In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


1.   7 Billion and Counting...
2.   Central Subway as Phase 2?  SFMTA tries to mislead us
3.   When public education fails, democracy fails with it
4.   Our self-absorption over 9/11 - and other reflections on it
5.   Presidio Trust National Day of Service and Remembrance - be part of it
6.   The other September 11 tragedy, 1857
7.   Claremont Canyon butterfly field trip Sept 11
8.   San Francisco's Changing Landscape, historian Greg Gaar Sept 15
9.   Legislative alert on CEQA by-pass.  Contact your legislators
10. Continuing John Muir's Journey - now showing at Oakland Museum
11.  America's Cup forcing businesses from Pier 38
12.  Feedback:  shark-fin soup/Segways/cats and birds
13.  Reflections on those 7 billion and counting...
14.  Feedback on KUSF conversion
15.  Humor
16.  Under heavens always overcast and starless, Earth would be eternally unintelligible...
17.  Nancy Wake, saboteur and special agent, died August 7

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. -Saul Bellow, writer, Nobel laureate (1915-2005)

1.  New "7 Billion and Counting" Campaign Highlights Population Explosion, Species Extinction

Big news on the population front: The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday launched a new national campaign, 7 Billion and Counting, highlighting the connection between human overpopulation and the global extinction crisis. As part of the campaign, the Center is giving away 100,000 of its popular Endangered Species Condoms, urging activists around the country to host events and take action, and -- thanks to those who generously responded to our call for donations -- launching a huge video ad in New York City's Times Square.

The campaign comes at a critical moment. The world population is expected to hit 7 billion at the end of October, so there's never been a better time to get people around the country talking about how overpopulation affects imperiled plants and animals around the globe.

Learn more on our new 7 Billion and Counting Web page, find out how you can distribute Endangered Species Condoms and host your own 7 Billion event, watch our new Times Square ad and check out our new interactive map that lets you find out about endangered species where you live -- or anywhere else in the United States.



CENTRAL SUBWAY ISN’T TWO PHASES (but may be bipolar)

Interesting that the SFMTA cites the Central Subway Project as Phase 2 of the T-Line Light Rail Project---because it isn’t and makes the T-Line even worse in terms of transit levels of service.  Slow as it is, the T-Line currently connects 3rd Street to King Street, the Embarcadero and ultimately to the Market Street Corridor (Muni Metro, BART, Transbay Terminal, ferries).
Phased projects normally extend a transit line, like adding boxcars to a train.  But the Central Subway eliminates the T-Line’s loop to King/ Embarcadero/ Market Streets---going instead to a Union Square Station that requires riders to double-back to the Powell Station to access Muni Metro, BART etc.  The clever concept of two phases transformed the T-Line’s expenditures into matching funds for the Central Subway---but created a transportation Frankenstein in the process.

EXAMINER:  “San Francisco Central Subway faces funding threat”.

CHRONICLE:  “City Insider:  Central Subway funding threatened as Dennis Herrera warns project is a looming ‘fiasco’.”

DENNIS HERRERA ISSUES REPORT:  “It’s time to rethink the Central Subway”.

HUFFINGTON POST:  “Dennis Herrera Slams Central Subway Project He Previously Supported”.

THE EPOCH TIMES:  “”San Francisco Subway Debate Triggers Insults”.

BAY CITIZEN:  "House Republicans Threaten Central Subway Funding".

(JS:  I previously asked 'Where are the Republicans when we need them?'  They would love to cut this funding, and would probably succeed in doing it except that after the president's speech Thursday the pressure on Congress to provide public works jobs is very intense.  I wonder if this is one of the 'shovel-ready' projects they will feel compelled to allow, whether needed or not.)

Feel free to write or talk to key politicians and officials, such as:

Peter Rogoff, Administrator
Federal Transportation Administration, East Bldg.
1200 New Jersey Ave., SE
Washington DC 20590

Hal Rogers, Chair
House Appropriations Committee
2406 Rayburn Office Bldg
Washington DC 20515

John Mica, Chair
House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee
2313 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515

Regards, Howard Wong, AIA

A quote from the ancient orator Isocrates: “Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.”

