Hallowe’en is my favorite American holiday. This celebration evolved from the ancient Celtic Day of the Dead. The Celts of Ireland, Scotland and England divided their year into two parts‑‑ winter and summer. November 1st was considered the end of summer and the beginning of winter. It was the time of harvest and of preparation for the coming cold. They called this holiday Samhain (pronounced saw‑ween) and considered it New Years Day.

November 1st is about midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Dividing the seasons in this manner makes sense. For us winter begins on the day of the longest night, the solstice. But for the Celts the solstice was in the middle of the winter.

Samhain was the most important Celtic holiday during the year. On its eve all the animals and people that had died the previous year made the transition from the material world into the spiritual realm. Boundaries dissolved; the edge between the living and the dead became blurred. It was a powerful time, a little bit scary and anything could happen.

Sunset on Samhain marked another edge‑‑the edge between day and night. Dusk had a special meaning. The spirits began their journey at this interval of light and dark. The people lit bonfires to help the apparitions on their way and to keep the dead away from the living. Families left food and drink out to mollify the spirits. Gates and doorways, also boundaries, were protected with symbolic decoration.

In the 7th Century the Christians arrived in the British Isles to spread the word of their God. Pope Gregory the First had earlier issued an edict to his missionaries. Instead of trying to subvert the customs and beliefs of native peoples, the pope instructed his evangelists to use them. If the locals worshipped a rock, then don’t destroy the rock but dedicate it to Christ.

Obviously this strategy worked very well for the Catholics. They managed to transform Samhain to the Christian Feast of All Saints. November 1st now commemorates all the Saints, especially those who do not have their very own holiday. All Saints Day was often celebrated the night before and became All Hallows’ Eve. It then changed to Hallow Even and eventually to Hallowe’en. The church reduced the once powerful Celtic priests, the Druids, to devils. However they did not rid the land of the Celtic gods, they still exist (albeit a bit smaller) in the form of leprechauns and fairies.

Most of our present Halloween traditions can be traced to the Celts. People began dressing up as the spirits and performing tricks in exchange for the food and drinks left out for the spirits. This eventually evolved into our own trick or treat. Favorite costumes are still spirits and include ghosts, witches and skeletons.

The jack o’lantern was originally a carved turnip. This practice is derived from the tale of Jack the Blacksmith. Jack chose worldly wealth granted by the devil over everlasting peace granted by God. When he died Jack was locked out of both heaven and hell. But before the last gate of Hell slammed shut he scooped up some burning coals into the turnip he was eating. This lantern now lights Jacks way as he wanders the earth waiting for Judgment Day. On Hallowe’en we still help Jack on his journey.

The Irish immigrants brought Hallowe’en to the United States after the great potato famine of 1849. And while the holiday is still primarily for children, American adults have embraced it wholeheartedly. It has become for us a Mardi Gras, a time of liberation from our own boundaries. We are freed from the constraints of our social mores. We live our fantasies for one night. Whores become nuns, paupers become princes, men become women and women become men. We dance away our fears. We feel liberated and alive. Like our pagan ancestors we mock the darkness that is death. What more could you ask of a festivity?

Hawk Hill

hawk hill


Migrating Hawks- September

There is a mass movement under way. It’s all around you. It’s in the park, it’s over your head, it’s past your car, and it’s in the tree right outside your bedroom window. It’s a movement invisible to most people. It is the quiet flow of birds. Right now there are millions of warblers, shorebirds, finches, swallows, and nuthatches migrating south past us. As the days shorten and the food supply dwindles birds travel to more hospitable climes.

The most exciting, the largest and certainly the easiest to see of all these migrating birds are the hawks, the birds of prey, and the raptors. And this week is the peak of the hawk migration.

We’re fortunate here in the Bay area to live near one of the easiest places to see this event. You know the place; it’s the highest point along the Marin Headlands where all the car commercials are shot. The United States Army named it Hill 129 (how romantic) but we now call it Hawk Hill. Currently there are between 100 and 150 hawks darting across to San Francisco. This is the greatest concentration of hawks in the entire West.

