A Voice from ’06

Update: About half an hour after I posted this, we had a little earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey says it was a 3.8 magnitude shake, centered on the San Andreas Fault near the town of Pacifica, about 10 miles or so from where the 1906 quake hit.

A nice feature in the Chronicle marking the 105th anniversary of San Francisco’s signature catastrophe: ’06 Quake Through Eyes of Woman Ahead of Her Time. It’s a glimpse of the disaster from Leonie von Zesch, 23 when the temblor struck and one of the few women anywhere practicing dentistry at the time. (A contemporary newspaper clipping headlined “Woman Wields Forceps” describes her working “night and day” in a field hospital after the quake “battling that arch enemy of comfort–the toothache. [She] … is attractive as she is young.” Further, the article notes, “Race and caste make no difference to this dainty little lady. The dirty foreign boy receives the same gentle treatment as the daughter of a military officer.”)

Von Zesch’s account was part of an autobiography said to have run to thousands of pages, typed on onionskin paper and left among her personal effects when she died in 1944. The Chronicle’s account says von Zesch left her belongings to a niece who stashed them in an attic without looking at them. When she finally did, she discovered the writings, which will be published next month as “Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time” ($19.95 plus shipping and, if you live in California, sales tax).

If the rest of the book is on a par with her description of the earthquake and its aftermath, it ought to be a good read. It’s not clear how long after the fact she wrote her account, but it begins with the scene in the Nob Hill home she shared with her mother rocking violently as china, Mason jars, and a variety of other household goods crash to the floor. “All the while, a seeming eternity of a few minutes, there was an unforgettable humming, grinding sound that not even the walls shut out, the grinding and breaking of myriad things all over the city.” She and her mother ate a cold breakfast–a man from the gas company had already come through the neighborhood to warn against lighting fires–and then “decided to walk downtown to see whether anything had happened to the tall buildings. No one, as yet, seemed to have the remotest idea of the magnitude of the disaster.”

By the time von Zesch and her mother neared Market Street, though, it was clear the city was beginning to burn.

“In spite of the horror, the air was electric with a sort of holiday spirit, either because the disaster was a novel experience which released people from the humdrum of everyday life, or because there were in a mood of thanksgiving and glad to be alive.

“There was something of hysteria in it, too. To Mother and me, everything was fearfully exciting. We did not anticipate personal loss. Our own home on Hyde, now rented, was out of the supposed fire zone; the Sutter place where we lived, of course, would not burn! Why we and thousands of others were so optimistic, I’d like to know. The water mains were broken. People all over town were daring to light gas stoves. The wind was blowing. How could the city fail to burn?”

The Chronicle ran part two of von Zesch’s earthquake reminiscence today. It includes an excellent slideshow of images from 1906.

And while we’re talking about contemporary images and walking through the ruins, a couple of good references came to hand while I was trying to figure out where Dr. von Zesch and her mother lived (she mentions Sutter and Leavenworth, and the ruined Granada Hotel nearby; I can’t get any closer than that, and a rebuilt Granada Hotel, guaranteed at its opening in 1908 to be fireproof, is at that corner today.

Below is a film discovered by way of the Internet Archive. It’s a 1905 streetcar trip down Market Street; the Ferry Building is the structure way down the street in the distance. What’s most arresting here is the life on the street–the mix of streetcars, automobiles, horse carts, pedestrians, and the random cyclist.

That’s an 11-minute tour through the heart of downtown. For contrast, here’s a snippet of some of the same area of Market Street (note the tower of the Call Building to the right) after the earthquake.

And one last graphic take on the 1906 earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey has published a cool gallery of animations that try to convey the quake’s magnitude and the extent of the destructive shaking in the Bay Area. The image below is linked to an animation of the shaking in San Francisco:


Blue Gum Hill


A favorite walk for years, from our place in the North Berkeley flatlands, up Vine Street, Vine Walk, La Loma Steps, to Buena Vista Avenue. That last street winds up a hill full of stands of immense eucalyptus trees (also known as blue gums in their native Australia; they’re looming in the fog in the shot above) . When I say immense, I”m guessing some are pushing 150 feet in height 15 feet in girth at their base. They’re in many cases unwanted/ I recently came across a neighborhood flyer on a street in the hills that was appealing to neighbors to get together and pay for a “once in a generation” chance to cut down some view-blocking eucalyptus trees; the opportunity came up because the house in the yard of which the trees stood had recently changed hands, and the owner was willing to have the trees felled as long as he could split the expense. The eucalyptus also make locals nervous because when they burn, they burn fiercely. There’s no stopping a fire that’s burning through the crown of a stand of these trees. I remember hearing occasional sharp reports during the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 and thinking they were gas tanks exploding only to be told by an Australian spectator that it was blue gums. Absent fire–and today is anything but fire weather–they’re beautiful.