When public education fails, democracy fails with it
by Erik Reece from ORION Magazine, September-October 2011
"When someone asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government he and the other founders had birthed in this country, he famously replied, 'A republic, if you can keep it.'  The truth is that we have not kept it.  We have relinquished it to Wall Street bankers and corporations that spend $6 billion a year to ensure that political hirelings do their bidding.  As a result, the United States has the largest income gap of any country in the Northern Hemisphere (it is also, according to the 2009 census, the largest income gap in this country's history).  The problem with this, as epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket have found, is that every single societal problem, with no exceptions, can be tied directly to income inequality.  As a result, the U.S. has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than any other country north of the equator.  And we have the worst environmental  record on the planet.  If this is a republic, you can have it.

How do we recover, how do we reinvent, the country that Jefferson and Franklin envisioned?  We must become better citizens, and that transformation must begin--and really can only begin--in better public schools."


4.  Americans must learn to get over themselves
The US reaction to 9/11 reveals a self-absorption that prevents effective responses to the event and displays ignorance of how the world works.

...In 2004 a Bush aide (believed to be Karl Rove) chided a New York Times journalist for working in the "reality-based community", meaning people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality...That's not the way the world really works anymore.  We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out.  We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do". 

But that's never been how the world works.  And over the last 10 years reality has caught up with the rhetoric.

Gary Younge in Guardian Weekly 09.09.11 (excerpt)

For The Time Of Necessary Decision
The mind of time is hard to read.
We can never predict what it will bring,
Nor even from all that is already gone
Can we say what form it finally takes;
For time gathers its moments secretly.
Often we only know it’s time to change
When a force has built inside the heart
That leaves us uneasy as we are.
Perhaps the work we do has lost its soul
Or the love where we once belonged
Calls nothing alive in us anymore.
We drift through this gray, increasing nowhere
Until we stand before a threshold we know
We have to cross to come alive once more.
May we have the courage to take the step
Into the unknown that beckons us;
Trust that a richer life awaits us there,
That we will lose nothing
But what has already died;
Feel the deeper knowing in us sure
Of all that is about to be born beyond
The pale frames where we stayed confined,
Not realizing how such vacant endurance
Was bleaching our soul’s desire.
~ John O’Donohue ~
(To Bless the Space Between Us)

5.  The Presidio Trust is joining the nationwide effort to inspire millions of Americans to voluntarily engage in service in observance of the upcoming 10-year Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

As part of the National Day of Service and Remembrance, the Trust, in partnership with HandsOn Bay Area, is hosting a volunteer day on Sunday, September 11 from 10am to 1pm. Volunteers will be aiding habitat restoration efforts near Mountain Lake, removing non-native shrubs from an area known as Park Scrub, which will become a habitat for the endangered San Francisco Lessingia.

6.  The other Sept. 11 tragedy

Long before 2001, Sept. 11 marked the anniversary of a date when Americans going about their business were killed in cold blood by religious zealots. 

It was the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 near Cedar City, Utah. Just about everything except the date and location remain subject to dispute.

Ed Quillen in High Country News (excerpt)


7.  Butterfly walk: On Sunday, Sept. 11, 11 AM – 1 PM,

East Bay and Yerba Buena chapters of the California Native Plant Society host lepidopterist Liam O'Brien on a walk learning about basic butterfly species and how these seemingly delicate creatures relate to other plants and animals. Liam is scheduled to be our February speaker, and he is great! Wear sturdy shoes; bring sticks if you use them. Meet at Rockridge BART parking lot to form carpools. (Cloudy or windy weather cancel; info or (415) 863-1212.

San Francisco Natural History Series
San Francisco's Changing Landscape
Guest Speaker:  Greg Gaar
7:30pm, Thursday, September 15th, 2011
Randall Museum, San Francisco

Greg Gaar will present over 100 historic images of the evolution of SF’s native plant communities over the last 200 years. Greg will show the transition of our oak woodlands, sand dunes, coastal prairies, tidal marshes, lakes and creeks and efforts to preserve our natural heritage.

If you’ve seen any number of photos of San Francisco through history, chances are you’ve seen photos from Greg Gaar’s collection. He also has a book called "San Francisco: A Natural History"

10/20 – Keeping Nature in the City – Peter Brastow
11/17 – Reclaiming the Art of Natural History – John (Jack) Muir Laws

Eva Chrysanthe: The Farallon Egg Wars

Eva Chyrsanthe gave us some interesting history lessons in August. It began with the fact that there were no chickens in San Francisco. Or not enough, anyway, to supply enough eggs to the growing town of San Francisco in 1849 and its visiting hungry miners. And with no eggs, no cakes either.