But why do the hawks gather at this particular spot? As the hawks move south by the coast and along the inner Coast Range they encounter San Francisco Bay. Hawks are reluctant to cross over the open water. You might say to yourself “What are they scared of? They can fly. What’s the big deal?” Of course, it is true that they can fly but hawks take advantage of thermals- hot air masses that rise above the land–for additional lift. And above a cool body of water like San Francisco Bay not only are there no thermals, but also there tend to be downdrafts. It is harder and takes more energy to fly across water.

Therefore the hawks move along the edge of the Bay and are slowly funneled westward until they come to the very narrowest part—that short bottleneck of open water called the Golden Gate. Above Hawk Hill the birds gather; they soar around and around. It is tempting to get anthropomorphic because it seems as if the birds
are working up their courage. “Just one more circle and then I’ll do it…ahhggg maybe next time.” After shooting across the Gate the hawks continue south. Some will find central California a great place to winter, but many continue on to Mexico and even South America.

Nineteen different kinds of hawks pass over the golden gate every autumn. Several years ago observers recorded sixteen species in a single day! Right now the dedicated watcher could easily expect to see ten species of raptors in an afternoon of viewing at Hawk
Hill. The most common are red-tail hawks followed by Coopers or sharp-shinned hawks, turkey vultures (actually a falcon relative), northern harriers, black-shouldered kites, red-shouldered hawks and broad-winged hawks. The remaining ones are rarities such as prairie falcons, merlins, golden eagles, and rough-legged hawks.

I strongly suggest that choose a fogless day, grab your binoculars and head to the Headlands. The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory has volunteers–Hawk Watchers– stationed on Hawk Mountain every day from 10- 4. These volunteers identify and count the hawks passing by. They are more than happy to answer your questions.

But if you happen to miss the peak this week don’t be dismayed, the hawks will continue in good numbers through the month of October. The broad-winged hawks are just now arriving.

Poison Hemlock


Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the three prominent Greek thinkers whose philosophical works underpins much of Western culture. Socrates came first and was Plato’s teacher. He was the original “hippie”. Born in 470 B.C. Socrates chose a life of poverty and voluntary simplicity. He refused to accept money for his work; he felt his independence would be compromised. He wore the same coat in winter and summer and had no shoes or shirt. He spent most of his time in the marketplace and out on the streets, teaching and holding class whenever his followers gathered. His well‑known admonishment to his students was “know thyself.” He considered that task the greatest challenge a man could have. And I do mean “man” because even though Ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, women had few rights and the ubiquitous slaves had none.

Socrates was an independent guy who associated with a couple of seedy characters, Critias and Alcibiades. These two were members of the so‑called Thirty Tyrants and were instrumental in overthrowing the democratic rulers of Athens. During their short reign they ordered Socrates to arrest an innocent man. Socrates refused to participate in this illegal act in spite of the great risk to him; he was always a man of principle.

When the tyrants were toppled, democratic rule was restored. Socrates attracted a large following and encouraged his mostly young students to criticize the Athenian democracy and its authorities. The “establishment” could finally take it no longer and as an old man Socrates was indicted for “corruption of the youth.” It was a pretty fuzzy charge; his real sin was being outspoken and critical of the power brokers. One key bit of evidence against Socrates was that two of the ringleaders of the earlier revolt had been his students. But Socrates reminded the judges of his refusal to cooperate with the Tyrants.

At his trial the prosecution gave him every opportunity to plea bargain. Socrates refused to go into exile, the usual sentence for a political prisoner. In fact at every moment during the trail he rejected all compromises. The judges were forced to condemn Socrates to death. By drinking a cup of poison hemlock tea, he immortalized himself and the plant in one swallow.

Right now poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, is in full flower throughout California. Nearly every roadside ditch, disturbed field, and urban lot below 5,000′ sports poison hemlock. It was probably brought from the Mediterranean area to the New World in cattle feed, garden seeds or even in mattress stuffings. These biennial plants grow a large rosette of leaves over three feet in diameter during their first year. The following year they flower and can tower over a man.

