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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mount Davidson and the Natural Areas Management Plan – what happens next,
by Jake Sigg and Linda Shaffer.

Sometime in the next year or so, Mount Davidson (and Mount Sutro for that matter) will cease to be the laissez-faire woods they have been for 130 years.  They will begin to go through a process of change, as problems that have been evolving and clamoring for attention are addressed.  The problems of the two mountains are identical, but different landowners have devised different approaches to address them.  Here the focus is Mount Davidson and the document of concern has the lengthy tongue-twister name Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan, or SNRAMP (pronounced sin-ramp).

These Mount Davidson trees are dying; the thinning foliage is due to drought and the ivy is increasingly choking off light needed to photosynthesize, as well as competing with tree roots.  Even a winter of heavy rain can only delay death, and they should be considered dangerous to hikers and workers. The number of such trees on the mountain is in the hundreds, possibly thousands.  Mount Sutro offers identical scenes. Photo by Randy Zebell

Some people are understandably apprehensive about what changes will occur, and about whether concerns they have will be heard.  The purpose of this article is to explain processes a bit, and, the authors hope, alleviate some unnecessary stress.

It should help to understood that the process of approving and implementing a management plan is lengthy and goes through stages, at each of which the public is able to offer comments.  There are two upcoming stages to explain.

First stage:  The Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR, which has taken almost 10 years to produce and which takes into account massive amounts of public input) is currently expected to come before the Planning Commission and Recreation and Park Commission (probably in a joint meeting) early next year.  The Planning Commission decides whether to certify the EIR as being sufficiently accurate and complete, and the RecPark Commission votes whether to approve the management plan.   This latter Commission can make changes to the plan, but only changes that conform to options that have already been subjected to the CEQA analysis done in the EIR.  There will be ample opportunity for public comment at the joint hearing.

Second stage:  If the Commission approves a management plan, that just means a twenty year Plan has been approved.  Next the Plan must be implemented, which involves more planning because, with one exception (a project at Sharp Park in Pacifica) the SNRAMP EIR is a programmatic EIR -- a sort of complicated road map.  Yes, the SNRAMP contains what looks like detailed information about the management plans for each of the city’s 31 Natural Areas.  But it should be understood that these area plans are based on estimates, and include the maximum amount of possible change envisioned.  (This is a necessary part of planning: while RPD is under no obligation to do every single thing mentioned in the area plans, they cannot take actions that were not been subjected to environmental impact analysis.  So it’s best to over-estimate.)

The bottom line:  it is our understanding that before any of the plans for individual natural areas can be implemented, those plans have to be turned into specific projects, with budgets and timetables, etc.  There have to be community meetings, similar to those held when bond-financed capital projects are carried out in individual playgrounds or parks.  For example:  the area plan for Mount Davidson includes the possibility that an estimated number of trees will be removed.  An implementation project would state how many and which trees are to be removed from what location, when, why, and how much it would cost to do so.  The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on all this information.

It is also good to be reminded that this is a plan to be carried out over 20 years, and that only about one-third of the area planted in trees is even covered by the Plan -- those areas designated as Management Area 1 (MA1).  There are also MA2 and MA3 areas, which will have to be covered by a separate plan yet to be proposed.

There was initial public concern about the number of trees proposed for thinning.  Ironically, due mostly to severely dry weather, there are at least that number of trees which are either dead or dying, meaning in retrospect the Plan may seem overly conservative.  Be that as it may, the Plan is what it is and cannot be substantially changed, so other exigencies must be attended to under a different document.

Discussion so far has focused on thinning trees.  Perhaps the largest changes likely will be the understory.  This has been dominated by ivy and blackberry almost to the point of exclusion of other kinds of plants, leading to large stretches of trail that are dreary and monotonous.  This is unfortunate, because there are a huge number of native plants to be planted that are a delight to the eye and provide rich support for wildlife and that thrive under these conditions.  Imagine trails graced by red columbine, five different kinds of ferns in profusion, fringe cups, self-heal, scarlet monkey flower, carpets of strawberry, robust native bunchgrasses, rushes, and sedges.  The present condition of the plantation is unsatisfactory from all points of view, and the increasing danger from tree failure--aggravated by extended dry periods--is creating an intolerable situation.

It may be as well that nature is forcing the City's hand in coming to terms with a difficult problem.  Proposed changes promise to make the tree stands healthier, and to make the experience of walking its trails more diverse and exciting to humans while also being supportive for a wider variety of wildlife.

All the green you see in this picture is ivy.  Large blocks of dead trees around Aldea Housing are being clearcut, as they are a clear and present danger. Photo on Mount Sutro by Craig Dawson

Linda Shaffer is is completing her 8th year of service on PROSAC (Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee).

Sunday, November 29, 2015

 Published in Westside Observer November 2015

The response of Nancy Wuerfel et al to my article in the September Westside Observer on the dangers of the blue gum plantations in the city is rife with errors that are too numerous to correct here.  I will select a few of the more egregious ones; a full rebuttal would necessitate an article longer than the editor would accept.  The subject is of great import to the city, as there are issues of public safety as well as recreation.  A few of the errors, in no particular order:

1.  Some people want to cut down our healthy forests simply because the trees are not "native".

Cutting down trees simply because they are not native has never been a part of City policy or operations, nor is it a valid reason for removing them.  My article, and the City's draft management plan, calls for managing the Mount Davidson plantation, which includes selective tree removal where they constitute a problem.  Their being nonnative is not especially relevant.

