A monarch butterfly, emerged May 2020.

This has been the month of butterflies. We had a stand of milkweed in the front yard, Asclepias curassavica, or what I’ve heard called tropical milkweed. According to this source, it’s native to many islands across the Caribbean and parts of South America and introduced here in California. Monarch butterflies are partial to this plant, as well as other varieties of milkweed. This particular species is believed to pose a problem for the butterflies, though. It doesn’t get cold enough here in the winter to kill the plant. So the leaves and anything living on them survive from one butterfly season to the next.

One of the things that might live on the leaves is a parasitic protozoan called Ophryocystic elektroskirrha. Called OE in the world of monarch studies, the parasite can be debilitating, causing deformed wings in some monarchs and weakening others. The biological consensus seems to be that OE is everywhere. Adult monarchs carry it and deposit it on plants where they feed or lay their eggs. Eggs can be infected. More commonly, monarch caterpillars become infected when they eat infected vegetation, and infected caterpillars metamorphose in their chrysalides to infected adults that continue the cycle.

We didn’t know from OE when I picked up those plants a couple years ago. And we didn’t know about it when I grew a bunch of new plants from seed last year and planted them in the front yard. (We also didn’t know about a lot of the other surprisingly commonplace organisms that can come along and kill monarchs, either, but that’s another story.) By last fall, we had read about OE. But we left the tropical milkweed standing because, well, it was there and no monarchs were around.

But late in the winter, there was some monarch mating activity we didn’t witness. By late March, monarch caterpillars had appeared in the milkweed. I only saw a few at first, but over the coming weeks, we counted about 40 of them in our small milkweed patch, all seemingly at a similar stage of development. They systematically devoured the leaves on one plant after another until they had stripped all the milkweed bare.

Asclepias curassavica, meet Danaus plexippus.

Then the caterpillars migrated to various spots around the front entrance of the house. Kate counted 30 chrysalides by the time the great pupation was finished. The stumpy remains of a pomegranate bush was the most popular chrysalis site. But we also found them on our mailbox, on one of the pillars of our front porch, on the porch stairs, on a stalk of fennel, on random pieces of wood, and next door on a neighbor’s bicycle lock cable, dog leash, fence and gate.

Chrysalis on bike cable; pupated April 19.

A couple weeks ago, they started emerging. Twenty-five so far, we think. (Kate, the science teacher, has mapped and charted the location of each. She’s also interested all the neighborhood kids in what’s going on, so we sometimes have a sort of free-form, socially distanced classroom in the front yard.)

Since we knew about OE and its effects, we were a little concerned about the condition of the butterflies that would emerge from all the chrysalides. All but about five have appeared to be healthy, emerging with no problems, all parts intact, and flying off very quickly after their wings dried.

The bike-cable chrysalis; eclosed on May 7.

What about the rest, the ones that have not appeared healthy or died before they emerged? Well, there’s another story there. Complete with actual butterfly names. To be continued.


A couple of days ago, the phrase Rancho Mariposa came into my head while I was describing the parade of monarch’s appearing on the estate here.

“Mariposa” is Spanish for “butterfly,” and it’s a street name here in Berkeley and over in San Francisco and I’m betting in many, many other towns. The name has been stuck on a Sierra foothills county, on that county’s biggest town, and on a creek that runs through both. “Mariposa” was apparently first used as a California place name there.

It’s easy enough to imagine how the name came to be. Someone saw a bunch of butterflies somewhere and was inspired to name the place for the insects. You hope for a more particular story, and there is one in which butterflies aren’t lovely, fragile ephemera but a memorable nuisance.

An 1806 Spanish expedition struggling through an unattractive stretch on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley encountered an unattractive-looking stream. A priest with the party, Pedro Muñoz, recorded what they found there.

September 27: In the morning we crossed the river and, taking a northerly direction, we pushed through about a league of very high, thick tules, in the midst of which could be seen a few clearings well covered with grass. After traveling about three leagues, more or less, we stopped at a stream which runs from east to west. It has no running water, only a few pools, where we were forced to pitch camp. From the point where we left the tule swamps to this place the land is really miserable. Salt flats and alkali patches, with innumerable ground-squirrel burrows are all that one can see. There are at this spot about sixty oak trees and a few willows in the bed of the stream. The forage was extremely scanty, and that the country appeared to have been burned over by the Indians did not conceal the fact that the land is very poor. Consequently there is little pasturage.

