No, They Don’t Write Ledes Like This Anymore

The Berkeley Gazette, February 17, 1896.

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.

An example from the front page of February 17, 1896.

An Awful Death.

Little May Quill Decapitated by the Local.

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.

Private Property

Fifth Street, Berkeley.

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.

Executive Order 9066

Manzanar Cemetery Monument.

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.”

Reservoir was originally built to serve a nearby agricultural community in the Owens Valley. It was improved and enlarged during World War II by internees. See: Manzanar Reservoir.

The Loneliness of the Pandemic Parking Lot

North Berkeley BART parking lot, April 5, 2021.

Up through the second week of March 2020, I was a regular BART commuter. That week, it turned out, I was traveling back and forth to downtown Oakland instead of to my office in San Francisco. Instead of covering the news, I was serving on a jury to hear a case involving alleged criminal threats. (Two neighbors had had a falling out over a cat that had gotten into a car; unpleasantness ensued, harsh words were exchanged, and the police were called; twelve of us were charged with determining whether laws had been broken; we decided none had. I also remember that the judge in the case admonished us to wash our hands every time the trial had a break.)

On March 16, with the trial done, nearly all Bay Area counties issued a stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic. Thus ended my routine commute and those of hundreds of thousands of other office types in the Bay Area who had the option of working at home. What happened to public transit at that point is a well-known story. Here in the Bay Area, ridership for most operators plunged to previously unimaginably low levels. Within a month, BART’s patronage was down 94 percent — I’ve kept my own daily spreadsheet — and the agency was forced to end late-evening service for more than a year.

Ridership has returned slowly and unevenly. BART’s recorded its highest weekday pandemic-era patronage a couple weeks before Christmas — 33 percent of its pre-pandemic level on December 12. The two downtown San Francisco stations that used to be the system’s busiest, Embarcadero and Montgomery, are still below 20 percent of their former traffic. North Berkeley, a couple of blocks from our house, is scraping along at just over one-fifth of its old passenger level.

The week the shelter-at-home started in 2019, I strolled over to North Berkeley to see how dramatic the change in the station — did it look completely deserted? — had been. It was pretty lonely looking. The parking lots, which on a typical weekday would be completely filled from 8 a.m. or so until the afternoon rush hour was well under way, were virtually empty. Periodically since then I’ve gone back to take pictures. At some point, I started taking shots looking down the same row of parking spots in the station’s southwest parking lot. I figured that over time I’d get a portrait of a return to BART normalcy as commuters filled the lots again. I’ve gotten a portrait, all right, but one that shows how far from the old state of things we still are.

With all that as preamble, here’s a series of shots of the lot, starting with one that I took exactly two years before the pandemic stay-at-home orders were issued. It is enough to make me wonder whether that old “normal,” which we had no reason to think would change so abruptly, will ever return. (Not to mention that this parking lot is likely to be developed as housing — dense, apartment-style housing — sometime in the next decade.)

North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 6 p.m., March 19, 2018.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot, 815 a.m., March 19, 2020.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 6 p.m., October 19, 2020.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot, 2:07 p.m., April 5, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 10:30 a.m., June 29, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 2:03 p.m., July 29, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 4:19 p.m., September 24, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 11:05 a.m., January 21, 2022.

‘It Was the Greatest Place on Earth’

The Bird, by Daniel Gies via Flickr.

When Kate and I got married, a rainy December evening in a past century, we ended the day by dropping into a bar that had been part of our courtship: The Albatross. The bartender, Bob Johnson, broke out a bottle of Cook’s to celebrate the occasion.

At one point in my early Berkeley wanderings, when I had a dozen addresses in half a dozen years, I lived about three blocks from the bar. I became a little bit of a regular, playing darts there and joining a softball team the bar sponsored. Later, a group of friends and I persuaded Bob, who along with his brother Val owned the place, to let us in an hour early on Friday nights so we could sit around a table in back and read “Ulysses” aloud. After Molly Bloom had breathed her final “Yes,” the group continued for awhile, going down to the bar to read poetry.

One Friday, the theme was baseball poems. Kate and I had just started going out, and she came with me. I only remember two poems from that night. Our friend Bill Joyce read “Ty Cobb Poem,” by William Packard (“…there is one question that usually never gets to be asked: who was the greatest major league baseball player of all time the first man who was voted into the Hall of Fame whose mother took a shotgun and killed his father during the first week of this player’s major league career?”)

The other poem from that evening that’s stuck in my brain is “Casey at the Bat,” because Kate, my date, performed it from memory. Wow! There may have been no joy in Mudville, but there was at our table. She won the hearts of all within earshot.

There were many other evenings at The Albatross. Kate and I would usually sit at the bar and talk to Bob or Val — I don’t remember them ever working together — and partake of The Bird’s proto-pub-bites gastronomical specialty, “muffies.” I guess they were a sort of pig in a blanket, a sausage of some kind swaddled in dough, precooked and heated to perfection in a secret room just behind the bar. Bob and Val also countenanced outside food, so sometimes we’d bring in plates from Everett and Jones, just down the street on San Pablo Avenue. And there was as much freshly popped popcorn as you wanted, for free.

