Flying, Buzzing, Creeping and Crawling Around Us

On the wall at the rear of our house. It’s a blue bottle fly — either Calliphora vomitoria or C. vicina.

We had a flicker — you know, a kind of woodpecker — in the backyard this morning. And a robin and a bunch of sparrows. And an anise swallowtail butterfly that was hanging out in a little anise bush that’s regenerating itself after being cut to the ground last year.

But above is what I got a picture of: a fly.

A blue bottle fly, perhaps Calliphora vomitoria (Linnaeus 1758), or perhaps Calliphora vicina (Robineau-Desvoidy, 1830).

Both species are part of a group known as blow flies. I won’t dwell on their habits — we all sort of know what flies are up to for a good part of their lives. But like everything else that flies, buzzes, creeps and crawls around us — except maybe mosquitoes — these flies fit in somewhere. Here’s what the Encyclopedia of Life (with its British spellings) has to say about C. vicina under the category “benefits”:

Unless there is something to prevent their access, blowflies will rapidly colonise a human corpse. For this reason, they are frequently encountered by police who are investigating suspicious deaths. It is now recognised that an exploration of the insect community on a corpse can contribute valuable information to the forensic investigation and the field of forensic entomology is relatively well established. Due to their ability to locate corpses so quickly after death, blowflies have proved more useful than any other insects in giving an estimate of the minimum post-mortem interval (the time elapsed since death). To do this the forensic entomologist models the growth of the blowfly larvae recovered from the remains in relation to the scene temperatures. To date, the forensic entomology team at the Natural History Museum have been involved in some 120 forensic cases. Calliphora vicina was the primary blowfly species recovered in most of these.

And here are benefits attributed to C. vomitoria, which could prove valuable at a time when we seem to be killing pollinators:

Although blue bottle fly larvae eat carrion, the adult flies frequently feed on flowers with exposed nectaries. Pollen grains become attached to the flies’ body hair and are moved from flower to flower as they search for nectar, a process known as incidental pollination. Typically the blue bottle fly visits flowers with a strong odor often resembling rotting meat. Plants pollinated by the fly include the American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), dead horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus), skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and members of the carrot family like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

At the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station (NCRPIS) in Ames, Iowa, both the blue bottle fly and the common house fly (Musca domestica) are used to pollinate plants of the carrot family in the field and greenhouses. Several farms have used blue bottle flies to successfully pollinate vegetable crops including carrots, broccoli, lettuce, and canola. As managed pollinators, the blue bottle fly is non-aggressive to humans; the pupae are cheap to purchase and can be stored for three weeks; and the flies work in smaller areas and at cooler temperatures than bees. For these reasons, the blue bottle fly is actually being used as an alternative to bee pollinators.

I tried and failed to discover what the Latin word “vomitoria” means in the species naming context. I note, though, there appear to be more plant than animal species named vomitoria. Ilex vomitoria, for instance.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Science

Today It Rained

Flowering quince, just up the block from the old Adams place.

Today it rained. Those droplets on the flowering quince up there above are the proof. Our non-fancy rain electronic rain gauge reads .04 of an inch for the day. And since this was the first rain since January 25, that makes .04 of an inch for the month, too.

As California climatologists are quick to point out, longish dry spells are not unusual during California’s wet season. But this long dry spell matches one we had in December, when we got just .12 of an inch. Those two dry months came sandwiched around a pretty average January — 4.77 inches according to our rain gauge. So adding up the last two and a two-thirds months, we’ve gotten less than 5 inches of rain, total.

As in most of the rest of California, December, January and February are the three wettest months of the year. The official Berkeley record shows an average total for those three months, since 1893, of 13.16 inches. The December-January-February average for the 1981-2010 climate “normal” was significantly higher — 15.23 inches. (That’s a pretty wide spread, and it’s probably due to many months of missing data over the last 125 years.)

A year ago — our one really wet winter in the last six, we got 9.85 inches in February alone. Our D-J-F total for 2016-17 was 28.63 inches.

Of course, February isn’t over yet. More chances of rain are forecast over parts of Northern California for the next week. We’ll see how that pans out.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley, Weather

Annals of Infrastructure, Berkeley Street-Paving Edition

What the remaining “asphalt” looks like on Holly Street after sweeping away the gravel on the surface.

Editor’s note: The following is not whining.

Now that that’s been established, a brief tale about our short street in North Berkeley. We moved to the street several presidential administrations ago — during the tenure of the Republican before the Republican before the Democrat before the Republican before the Democrat before the current “Republican.”