2.  The City's Natural Areas Program has plans to convert existing habitat (including eucalyptus forests) in one-quarter of the city's parkland to native plant gardens, and that it would cut 18,000 healthy, mature trees to accomplish this.

No such conversion is proposed by the City.  The Natural Areas Program works to preserve the biological systems surviving on the pieces of original landscape (those which have never been plowed, bladed, or built on).  Most of the world's cities have similar programs to accomplish just this, as people recognize their heritage is something worth saving. 

3.  Sometimes epicormic sprouts are a response to stress, but other times they're just part of the normal growth cycle.

These sprouts are always in response to stress or injury, and the reason they are not part of the normal growth cycle and why they are a danger was clearly explained in my September article.  Production of these shoots is a desperation move to save the tree's life and even if successful it leaves the tree misshapen, aesthetically displeasing, and unsafe, and likely an intermediate stage on the way to ultimate death.

The prodigious sprouting of these stricken trees has been mistakenly interpreted as evidence of vigorous recovery.  The dying tops is the result of the breaking of the hundreds of capillary water columns resulting from the trees' inability to supply sufficient water to keep the water columns intact.  Sprouting in this case is a desperation move by the tree to keep the lower part of the column intact.  If sufficient water becomes available it may have a precarious hold on life for awhile, but even the best scenario would leave us with a bunch of short, leafy weakly-attached sprouts clothing what was formerly a smooth, clean bole--one of the traits that endears the tree to us.  Those sprouts are subject to coming loose in winds, and this will always be there because they lack the deep anchoring of naturally-formed limbs.  Photo on Mount Sutro by Craig Dawson.

4.  Mount Davidson is half covered in a eucalyptus forest.

The thousands of trees on Mount Davidson do not constitute a forest; it is a plantation, and the difference is important.

Inappropriate language creates confusion and obscures proper management.  A forest is a self-managing biological community which appears similar over time; a plantation is essentially a garden.  This is not playing with words--it cuts to the core of the matter. 

To manage, we need to understand the difference between a forest and a plantation.  To illustrate, let's take a glance at a forest:  When you drive across the Sierra Nevada the scene you see is similar to what the American Indians saw 500 years ago:  forests of pines and firs punctuated by grassy wildflower meadows, lakes, and bogs.  You see a community of plants and animals, as well as organisms from other kingdoms that are used to living with each other, as they have for thousands of years, tightly-knit into a fabric.  That scene is stable and doesn't change much over time.

A plantation, on the other hand, is artificially imposed on a land that didn't normally support those plants and it is in a constant state of disruption as the plants are forced to compete with others they are not accustomed to, and lacking the animals and other components that serve to keep the system in balance.  The result is chaotic, with usually two or three species eventually predominating.  Ivy and blackberry have claimed the understory to the exclusion of other species--and they account for the drear monotony of large stretches.  They even prevent regeneration of the blue gums, something that never happens in forests.  The plantation, therefore, contains the seeds of its own destruction because smothering blankets of ivy and blackberry prevent germination of blue gum seeds.  Ivy crawls 150-200 feet into the crowns and deprives the trees of light needed to photosynthesize.  The results are visible today with trees dying and toppling from light deprivation and the heavy burden of tons of ivy.  This tangled mess does not require expertise to diagnose; it is obvious even to a layperson.  In fact the plantation's problems are horticultural, and academic expertise is of little use.

5.  I am personally identified as "a native plant advocate [who] has called for cutting down blue gum eucalyptus in city parks for over a decade".

Not so.  I love blue gums and ask for removal only when there is compelling reason.  I do advocate for preservation of our indigenous plants and encourage their use in gardens as a means of attracting and supporting wildlife, many of which are dependent on native plants, which they co-evolved with.  Because nature has served notice that this tree is not suited to our changing climate, this represents an opportunity to diversify the overstory to make it more friendly to wildlife--part of the mission of the City's Natural Areas Program.  At present it is a biological wasteland, with only generalist species present.

About 50 years ago I became smitten with the genus Eucalyptus, and in 1977 toured Australia for six weeks specifically to learn more about this huge genus--at the time considered to contain over 600 species.  Part of that time was in the field in the company of the world's top eucalyptologists.  In 1979 I wrote my first article in praise of the Tasmanian blue gum, and have written several since, including in the February 2014 Miraloma Life.  I love this tree and have been in conversation with the Recreation and Park Department to plant them in our irrigated parks, where they can thrive.  Did you know that it has abandoned planting blue gums and hasn't planted them for several decades?  The grand old specimens in the eastern end of Golden Gate Park and its Panhandle--a de facto arboretum that should be declared a heritage site--are over 130 years old and won't live forever.  That means there will be a period of several decades when park visitors will be unable to be inspired by these majestic, clean-limbed behemoths.