This place is called the Mariposas, “the butterflies,” because of their great number, especially at night. In the morning they become extremely troublesome, for their aggressiveness reaches the point where they obscure the light of the sun. They came at us so hard that one of them flew into the ear of a corporal of the expedition. It caused him much discomfort and no little effort to get it out.

A House Up the Street

It sold for $550,000 in 2003. It sold for $985,000 in 2015. In 2019, after a small addition was added, it sold for $2,050,000.

You may have heard that the Bay Area real estate market has veered into the crazy zone and the nutty rices that buyers are shelling out for shelter. Not too long ago, that seemed like something happening far away — maybe down in Palo Alto, the cradle of Silicon Valley and all its wealth, where we used to hear stories about modest old bungalows being purchased for millions just to be knocked down and replaced by something grand, or at least big.

Well, the irrationality — I won’t try to diagnose the causes right now, or comment on the unsustainability or the fact it has made my own neighborhood neither we nor our kids could possibly afford if we were buying now — has shown up right on our street. We’ve lived here since the late ’80s after a house turned up that owners were selling in “as-is” condition and we were able to scrape up a down payment with help from my parents and my wife’s employer. I can’t tell you how lucky we felt to be able to do it.

Late in 2017, a house that had been in the same family for more than half a century went on the market. The specifics: two bedrooms, one bath, a little under 1,300 square feet. A relative of the elderly owners, who had passed away, traveled back and forth from Southern California to update the house, which looked nice when the “for sale” sign went up.

The asking price: $875,000. Now, it’s understood that in this market that figure was a fiction, one meant to attract attention and leave plenty of room for the price to be bid up. Friends who long ago lived on the street were interested because their daughter was looking for a place. They have some resources, but were not optimistic that they’d win the bidding war, which they were certain would go well over $1 million. As a last resort, they wrote a letter to the sellers about their past connection to the street.

I’ll bet it was a nice letter, but they needn’t have bothered. The little bungalow sold for $1,650,000 . Nearly double the asking price and well beyond the offer they stretched themselves to make.

Once you’ve seen that happen, it’s not surprising when it happens again. And since early last year, sales in the $1.5 million range have become commonplace in the surrounding neighborhood. Not that that’s the limit: Earlier this year, a nicely redone home a couple blocks from us — four bedrooms, three baths — sold for $2.8 million. The agent sent a flyer around after the sale that bragged the home had attracted five all-cash offers — including the eventual buyer — that were over the $1.8 million asking price. (Did I bury the lede there? The house sold for $1 million over that original price, which today is better thought of as a reserve price, a minimum acceptable bid in what is understood to be an auction).

And this keeps happening. A month or so ago, another home on our street — next door to the one that sold last year for $1.6-million plus. I found the sales history: In 2003, the long-time owners sold the home, which was then probably two bedrooms and one bath, for $550,000. I’m guessing they felt they made out all right on the deal.

In 2015, the house, which I believe was at least modernized by the interim owners, sold for $985,000. High, perhaps, but in the current situation not insane-sounding. The new buyers added a 500-square-foot addition — a master bedroom and full bath — and remodeled the kitchen. A couple of months ago we ran into the owners, who still seemed like newcomers to the neighborhood, on what happened to be their last night in the house before they moved to Copenhagen.

The house was staged for the sale, the sign was posted out front, and I believe the bidding began at $1,395,000. How high did it go? The sale became official just yesterday. The price was $2,050,000.

As it happens, I crossed paths yesterday morning with a real estate agent who was putting up a sign for an open house. I said hi, and he responded with a bright, “Want to buy a house?”

“Ha!” I said. “Not in this neighborhood. You know that story.”

“Keep saving your pennies,” he said. “Maybe someday you can.”

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.

Berkeley Trashcan Battle, Round 2


Though I’m spending the week in Seattle, an informant alerts me that the simmering hyperlocal brouhaha over trash receptacles on the sidewalk in the 1500 block of McGee Avenue (just north of Cedar) appears to have entered a new phase. The disgruntled and anonymous resident who recently offered a neighborly chiding to those who had failed to remove their garbage cans from the sidewalk after trash pickup — see “Berkeley: Your Absolutely Free Advice of the Week” — has upped the ante. He or she has now duct-taping an official-looking notice informing them that they’re in violation of city ordinances.

