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(Re)visiting the Far Sonoma Coast

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I first went to the far Sonoma Coast more than 20 years ago while I was researching my first book for University of California Press, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

The premise of my book was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or, if you like, the film Apocalypse Now): a journey along a river, leading to a climax. So it only made sense to explore the remote, far western reaches of Sonoma County, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, at Jenner, in a fury of tidal Götterdämmerung.

The Far Sonoma Coast was then building up a reputation for fine wine, especially cool-climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I wanted to understand more. This is an out-of-the-way part of Northern California, far from freeways and population centers. It’s also, if you’ve never been, a land of preternatural beauty. Physically, it resembles Big Sur, with mountains immediately inland of the narrow, winding coast road, great jagged cliffs to the west and, below, hundreds of feet down, pristine beaches limned by thundering surf, where sea lions bask in the fog. Up on the mountains are dense forests of Redwood. A few farmers make a living in the clearings, running sheep, goats or cattle. Twenty years ago, vineyards were just beginning to appear, as growers realized the potential for making great wine, but over the last two decades, the pace has picked up considerably—along with the price of land.

I thought it would be nice to share some pictures of this wildly beautiful land. Here are two I took early one morning while walking Gus, at Timber Cove. A fierce winter storm had roared through overnight, but now it was gone, leaving high surf and clean, alpine air. In the first picture, the sun was just rising. I took the second about 20 minutes later.

And

The area where it’s safe to walk ends abruptly. On this day, the ground was muddy and soggy from rain, so I had to make sure neither Gus nor I fell to an untimely end!

Gus enjoyed sniffing in the weeds and grass.

We headed south down Highway 1, the coast road, around mid-morning, but we didn’t get very far before we had to stop for a while! This is their turf, not ours!

Above Fort Ross, the vista really opens up.

Fort Ross (“Rossiya”) was where the Russians built a fortress, around 1813, when they owned the area. They had been trying to build up a colonial empire in North America, just as the Spanish and British had. But the climate was so cold and wet, the winter gales so powerful, the land so inhospitable for crops, that they eventually gave up and retreated back north to Alaska, which, of course, they later sold to America.

This is another view from Fort Ross.

One of my main goals in visiting the region was to find the spot where the freshwater Russian River meets the salty Pacific Ocean, near Jenner. Here it is.

You can see the narrow little opening in the coastal sand where the river squeezes through (or, at high tide, where the ocean flows through).

I highly recommend a visit to this part of the Sonoma Coast. Winter is my preferred time, because there aren’t many tourists. You can stay in Jenner, or, further to the south, Bodega Bay, where there’s a greater choice of accommodations. The Timber Cove Resort is also nice, although it’s pretty expensive. The wineries and tasting rooms are a longish, tortured drive up into the coastal mountains, mostly along narrow, twisting and sometimes harrowing roads that are little more than fire trails. Believe me, some of the best Pinots and Chards in California are coming from these parts!


Oakland is all abloom: A photo essay

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Politics, schmolitics. Time for some pretty pictures.

The weather has been warm and dry for months. Even though we’re technically deep into winter, we’re having False Spring, and everything that blossoms is partying like it’s May. Here are a few of our growing things I saw on my walk through Oakland yesterday. Maybe some of my horticulturally-minded friends can identify the flowers whose names I don’t know.

Bougainvillea

These climbers are everywhere, even in the deep inner city, bringing a touch of jazzy color and class.

Passion Flower

I’ve loved these exotic flowers since I moved to California in 1978 and planted a stalk in the backyard. By the next year, it had exploded all along the fence.

California Poppy

These are so pretty and gay. I love how they’re growing through the railing.

Flowering bush

I don’t know what these are, but they lit up the street.

Rosemary

Rosemary grows everywhere, all year long, but I don’t often see it this flowery!

Magnolia

We have a couple of non-flowering magnolia trees in front of my building, but this beauty a few blocks away is just bursting with color and scent.

Daffodil

Is there any flower more springtimey than yellow daffodils?

Little orange beauties

I don’t know what they are but they turned me on. They’re growing wild in a construction site owned by Kaiser Permanente.

Little flowers

These cute little fuchsia-colored babies are another variety whose name I don’t know.

Roses

Is there any flower more beautiful than a red rose?

Bird of Paradise

This guy was getting a little long in the tooth. But he’s still gorgeous.

Mustard flower

Wine country isn’t the only place where this quintessential Spring flower blossoms. It’s common all over Oakland.

Meyer Lemon Tree

The lemon flowers are gone, but these fresh, sweet fruits are at their best now.

Tiny pink-violet flowers

Another breed I don’t know. Such pretty ground cover!

Red flowering bush

This was in someone’s front yard. It looks like it could use some garden care, but it sure is eye-catching!

Geraniums

They’re pretty drought-resistant, so even in this dry winter, they’re growing all over town.

Flowering tree

I don’t know what it is. The color was magical. From every angle, there were different hues, as the light shifted from sun to shadow.