People knew of the Farallon Islands. Russians had hunted seals there.  Russians at least were fond of the bird eggs. And they were plentiful.  The islands are a fecund little spot sitting as they are on the edge of a great ocean precipice, the islands and its waters and the creatures therein and on fed by a great upwelling from the deep.

All it took was one enterprising person, and egg problem “solved”.  That person was “Doc” Robinson. He and his brother in law went to the islands and poached (as in stolen, not as in cooked) $3,000 worth of eggs. At $1 for 1-12 eggs, that was a lot of eggs. And the pair had actually lost half their eggs in the rough waters of the Farallones.

The eggs were the eggs of the common murre. They are  2-3x the size of a chicken egg. They had a fiery red yolk, and although they did not keep to long, people liked the taste.

Robinson took his money and started a theater (Eva referred to him as the John Stewart of his day, as he wrote satires, and was often lampooning people), but others quickly took up his idea and the egg trade began.

The common murre eggs had two other things going for them: the shells were very tough so they could be stuffed into a vest safely, and the murres were easily driven off (unlike other residents of the island – western gulls and tufted puffins). That’s not to say the job was easy: Western Gulls were equally adept at thieving the eggs, and used the men to their advantage, often attaching the men. The poachers covered head to toe in guano often had to scale the cliffs of the island, and quite a few men fell–and although sharks tended not to be in the water when birds were nesting, the waters themselves are cold and dangerous enough.

The dominant force in the trade was the Pacific Egg Company (it had several aliases), but there were plenty of independent poachers, plus pirates, plus the Federals. The Federals were there trying to build a lighthouse, partly to save ships from shipwrecks, but also to lay claim to the island so Joseph Limantour couldn’t. The lighthouse keepers were often in conflict with the poachers (one lighthouse keeper, Amos Cliff, wanted the trade for himself).

The most famous conflict was in 1863 with a skirmish between independents and the Egg company that left 2 men dead. The company kept its upper hand until finally they were kicked out for attacking a lighthouse keeper. The poaching went on under the independents.

There have been some claims that the egg poachers were Italian mafioso, but Eva put those claims to rest. Not only were there not a lot of Italian names in the Company rosters, most of the Italians were from Northern Italy, many political refugees and supporters of the great Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Regardless eggs were harvested. At the peak 500,000 Murre eggs were taken of the islands in 1854. The numbers fell through the end of the century, with 100,000 being taken in 1896. The biggest factor in the decline might be the growth of the chicken industry in Petaluma, starting in 1875.

But Leverett Loomis (the first director of the California Academy of Science) deserves the credit for putting a final end to it. Although he had a great respect for the workers, he didn’t like the work. It wasn’t until he reached the ear of Teddy Roosevelt that the poaching stopped for good (more or less, some small numbers were poached in years after)

This is Executive Order 1043 signed by President Theodore Roosevelt February 27, 1909:

"[the Farallon Islands] are hereby reserved and set apart for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. It is unlawful for any person to hunt, trap, capture, wilfully disturb, or kill any birds of any kind whatever, or take the eggs of such birds within the limits of this reservation, except under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the Secretary of Agriculture."

Chalk another good one up for Teddy as well!

Even with this long post, I can’t do the talk full justice. You can
read some more about the topic in numerous places, but try here
and this piece in Bay Nature by Juliet Grable
Stay tuned for more about Eva Chrysanthe’s book, Garibaldi and the
Farallon Egg War.


9.  Planning & Conservation League

Last-minute bills give special treatment to big developers, threaten communities, and weaken environmental protections

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is under an almost unprecedented assault in the State Legislature. In the last 36 hours of the legislative session, several bills – SB 226, SB 292 and AB 900 – will weaken CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) for urban communities throughout California.  SB 226 would exempt certain urban projects deemed ‘green’, with inadequate definitions of for what defines ‘urban’ and ‘green’. AB 900, while not an exemption, “streamlines” CEQA’s judicial review requirements, potentially limiting the public’s voice in challenging projects. And SB 292 is, most simply, special treatment under the law for an influential developer (AEG) seeking to build a downtown Los Angeles football stadium. These bills are all being heard in the Legislature this morning, so make your voice heard NOW!
CEQA is a vital process that provides information about projects to decision makers and community members so that, together, they can ensure communities are provided important benefits promised, and avoid unintended impacts. Communities support sustainable economic development. Hiding under the pretense of job creation (without real evidence those jobs will ever come) these bills create different standards for the protections of CEQA.
Moreover, these bills are all being proposed at the 11th-hour of the legislative review, with little or no chance of meaningful public participation and often lawmakers themselves approving legislation without even seeing final versions of the bill. The lack of transparency and deliberation in the law-making process happening right now is alarming. We need you to call your assembly member, senator, and the Governor’s office right now and tell them to stop shoving through last minute bills that give special treatment to big developers, disenfranchise communities, and attack environmental protections.
For more information about the importance of CEQA and the threats it faces, click here.