In 1990, long before the City created a Natural Areas Program, I talked to the Miraloma Park Improvement Club about the state of the Mt Davidson plantation; there are some who remember that event.  My aim was to save the "forest", as most called it.  I loved its atmosphere--especially in fog or rain--evocative of the mood created in redwood forests, and as a gardener I knew that ivy and blackberry could destroy it.  In addition--and of great concern to me--was that the understory, consisting mostly of native plants that were able to survive the shade and extra moisture from fog drip, would be decimated, and with it the wildlife community.  It was primarily the understory that concerned me at the time.  Alas, nothing was done and the health and attractiveness of the grove continued to deteriorate, and we see the result in the present unruly tangle and dead and dying trees.

I see this unfortunate situation as bordering on the tragic.  A potentially prize area that can enrich the city is left to stagnate, is yearly becoming less attractive to humans, is of little use to wildlife, and is a safety hazard to not just visitors but to the entire city.  Urgent action is called for.

These trees can never assume a "tree" shape again even if they should live, as they may for two-three years should they get the promised heavy rain this winter.  Scenes like this are common in the blue gum plantations throughout the city, including Mount Davidson.  Photo on Mount Sutro by Craig Dawson.

Ms Wuerfel et al have tried to comfort the public on a subject that is dangerous and needs full exposure and debate.That debate of necessity would be contentious because it is about a subject that is very expensive and that stirs strong emotions.  Facts must trump emotions if the public is to be served.

In December I plan to write about the City's proposed draft management plan.

Jake Sigg

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Acute fire danger in San Francisco, by Jake Sigg

Everyone loves to plant trees, and we don't like to see them cut down.  But what was considered civic improvement a hundred years ago now appears a bad dream as unanticipated problems surface.  The hundreds of Tasmanian blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus) we planted in the city have been proliferating into the thousands and silently putting on bulk and weight for decade after decade, so that what was hundreds of pounds of biomass became hundreds of tons, then tens of thousands of tons.  Enter an extended drought, to which the tree--from year-round-rainfall in Tasmania--is unaccustomed.

The tree's performance until recent years seemed convincing evidence that the blue gum was adapted to our climate.  However, the 150 years it has been in California is insufficient time for nature to pronounce judgment on its suitability for local conditions.  The freezes of 1932, 1972, and 1990 gave warning that it is unlikely to endure the test of time, as the tree sustained heavy damage in those freezes, while native vegetation survived unharmed.  Now we are experiencing drought, which seems bad but is actually mild compared to others California has seen--some lasting decades or centuries.  Indigenous plants have it in their genetic memory to survive the dry periods (as opposed to higher temperatures, a different subject).

A good place to view the tree's drought problems is along O'Shaughnessy Boulevard in Glen Canyon.  Tree crowns are thinning or dying and leaves are discolored and shedding-- and they were exhibiting these symptoms even in the spring growing season!  The presence of juvenile coppice shoots all along the trunk is a signal that the tree is in trouble.  (Just what causes coppice shoots to form in response to stress is not clear.)  Some of the trees are dead, others will be dying this year, but most will be dying in the next two to three years, a delayed reaction to the concealed internal damage

What we have is a crisis, but one not recognized as such.  Large groves of dead and dying trees present a problem to city government.  If a fire were to start in, say, Glen Canyon, the potential is there for it to develop into a crown fire, where flames reach the topmost canopy.  Long strips of annually-shed bark have been documented carrying fire 12 miles.  Should the groves catch fire--especially if aided by the dry winds commonly experienced from the northeast in October-November (remember Oakland, October 1991.)--the flames and embers could be carried all over the city and even to the East Bay. 

Is this too dramatic a scenario?  Set the whole city afire--a General Alarm fire?  All the elements are present and all it takes is the right combination to produce a perfect storm.  Perfect storms do happen.  Are we willing to gamble on their not happening?

The stress on the trees of Mt Sutro and Mt Davidson is a little less because of copious fog drip and smothering blankets of ivy and blackberry with relatively high moisture content.  However, even here the situation cannot be ignored for long.  We may be lucky and get to the rainy season without a calamity, but the problem of thousands of dead and dying trees is still there.  The City  will eventually be compelled to act.  There are several hundred trees each in the Glen Canyon grove and Bayview Hill, several large groves in McLaren Park, plus smaller groves scattered around the city under various ownerships.  All told, it's well into the thousands (there are 11,000 on Mt Davidson alone).

How can San Francisco come up with the money?  Situations like this is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency was created for.  But FEMA doesn't mail checks on request.  The City must first develop a plan and funds must be applied for.  There is no plan, and none proposed, because the problem is not recognized.  The trees aren't waiting while San Francisco develops a proposal.

I confidently predict that nothing will be done, because a) City government doesn't understand the peril or the problem, and b) it doesn't like controversies.  Another prediction:  If there is widespread devastation, it won’t be anyone’s fault, it will be an act of God.

Keep fingering those amulets and rosary beads.