On the off-chance that the person who’s posting these notices reads this (it’s a long shot): I’d love to talk to you about the history of your grievance. Send me an email or leave me a comment.

Tax Day Moon


We watched the start of tonight’s/this morning’s lunar eclipse from the sidewalk in front of the house. A couple of neighbors came out to see the moon starting to enter the Earth’s shadow — but the show was a little misty and it looked like things would get more overcast as the eclipse progressed. About 25 minutes or so before the total phase was to begin, the moon was all but invisible down here at 120 feet above sea level. But the weather forecast had suggested that the marine layer, the band of atmosphere influenced most by the moisture coming in from the ocean (and thus foggy), might be just 1,500 feet deep. Grizzly Peak Boulevard, the main road through the Berkeley Hills, tops out at just below 1,700 feet — so I thought the sky might be clear, or at least clearer, up there.

We drove up, and as we wound up the road south past the city limits and above the University of California campus, ascending above 1,000 feet, more and more cars appeared. There are a few small parking areas as the road nears its summit, and those were full of cars. Soon, we were passing cars that were only pulled halfway off the pavement. Hundreds of people were up at the top of the hills at midnight watching the eclipse.

We pulled into the parking lot for the Tilden Park steam trains just as totality began. It was kind of a cool moment: We could hear people cheering and howling up at the moon from all around. A true Berkeley sky party. We stayed up in the parking lot — which had a great view and just a handful of people watching — for about an hour before heading back down. There were still dozens of cars up along the road — the partiers and die-hards watching the moon return from the dark.

(That bright star in the pictures, to the right of the moon — it’s Spica, the principal star of the constellation Virgo).

The News Arrives with a Bang


We had that rarest of Berkeley weather days yesterday. OK — not as rare as snow. But we did have this:

Early in the afternoon, thunder started to roll as a storm headed our way across San Francisco Bay. We had a series of strikes over about five to 10 minutes, each closer than the last. One was marked by a brilliant flash and maybe a three-second pause before a big, house-shaking peal of thunder. I went to look out one of the front windows — to see if I could see the next bolt. In a couple of minutes, it came: a brilliant streak just to the northwest of the house accompanied by a simultaneous ear-splitting crash. The lights went out for a few seconds, then came right back on. I didn’t see exactly where the bolt hit or if it had hit, and was preoccupied with checking out a circuit-breaker that had tripped when the power failed. I figured the lightning had struck a school building that’s about 200 yards from us. I was expecting to hear sirens.

Maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes later, a fire truck rolled slowly up the street in the rain. I went out to take a look, and the first thing I noticed was that a big redwood up at the next corner, a full, beautifully symmetrical tree that was 80 feet or more tall, wasn’t there. My one thought going up the street was a hope that the tree hadn’t come down on the adjacent home and that the guy who lives there was OK. He was, emerging from the front door as I got up there. He said he was supposed to have an arborist come out next week to talk about thinning the tree, which had lost a couple of boughs during big windstorms over the winter. “I guess I don’t have to worry about that now,” he said.

The tree had detonated when the lightning hit it, and shreds and spears and chunks of wood and big sections of the trunk were scattered in the street and throughout nearby yards, It turned out houses a couple blocks away had been struck by debris. About a dozen homes, most in a 50-yard radius, had windows broken or wood come through the roof. Several houses, on the lots immediately north and west of where the tree stood, had more significant damage — one section of the trunk, 20 or 25 feet and weighing hundreds of pounds, had flown through the air, striking the front roof of a two-story house and fallen into the front yard. The house on the corner lot, where the tree’s owner lived, had parts of the roof smashed in and was red-tagged as uninhabitable for the time being.

And the tree itself? All that remains is a 25-foot-high snag that comes to a jagged point reaching up over the adjacent homes and foliage. Neighbors, gawkers and curiosity seekers have all been out picking up bits of the blown-up tree (the smithereens to which the redwood was blown); I saw a woman pull up, tour the site, and walk away with what looked like a 50-pound remnant. The red-tagged home and the remains of the tree have served as a set since for every Bay Area TV news show — until 11 p.m. last night and then again this morning before dawn. In fact, when I went out this morning to check out the scene, the Channel 2 reporter asked me if I’d go on camera. No, I said — I haven’t shaved since last Friday. I was wearing what amounted to pajamas. Et cetera. I’m all for projecting a rugged, laid-back image to my public, but I thought that might be going too far.