Call Senators and the Governor RIGHT NOW and tell them:
    1.    We DO NOT want special treatment for big corporations like AEG and other big developers.
    2.    Last-minute laws like this erode public trust, and in the long term do not create more jobs or healthier communities.
    3.    Vote NO on SB 292, SB 226 and AB 900.

Governor’s Office
Gov. Jerry Brown: Phone (916) 445-2841, Fax (916) 558-3160, or to e-mail please click here.
Legislator Offices
Please contact your representatives in the Capitol. To ensure your voice is heard, please contact their Capitol office NOT their district offices. To find your Assembly Member and Senator please click here.



On view now

A Walk in the Wild
Continuing John Muir's

Explore the legacy of John Muir's life and how he continues to influence our relationship with the natural world in this special exhibition.

You will experience rarely seen journals and manuscripts, enveloping scenery, and multisensory displays.

Book is as easy as 1,2,3:
1.  Pick your date and time (check for hours of operation)
2.  Call or email to check availability:  510-318-8429/
3.  Pick up and pay for your passes on the day of your visit

Hurry!  Space is limited - call now!
Discount available with a minimum book of 15 people.


11.  Pier 38 businesses forced to move after red tagging
SAN FRANCISCO -- About two dozen businesses on San Francisco's waterfront were scrambling to find new places to operate Wednesday night after the Port of San Francisco red tagged their work areas.

Some tenants at Pier 38 a couple of blocks north of AT&T Park expressed strong doubts about the port's reason for kicking them out.

..Some wondered if the port is pushing out the small businesses to make way for the America's Cup race.  "It's right in the right place. It's right in the right time," said Greacen. "There's a really big rush to get us out of here. I'm not exactly sure why."

A port spokeswoman strongly denied any connection to America's Cup. She said the red tags were strictly a safety issue.

(Uh huh.  And I'm Marie of Romania.  I find myself wondering why, when officials tell transparent lies, they don't just come out with it, confessing that they have changed plan.  Telling a story that can't be believed not only doesn't accomplish its purpose but increases distrust and cynicism, which doesn't make govt's work any easier.  JS)


12.  Feedback

Julia Bott:
Hi Jake, re shark fins. We haven't quite won. THe Governor still needs to sign the legislation. People need to send their letters to him urging he sign Assembly Bill 376.

Rixanne Wehren:
Segways are not the only problem. Recent regulations include ANY motorized vehicle as a "mobility assistance device". That includes cars, trucks and ATVs. Any of them could demand to use any trail.
Bummer to come. . . .

Gray Brechin:
Thanks for your measured response about cats. I love them and let mine go outside because she has never expressed the slightest interest in birds; she has far too many other things to occupy her fine cat mind and/or is far too lazy to bestir herself for a deadly lunge.

I marvel at the extraordinary beauty of cats, few of which have been bred into the grotesque deformities of some dogs. But a study was done some years ago by a British bird watching and protective society that came up with astonishing figures for the number of bird kills for which cats are responsible. It credited cats for a sharp drop in the number of birds in the British isles and should not be difficult to find on line. I am too lazy to bestir myself.

That said, I wonder if anyone has done a study of the environmental costs of our carnivore pets; i.e., how much protein do they consume, and from whence does it come? I've heard that much of the anchovy catch from off the Peruvian coast, e.g., goes into U.S. cat and dog food rather than into Peruvians or larger fish. And then there are the cows we feed our darlings.

Oh, and btw, some birds have returned to my garden, but far fewer than I had before. Thank you for posting my query; I particularly appreciated one in the last post about their inherent mobility and fickleness. Sad to say, they are not here simply to delight us, the bipeds without wings. Still, we must with feeders and bird baths, give back a little for all that we have taken from them.


