Late Guy Fawkes afternoon, the last bit of daylight before we turned the clock back an hour from “savings” to standard, I hiked up into the hills. It’s one of the best things about living here in Berkeley, the fact you can stroll out your front door and walk for miles and miles in any direction; and if you choose to head east and up, you’ll soon be far above the grid of city streets.
It was a misty, drizzly afternoon, with clouds hanging low. Less than half an hour from home, I reached the point where those clouds manifested themselves as fog and the mist and drizzle turned to on and off rain. I stopped at La Loma Park, an old quarry whose main features are a nice playground and baseball field, a working restroom, and, in clear weather, a view over the town below.
I stayed and listened. The dusk deepened and the fog seemed to dampen the noise that normally would wash up the hills from the freeway and street traffic and trains below. A single bird — a great horned owl if an app is to be believed — began calling.
After 15 or 20 minutes, I continued up the hill as it got dark, taking a series of stairways that bring you all the way up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Then it was downhill through the rain and fog in the dark.
All this reminded me of a nighttime walk many years ago, when my friend Gerry and I landed on the doorstep of a distant Irish cousin, Michael Joe O’Malley, for a nearly monthlong stay. This was on an island off the coast of County Mayo where at the time very few dwellings had electricity. There were no paved roads. Streetlights? No. One evening we hiked in the rain over to another cousin’s home. It might have been 10 o’clock when we departed on our return walk. The more civilized route would have been along a shore road to the dock and post office, the center of a little collection of houses. Instead, we walked up the road (a muddy track, really) over a steep ridge that led more directly to Michael Joe’s. I see from the journal I kept that the weather was clearing on the way back, and the moon was up. But on some stretches of the road, the darkness felt close and absolute, so dark, in fact, that I walked straight into a gate across the road without seeing it. It was kind of thrilling to be out alone in such a remote place by ourselves.
When we got back to Michael Joe’s, he was up listening to the BBC, as always.
“Did you walk up?” he asked. “Yeah. Up around the back,” I said.
“Around the dock?” “No, up around the back way.”
“Over the mountain?” “Yes.”
“Was it wild?”
And there was something in the way Michael Joe asked that last question that has stuck in my brain all these years without ever looking at the journal entry from that night. “Was it wild?” The way I heard it, anyway, he was asking whether we recognized what an adventure we’d just had and what we thought of it. My answer, in the moment, was, “It was beautiful.”
I have no way of really remembering what we saw as we walked “over the mountain” that night. My journal talks about moonlight on the sea, clouds scudding past, the sight of the shoreline on the mainland and nearby islands, the sound of the wind.
The Berkeley hills are not the west of Ireland, of course. Too much light. Too many cars with too-bright headlights. Houses crowded one upon the other ablaze with light. Yet that gloom in the city park and in the winding streets was wild in its own way.
Well, it’s here. Rain, I mean. Not in copious, toad-strangling, gully-washing volumes. And I just heard a National Weather Service forecaster on the radio counsel patience — more will be coming later today, overnight, tomorrow. As I said the other day, we’ll take what we can get. In drought times, and even just at the end of our long summer dry spells, water falling from the sky carries an emotional weight way out of proportion to what shows up in the rain gauge.
So now we get to the part of the story where we’ll grasp at nearly anything as a sign of hope, or reprieve, or simple delay of the inevitable.. Last week, much of California was blasted with 110-degree temperatures, day after day after day. When you look that in the face, you ask yourself how much worse can things get and how much this corner of the world, a world where more and more people are suffering under more and more extreme conditions, will change. Then things cool down. Some areas will have high temperatures over the weekend nearly 50 degrees lower than the all-time highs registered last week. This weekend, all the weather models and their interpreters say, it’s going to rain, and rain enough that it will put a bit of a damper on (but won’t end) the fire season.
I’ll take it — just a day of rain to take the edge off the harsh, dry end of summer and our drought. I call it a reprieve, knowing that a reprieve can be just a postponement of what’s to come.
Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.
Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”
We dug up our lawn over the last two or three years after a long period of drought-induced neglect that had turned the grass patch into a weed patch. In its place we have created what I call “Kate’s Meadow,” a semi-tidy but very colorful collection of mostly native flowering plants.
I went out the other day to take pictures of one of the plants, a black sage that’s been attracting lots of bees. I’ll occasionally post my pictures of plants and animals on Flickr, and when I do, I’ll look up the species name. I was curious when I saw that honey bees, Apis mellifera, share an epithet with black sage, Salvia mellifera (the epithet being the second word in the binomial genus/species name).
What’s the explanation for the shared epithet?