Some say the leaves smell like mice. They do have a strong and distinct odor. When fog moistens the plant it smells like tortilla chips to me. On more than one occasion I’ve been hiking with kids when one of them shouts, “I smell Fritos!! Hey man, who’s eating their lunch?”

The stems are hollow and covered with purple spots. The tiny white flowers are clustered in an umbel (looks like a umbrella). The alternate leaves are finely dissected and closely resemble a carrot. In fact this plant is a member of the carrot family and even has a long taproot.

The similarity can get some people in trouble. This spring a couple from Bolinas thought they were gathering wild carrots. After munching on a few they decided they better seek help and went to the fire station for medical attention. They survived; others have not been so fortunate.

According to Medical Botany by Lewis and Lewis all parts of the plant are poisonous but the young leaves, unripe fruit and the roots contain the greatest concentration of coniine, the poisonous alkaloid. One mouthful of the root will kill an adult. Children sometimes become ill after making peashooters out of the hollow stems. The symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, violent stomach pain, numbness, slow heartbeat, and increasing muscular weakness with respiratory failure and then death. Fortunately for Socrates the Greeks always mixed a large dose of opium with their tea. He might have changed his mind and not become nearly so famous.

Klamath Basin


Way up along the border with Oregon is the one of the greatest wildlife region in all of California — the Klamath Basin. Several rivers draining Crater Lake and the Cascades converge and gather in a giant depression centered on Klamath Falls, Oregon. It’s high country, 4100′, and part of the Great Basin biotic province, which covers most of Nevada, eastern Oregon and parts of Idaho and Utah. The summers can be hot and the winters brutal, sub-zero temperatures are common. Most of the precipitation comes in the wintertime, often in the form of snow. It’s a tough place to make a living. Cattle and farming is the mainstay of the economy; health food stores are rare.

A huge portion of the earth has dropped here, creating a very large basin and in this basin is a series of large lakes, which drain into each other like a slowly cascading wash tubs. The Upper Klamath, Lower Klamath Lake, Tule Lake, and Clear Lake all drain into the Klamath River which winds southwestward and dumps into the Pacific just south of Crescent City.

Like all bountiful regions in the United State this area has been greatly altered. Apparently native peoples were thriving here over 15,000 years ago. It was one of the last areas of California to be settled and the infamous Modoc Indian Wars were fought on the banks of Tule Lake. And like all encounters between the Europeans and the native peoples, the Indians lost.

The wetlands once covered 185,000 acres, that’s about three Pt. Reyes National Seashores. Early reports of the game and waterfowl found in the Basin defy the imagination. They conjure up images of Africa’s Serengeti Plain. But beginning in 1922 the Bureau of Reclamation began an aggressive program of dyking and draining the wetlands and converting it to agriculture. It is easy for us now to be critical of these efforts with our 20/20 hindsight. But you must put these actions into historical perspective. Marshes were viewed as wasted land. To improve the local economy and the general well being of local inhabitants it seemed necessary to alter the earth in significant ways. We now know the ecological importance of wetlands and the damage caused by reclamation projects but at the time it seemed the correct thing to do.

One reason the area is so rich in waterfowl is that it’s along the Pacific Flyway. This is basically an interstate highway for ducks, geese, swans, hawks, eagles and other birds migrating south to escape the harsh winters of the north. Many of them spend the entire winter in the Basin but quite a few continue south, flying west of Mt. Shasta and winter in the Great Central Valley. Fewer still fly on the east side of Shasta and winter at Honey Lake, Mono Lake, and the Salton Sea or all the way down into Mexico. In other words Klamath Basin is a major freeway junction. Even today the Basin in November and March is a staging ground for over a million birds.

But probably the biggest draw is the Bald Eagles. There are usually around 500 of them hanging out on the edges of the Lakes eating dead ducks. Not exactly a great PR image for our National Bird but the correct one. Klamath Basin has the greatest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states.