Today: The rumor is that a crane is coming to lift a massive piece of the tree off the corner house so that the place can be cleaned up and inspected prior to having the roof rebuilt. (And as you can see from the following slide show, the rumor was true. A crew has been buy all day removing big pieces of the trunk from the house, then taking down the snag. All very impressive to watch and still a big draw for locals who heard something happened here).

Here’s a collection pictures from the street, from yesterday afternoon through this afternoon:

Dog on the Couch


Yeah, we’re one of those outfits — we let The Dog get on the furniture. And here he is today, Day Four of the Return of Winter to the Bay Area. It seems that every time we’ve been out since Wednesday evening it’s been wet. He actually seems to enjoy the weather and the process of us toweling him off before we come inside again. But he does a great impression of a sad dog in the too-long intervals between walks. For extra points, he somehow splays his front paws in opposite directions.

Through Streets Broad and Narrow: Curbside Wreck


This got my attention: A badly damaged car parked at the curb of Warring Street south of the Cal campus, with debris from the apparently recent collision still scattered in the street. Being as impulsively voyeuristic as the next person, I decided to stop and investigate when I saw there was a note on the windshield. I’ll refrain from the particulars in the note except to say that it was the driver who hit the parked car took responsibility, apologized, and left a personal phone number and apparently full insurance information, including a claim number.

Taking a closer look at the car that was hit, I think the owner is in for more than a little body work here. This Honda probably dates back to the mid-90s. And the driver who hit it really hit it — the parked car was pushed maybe 10 feet forward and two or three feet to the right and up over the curb. The back left of the car — destroyed. The rear wheel seems to been pushed askew. All told — 15- to 20-year-old car, severe body damage and chassis and/or axle damage — we’re looking at a total loss. Then again, I’m no insurance adjuster.

(You also kind of wonder how it happened. There’s a stop sign about 300 feet or so from the crash site, so you’d guess the driver either didn’t stop or floored it out of the stop sign to build up enough speed to move the other car as far as they did.)


Buddhists, Meet Bootists


The corner of Josephine and Berryman streets in Berkeley. The Three Buddhas pickup is one we see parked in the neighborhood, and in fact the firm seems to have had a very long-running remodeling job going on around the corner from where the picture was taken. I’ve seen cars booted by the half-dozen in Chicago, but rarely here in Berkeley. Given the general laxity regarding parking in most residential neighborhoods here — I’ve had a cop refuse to ticket someone who had parked partway across my driveway on the grounds that it was still possible to get a vehicle past it — I always wonder what someone had to do to wind up with their wheels locked. Probably, they’ve picked up tickets in some of the commercial districts where enforcement has been known to be on the zealous side. (Credit for the headline goes to Kate Gallagher.)


Berkeley Cares, Then Corrects


Out with The Dog this evening, walking along a bike path not too far from the house, I was startled to see what looked like a memorial: lots of flowers next to the barrier that separates the path from the BART tracks just north of the mouth of the Berkeley tunnel. Funny how fast I started processing possibilities: Was someone waylaid here? Had someone gone over the barrier and gotten electrocuted or hit by a train?

In the dark, I could see there was a sign. Shining a light on it, I found it said someone died 10 days ago in a cycling accident at this spot, just off the dead end of Neilson Street, just south of Gilman. Looking more carefully, I could see that the message had been edited to add details about the incident, including the name of the man who died and the fact he suffered “a heart attack” after an incident in which he apparently tried to avoid hitting someone else on the path.

Looking for the name online, I see a couple of accounts with more details. Stefano (Steve) Maranzana, a 39-year-old UC Berkeley employee, suffered cardiac arrest after he swerved to avoid a skateboarder on the path and crashed into the BART fence. Yeah — 39, with a child on the way, if the news accounts are correct. On his way home from work, just a mile or two north of this site. (Here’s one story, from Charles Burress on the Albany Patch site, and an obituary in The Daily Californian.)

I have to say there’s something about the edits to the sign that seems to go just a little beyond providing an update — like someone suggesting that the original is ill informed (as opposed to less informed). Also, what’s the whited-out portion about? I’m probably reading too much into it.

In any case, from what I read about Steve Maranzana, he was a thoroughly good guy and probably would have appreciated the original sentiment. Take care, everyone.