Apis is Latin for bee, and mellifera is Latin for “honey bearing.” Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus designated European honey bees as Apis mellifera, honey-bearing bee, in the 18th century. According to some sources, he quickly regarded that name a mistake and attempted to change it to Apis mellifica — honey-making bee. But under later-adopted rules of scientific nomenclature, the older, “mistaken” name takes precedence.
Black sage came by the designation Salvia mellifera thanks to U.S. botanist Edward Lee Greene, a member of the University of California faculties in the 1880s and ’90s. In a series of papers published under the title “Pittonia,” Greene set out to correct what he viewed as the misclassification of North American sages, adding them to the genus Salvia and subtracting them from Audibertia, used by the botanist George Bentham in the 1830s.
The only clue I can readily to Greene’s use of mellifera as the epithet for this species is his comment in describing the black sage as “one of the principal bee-plants.”
Doing impromptu research on railroad mayhem of yore — unwary yard workers and pedestrian getting their feet caught in frogs and then run over by trains and the like — I found myself looking through old, old numbers of the long dead but still remembered Berkeley Gazette.
For a town that had maybe 10,000 people in the mid-1890s, Berkeley seems to have more than its share of dreadful rail episodes. The Gazette did not hold back on details, though it sometimes illustrated an odd sense of priority (no, not propriety) in how it ordered its facts.
Only One Eye Witness to the Tragedy, and She Can Give But Very Little Information.
One of the saddest yet most terrible accidents that has ever taken place in the history of Berkeley occurred last evening at Dwight way, by which May Quill, the thirteen year old daughter of Anthony Quill, a grocery man at the corner of Twenty-sixth and Alabama streets, San Francisco, lost her life by having her head cut off.
I know the style of the day was to provide layers of detail in the descending series of headlines and subheads above the story, but I can’t help but admire the writers and editors who managed to work in the employment details of the victim’s father in the lede without touching on how the victim suffered her gruesome injuries.
Here’s how the San Francisco Call of the same date, on page 11 under the heading “Interesting Report of Up-to-Date News Items From Alameda County”:
Awful Death at Berkeley.
Young Girl Crushed Under the Wheels of a Local Train.
Was Killed Instantly.
The Wheels Passed Over Her Neck and Severed the Head from the Body.
There Was But One Witness.
Little May Quill the Victim—The Train Went on to the Next Station—Who Is to Blame?
Berkeley, Cal., Feb. 16.—May Quill, a girl of 13 years, who lives with Mrs. Michael J. Powell at the corner of Magee [sic] and Allston way, Berkeley, was instantly killed by the 7 o’clock south bound local train this evening while attempting to alight from it near Dwight way station. The wheels passed over her head, completely severing it from her body and crushing it beyond description. No other injuries to her body were sustained save a few bruises. Her clothing was not even tattered.
(Brutally explicit descriptions of streetcar victims seems to have been a specialty for the Call. Here’s how it described a 1906 incident in which a teenage girl was struck by a car at Mission and Third streets in San Francisco: “Mowed down by the thirty-ton juggernaut, her body was churned round the forward wheels and mangled so frightfully that it became almost welded to the [car] and could not be removed for more than an hour. When it was finally recovered the appearance it presented unnerved the great gathering that had watched employees of the United Railroads working round the car with primitive wrecking apparatus, and heads were turned away as it was borne to the Morgue wagon.”)
I see regular reports about rail deaths in the Bay Area today — mostly involving BART and Caltrain. The prevailing presumption is that most of these cases involve people taking their own lives. BART generally describes these incidents only as “major medical emergencies.” Perhaps the next day, BART police will refer to the incident by saying that they responded to “a report of a person under a train” and adding that the local coroner was called to the scene.
I often feel like those reports are overly sanitized and we ought to know more about the circumstances. How much more? Well, enough to have some insight into whatever the authorities know about the circumstances. The further gruesome details so frequently printed at the turn of the 20th century — no, I don’t need those. But those old accounts do make me wonder about the public appetite for that kind of reporting back then and about how sensitivities appear to have changed so much, at least in some respects, today.
I’ve been walking past this place for years, a house on the corner of Fifth Street and Allston Way in West Berkeley. I’ve always been struck by the place’s battered look and the declaration that it’s private property. I’m kind of wondering whether this is a warning to would-be trespassers or an announcement of principle. In Berkeley, you never quite know.
Mrs. B— not her real name — has been a schoolteacher for some time. She’s retired from full-time work, but continues as a science curriculum consultant, as a substitute and as a volunteer for a very program called Trout in the Classroom.