25 September 2014

Expect accusations that I wrote this editorial because I don't like eucalyptus trees.  I have been writing about my long love affair with eucalyptus off and on since 1979.  On my 1977 visit to Australia (primarily to learn more about eucalyptus) I came back with about 20 books on the subject, most of which I subsequently donated to the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture.  My most recent article was for the Miraloma Park Improvement Club, and can be found in Miraloma Life (February 2014 issue), the Club's newsletter.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014


I abandoned this site for posting my emailed newsletter in October 2013.  I am reopening it as a site for items that are too lengthy for posting in my emailed newsletter.  (If you would like to receive the emailed newsletter, click on link above to send me an email.  For samples of this newsletter, click on past issues posted here from 2011, 2012, and 2013.)

The following was written for Miraloma Life in February 2014, and can be found on its website (URL below)

The Great Tasmanian Blue Gum by Jake Sigg

During my many years as a professional gardener, I became smitten by the genus Eucalyptus. I traveled to Australia in 1977 to get to know these trees better, and spent several days in the field with the world’s top eucalyptologists.

In the latter years of the 20th century I became personally concerned about the deterioration of the stands of eucalyptus trees on Mt Davidson and tried to raise public awareness about it. In 1990 I talked to the Miraloma Park Improvement Club, pointing out that the takeover of the understory by ivy and blackberry was not only destroying the diverse understory plants, but also imperiling the trees. English ivy was climbing 150 to 200 feet into tree crowns, blocking light and stressing the trees by its sheer weight and root competition. The rampant growth of ivy and Himalayan blackberry that occurs as a secondary effect of tree introduction prevents the gum trees from regenerating by seed. Then, as older trees topple or die from old age—which was happening then and is accelerating now—there is nothing to replace them except ivy and blackberry that smothers the understory. Thus, the Mt. Davidson eucalyptus groves are doomed unless they are managed. Untended, the area will eventually become a treeless biological wasteland, of no interest to humans or animals. Fortunately, in 2002 the SF Recreation and Parks Department drafted a management plan to preserve this valuable tree stand.

The Tasmanian blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, is one of the world’s great trees, but in recent decades it has become the center of controversy. The debate has unfortunately obscured the merits of the eucalyptus and its proper use. In fact, the supposed detriments of the eucalyptus have little to do with the tree itself, but rather with improper siting—planting in inappropriate areas. An oddity of human nature impels us to blame the tree for its negative impacts, rather than the humans who planted it in the wrong place.

Of the approximately 700 species of eucalyptus, the Tasmanian blue gum (the type planted on Mt. Davidson and most places) is among the tallest, and one of the world’s tallest hardwoods. It can reach 150 to 180 feet in favorable sites (250 feet in India), with bole diameters of 8 feet or more. Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, director of the Melbourne Botanical Garden, played a big role in blue gum’s importation into California in the mid-19th century. He had moved from Germany to Australia for health reasons, and became a champion of the genus Eucalyptus. Von Mueller was correct in his assessment of the gum’s suitability for the California climate and its advantage of rapid growth. Fast tree growth interested the timber hungry miners and railroad builders of the 1800s, and that accounts for its widespread planting here. However, it was discovered that the wood was useless for most building purposes, because it seasons poorly, warps and checks on drying, and rots quickly. The tree did grow very well here, but land speculators betting on profiting from its lumber fared less well. Most of them went bankrupt, leaving over much of the California coastal region large eucalyptus stands as memorials to their commercial failure. The extensive grove on Highway 1 at the base of Mt. Tamalpais, climbing out of Mill Valley, is one; others include the University of California at Irvine campus and the East Bay Hills—which, after a disastrous firestorm in 1991, has become the object of heated debate.

Adolph Sutro, who in common with Eastern and European settlers considered the plains and grassslands “barren,” planted large tracts of trees on Mt Sutro, Mt Davidson, and the surrounding Westwood area. The Westwood trees were later cut down to make space for houses. In fact, the Tasmanian blue gum is one of the most widely planted trees on Earth, in part because its ability to consume water surpasses that of any other tree. Mussolini used the blue gum to dry the Pontine Marshes south of Rome, and it has been planted to drain wetlands around the world. However, now that wetlands and water have become scarce resources, many of these plantations are being removed. Water-hungry South Africa is busily ridding its riparian areas of blue gums, and habitat restoration is being accomplished by government funding as well as by volunteers.

For clarity I refer not to “forests” but to “plantations.” These large-scale eucalyptus plantings are not natural forests, which are complex systems that over time change little in overall appearance and function. The blue gum tracts are, rather, plantations installed by humans that lack the self-regulation of natural ecosystems. They are an aggregation of plants from distant parts of the world that did not evolve in association with each other, and there are no “rules” for cohabiting, as there are in natural ecosystems. In artificial plantations, a few plants inevitably come to dominate: Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, poison oak. The multiplicity of plants and the complexity of their interrelations that occur in natural forests are absent in these planted areas. Expertise in forest management is of no help in this artificial situation; they present a gardening problem, and gardeners know this challenge well.