Remembering Carl Sagan

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Forty years ago, Carl Sagan’s monumental book, “Cosmos,” and its corresponding Public Broadcasting Service T.V. series, brought science to the American people in a way nothing previously ever had. The book was a runaway best-seller, immediately selling more than 500,000 copies and spending 70 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The series was the most widely viewed show ever on public television.

Sagan, an astronomer by trade, made no secret of his disdain for the superstitions and anti-science attitudes of many organized religions. Here’s a typical remark from Cosmos, the book: “For thousands of years humans were oppressed—as some of us still are—by the notion that the universe is a marionette whose strings are pulled by a god or gods, unseen and inscrutable.” He wrote these particular words in a chapter describing the development of science—a system of ascertaining reality through experiment—in the ancient Greeks, and in particular among the peoples of Ionia, “among the islands an inlets of the busy eastern Aegean Sea.” Those pioneering scientists included Anaxagoras, a fifth century B.C. cosmologist who discovered the true cause of eclipses; Thales of Miletus, another fifth-century philosopher and geometer, who introduced scientific reasoning over mythology; Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, who despite some wrong surmisals about such things as the construction of the Sun and Moon, is credited with being the first human to develop a systematized view of the world.

Sagan was a Jew, born and raised in Brooklyn. He was a generation older than mine, but we weren’t all that different. Neither of us was particularly observant of our birth religion; Sagan said his parents had been “Reform Jews,” the most liberal in that religion. He worshipped (if that’s the right word) at the altar of reason and rationality. If a thing could not be proven, then it was wrong to mindlessly believe it. I wonder, on re-reading Cosmos, what Sagan would have thought of modern-day religious conservatives in America. He certainly had no use for them during his professional heyday (roughly, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s), when the Moral Majority and other rightwing religious groupings were quietly arising throughout what we now call Red States and districts. He would have far less use for them today, 25 years after his death. I think he would be appalled and frightened by them, and outspoken in his denunciation. As early as the 1970s, Sagan was writing about climate change and the dangers of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. He recognized that there is a connection, and a disturbing one, between a propensity to believe in the superstitions of religion—virgin births, resurrections from death, burning bushes—and a corresponding skepticism about science and rejection of intellectual authority. Science, to Sagan, was religion, in the sense that it is science that will rescue the human race and lead us into the future—a future Sagan hoped, in his deepest core, would be lived out on planets other than Earth.

I miss Carl Sagan. Those of us who grew up in his time, and who fascinatedly watched Cosmos on T.V., were thrilled by the easy way in which he explained science, and the graphic images—in both the book and the series—that were so beautiful, with their depictions of galaxies and swirling storms on Jupiter, of imaginary life forms on distant planets, of Voyager 1 and 2 photographs of the rings of Saturn or the ice crusts of Europa. Sagan showed us that science could be, not only accurate and real, but poetic and lovely. He didn’t need religion or the apparatus of religious dogma to feel a godly connection to his universe. Scientific reality did that for him.

We “still are oppressed,” as Sagan wrote, by the religious extremists and their false narratives. We may in fact be more oppressed than ever; it’s hard to say. But Sagan remained an optimist all his life. He never gave up believing in the innate common sense of humankind. He understood that there will always be dead-enders whose cognitive ability has been rotted away by untrue beliefs. But he thought such people would remain in the minority, particularly in a developed country like America. Sagan could not have foreseen the rise of Donald J. Trump or the explosion of the anti-intellectual movement we call trumpism. Yet I don’t think he would have been terribly surprised by it; the forebears of know-nothingism have deep roots in American history. I suspect, if Sagan were alive and thriving today, he might even be on some Joe Biden scientific task force, perhaps involved in the current Mars mission, in which the touchdown of the rover Perserverance is just three hours away, as I write these words. What a nice thought that is!


The Day After Gus

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Went for a long walk yesterday after Gus’s death. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm for December 1. The leaves were orange and red and yellow and falling down. In Piedmont, they piled up in drifts.

I walked and thought, hardly noticing traffic. The sun grew warm and I took off my flannel shirt. Gus’s face rose up in my mind again and again. His eyes, maybe his best feature, so large, brown and mellow.

Gina called Gus “an old soul.” Although half chihuahua, he never barked–well, maybe five times over the years. Dogs bark, I think, when they’re upset. Gus didn’t get upset. He was an old Yoda. He just seemed to look at the world and go, “It’s cool.” He’d seen it all, and decided that mostly it didn’t matter. (Of course, food always mattered.) Another feature of his that I loved was his curiosity about people. He’d look up at every passing pedestrian on the sidewalk and want to trot over and meet them. Lots of people, mostly women, saw this old soulness in him, and adored it. Women “got” Gus. Men barely noticed him.

Yesterday was dreadful. I wallowed in grief, barely able to do anything. People called, and I’d break down. The Facebook comments—83 and counting—tore me apart. “RIP little Gus.” “Gus had an amazing life with you.” “I’m so glad I got to know him.” “A noble farewell as he crosses the rainbow bridge.” People wrote of their own departed dogs: Lola. Sandy. Sam. Rico. For all the negative things you can say about Facebook and social media, there’s this: the ability to share love and pain.