“Nearly three decades ago” would also put you in the right historical neighborhood.

The street was paved within three or four years of our arrival. Not a big deal. The pavement hadn’t seemed terrible. But new, smooth asphalt seemed like a luxury.

That’s the last time the street was paved, and over the past 10 years or so, it became apparent the asphalt was breaking down. There’s lots of gravel on the paved surface. The rocks still embedded in the asphalt seem exceptionally sharp; if you happened to fall while cycling or running down the street, you’d be cut to ribbons. And much of what’s left of the pavement is eroded into little rills and gullies. If you sweep away a patch of gravel and look at it in the right light, it’s kind of beautiful.

Naturally, some of us on the street have told the city of Berkeley we’d be interested in seeing the street repaved. Year after year, the street hasn’t made it onto city’s list of upcoming paving projects. This past spring we sent a brief petition into our councilmember, the mayor and the Public Works Commission asking for the street to get attention. Last week, public works presented its list of streets to be repaved over the next five years, and we weren’t on it.

We’re not sure what, if any, recourse we have, except maybe to make more noise. In the meantime, I sent a letter to the chair of the Public Works Commission. That note (first) and her reply, are below:


I offer the following with the knowledge there are much bigger issues in the world than patches of local asphalt and with a determination not to get my blood pressure up or give anyone else too much grief over something as transient in the cosmic scheme as pavement.

If I’m reading the agenda item from last night’s council meeting correctly, Holly Street has not even made it onto the 2018-2022 street rehabilitation plan. (Question 1: Am I reading that correctly?)

I assume this is at least partly due to Holly being a non-arterial/non-collector street and thus lower priority — though I note that residential streets are getting “priority” in fiscal 2018 and also that plenty of similar residential streets in no worse condition than Holly have been repaved in the recent past or are now scheduled for repaving. Having skimmed the presentations for last night’s council meeting, I also know that funding is an ongoing challenge (for paving and every other kind of infrastructure).

Question 2: Do we have any recourse to the plan adopted last night? I mean, besides complaining to a council member who’s hearing the same kind of thing from all quarters and doesn’t seem to have much power to get our street on the list?

I think I’m at the point where I’ll suggest to neighbors that we start planting stuff in the street — there seem to be plenty of receptive areas in the remaining pavement for wildflower seeds, native grasses, etc. — and let nature really take its course. Maybe the city can adopt us as a street reclamation pilot project.

From PWC chair:

You are correct the Holly Street is not currently in any of the staff plans for repaving. On the plus side, at the end of a very long meeting last night, Council approved only the first two years of the staff proposed plan, so there is room discussion on the 2020-2022 plan years.

Your street is now in the horrific position of being too broken to maintain. Having said that, we made some incremental progress in the implementation of policy on 15% of funding available for discretionary projects. The PWC continues to recommend that once streets fail and require reconstruction, that is a good time to look at alternative technologies. As you have already expressed your neighbors’ support for green infrastructure, Holly St may be a good candidate for a demonstration project.

As the mandate to the PWC directs us to address the Paving Plan’s compliance with policy rather than specific streets, I think we should work with Linda Maio to discuss how to raise specific street concerns and find a fair and equitable way for us as citizens to 1) know the status, quality ranking of streets we are concerned about as individuals, 2) understand our individual priority streets in the context of a citywide perspective of work needed and limited available funds, and 3) develop a transparent forum that provides an avenue for citizen input to the street rehabilitation plan.

The PWC will be working to provide policy recommendations to the Council over the coming few months and I will keep you posted on our progress, looking forward to your input and suggestions. Thank you for your concern, communication, and delightful technical recommendation.

I look forward to talking in the coming months.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley

Luminaria Street, 2017

Holly Street luminaria, Dec. 24, 2006.

Just for the record (and because I haven’t done a Christmas Eve entry for a few years): The Greater Holly-California-Cedar-Rose luminaria went on last night as it has nearly every Dec. 24 since 1992 (“nearly” because we were rained out in 2008 and we put the lights out on the sidewalks on New Year’s Eve instead).

So counting that first year, last night was our 26th annual observation of a neighborhood celebration that still seems to be growing around the neighborhood. I’d say we had at least 100 people stop by our street table for hot cider and treats that the neighbors had left for the delectation of the masses.

I didn’t take pictures last night — but here’s a slideshow from 2010 that gives the flavor of the event:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley

Where’d You Go, October?

It feels like it was just days ago that I was watching a total eclipse. It was summer, we were on the edge of the high plains, and I had a drive back to California ahead of me.