The blue gum’s detractors talk about its negative effects, notably its “rambunctiousness”: a facility for spreading quickly via seed and muscling out other plants by dropping copious litter that smothers them. Thus, blue gums eventually create a monoculture as well as a fire hazard. These are reasons for not wanting the tree to grow in particular areas, but not for hating the species. It is merely doing a good job at what nature so brilliantly designed it to do. The blue gum has its ardent defenders, including those who would not cut down a single tree or thin out trees unless they are dead or a danger, but it would help if these aficionados would inform themselves of the inescapable management problems associated with blue gum plantations, rather than insisting on no management at all, a course that will lead to their demise. Among the often unrealized problems of managing this eucalyptus in aggregate are: (1) The innate self-destructiveness of coastal blue gum groves. Because they drip copious amounts of fog condensation, they create the equivalent of year-round rain. Weedy plants that otherwise would not survive in our dry summer climate do very well in this perennial moisture, forcing out tender and fragile species that create variety and pleasure for humans and food for wildlife. This uniformity makes blue gum groves monotonous and uninviting to humans and animals. (2) Sutro’s plantation replaced a rich ecosystem that evolved with the landscape over eons and has now vanished forever. Because this ecosystem was self-sustaining, “just leave it alone” was a viable option, but leaving a plantation alone is not an option unless we want all the trees to die. Mt. Davidson will have to be managed by humans in perpetuity. Forestry management principles are of little or no value for plantations, which effectively require gardening methods: planting or allowing to grow those plants considered desirable, while controlling undesirable plants that tend to dominate.

Preventing the plantation’s self-destruction requires thinning trees and clearing aggressive understory plants, thereby creating healthier conditions for the trees, and this action, proposed on Mt Davidson by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, is both necessary and desirable. In 1990, my sole objective was to preserve the charms of the Mt. Davidson “forest.” I loved it, especially on foggy or rainy days when it was most seductive, and I was asking only that the understory blackberry and ivy be removed so that a greater variety of understory plants could survive and the trees themselves could reproduce. Twenty-four years later, many of the plant varieties I would have liked to save have succumbed to invasive plants, more trees have fallen or have been weakened by the ivy’s sinister embrace, with nothing to replace them—and management has become much more expensive. Thus, the need for management planning and execution is far more urgent today, both for preservation of the groves and enhancement of understory support for wildlife. Variety is the spice and source of life, and now invasives have been given free rein to the extent that they have reduced the ecosystem to primarily three plants: blue gum trees, Himalayan blackberry, and English ivy.

From a biological point of view, the Mt. Davidson groves have become a wasteland, lacking the rich interactions of plants and animals that make up a natural ecosystem. Diversifying the understory of this plantation by proper gardening management, including thinning and removal of exotic invasives by hand and judicious use of herbicides, will pay huge dividends and ensure the trees’ survival. While not technically a “natural area,” the management of this “naturalistic area” has been assigned to the Natural Areas Program, and the City’s approval of the Significant Natural Resource Areas Management Plan (SNRAMP) will allow the Mt. Davidson “forest” to thrive. We must act now or this forest, and the delight it affords to us all, will soon vanish, like the native ecosystem it replaced. For reasons not clear to me, dialogue between the SFRPD and the neighborhoods has broken down. The City's proposed management plan may well be the last chance to save the Mt. Davidson forest. Please don’t let animosity, suspicion, and misunderstanding derail this program.

Monday, December 31, 2012


“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them” David Hume

1.   Advice for a new year from James Broughton
2.   And from Thoreau
3.   Got triskaidekaphobia?  Then just skip 2013
4.   Blue-banded Pelican Program is great success
5.   SF Christmas Bird Count sets record
6.   Animal potpourri
7.   Feedback: Stella Awards hoax/more on Thomas Jefferson
8.   Life on the Brink:  Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation
9.   Chinese Exclusion Laws: exhibit and speaker series
10. Bioneers - Breakthrough Solutions for People and Planet
11.  Berkeley Rapper Lil B to lecture on NYU
12.  The Ascent of Man in two minutes, music by Paul Dukas

Quit your addiction
to sneer and complaint
Try a little flaunt
Call for comrades
who bolster your vim
and offer you risk
Corral the crones
Goose the nice nellies
Hunt the bear that hugs
and the raven that quoths
Stay up all night
to devise a new dawn

~ James Broughton ~

(Little Sermons of the Big Joy)



Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence…The voice of nature is always encouraging.
     Henry David Thoreau

Unlucky 2013?

Beware of the globalisation of superstition, says John Grimond

Nov 21st 2012 | from The World In 2013 in The Economist

Twenty-thirteen: for most people, another year, much like 2011 or 2012, nothing special. Okay, the United Nations says it will be the International Year of Water Co-operation and also the International Year of Quinoa. If that doesn’t seem special enough (quinoa is, after all, only a vegetable), maybe this will: 2013 will be the first year since 1987 to have all digits different from one another. Interestingly (to some people), 20 and 13 add up to 33, which numerologists—crackpots who assign mystical significance to certain numbers—consider a “highly charged master number”, full of meaning. But not all crackpots are numerologists. Some are triskaidekaphobiacs, and for them the prospect of 2013 is not so much interesting as terrifying.

Yes, triskaidekaphobia is a long word meaning fear of 13. Lots of people seem to have it. The Romans were spooked by 13. So were the Vikings. To this day some people will not sit down 13 to dinner; a teddy bear may have to be introduced to push the total up to 14. Some will not buy a house numbered 13, embark on a ship setting sail on the 13th day of the month (especially if it is a Friday) or sleep in a hotel room on the 13th floor. Some tall buildings, notably in China and other parts of Asia, appear not to have 13 storeys at all: their numbers go from 12 to 14. Since triskaidekaphobiacs are irrational, they may really believe their hotel has no 13th floor and sleep peacefully on the one labelled 14. Thirteen, they may protest, is really just a name, not a number.

