Archive for January, 2010

Mendocino Coast Arts Community

I’ve just posted a piece on the Mendocino Writers Blog about the growing connections between our local arts, business, and social services organizations.

On the Haul Road

The Fort Bragg Haul Road this Saturday afternoon is  like a painting of a European beach promenade. Misty silhouettes in the silvery light, family groups with dogs and bicycles take the air in the short break between storms. The sea roars. A brisk wind lifts delicate plumes of spray from the waves.

The old Haul Road is a local treasure. Built in the early 1900s to haul logs to the Fort Bragg lumber mill, it is now part of the California coastal trail system. Further north, the sea has washed away much of the road, but for close to three miles, between the Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge at the edge of town and the campground at MacKerricher State Park,  it is still reasonably intact.

This afternoon, after a week of rain, people walk with smiles on their faces. The reservoirs and aquifers are filling up, ending fears of drought. More rain is forecast. Today the sky is blue and the sea magnificent.

Poetry Out Loud

Poetry lives. I’ve just spent the morning helping to judge the Poetry Out Loud contest at our local high school. From the excited buzz of student voices as they entered the auditorium at Mendocino High School, to the respectful silence with which they heard each contestant, to the enthusiastic applause, it was clear that poetry has an important place in these kids’ lives.

Launched in 2005 by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud is a national competition  that “encourages the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through exploration, memorization and performance.” Participating schools begin in the classroom, where students select poems to memorize from an anthology containing a huge and varied selection. This morning, for instance, I heard poems by Theodore Roethke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling, Sherman Alexie and Kim Addonnizio, to name just a few. Advancing through school, regional and state competitions, winners get an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, DC for the high-profile national finals. The states are high: the national champion receives a purse large enough to finance a good portion of a college education. More than 300,000 students participate each year.

Whether or not a student advances beyond the classroom competition, the program has value as an entry point to a lifetime interest in poetry. “I’m so envious,” a fellow judge murmured to me. “We had nothing like this when I was in school.”

Between Storms

Mid-morning the sky clears, a break between storms. Our generator rumbles. The power is out, a downed line somewhere back in the forest. So is our cable internet service. From the house we can see spume lifting high over the cliffs. Nothing for it but to go there, to walk the cliff path around the Mendocino Headlands, to exult in the roar, the tumble of white, the spritz of salt spray on our faces. At the big blowhole near Main Street, huge plumes of water rise with a satisfying ker-thump.

We decide to avoid the muddy parts of the trail further on, and head up to Main Street. Nearly all the stores are closed because of the power outage. But Gallery Bookshop, on the corner of Main and Kasten, is open, though unlit. We step in to say hi.

“Electricity, schmelectricity,” laughs Christie, the owner. “We never close. We just do everything on paper and input it later. We have the little swipe-swipe machine for credit cards. The only thing that’s hard to do without the computer is book searches.”

Tony finds a novel he wants, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. At the checkstand in the center of the store we chat with Christie and two other staff members, Johanna and Jane, about this book and another we’ve been reading lately, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I love the cosiness of these conversations about books. I love being a local in this remote and beautiful place.

The Storms of Yesteryear

Intermission at a Sunday afternoon concert, a knot of people take the air in the porch of Preston Hall. “That’s a beautiful sight,” a woman says, pointing to the rain sweeping in across Mendocino Bay. We are all excited. The weather gurus have warned that this rain is just precursor to a series of large storms expected to hit over the next several days.

“Remember that time we we had twenty, no forty inches of rain in one storm?” someone says.

“What about the time that rogue wave went right over the lighthouse?” Point Cabrillo Light Station, a one-story structure with a turret on top that holds a magnificent first order Fresnel lens, sits on a crumbling headland about fifty feet above the water.

“Not over the light, surely?”

“Over the roof, at least.”

Much damage?”

“Oh yes.”