No Adverse Comment Here

Here’s a beautiful and troubling piece from The New York Times this past week: “As the Mountaintops Fall, a Coal Town Vanishes.”

The Times’ Dan Barry, one of the most eloquent and sensitive voices in American journalism (and a fine reporter, too), writes about Lindytown, West Virginia, a hamlet in the southern part of the state that has all but vanished because of nearby surface coal mining:

To reach a lost American place, here just a moment ago, follow a thin country road as it unspools across an Appalachian valley’s grimy floor, past a coal operation or two, a church or two, a village called Twilight. Beware of the truck traffic. Watch out for that car-chasing dog.

The people Barry meets recount the disappearance of Lindytown and other communities because of coal companies’ preference for mountaintop removal mining. Among the details that stick out: A subsidiary of Massey Energy, the giant coal concern, bought out the former residents of Lindytown. To get payments that amounted to a pittance for most people, they had to sign an agreement “not to sue, testify against, seek inspection of or ‘make adverse comment’ about coal-mining operations.”

“To make adverse comment about”? It’s not enough to forfeit the right to go to court or to promise to let the company do what it wants without seeking the protection of government regulations. You’d better not say anything mean about the mining, either, if you want to get the money the company is handing out. You can’t blame people who have next to nothing for signing away their rights, but you can’t turn a blind eye, either, to the fact this is more and more the way we do business: You can have your First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment and all the free speech and due process you want–but we can buy you out and shut you up. Reading the article, which certainly reflects adversely on the changes the coal companies are wreaking on the landscape of Appalachia, you wonder if any of the people the reporter talked to (including one who called the payment he got “hush money”) will suffer for having done so.

Several times, the story mentions the bedrock argument behind the mountaintop removal mining: we city people and the country at large need the coal to provide the unlimited supplies of electricity we take for granted. Of course, that argument doesn’t justify extracting coal (or other energy sources) at any cost. But our conscious choices and unconscious habits do have an impact in a wider world. Me: I’ll switch off my laptop as soon as I hit send on this post.



Thanks to a couple of people I met through some of my salmon reporting on KQED, I got to go out fishing today on a boat that put out from Moss Landing, on Monterey Bay about 100 miles south of Berkeley. I’ve considered it a little odd that I’ve developed a passionate interest in California salmon without once having fished for one. But on balance, only a little odd.

Today, I only kind of fished. I went out with Marc Gorelnik, a board member of the Coastside Fishing Club, whose boat is currently berthed at Moss Landing. His crew were a couple of guys named Chris from Marin County. All three knew their way around the boat and all the gear. They rigged the gear and set the lines while I mostly spectated (though I guess I worked in my own fashion: I had my recorder and camera with me, so I came back with sound and pictures).

Since I was a salmon rookie, the first time a fish hit one of the lines, the rod was handed to me and I reeled in whatever was on the end of the line. It turned out to be a salmon, though not a huge one. The minimum size anglers are allowed to keep this year is 24 inches; under that length, and you have to release them. The fish on I was pulling in was borderline. One of the Chrises landed the fish and then measured it against a guide on the stern. Twenty-two inches. Using a device that looked a little like a screwdriver with a blunt end–the idea is to minimize handling of fish that will be released, because the whole point is that they’ll survive to grow into mature adults–Marc “shook” the fish off the line, and back into the water it went. (The term for undersize fish, which I never heard before last week: “shakers”).

And that was the big fishing excitement of the day. Marc had his radio on, and we heard lots of boats saying they had zero luck and a handful reporting they were catching fish, some up to 22 pounds. To an inquiry from a friend’s boat, one voice on the radio said he was about to make his limit but added something to the effect that “the last fish is always the hardest to catch.” Marc responded, “I hate that guy.” (He was also out last Saturday, the season opener, and had just four shakers and several hours of weathering rough water to show for it.)