Oh yes? Those who seek explanations for the superstitious fear of 13 all seem to believe that its crucial quality is quantity. It was Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who brought the numbers up to 13 at the Last Supper (never mind that the same could be said of any of the other disciples, or even of Jesus himself). It was the 13th era, the first after the dozen 1,000-year reigns of the 12 constellations, which supposedly presaged chaos for the ancient Persians, and which even now makes modern Iranians leave their houses and go out to cleanse their souls on Sizdah Be-dar, the 13th day of the year. It was women’s 13 menstrual cycles a year that gave the number a bad name when the solar calendar came to displace the 13-cycle lunar calendar. Or so it is said by credulous expositors. 

Yet plenty of people think 13 is freighted with good associations. The ancient Egyptians believed that, on the last rung of a 13-step ladder to eternity, the soul would find everlasting life. The ancient Greeks—some of them, anyway—thought Herakles’s 12 labours were followed by a lucky 13th, his killing of the lion of Kithaeron for King Thespius, for which the reward was permission to make love to each of the king’s 50 daughters over 50 consecutive nights. Many modern Jews believe the “collective souls” of the Jewish people can be compared to the 13-petalled rose mentioned in the Zohar, a revered text for mystical followers of the Kabbalah school of thought.

The Romans were spooked by 13. So were the Vikings
Those who believe that 13 brings good luck have one thing in common with those who believe that it brings misfortune: the complete absence of reason behind their convictions.

Even so, prudent readers of The World in 2013 will tread warily in the year ahead. The superstitious may be a minority, but they are everywhere and, with the globalisation of political correctness, they should not, it seems, be ignored.

Sensitive souls (clearly most, if not all, of our readers) will realise that from 2013 on, neither hearts nor minds will be won with 13-point plans, bakers’ dozens, presentations at sixes and sevens, least of all with 13 red roses. For anyone engaged in business, or entertaining, or courtship, it will henceforth be as necessary to inquire about numerical allergies and preferences as it already is to ask about dietary ones: 2013 seems certain to contain nuts.

Blue Banded Pelican Program is Great Success
Citizen’s love spotting the birds and learning their history

A banding study being done by California non-profit International Bird Rescue is providing new information and lots of excitement among birders about the travels of California Brown Pelicans.  Reports of pelicans in Puget Sound and Victoria Island have the researchers excited as well.

So far, 1,050 rehabilitated pelicans have been banded with bright blue bands with white letters. In only three years, with no promotion about the study until now, 220 individuals have been sighted, from Mexico to as far north as British Columbia, an amazing 20% reporting rate.

Reports and photos come in daily. “What excites everyone involved is the ability to learn the history of the birds, which before this band study was difficult to impossible,” said Jay Holcomb, IBR’s director and head researcher of the Blue-Banded Pelican Project.

Two birds approximately six months of age have provided surprising data about the travels of young pelicans. R36 and R41 were admitted to IBR’s bird rehabilitation center near San Francisco, CA this past summer with human caused injuries. They were released together under the Golden Gate Bridge on August 23, 2012 to survive on their own, destination unknown. Researcher Mike Robinson working at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve on Vancouver Island, BC was the first to spot R36. Robinson took photos and used Google to find information about the blue-banded birds not typically seen among the elephant seals, snowy owls and whales in the icy waters of the Salish Sea.

“We knew that pelicans follow the fish, and that many feed along the coast of Oregon and Washington, but we were surprised that these young pelicans, who survived life-threatening, human-caused injuries, flew that far north so quickly after their release,” said Holcomb.

“This is the positive of our work, the payoff. These birds have made incredible journeys. They first flew about 400 miles from the Channel Islands, where they most likely hatched and fledged. They then flew from San Francisco to Vancouver Island, most likely following adults, a distance of around 800 miles,” Holcomb said.

This should give people a whole different perspective on pelicans who are typically associated with warmer climates and are prevalent in southern regions such as the Southeastern Seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico, Southern California and Mexico.

As it turns out, California Brown Pelicans are heartier than they look.

International Bird Rescue is asking people who spot blue banded pelicans to report them on its website at:


SF Christmas Bird Count sets record

What a glorious day for a count! It started out cool and windy, especially for the teams by the ocean, but by midday the sun was strong and hats came off.  And best of all… we set a new record for the San Francisco Christmas Bird Count. Eighteen teams counted a preliminary total of 179 species – breaking the prior SF CBC record of 177 species and surpassing this year’s Oakland CBC total of 177. (Not that San Franciscans are competitive, of course — not in the slightest.) “It was a remarkable day. I’m anxious to see the total numbers we ended up with,” said CBC co-compiler Dan Murphy, who together with co-compiler Alan Hopkins will now collect and tally final numbers.
Some preliminary findings from the count, as reported at the festive CBC dinner at the Log Cabin in the Presidio:
§ The only remaining California Quail found in the 15-mile-wide San Francisco count circle were at the Pacifica archery range.
§ Two Clapper Rails were found at Heron’s Head Park.