I knew he wouldn’t be there beside me in bed this morning when I woke up, but even so, it startled me. In the livingroom I looked for him even though I knew he wasn’t there. If yesterday was about grief, today seems to be about shock. It’s hard to believe it could end with such finality. One minute he’s there, and the next—shazam, gone with the wind. How does the human body and mind cope? I take some comfort in that every person who ever lived has experienced loss. We are a tribe united in many ways, of which the experience of bereavement is surely one of the more universal.

This blog. What happens now? I began it in 2008 to write about wine. That lasted for eight years, until I retired and devoted it to destroying Donald Trump and the Republican Party—a worthy cause if ever there was one. This month-long drama about Gus was merely an interlude in between the politics. Now that Gus is gone, I can’t keep on writing about him forever. I’m not going to wrap myself in black crepe and veil and be The Widow Heimoff for the rest of my life, some kind of morbid Queen Victoria forever mourning her poor Albert. At the same time, we have won the fight against Trump (I think). He’ll continue to provide fodder for ridicule, warning and commentary, but do I really want to continue down that road? Do my readers want or need it? Writing is my balm; it’s what I do in this world. I need to write, in order to have something meaningful to do every day. But without wine, Gus and Trump, there’s nothing to write about. A conundrum. If you have any ideas, by all means tell me.

Well, it will all work itself out somehow. It always does. Right?


Gus: 2008 – 2020

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Gus breathed his last precious breath today, Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 11:57 a.m.

Here are some pictures from Monday night, his final on Earth.

Around 7 p.m. he lay down in his little bed. You can see how the tumor was distorting his face, causing him to be buck-toothed.

He jumped up into my lap and looked intensely at me. I wondered what he was thinking.

I put my hand on his head. It seems to comfort him.

Then he licked my fingers.

He turned on his side, which is virtually a command to “Rub my belly!”

I sobbed a lot Monday night. But lest you think I’d deteriorated into a soggy old mess, I will admit that I watched reruns of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and laughed between the tears.

MONDAY

We awoke at 6:30 this morning, just as it was getting light outside. Gus was beside me in bed, on the big white towel I’d set out for him so the blood dribbling from his mouth wouldn’t get on the bedding. I put my hand on his rib cage; he turned his head and licked my fingers.

I gave him breakfast. He slowly wobbled over to his bowl, took one sniff, then turned around and jumped up on my big chair. Okay, so no appetite: what difference does it make at this point. I looked at the clock: 7:48 a.m. The vet would be here in less than four hours. At 8:15 we went for a little walk. A thick ground fog obscured trees just a block away. For some reason, John Lennon’s “Imagine” was going through my head. We got barely 30 feet from the front door: Gus had no interest in taking a walk. He just wanted to go home and lay down. He walked very slowly back. All right.

The vet was scheduled to arrive at 11:30. I took Gus out for our final walk at 11:15. As we left my place, I said, “Gus, this is the last time you’ll ever be in my house.” He looked up at me as if he knew.

Gina, my friend next door, who loves Gus almost as much as I do, showed up. She took this, the last picture ever of Gus and me together.

Then I saw the vet coming down the street, holding the box that would shortly hold Gus’s body. He was very nice, very sweet. Since he had asked not to do the euthanasia indoors due to the pandemic, we did it in the breezeway next to my building.

Gina came with me. It was hard, very hard. First, I held Gus close to my heart as Dr. Smith injected him with a sedative. It took about 5 minutes for the little guy to fall asleep. Then Dr. Smith put a soft blanket on the ground and asked me to place Gus on it. His little body was limp, but his eyes were open and his pink tongue was hanging out of his mouth. He looked almost cute. But when Dr. Smith got the syringe with the pentobarbital ready, I completely lost it. Couldn’t watch. Hid behind a wall, gasping for breath. Gina said something. I realized it was my responsibility to Gus to be his witness, so I turned and watched. In went the needle. Everybody was crying. Gus lay still. Dr. Smith said I could say goodbye. I got down on my knees while Dr. Smith and Gina kept a respectful distance. I covered my dog with kisses and whispered things in his ear. My tears fell on his soft fur.

Dr. Smith made a paw print of Gus, which I shall always treasure.

He gently put Gus into the box. Afterwards, Gina and I went for a walk. She was so kind, so gentle, so loving. We talked. Then I called Marilyn, who truly also loved Gus. We’d spent a lot of time together over the years, and Marilyn used to watch Gus at her house when I traveled for work. We talked, remembered, sobbed, as I had sobbed when Marilyn’s Golden, Maisie, died. Both Gina and Marilyn told me I should get another dog. I don’t know.

I dreaded going back home. An empty home, with no Gus to greet me. I saw his little bed by the patio window. Empty. Never again to hold him.

And now, whatever is to come. I miss Gus more than words can say. My heart aches. I feel a thousand years old.

Next to my computer is a King James Bible. I opened it at random. It was The Book of Job:

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away.


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