The program is the work of Northern California conservationists and fishing groups and teaches about one of the native wonders of our state, the rainbow trout,Oncorhynchus mykiss. The program distributes specially prepared fish tanks and other equipment to classroom and delivers rainbow trout eggs. The kids get to study the fish as they emerge from the eggs and grow just big enough over a couple months to release in local lakes. (Given the state of some of our urban East Bay lakes , sometimes that doesn’t seem like such a great deal for the baby trout. But I guess Nature and Science Education have a plan.)
The other day, Mrs. B was at a nearby school where she was helping an elementary grades science teacher set up her trout tank. When she was done, she was invited to stay for lunch, and she did that.
She went and asked a group of second- and third-graders if she could sit at their table. “Oh, sure,” they said. “We’re just talking about the war in Ukraine.”
The original version of this post was published February 19, 2005
The Writer’s Almanac notes today is the anniversary of the date in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote internment camps. It’s an event we all know in the sense we’ve heard of it. Having heard about it, most of us have an opinion about it; the prevailing view, embraced eventually even by a president as conservative and all-American as Ronald Reagan, is that it was a tragic mistake.
In another way, it’s a history we know little about. Especially in a place like Berkeley where more than 1,000 residents (the official number, published in the Berkeley Gazette in April 1942, was 1,319) were forced to leave. Several older Japanese-American couples lived in our neighborhood when we moved here in the late 1980s. They were of a certain age — my parents’ age — that made me wonder not whether their families had been sent to the camps but what their experience of incarceration had been. I never talked to them to find out. But you realize that on this street, or the next one over, and all over town, families were sent packing. To the California deserts, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, wherever the camps could be set up quickly.
In San Francisco, the Chronicle ran a story marking the departure of the last “Japanese” from the city.
“For the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco. The last group, 274 of them, were moved yesterday to the Tanforan assembly center. Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals. “
At the University of California’s commencement, campus president Robert Gordon Sproul announced that the senior class’s top student “cannot be here today because his country has called him elsewhere.” Three weeks earlier, the student, Harvey Akio Itano, had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California. (While his family remained incarcerated, he was released soon afterward and allowed to begin his medical studies in St. Louis. As a researcher after the war, Itano played a key role in discovering the molecular basis for sickle-cell disease and is recognized today as a pioneer in the study of blood diseases.)
Among the other UC seniors forced out of school before graduation was Yoshiko Uchida, who lived with her family on Stuart Street near Shattuck Avenue and kept a scrapbook (online through the University of California) of her new life (and later wrote many books about it).
You can go looking for scraps of the internment history, and sometimes they find you instead.
In October 2004, I was driving back to the Bay Area from Mojave and decided to take the long way, up U.S. 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern flank. Late in the afternoon, speeding north up the dry floor of the Owens Valley, I passed a sign saying Manzanar was just ahead. I knew the name, that it was one of the camps, that it was out in the middle of the desert someplace, but not much more than that. Suddenly, here it was. So I turned off and spent a while driving around what is now a national historic site.
Sagebrush has claimed most of the camp, though you can see come of its streets leading off into the desert, and several barracks buildings have been rebuilt. The most-frequented place at Manzanar — not counting the visitor center — is the cemetery. The bordering fence is heavily festooned with origami cranes, and lots of impromptu memorial offerings have been left behind. The gleaming white cemetery monument is carved with the kanji “I rei to,” or “soul-consoling tower.”
One afternoon not too long ago — sometime earlier this century, in any case — I found myself in Oakland, close to Piedmont Avenue, with nothing more on my to-do list for the day. I decided to take a walk up to Mountain View Cemetery. As always, in whatever cemetery I’m strolling through, I was captivated by the stories some grave markers suggest and took pictures of monuments that caught my eye.
What grabbed me about the marker above? Well, the carefully rough-cut form, probably. The names, too: a family group — father, mother, and son, and the son’s imposing, formal name: Crosby Church Whitman. Also curious, to me: the detail related on the stone that the mother and son both died in Paris, with the younger Whitman dying in 1916, during World War I, but before the United States entered the war. What was the story there?
Much later, during hours when I should have been getting some outside air in my lungs, I looked up “Crosby Church Whitman” on our universal distributed reference library. One thing led to another, and soon the Whitmans were rubbing elbows with Gertrude Stein and Alice Babette Toklas.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To start with the old Whitmans:
Bernard Crosby Whitman is the subject of a brief entry in the 1904 “National Cyclopedia of American Biography,” which says he was born in Massachusetts in 1827. He graduated from Harvard in 1846, studied law and was admitted to the bar in Maine in 1849. Then he heard about what was happening in California and came west, arriving in San Francisco in 1850. Among other activities of note, he was a Whig Party member of the state Assembly for one term and ran as a Know Nothing — nativist, exclusionary — candidate for Congress in 1856.