Now it’s the end of October and I’ve left weeks and weeks and weeks go by without summoning the resolve to say anything about personal events and incidents that have intervened.

Partly that’s the product of what feels like an avalanche of catastrophic news. Leaving the frayed state of our national union aside — I wonder if I have heart or mind enough to really wrestle with all that — we have had hurricanes. And hurricanes. And fires. And an honest-to-goodness slaughter of innocents that — remember Stephen Paddock? — took only days to fade from the news.

What would I have said about September and October, if I had said something?

We went to Baltimore, and I got a chance to see good friends and hang out with family and see one of the best views of New York you will ever see.

We got a quarter-inch of rain.
We bought a new car.
We had dinner with friends.
I haven’t seen enough of friends and family.
We missed the worst of the wildfire smoke.
Our weather has finally turned cool and a pretty decent “winter” storm is due in this weekend.

To quote a poet I like, in October, I “lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.”

Bring on November. And rain. And more words.


Filed under Berkeley

Birthday Reflection

My father at age three and a half months, with his mother in December 1921.

Certain dates have acquired fixed meanings in my head. Family birthdays, for instance. September 3 is one of them — my dad’s.

He died five years ago this summer. He seems to have both vanished and to be as present as ever.

The physical presence is what’s gone, of course; that person about whom we worried, who often baffled and angered us, whom we loved and felt tender toward, was gone just like that. His ashes are in the same grave with our Mom’s — she died suddenly 14 years ago last week, and I still find myself saying “Oh, mom” out loud — and with the casket of our brother Mark, who died just before he turned two. There’s a whole story about that grave site, when and why it was purchased and how three family members wound up there. For another night, maybe. It must be said in the meantime that those remains in that spot were — are — the least of what those people were.

In that sense, in the sense of who Dad was and how he we saw him in life, he seems to be right here with me. I think about him every day. Still remembering a life of light and dark moments. Still trying to figure him out. Still trying to understand the gifts he gave all of us and those that he couldn’t give.

He lived to be nearly 91. If that’s a stake in the ground — I don’t presume much about my own future, but Dad lived nearly exactly as long, within about a week, as his mother — there are decades ahead to try to work all that out.

(The picture above is a favorite: Our grandmother, Otilia Sieversen Brekke, and my dad, at their home in Alvarado, Minnesota, in late December 1921. Dad was a little less than four months old. Grandma shows a warmth and attentiveness in this shot that doesn’t come out in other pictures.)

1 Comment

Filed under Family, History

Hot and Smoky and September

I will get back to the conclusion of the travelogue at some point this weekend. (It’s only been a week since I got back; I still remember most of what went on out there.)

But tonight the subject is the heat — it may have hit 108 here in Berkeley, which would have broken the town’s all-time heat record set 104 years ago (our local weathe record goes back to 1893).

And in San Francisco, where the previous record for September 1 was 90, the official high was 106 degrees. That bettered the all-time record of 103, which had been reached in 1988 and 2000.

But there’s more than heat to the story.

We are under a stagnant dome of high pressure. There’s very little wind at the surface, and for now, our dependable cooling sea breeze, which allowed folks on this side of the East Bay Hills to escape the severe heat wave that visited in June, is utterly absent.

The air is not only still, it’s full of crud. To be more specific, smoke from wildfires far to our north has drifted into our region. The result is a lurid kind of smoggy sunlight during the day and a waxing gibbous moon that has a persistent amber hue to it. There’s enough smoke in the air from fires that you can smell it and detect a smoke haze in the streetlights tonight.

Of course, this isn’t a disaster like the one that’s been visited on Houston. It’s not the kind of condition — persistent heat and reliably foul air — that folks in the San Joaquin Valley deal with all summer. And no, it’s not terribly humid, so it isn’t sticky and I can imagine getting to sleep tonight.

But it is warm out — 77 degrees as we creep tonight — and it is strange and smoky. This day and night have made an impression.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Berkeley

Eclipse Road Trip, Days 8-10: Mountains and Motels and Stuff

Along Highway 487, north of Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

We witnessed the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, took our time packing up, had an early dinner downtown, and then headed out on an alternate route toward Denver, state highways 220 and 487, thinking to avoid the parking lot that Interstate 25 had become with the Eclipsed Masses heading back to their lives.

In fact, there was very, very little traffic along 487 — although probably a lot by that highway’s standards — and we didn’t see any signs of the masses until we hit the settlement of Medicine Bow, which I recall being the setting, sort of, for the old TV western (and perhaps the movie and novel that preceded it) “The Virginian.” In the dusk, a long line of cars waited to gas up at what looked like a two- or four-pump gas station; a large crowd milled around in the huge parking area outside the adjacent store.