Two other fish would up on our lines, though–both shakers. The last one hit one of the rigs on our way in, immediately after one of the Chrises said, “One fish. One fish can easily be divided four ways. The fish in question is pictured (click on the images for larger versions). It was a little thing, maybe a foot long. It would have been hatched out the fall before last (2009), and then either made its way to the ocean (if it was naturally spawned) or was released on the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay (the recent practice for most hatchery-generated fish) about a year ago. Given its size, it’s got nearly a year and a half more to survive at the mininum before it will begin its run back to fresh water somewhere in the Sacramento River system.

So there it is–a shaker. I caught only a brief, brief glimpse of it. It was small, but it was a beauty.

Monday Walkabout


Above: The big oak in the schoolyard garden at Martin Luther King Jr. MIddle School, just around the corner and up the street from us. School was out today, and of course the occasion I connect the date with is April 4, 1968, the day King was murdered. I don’t remember anything about that day until hearing the announcement, at the tail end of the NBC national news, and I think Chet Huntley read the report, that King had been shot in Memphis. The rest of the evening and much of the next several days is vivid. My recollection is that the show essentially signed off with that report at 6:30 p.m. There was no cable TV to speak of, let alone CNN, so I think our immediate recourse would have been to the radio (not sure if WBBM had adopted an all-news format by then or not).

In any case, I remember that it was already dark, and it was raining. My mom had been out shopping for groceries, and she pulled up within a few minutes of when we heard the news. She had been involved in various civil rights activities and had actually driven by herself up to the South Side one night–in 1965, maybe?–to see King speak at a neighborhood church. I think we–my brothers and I–probably imparted the news in a panicked way and probably passed on the first report that King might have been shot in the head. I think that because of the shocked and despairing reaction I remember from my mother: “Oh, they always shoot them in the head!” I’m sure she was thinking back to President Kennedy. Maybe even to Lincoln. Bobby Kennedy wouldn’t be shot for another couple of months.

The connection, if any, to today. None. The schoolyard was beautiful, the day warm, and that night might never have happened except for what we remember and have brought with us into our future.

Birthday Weekend: (April) Fool on the Trail


Friday, April Fool’s Day: Day 1 of Birthday weekend, on Big Springs Trail in Tilden Regional Park, high above Berkeley’s urban jungle. The advertised weather for the day had been for a bit of a cool-off after several days of increasingly warm and beautiful days that led to record temperatures in many locations on Thursday. But when The Dog and I hit the trail, the day was warm-plus; not oppressive, but hot in the full sun. The hills are at their best right now: green, grasses profuse, lots of wildflowers, water seeping from hillside springs due to recent heavy rains (as a media type, I know it’ll be a matter of days or a week or two until someone says that this summer/fall fire season could be particularly intense because of the thick spring foliage).

Quarry Trail, Tilden Regional Park

Runner Waved Home

A while back, I wrote about a friend who was sick. Terminally ill, as it turned out.

Peter was a baseball fan, and more particularly a whole-hearted, unabashed, and season-ticket-holding fan of the San Francisco Giants, whether or not they happened to be any good in a given season.

Things were touch and go for Peter last fall, but he reached a “plateau” in his illness. He got to see the Giants win that Sunday game they needed to make the playoffs, then mow down the Braves and Phillies and get into the World Series. Then he got to see the Giants beat the Rangers to take the Series. He wasn’t well during that great run, but I know that he made one or two of the late-season and playoff games.

I talked to Peter the morning after the Giants to congratulate him. He was clearly thrilled and said, “Well, now I’ll have to live until next season.”

Two or three weeks ago, Kate got a message from one of Peter’s daughters that if friends wanted to see her dad, they’d better come soon. Kate and I spent a couple afternoons sitting with him in his sickroom — his bedroom at his home in North Berkeley. He was getting drugs to ease pain and was mostly knocked out. On one or two occasions he knew we were there.

Last night, the Giants opened the new season against the Dodgers. A little while after the game, Kate got an email from one of Peter’s daughter’s:

“My father died at 6:34pm this evening in the bottom of the sixth inning with a big smile on his face.”