13.  Denise Louie:
Hi Jake,
I just saw Home, on DVD, which I recommend to your readers.  The photography is great, scenes from places all around the world are amazing, and it's an educational experience.  Here are 12 facts highlighted in the film:

1.  20% of the world's population consumes 80% of its resources. [We do know that.]
2.  The world spends 12 times more on military expenditures than on aid to developing countries.
3.  5,000 people die each day due to dirty drinking water; 1 billion people have no access to safe drinking water.
4.  Nearly 1 billion people are going hungry.
5.  Over 50% of grain traded around the world is used for animal feed or biofuels.
6.  40% of arable land has suffered long-term damage.
7.  Every year, 13 million hectares (32.1 m acres) of forest disappear.
8.  1 mammal in 4, 1 bird in 8, 1 amphibian in 3 are threatened w/ extinction; species are dying out at a rhythm 1,000 times faster than the normal rate.
9.  3/4 of fishing grounds are exhausted, depleted or in dangerous decline.
10.  The average temperature of the last 15 yrs have been the highest ever recorded.
11.  The ice cap is 40% thinner than 40 yrs ago.
12.  There may be more than 200 million [human] climate refugees by 2050.


14.  Conversion of KUSF to music

On August 25 I carried an item (below) submitted by a reader about the conversion of KUSF to a classical music station,as if it were good news.  It turns out very mixed, as friends reminded me.  Modern society is very complex, and there are worlds within worlds, most of which are unknown to me.  So I found out that KUSF was unique (I don't use that word normally, but it seems KUSF may have been unique) and that it has left many unhappy, saddened people angry at its betrayal.  I, devoted to lost causes (of which I have a long history) feel the need for carrying this explanatory item as an expression of regret about the station's demise.

Rip Van Winkle

KDFC, the local SF radio station which used to be at at 102.1 FM, and which used to be a commercial station broadcasting classical music interspersed with advertising (thus creating an outcome that was worse than having no classical music station at all in SF), has combined with KUSF and gone listener supported!  No more ads!  No more time restrictions causing them to air single movements of quartets!  They can actually play the whole quartet!  Hell, they can play an entire Mahler symphony!

They are now at 89.9/90.3 on the FM dial.  I get it quite well at 90.3 on my car radio, though not in the house (I'd need to hook an FM antenna to my tuner).  But the station can also be streamed through its website.  For those with a Mac and iTunes, it's listed under Radio.  Just double-click on KDFC, and enjoy!  For PC users with a high speed connection, I should think it's easy to just click on something at the website.  :-)

The station claims to have quite a range extending as far as Ukiah to the north, so I should think you could get it on radio.

The only people who will be unhappy about this are the lovely folks at KXPR (Capital Public Radio) in Sacramento.  I have been streaming their station via my Mac since moving to SF 5 years ago, and have sent a generous contribution each year in support of my lifeline to classical music programming on public radio. 

Here are some stories, which are all new to me:


Why don't you ever see the headline "Psychic Wins  Lottery"?

Why is  the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?

Why didn't Noah swat those two mosquitoes?

Why do they sterilize the needle for lethal injections?

If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?


Oh, you hate your job?  Why didn't you say so?  There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar."   --Drew Carey

What's so great about rhetorical questions anyway?


16.  Celebrating astronomy's illumination of the mind
Astronomy is a special science.

As the French mathematician Henri Poincare observed more than a century ago, it was astronomy that inspired the origins of science in general.  In ancient times, people observing the night sky saw that its "multitude of luminous points is not a confused crowd wandering at random, but a disciplined army," he noted.  Such observations provided a clue that nature's chaos concealed order that humans could discern.  It was astronomy, in other words,that taught humankind that the world obeys natural laws that people are capable of discovering.

"Under heavens always overcast and starless, the Earth itself would have been for us eternally unintelligible," Poincare wrote in The Value of Science.  "The stars send us not only that visible and gross light which strikes our bodily eyes, but from them also comes to us a light far more subtle, which illuminates our minds.  Astronomy...has given us a soul capable of comprehending nature."

...the 400th anniversary of Galileo's telescope fully warrants this year's International Year of Astronomy celebrations.  All this attention to astronomy stems from its attachment to the curiosity infused in the human spirit, not from practical uses like those expected from other sciences.  Not that astronomy is useless--historically, it has been fertile with applications, from aiding the earliest calendar makers to navigation guides for ships in the dark.  But mostly astronomy's usefulness is not its applications, but its inspiration.  "Astronomy is useful," Poincare wrote, "because it raises us above ourselves."