We finally joined the main exodus when we got to Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, and had about 40 miles of stop-and-go traffic down to Loveland, where the first thing we saw when we got off the freeway was a couple fighting on the side of the road (yes, I stopped to see what was happening when the woman appeared to flag us down; seeing that alcohol appeared to be involved, that the parties didn’t appear in danger of doing each other any real physical harm, and that they didn’t want the services of local law enforcement, we went on our way. They turned out to be staying at our motel).

Along U.S. 285 near Fairplay, Colorado.


Anyway. I don’t have time this morning — Thursday, in Moab, Utah — to give a blow by blow of what took us from there to here. But Tuesday took us to Denver International Airport, where The Dog and I took leave of Kate, who flew back to the Bay Area so she could be at work on Wednesday.

Then The Dog and I — I did the driving — headed out of the Denver area on U.S. 285, through a couple of pretty vigorous mountain thunderstorms, across Kenosha Pass and South Park and eventually to U.S. 50, where we turned west and stayed the night at a mountain lodge. (My brief adventures trying to find the hotel, just below 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, and my hourlong radio appearance by phone from my Wi-Fi-less, cellphone-less hotel room on KQED’s “Forum” program are entertaining details perhaps to be expanded upon later.)

Along Colorado Highway 145, near Norwood.

Wednesday we crossed Monarch Pass on U.S. 50, then wound our way south and then west and then north from Montrose, Colorado, to Moab (U.S. 50, U.S. 550, Colorado highways 62, 145 and 90, Utah 46 and U.S. 191 were all encountered in this leg of the journey).

All I can say about this part of the world: It’s insanely beautiful, with virtually every turn revealing something I’m taken aback by. And what a varied landscape, from mountain crags to miles and miles and miles of red rock canyons and from dense conifer forests to oceans of sagebrush.


We’re about 900 miles from Berkeley at this point, and I was tempted to try and do it all in one go. But I won’t. Today we’re headed for Ely, Nevada, about 400 miles away. That will leave us with a long but eminently do-able drive tomorrow (I used to drive the 500 miles from Berkeley to Eugene at the drop of a suggestion; traveling solo with The Dog, however, is slower. Plus I’m always stopping to gawk at something or to read a roadside plaque).

More later.

Near the town of Bedrock — seriously — on Colorado Highway 90.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family, Travel

Casper Eclipse, Before and During

As it turns out, I was an enthusiastic participant in the eclipse experience but sort of a lousy observer. My one idea for recording the event visually — to shoot a movie of the oncoming darkness and return of daylight — misfired because I apparently didn’t hit the record button when I thought I did. Oh, well.

But Kate was on the job. She caught the images below, looking west from our Casper golf course ridge. The first image was less than 10 before totality, I think. The second just after totality began.


Filed under Uncategorized


Well — the clouds held off, and the smoke wasn’t a factor. What a lot of anxiety for … maybe nothing.

But the eclipse itself? Overwhelming. I’ve already used that word on social media.

First, watching darkness steal across the rolling terrain across the west from our viewing point, a ridge above the Casper city golf course.

Then the last sliver of sun vanished behind the edge of the moon.

I was puzzled — couldn’t see anything through my viewing glasses. When I pulled them away, the sight was dazzling. The moon, a jet-black disc surrounded by brilliant halo of pure silver light. I have nothing I can compare it to. Just writing that brings a jolt of emotion.

I looked through binoculars to see if other details were visible. There seemed to be flares and flashes of iridescent colors all around the rim of the moon.

Around us, the city’s streetlights had all come on. On the golf course below us, a herd of pronghorn antelope that had been grazing in two and threes quickly gathered and began running down a fairway.

The eclipse lasted almost two and a half minutes here. Boy, did that 150 seconds fly by. The first light had the same pristine silvery quality as the corona around the moon.

The moon has finished crossing the sun’s disc now, and sometime later this afternoon we’ll be heading south, toward Denver. But what a day. I’ll remember Casper for as long as I’ve got a memory.

One last note: I didn’t attempt to photograph the eclipse itself. Didn’t have the gear, really, and there are a lot of great photographers out to capture the event, including one who was sharing our ridgetop perch. I’m hoping to get an image or two from him to share.

I did record some sound, though, since I had my phone in hand. Beyond my bellowing, it’s cool to hear the sound of people cheering in the distance. Here’s 20 clean seconds:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Travel