Christmas Carols

There are many reasons to celebrate in this dark time of the year. We gather with family and friends to exchange gifts and well wishes. We donate to the needy. We rejoice in the brightness of the Christmas tree, the festive lights and the Yule log.

But my favorite aspect of this season is the communal singing. There is such a warm, fuzzy feeling when you join together with other people in common voice. We often do this at sporting events, theater and other performances where we clap, jeer or just plain yell, and it feels mighty fine.

America is a very diverse nation, an assemblage of people and cultures from all over the world. We often have little in common, but there is one fairly narrow area in which many of us overlap, and that is the singing of Christmas carols. The words of these simple songs, at least the first verse, are known to most of us.

Carols are the most secular of all religious music. In Latin, “chora rula” meant one who accompanies a chorus on a reed instrument, and a related word meant circle dance. So the word “carol” originally meant a round dance and the song accompanying it. The leader sang the verses while the dancers sang the recurring refrain or chorus.

The church originally looked down on this singing as being too pagan and banned it.

But legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the songs into the church in the 13th century. This was the first time carols, and not hymns, were sung at a church service.

They rapidly gained popularity and eventually the dancing fell away, and only the songs were left.

During the Victorian era, the writing and singing of Christmas carols reached a zenith. The common denominator then and today is that the singing of carols thoroughly imbue us with a spirit of joy and play. We love to sing. And this is the only time of year when our collective voices gain in timbre, volume and spirit.

Pileated Woodpeckers

In 1979 Walter Lantz was given a special Academy Award “for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world” especially via his Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Lantz shared with the audience that on his honeymoon with Gracie Stafford in 1941, a woodpecker kept pounding on the roof of their cabin. The bird was relentlessly drilling little holes and stuffing acorns in them.

Gracie suggested using that aural inspiration as a cartoon character, and although Lantz was skeptical he went ahead with her suggestion. The rest, as they say, is history.

However the bird that actually inspired Lantz’ drawing of Woody was most certainly NOT an acorn woodpecker, which was clearly the species keeping the newly married couple amused.

Woody is most likely a Pileated woodpecker or at least a cartoonist version of one. There is only one woodpecker that bears that prominent crest or pileus where the word pileated comes from. That is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct. Not seen since the 1940s, ornithologists got real excited several years ago with reports of one in Arkansas; this sighting proved unfounded. A pileus was a felt conical hat worn by ancient Greeks. Both Woody and the pileated have a prominent red crests whereas the acorn woodpecker does not.

Pileateds are the biggest woodpeckers in North America and make hefty rectangular shaped cavities in large trees. Both the male and female drum very loudly on hollow trees during breeding season. They prefer old growth forests or secondary growth as long as there are some standing large trees. Annadel State Park in Sonoma, Five Brooks Pond in west Marin and the Santa Cruz Mountains are excellent places to see these magnificent birds which range across all of North America.


I am blessed to visit many parts of this planet and often when I sit down for a meal, I am thankful in a weird way for Christopher Columbus. Who? Well, it would have happened sooner or later, but when this Italian captain and adventurer “discovered” America he ushered in one of the most profound changes in the worldwide environment since that meteor impact ended the rein of the dinosaurs. This globalization resulted in various food crops streaming from one part of the world to another in dizzying rapidity.

Recently in Tanzania I had a dessert that included strawberries. Strawberries! Various species grow wild in many part of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere but the cultivated one has a fascinating history. The strawberry that grows wild in eastern North America is Fragaria virginiana. California has a wild strawberry growing along the coast called the beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis. This same plant also thrives in Chile but nowhere in-between. There is a bit of a mystery as to how this occurs but it does.

The French explorer, Cartier, imported the eastern variety from Quebec into France in 1534. It grew well in Brittany and was a favorite fruit of the kings. In 1712 a French spy surreptitiously collected five of the chiloensis strawberry plants at a Spanish military outpost in Chile. He brought them home where they were planted with the other introduced variety. The plants hybridized and the resulting plant produced a fruit that was large and delicious. Presto! The garden strawberry was born.

Soon this wondrous plant spread throughout the world and is grown nearly everywhere successfully including, apparently, East Africa. Yummy.

Wily Coyote

The coyote figures in many Native American myths as the creator, the fool, the transformer and the prankster. In fact the word “coyote” is an Aztec word which means “trickster.”

Well, they certainly have tricked their way into 49 states, throughout Canada and all the way south to Panama. Coyotes are by far the most successful large carnivore in North America. And since the gray wolf has been extirpated throughout the Eastern U.S., the coyote moved in from the West and now thrives in places it never did before. One even showed up in Central Park in New York City several years ago. And our own Golden Gate Park has resident coyotes. We are talking adaptable and flexible.

Coyotes have greatly extended their range and increased in numbers because they can exploit edge habitat. That is open grass or brush next to wooded areas, plenty of cover and food nearby. Hmm, sounds like the suburbs. Essentially we have modified the wild environment to perfectly suit coyotes, whereas other large predators like mountain lions and wolves have decreased in numbers.

Coyotes usually hunt in pairs and it is true that in urban areas coyotes will take domestic cats and small dogs. They are extremely flexible in their diet and nearly everything is considered food from garbage and carrion to deer and birds. During the late summer and early fall they eat a lot of berries as well.

Coyotes originally evolved in the Great Plains of North America during the Pleistocene era, 1.8 million years ago, relatively recently. They are so closely related to both the gray wolf and the domestic dog that they can hybridize easily with both. There are coy-dogs and coy-wolfs. Rare but it happens.

The breeding season is limited to the early spring when six pups are born. Both male and female help provision the young and occasionally the offspring from the previous years stick around to help as well.

Hate ’em or love ’em, coyotes are here to stay.

Oh. and by the way, they have never been known to actively hunt roadrunners. Beep beep.

California Poppies

Slowly riding my bicycle through Santa Rosa last week, I was struck by the number of California poppies growing in everyone’s garden and even popping up through cracks in the sidewalk. I have seen this exact flower cultivated in the far reaches of our planet; Chile, South Africa, London and even — gasp — North Carolina. The California State Legislature made an excellent choice in 1903 when they unanimously voted the California poppy our state flower.

This poppy is found in every single California county but one. It comes in a range of color types; totally orange, totally yellow, orange with yellow centers, yellow with orange centers. One taxonomist concluded there were over 90 different species but now most botanists agree there is only one California poppy but with several varieties.

And by the way, it is not specifically illegal to pick a California poppy, as every school child will tell you. Actually it is against the law to pick any plant — herb, tree or shrub, not just poppies — that are growing on public and private land. Of course you may pick poppies in your own garden.

In October, 1816 the Russian ship, “Rurik,” sailed into San Francisco Bay. Because the poppy blooms from February all the way to November, it was noticed and collected by the ship’s naturalist and he named it for the physician on board, Johann Frederich Eschscholtz.

Eschscholzia californica is the scientific name. The Mexicans call it copa de oro — the cup of gold — and I am certain each native tribe had their name for this beauty. It grows in Oregon and Washington, to Baja California and east all the way to New Mexico.

To quote John Thomas Howell the author of “Marin Flora,” “No poet has yet sung the full beauty of our poppy. No painter has successfully portrayed the satiny sheen of its lustrous petals. In its abundance, this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever thankful that so rare a flower is common.”