat through waters he knows very well.

Soon another group of characters came to live on Floreana. A so-called Baroness from Austria and two of her male consorts. The Baroness planned to build a large hotel for yachting American millionaires to visit. A series of mysterious and violent events followed her arrival — beatings, a poisoning death, theft, and maybe even murder. This intrigue on Floreana makes Twin Peaks seem normal. But through it all the Wittmers kept building their island paradise. Margret has written a fascinating account of her life on the Galapagos; it is called “Floreana”. I highly recommend it.

If you can only afford one natural history excursion in your life, make it to the Galapagos Islands. It is exactly like the TV nature programs. Marine iguanas, sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, giant tortoises and tropical fishes abound. Best of all, they aren’t afraid of humans! The government of Ecuador has done an excellent job of protecting this biological treasure. It is nearly all a part of the Galapagos National Park. Groups must be accompanied at all times by a licensed Park guide. Areas that the public can visit are strictly controlled. The number of tourists has dramatically increased in the last several years. But in spite of this heavy use I saw very little trash.

That is not to say that everything is hunky-dory. The ravages of introduced animals like rats, goats, cats, and dogs continue nearly unabated on some islands. And exotic plants are out-competing some of the native flora. But the international community is working hard with Ecuador to solve these problems.

One afternoon we stopped at Floreana and were taken by pick-up truck (the only one on the island) to the Wittmers cave, the birthplace of our captain. Later we ate dinner with Margret Wittmer. This feisty 86 year old woman had cooked the entire meal for fifteen people. She now has a nice house on the beach with electricity and modern conveniences, a far cry from the cave in the mountains. She had succeeded and created her own paradise on a tropical isle. She is a remarkable woman in a remarkable place.

Groundhog Day


As I mentioned in a previous column on winter many of our Christian celebrations revolve around astronomical events. Well believe it or not, there is a connection between Groundhog Day, Jesus Christ and the journey of the earth around the sun.

February the second marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. In an alternative way of measuring time, February 2nd marks the beginning of spring. The March 21st equinox is the climax of spring. The midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice is October 31st. using this system Hallowe’en starts winter and Groundhog Day starts spring. This sure makes sense in coastal Marin.

In our Christian culture we call February 2nd Candlemas. It is also known as the fortieth day of Christmas, the Purification of the Virgin Mary or Presentation of the Child.

In some pre-Christian European cultures, especially in Germany, there was a custom of watching the badger come out of hibernation on the first of February to inspect the weather. The good Christian missionaries on advice from Pope Gregory the First did not crush this myth but instead they subverted it and consecrated the day to Christ. The locals could watch the badger and worship Jesus all on the same day. Smart pope.

The English have a rhyme, which illustrates the belief in the power of this day:

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o` winter’s to come and mair; (sic)
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gone at Yule.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.

In North America the natives had a similar myth. But instead of the badger it was the bear. It is interesting that this same concept evolved in two entirely different cultures. Many peoples perceive, perhaps correctly, that animals have a special sense about the weather.

Our current custom was brought to the United States by English and Germans settlers. They changed the badger into the groundhog and presto! a new holiday. One of the very first celebrations occurred in Pennsylvania Dutch (really Deutch for German) settlements of Lancaster County in 1887. The town now closely associated with Groundhog Day is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

The popularity of His Majesty, the Punxsutawney Groundhog, has swelled enormously. Reporters, radio disc jockeys and television personalities descend upon the town and its chief citizen. Every February 2nd His Majesty emerges from his burrow, if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter weather. But if it is cloudy he will return to his burrow for a long sleep and there will be an early and mild spring.

Never mind that a study of 60 years of weather prognosticating by these royal groundhogs revealed an accuracy of just 28%. The allegiance of the faithful remains unbroken. This is the creed of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge:

We believe in the wisdom of the groundhog.
We declare his intelligence to be of a higher order than that of any other animal…
We rejoice that he can, and does, foretell with absolute accuracy the weather conditions for the six weeks following each second day of February…
To defend him, his family and his reputation, we pledge ourselves…….

We do not have groundhogs in California. A close relative, the yellow‑bellied marmot, is found high in the Sierra Nevada. However these marmots usually sleep right through February. Unfortunately we’ll have to content ourselves with overpaid television meteorologists for weather predicting. And I have never heard anyone say a pledge of allegiance to Pete Giddings.