§ The team covering eastern Golden Gate Park set a new record of 70 species in its territory and had a “seven warbler day.”
§ The Sunset team counted 1,900 Red-throated Loons along the beach!
§ The Lake Merced team counted 40 rarities from six species that are not usually found in San Francisco, including Tree Swallows, White-throated Swifts, Great-tailed Grackles and a Tropical Kingbird.
§ The McLaren Park team – one of the teams with a particular challenge since their territory was landlocked, without water birds – found 55 species including four woodpecker species.
§ The Presidio team encountered some 3,000 gulls at a massive herring run at the end of the day.
§ The team with the highest count for the day was the Candlestick area team with a whopping 113 species, edging out the Presidio which had 104.
Click here to see more photos of the count (both birds and birders) and the dinner afterwards on our Facebook page.
Click here to read the S.F. Examiner’s coverage of the count team in the Eastern Parks area.
Thanks to the Presidio Trust for co-sponsoring the San Francisco count! If you couldn’t make it to this year’s count, please join us for our next one in December 2013.


6.  Animal potpourri - Sushi and Bugs: Parties Teach Kids a Thing or Two

College student's turtle project takes dark twist

The Associated Press

Clemson University student Nathan Weaver holds a fake turtle he is using in his research to try and save the animals in Clemson, S.C. Weaver is placing the fake turtle in roads near campus and seeing how many drivers intentionally run over it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Weaver put a realistic rubber turtle in the middle of a lane on a busy road near campus. Then he got out of the way and watched over the next hour as seven drivers swerved and deliberately ran over the animal. Several more apparently tried to hit it but missed.

"I've heard of people and from friends who knew people that ran over turtles. But to see it out here like this was a bit shocking," said Weaver, a 22-year-old senior in Clemson's School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences.

To seasoned researchers, the practice wasn't surprising.

Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squishing a defenseless creature under the tires, said Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor.


Camouflaged animals


7.  Feedback

(I received a slew of emails pointing out my gullibility on the Stella Awards; I post only three. 

As Pogo would say: “I is covered with rue.”  JS)

On Dec 28, 2012, at 6:40 PM, Richard Moe wrote:
On Dec 28, 2012, at 5:23 PM, Jake Sigg wrote:
Mrs. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City

Snopes is your friend

On Dec 31, 2012, at 5:43 AM, Michael Ellis wrote:
I am disappointed in your recent post.
I assumed you checked it all out thoroughly before posting this below is bullshit

And disappointed you should be, Michael.  I am acutely embarrassed, and I can’t claim innocence because I’m well aware of all the crap that floats around, and aware that there are places to easily check things out.  When I’ve been caught before I thought I’d learned.  Why I am so slow to learn is a puzzle to me.  I’ll now retreat into my cave and lick my wounds.

You will allow that in this crazy world believability is no longer a criterion.  What is happening in real life is often beyond credence.  However, that doesn’t excuse me.

On Dec 28, 2012, at 9:31 PM, Ruth Gravanis wrote:
Re the "Stella" Awards --  To learn about what really happened to Stella Liebeck, please go to's_Restaurants
and if you get the chance, watch the documentary, "Hot Coffee."

The Hot Coffee movie goes on to explore the pros and cons of tort reform in general.

And I confess that even after learning the facts of the case I am still uncomfortable and divided about this decision.  You may dismiss this because of my preference for hot coffee--which you can’t get anymore in any restaurant, in part because of this decision.  There is still the question of taking responsibility for your own clumsiness.

On Dec 28, 2012, at 9:25 PM, Glenn Lym wrote:
On Dec 28, 2012, at 5:26 PM, Jake Sigg <> wrote:
My inconsistencies and irrationalities fade into insignificance when I look at Jefferson’s contradictions.  At some point I came to the conclusion that we humans are full of them and must somehow reconcile ourselves to them.  I’m working on it, but it’s a tough job. 

Have you seen the video I did looking at Jefferson as an architect?  You might find it interesting in terms of Hemings and in relationship to another architect I look at in that film, Philip Johnson.

Dan Gluesenkamp:
Hi Jake - I dunno about what was in Jefferson's soul or whatever but... one of the memorable days of my life was touring his place with Bob Case. I think of that short day, often. So maybe there is something to be said for a kook who is still shaping lives 200 years after he last lusted after another primate...


8.  Tackling the Taboo:  Leading environmental activists and scholars take on population in new book 

Book review of Life on the Brink:  Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation, By Leon Kolankiewicz

When it comes to human overpopulation and the war it is waging on nature, the American environmental establishment has been AWOL for several decades.  Now comes a refreshing new anthology published by the University of Georgia Press that seeks to remind environmentalists of all that is at stake and make them reconsider their dereliction of duty. 

In Life on the Brink:  Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (University of Georgia Press, 2012, ), co-editors Phil Cafaro and Eileen Crist have marshaled a veritable who’s who of environmental and conservation leaders, scholars and activists in a collection of essays that tackles this touchy topic head on.  Cafaro is a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, president of the board of Progressives for Immigration Reform, and the author of two prior books on environmental ethics. Crist is an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech and author of Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis.