Every winter I do an outing to there called “Escape Super Bowl.” This year it was very cold, clear and beautiful. Shortly before sunrise we gathered at the base of Bear Valley Mountain and waited for the eagles to fly out. It was 8 degrees. Our discomfort was soon forgotten as eagle after eagle flew right over our heads.

There was a porcupine up in a willow tree eating bark right outside our lodge, we watched ten coyotes frolic in a field, a bobcat peered down at us from a distant ridge, two river otters were playing in a drainage ditch, and in the warmth of the afternoon we saw a yellow-bellied marmot gathering grass clumps for a later meal. It was our groundhog and he saw his shadow. We all headed south feeling uplifted and alive, grateful that given at least some protection the wild things still manage to thrive in the Klamath Basin.

Ferns – a child's story


The great green garps live in the deep forest. They usually like cool, moist places. But there are a few odd garps that can tolerate the bright sun and like to live on rocks. But most garps dry up and die when they get too hot. Every winter something interesting happens to garps. They sprout great big, hairy boils under their arms. These woolly growths don’t bother the garps. In fact it feels good when these boils finally pop and send little brown spores exploding into the air.

The spores are lightweight and fly high into the sky. When they fall back to earth most shrivel up and die. But a few find the perfect conditions, rotting leaves that are always moist and out of the sunlight. These spores sprout and begin to grow.

The spores grow into mini‑minis. A mini‑mini is smaller than a dime and very hard to find. The mini‑minis love the low light of winter and thrive in wet weather. After a heavy rain the mini‑ minis make special traveling cells. I call these tiny cells, the salesmen. These traveling salesmen swim away along the forest floor. They can swim because they have long tails that whip back and forth. By wiggling along they soon reach another mini‑mini. Each mini‑mini has a special side pocket and in each pocket is a single egg. One salesman prowls around until he finds the pocket and then dives headfirst right into the egg ‑‑ boom!

Now the egg in the mini‑mini sprouts and begins to grow into a garp! With the mini‑mini still clinging to its side the garp pokes its head out of the decaying leaves. Finally the mini‑mini dries up and falls off. Nothing but a great green garp is left.

I often tell this story to children and adults to help them understand the life cycle of a fern. Ferns peaked about 250 million years ago and have declined in recent eons. They are still widely distributed throughout the world and flourish in warm, moist environments. Some ferns tolerate deserts and others even survive under arctic conditions.

Ferns are one of the so‑called primitive plants, many of which exhibit an obvious “alternation of generations.” They have a life cycle consisting of two entirely separate plants that are often very different in size and shape. Ferns, algae, mosses, and horsetails all grow and reproduce this way.

In the story the great green garps are the familiar ferns‑‑ the large plants that you see growing in the forest or on a grassy hillside. Botanically the fern is the sporophyte generation because it produces the spores. Under the leaves (the arms) grow brown sori (the boils). The sori produce spores with only half the usual number of chromosomes‑‑haploid. When the sori ripen they explode and shoot the spores out into the air.

The spores require a moist area and the presence of blue light to grow. They develop into a tiny plant (the mini‑mini) only one centimeter wide. This is the gametophyte generation because it produces gametes (sperm and eggs). The tiny plants or gametophytes are hard to find, but by looking carefully underneath a large fern or on a moist slope you may discover one.

On the underside of the gametophyte there are two reproductive structures. One, the antheridium, produces flagellated sperm (the salesmen) and the other, the archegonium produces a receptacle (the side pocket) containing one egg. Both the egg and the sperm are haploid like the parent gametophyte.

The sperm swim through a fine film of water on the wet forest floor to the archegonium and fertilize the egg. The result is a zygote with a complete set of chromosomes‑‑diploid‑‑which is at first nourished by the tiny gametophyte. It matures into the familiar fern. Now we are back to the sporophyte generation, another great green garp. Got that? It’s complicated. That’s why I made up the story.

Here in the Bay area we have about about 25 species of ferns. To identify our native ferns use Pacific Coast Fern Finder by Keator and Atkinson.