Mary Elizabeth Church was born in Albion, Michigan, in 1842. She was apparently brought to California as a child, and her hometown when she married Bernard was Rough and Ready, a Gold Rush settlement in Nevada County; newspaper accounts, in the Daily Alta California and Sacramento Union, reported the wedding ceremony took place in Nevada Clounty on July 14, 1858. (Take note of the dates and the ages they imply: If accurate, Bernard was 15 years Mary Elizabeth’s senior; she would have been 16 years old when she married a man twice her age. )
Their son, Crosby Church Whitman, was born in Benicia — in Solano County, northeast of San Francisco, and one of California’s early capitals — in 1864. He was sent east to prep school, graduated from Harvard in 1886 and then pursued a medical education in France and Germany. He practiced for a while at Johns Hopkins around the turn of the 20th century, then returned to France, where he resided and practiced medicine the rest of his life.
Bernard Whitman moved to Virginia City, Nevada, in 1864, the same year Crosby was born. The Comstock Lode was in full swing; Bernard is said to have taken “a prominent part in most of the litigation” related to the mines there. He was named to the Nevada Supreme Court and served a year as chief justice in the mid-1870s before moving to San Francisco, where he practiced law until his death from “an apoplectic stroke” in August 1885. His estate was reported to be worth about $10,000 — not a fortune, but enough for his survivors to get by on.
Presumably, Bernard was buried at Mountain View immediately after his death. But what about his wife and son, who according to the marker died in Paris much later?
Crosby Church Whitman turns up in newspaper accounts around 1910 as one of the founding physicians of the American Hospital in Neuilly, just outside Paris. When World War I broke out in 1914, he has asked to organize an “ambulance,” or field hospital, to help treat the masses of French and British soldiers wounded in the fight to stop the German advance on the capital.
“With unfailing courtesy to all whom he met, and the many qualities which have endeared him to his friends, he devoted himself to his new duties, soothing sufferers in words as well as by professional skill, encouraging the despondent, and frequently providing at his personal expense the best apparatus for unfortunate amputated men when the time came for them to leave the ambulance. In the multiplicity of details, many annoyances were inevitable; but he always kept his cheerful serenity; it was said that a mere glance at his countenance was enough to make a wounded man feel sure that he was on the road to recovery.”
Crosby Whitman later organized a second field hospital. By the beginning of 1916, the Harvard account says, the sheer volume of work had overwhelmed him: “On the advice of his associates, he interrupted his work, as he supposed, for a few days; but his health failed rapidly. He passed away in his sleep, at his own residence in Paris, in the presence of his mother, the household, and the attending physicians. ” The consular record of his death, on March 28, 1916, lists the cause as “congestion of the brain.”
Mary Elizabeth Whitman had lived with her son at 20 Rue de Lübeck, in the 16th Arrondissement on the north bank of the Seine — about halfway between the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower — for years before his passing. And she stayed right there until her death in 1932, at age 90. Her death record lists the cause as “senility.”
How did the Whitmans make their way, after death, back to a cemetery in Oakland?
In Crosby Whitman’s case, the answer is that he didn’t. He was cremated and interred at the Suresnes American Cemetery, on the western outskirts of Paris.
And his mother? Well, it’s not quite clear to me. Yet. The record of her death shows she was cremated and her remains held, at least temporarily, at the American Cathedral in Paris. I’ve contacted people there to see whether there are any records of what happened after that.
So, that grave in Mountain View is the final resting place of one Whitman, and possibly two. The third member of the family remains in France.
What does any of that have to do with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas? Well, not a lot. But here’s something:
Looking for information on the Whitmans on Ancestry.com, among the resources I came across were passport applications made at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The Whitmans applied for passports in December 1914. After Dr. Whitman explained his protracted absence from the United States, the passports were approved on March 25, 1915.
Crosby Whitman’s application is listed first in the passport file, followed by his mother’s. Turning to the very next page after Mary Elizabeth Whitman, I found this:
And on the very next page after that is this:
Of course, it’s just a coincidence . There’s nothing to suggest that, except for the accident of their simultaneous passport approvals, the Whitmans ever crossed paths with Stein and Toklas, who lived during these years about four kilometers away at 27 Rue de Fleurus, just outside the Luxembourg Gardens.
Long after the Whitmans passed away, and immediately after another World War, Gertrude Stein fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer. As she lay dying in the American Hospital, which Crosby Whitman had helped found decades earlier, Toklas kept watch by her bedside.
Toklas wrote later:
“I sat next next to her, and she said to me early in the afternoon, ‘What is the answer?’ I was silent. ‘In that case,’ she said, ‘what is the question?’ ”