...Population isn’t ignored because it’s boring or passé, but because it touches on a plethora of compelling but emotionally-fraught and politically divisive issues, including sex, contraception, abortion, immigration, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, language, and limits to growth.  While the environmental establishment opted to avoid population and being called nasty names, it cannot avoid overpopulation’s many environmental impacts.

Life on the Brink is organized into four parts:  introduction, impacts, necessary conversations, and solutions.  The essays in each part guide the reader from the causes, current status, and impacts of overpopulation to solutions:  discussions of what we know works, as documented especially in the chapters by Engelman and Ryerson.  While the contributors have diverse opinions on different issues, what our priorities should be, and the most effective and appropriate scales at which to advocate and implement solutions to the population problem, they are united in their belief that “ending population growth worldwide and in the United States is a moral imperative that deserves renewed commitment.” 

Chinese American History Network 

Fremont Public Library to host exhibit and speaker series on the Chinese Exclusion laws and the recent Congressional resolutions expressing regret.
The "Remembering 1882"exhibit and accompanying lecture series raises awareness of the legacy of the Chinese exclusion acts, and the recent (2011-2012) U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Resolutions expressing regret for the passage and enforcement of these discriminatory laws.


Where:  Fremont Main Library:  2400 Stevenson Blvd, Fremont, CA 94538.
When: The exhibit "Remembering 1882" will be available for view during normal business hours for the Fremont Public library – Saturdays from 10-6pm, Monday and Tuesday from 1-9pm, Wednesdays from 12-6pm, and Fridays from 11-6pm. The exhibit runs from Saturday January 5, 2013 through Thursday February 28, 2013.


What: On Saturday, January 5 2013 the Fremont Public Library in conjunction with the Chinese American History Network will open for public viewing the acclaimed history exhibit "Remembering 1882." On the opening day of the exhibit noted Chinese American historian and author Philip Choy will kick-off a four speaker Chinese American History lecture series that takes place will each Saturday morning in the library during the month of January to accompany the exhibit.

In 1882 Congress passed The Immigration Act of 1882 - to prevent people of Chinese descent from entering the United States. This law broke apart families, reduced the Chinese American population in half, and denied Chinese immigrants the right to become citizens. Remembering 1882 explores the historical debate around the Exclusion Act from its origins through its full repeal in 1968, and the importance of habeas corpus to the Chinese American struggle for civil rights.

On Saturday January 5, 2013, speakers from some of the key Chinese American civil rights organizations that worked for the recent Senate and House resolutions, expressing regret for the exclusion laws, will open the series with brief insight into the work involved in achieving these statements of regret. Historian Philip Choy will kick off the lecture series with a talk on the exclusion laws and San Francisco's Chinatown, followed by a book signing.

The exhibit "Remembering 1882" is a traveling exhibit designed and made available to the public by the Chinese Historical Society of America.  Cosponsoring organizations:  Alameda County Public Library, Asian Pacific Island Public Affairs Association (APAPA), Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), Chinese American History Network (CAHN), Chinese Historical Society of America, Citizens for Better Community, South Bay Chinese Club.

Why: The series of Chinese Exclusion laws first passed in 1882 and later renewed and augmented until initial repeal in 1943, reflected decades of public debate and American public sentiment. The Chinese exclusions laws and their impacts are an essential part of the nation's history. How these laws, that flew in the face of the human rights guarantees enumerated in the US constitution, came about, how they were repealed, and how the US Senate and House of Representative came to issue resolutions disavowing these laws in 2011 and 2012, is something that every American should know.

(1.)  January 5, 2013, 10:30am:  Noted historian Philip Choy will talk about the connection between the exclusion laws and the development of San Francisco's Chinatown. Philip will also talk about his new book and conduct a book signing as part of his presentation.
(2.)  January 12, 2013, 10:30am:  Historian and author Judy Yung will speak on the role of Angel Island and the exclusion laws. Judy will conduct a book signing following her talk.
(3.)  January 19, 2013, 11:00am:  Librarian and genealogist Christine Devillers will present a talk on conducting Chinese American genealogical research and the special challenges and resources confronting Chinese American beginning their family history research.
(4.)  January 26, 2013, 10:30am:  Chinese American history activist Geraldine Low-Sabado, a fifth generation descendant of the Chinese American fishing village founded in Pacific Grove in the 1860 talks about the village and the squid fishing industry her ancestors helped found. A showing of the short documentary "By Light of Lanterns" will be a part of her presentation.


10.  Breakthrough Solutions for People and Planet -

"Bioneers has been consistently ahead of the curve.  It is a hatchery for the next wave of important ideas that five years hence people will be talking about in Rotary Clubs."    Bill McKibben, author and founder

"We face insurmountable opportunity."  Pogo


11.  From Jim Fisher
Berkeley Rapper Lil B To Lecture At N.Y.U.
By Jim Fisher
Berkeley Patch, April 4, 2012

Quick facts:
Rap name: Lil B "THE BASEDGOD"
Birth name: Brandon McCartney
Born & raised in Berkeley, attended Berkeley & Albany High.
Sample: "Earth's Medicine"

Best to you, and thanks for your newsletter. Been receiving it for years.


12.  The Ascent of Man, music by Paul Dukas