Excerpted from editorial in Science News 23 May 2009


17.  Nancy Wake, saboteur and special agent, died on August 7th, aged 98

Aug 13th 2011 | from The Economist print edition

CONVIVIAL, and not averse to a drink, Nancy Wake could often be found cheering up a cocktail bar. In the late 1940s, and again towards the end of her life, it might have been the American Bar of the Stafford Hotel, just across the road from The Economist’s offices in London. In 1940, when she was living as a newlywed in Vichy France, it could have been another American Bar, this one in the Hôtel du Louvre et de la Paix in Marseilles. It was a chance encounter here with an English officer, interned by the French authorities but that day on parole, which led to her membership of the resistance, and then to her role as an agent of the British Special Operations Executive in occupied France. Of the 39 SOE women infiltrated into France, 11 of whom would die in concentration camps, she was perhaps the most redoubtable.

From her earliest days, Miss Wake combined opposing qualities. She was disciplined, but at the same time a free spirit. In Sydney, to which her large family had moved after leaving her birthplace in New Zealand, she twice ran away from home. As soon as she could, she made her way to London, then to Paris to work as a freelance journalist. There it was her cheerful independence as much as her good looks that caught the eye of the rich French industrialist, Henri Fiocca, who would take her to Marseilles as his wife.

She enjoyed her new life of luxury while it lasted, but she was no flibbertigibbet. Soon after meeting the interned British officer, she was helping to get similar Allied airmen, refugees and escaped prisoners-of-war out of occupied France and into Britain. She took a flat, ostensibly for a lover, in fact for the resistance, sheltered men on the run and became a crucial part of the southern escape line to Spain, travelling all over southern France from Nice to Nîmes to Perpignan, with clothing, money and false documents.

Inevitably, she was arrested. Beaten up and questioned for four days, she revealed nothing. It was this steadiness and loyalty to her comrades that most appealed to the British officers who later agreed to train her to become an SOE agent.

Other qualities were evident by then. Her femininity was never in doubt. It helped her escape capture, not just because she could on occasion flirt her way out of trouble, but also because her Gestapo pursuers assumed any woman as skillful in evading them must be a butch matron (though because of her ability to scuttle off the Germans called her “the White Mouse”). When she was with the Maquis, silk stockings and Elizabeth Arden face cream were often dropped for her by parachute, along with Sten guns, radios and grenades. Yet she conformed to no stereotype, swearing in the vernacular in the coarsest of terms, living for months in the woods and fighting, in the words of a confrère, not like a man but “like five men”.

Her fearlessness seemed to come from a total lack of self-doubt. The certainty with which she held her beliefs—she hated the Nazis, having seen them whipping Jews in Vienna before the war, loved France and was intensely loyal to Britain—freed her of any sense of guilt. This in turn enabled her to act as though she were utterly innocent, even when claiming to be the cousin of an imprisoned Scottish captain, or chatting to a Gestapo officer with 200lb of illegal pork in her suitcase.

It was sheer guts, though, that got her over the Pyrenees in her espradilles when the Germans were at her heels. And back in Britain in 1943 it was her character rather than her skills or physical abilities that got her through her training in grenade throwing, silent killing and parachute jumping. As for violence, she hated it—until she became hardened.

That began in April 1944, when Captain (as she now was) Wake and another SOE agent were parachuted into the Auvergne in south-central France. Their immediate job was to work with the local Maquis to cause as much disruption as possible before D-day five weeks later. Now the fighting began, and Captain Wake showed herself more than willing to take part, readily joining raiding parties, blowing up local Gestapo headquarters and ambushing German patrols.

She did not enjoy killing a German sentry with her bare hands, but she was unsentimental. Likewise, she saw the necessity of killing a German woman captured by some of her Maquis colleagues who admitted to being a spy. Though she had been raped and tortured, Captain Wake ordered her to be shot—or, if the captain’s later suggestion is to be believed, she herself shot her, since the Maquisards’ sense of honour permitted her rape but not her killing.

In spite of such horrors, and in spite of such feats as bicycling over 500km in under 72 hours to find a radio operator, Captain Wake was having the time of her life. She was still only 26, a woman among 7,000 (mostly) admiring men, carrying out daily acts of derring-do and revelling in a job she had plainly been born for. Although she lived with the constant possibility of capture, it held no fear for her, and she did not yet know that her husband, rather than betray her, had been arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and killed. Decorations galore—from Britain, France, America and Australia—awaited her, but life would never be as good again.

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