I mention the first time Tony and I came to Mendocino, in 1970. In Navarro River Redwoods State Park, through which you drive to reach the coast, we were fascinated to see a plaque high up the cliff on the side of the road, marking how high the waters had come in the big flood. The date was 1965, I think. The plaque is gone now, but you can still see evidence of that flood. A whitish fungus covers the trunks of the redwood trees up to the waterline. It is particularly visible at night, illuminated by car headlights, a ghostly presence in the blackness of the forest.

The Navarro River still floods in major storms. Everyone who lives here on the coast quickly learns the alternate routes to reach inland destinations. Tree limbs fall. Mud slides. Sometimes all the roads are closed. Sometimes the power goes out for days. We learn how to hunker down. And afterward, we will have more stories.

Tongue of War

The book arrived in the mail, unexpected. Return address BkMk Press. Oh yes, I remembered, one of those poetry manuscript competitions I entered ages ago, where they send all contestants a copy of the winning book. I opened it to skim, and was immediately reading it cover to cover. Tony Barnstone’s Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, is the most powerful anti-war testament I have ever read. I’d like to quote B.H. Fairchild, who awarded this book the John Ciardi Prize:

“…It is written in forms, especially the sonnet, and of course the meter of those forms, the pulse of human feeling unable to name itself… The diction and syntax are often blunt with the exhaustion and terror of human voices—American and Japanese, soldiers and civilians—struggling to articulate the unspeakable, to make visible that to which we have learned to blind ourselves. …I cannot help but think that having read it, an American President who has himself been privileged to avoid the horrors of the battlefield might be less inclined to send young men and women off to face them.”


An odd rattling sound as I sat at my desk Saturday afternoon. A slightly queasy, seasick feeling in my stomach. A sharp jolt shifted my brain into gear, and I bolted for the doorway.

The 6.5 magnitude quake centered off the coast of Humboldt County wasn’t a big deal here in Mendocino, but it was enough to remind us that we live in earthquake country. I still have vivid memories of crouching under my desk at Stanford University during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, one hand holding tight to my pencil drawer to prevent pens, paper clips and miscellaneous junk from flying all over the room. After the shaking stopped, my office mate and I went upstairs to see how others had fared. We found a white faced co-worker in the hall. She happened to be away from her desk during the quake. Just as well: a large bookcase loaded with heavy binders had crashed onto her chair.

The recent quake is once again a reminder that there are things we can do to prepare ourselves for earthquakes. I look around my office now and am thankful my bookshelves are securely bolted to the wall.

Spring Slinks In

Here on the Mendocino Coast, where winters are mild and rainy, now is the time to look for the first wildflower, Scoliopus bigelovii, commonly known as Slink Pod. The shady bank down by our creek, where I usually see them, was littered today with debris where the top of an old  fir had fallen, but there was still one plant unsmushed by the crash, a new bud opening, and spent flower heads already slinking off to find new earth for their seeds.

Warblers as Shorebirds

Walking on the cliff trail at MacKerricher State Park yesterday, my friends and I watched a flock of Yellow-Rumped Warblers flitting from rock to rock just above the waves. A willow thicket was nearby, so they were not far from their typical habitat. But an unexpected flash of bright color where the white/gray/brown of our regular shorebirds is the usual color scheme. We speculated that they were attracted by the clouds of tiny flies that hovered above a coil of freshly washed-up bull kelp.


I planted garlic this afternoon. I’m running a little late. My friend who lives at Comptche, inland from here, and grows beautiful garlic, likes to plant at Winter Solstice and harvest at Summer Solstice. But I figure January 2 is close enough. Anyway, the solstice was rainy, and today was sunny and mild, an excellent day for being outdoors. After spading in compost from a well-matured pile, I selected a good-sized head from last year’s crop, broke it apart, and dropped each fine fat clove into its hole.

The rest of last year’s crop hangs in a decorative sheaf by my kitchen window, where it’s convenient to clip off a head when I need to replenish my Wild River Pottery garlic jar.  I haven’t yet figured out how to make garlic braids like my friend in Comptche. Maybe this year …