Then the Johnsons sold the place in the late ’90s. We ran into Val once or twice afterward, but we saw Bob at his next stop, Berkeley Espresso, in a new building that had been put up at the corner of Hearst and Shattuck, fairly often. Kate and I asked about him at the cafe last year, and one of the long-time employees there told us he passed away a few years ago.

Now The Albatross itself is about to be history. The place has been closed since mid-March because of the plague. Its current owners announced earlier this week that they need to be off the premises by Nov. 30 because of “money running thin, no foreseeable re-opening date due to the ongoing pandemic, and new rent demands from our landlord.”

We hadn’t been down there much in recent years. After the Johnsons sold it — a full generation ago, for goodness’ sake — it got spruced up, expanded its hours (it had always opened at 8 p.m.), got a license for hard liquor and drew bigger and bigger crowds. Our infrequent drop-ins weren’t bad experiences, except for the one really awful Irish coffee I was served when Brennan’s was on its last legs and I was looking for alternatives. I think the last time I went in was for a Sunday night pub quiz with my son Thom and a few of his friends several years ago, and it was a blast to see how big and enthusiastic the crowd was (plus, we came in second and won some still-unredeemed drink tokens).

As I said long ago in writing about Brennan’s decline, a bar’s closing is a small loss in the big scheme. But it’s still a loss — of community, of a place that may have put a little bit of an imprint on you. (A friend, King Kaufman, said in remembering The Albatross that “it’s where I saw the only graffito that ever made me laugh out loud. I saw it on the Saturday night of Easter weekend, and it said ‘Easter’s cancelled: They found the body'”).

My own nostalgic feeling reminded me of “Bilbao Song,” a Brecht-Weill number we got to know as kids on a record by Will Holt. Play us out, Will. …

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao
Was the greatest dancehall in the world I'm sure.
There you could for just a dollar whoop and holler, whoop and holler, whoop and holler,
And do a lot of things I wouldn't call so pure.
All the same, I'm not so sure that if you'd gone there you'd have liked it - 'twas a special kind of place.
Brandy laughter hit you at the door.
Blades of grass grew right up through the floor.
The moon shone green through a roof of glass,
And the music that they played there had such class!

(Chorus)Ah that Bilbao moon, when love was worth your while,
Ah that Bilbao moon, when people lived in style,
Ah that Bilbao moon, where did the time all go?
Ah that Bilbao moon, I guess we'll never know.
I'm not so sure you would have liked it, ah but then,
It was the greatest, it was the greatest,
It was the greatest place on earth.

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao,
Has re-opened under different management.
Lots of palm trees, lots of ice cream, very flashy, very flashy,
But you know, it's not the same establishment.
Now I'll bet if you walked in you'd feel at home,
That is, if potted palms are just your style.
No grass is growing on that modern dancefloor,
The moon shining through the roof is just a moon,
And the music that they play there is the kind you'd never ask for.
Ah, Joe, play me that old time tune!

That Corrosive Effect

Monterey Avenue, Berkeley.

It’s the day we have an apparent victor in the presidential race. As a journalist working for a middle-of-the-road outlet that doesn’t hold with political activism — not something I’m arguing with for the purposes of this post — I’m not given to broadcasting opinions on the record. This preserves an appearance of fairness in the way I approach my work. Not to say that the appearance is an illusion, because being open to new people, facts, ideas and opinions, to listen, to try to understand them, weigh them, judge them and convey them fairly is central to the work.

But having developed a habit of thought like that also makes me constantly check myself and my own conclusions and to approach many — most?— claims I encounter in the world with at least a little skepticism. So on a day like this, when so many people around me — friends, family, community — are celebrating, I’m not inclined to join in the party.

As I wrote a friend earlier, my pessimism is not to be easily tamped down, and I think the celebrations are a little premature given the reality that our defeated incumbent seems determined to put up a fight before acceding to the will of the voters. Foremost in my mind are fears about what the next chapter of the election battle — the recounts and the court fights — will look like and how much damage the disappointed loser can still do to the government and our democracy while he still controls the levers of power.

The net effect is a little corrosive to any sense of joy I might have. Yeah, the celebrations are ongoing, and it’s good to see the people around me relieved and happy. I just can’t stop myself from thinking, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As my friend said in regard to the current occupant of the Executive Mansion, “Two and a half months is a very long time for a wounded sociopath of his magnitude to occupy the presidency.”

Mariposas

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 World of Dog Poop: Requests, Entreaties, Demands

Directions for cleaning up after your stylized dog, outside the city of Nagoya, Japan.

In our Berkeley dog-walking days (2006-18), I often considered the ethical and practical dimensions of dealing with canine excrement. It turns out lots of other people do, too, as evidenced by the advice posted – for free! – I see during my urban strolls.

Above is a sign I saw just outside Nagoya, Japan, during a visit a while back. It made me wonder how many of these advisories I’ve recorded over the years. The answer isn’t astronomical – 20 or so, after a quick look through my Flickr camera roll. Most are from Berkeley, but a handful come from elsewhere in the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City – with a few entries from Japan and Italy.

The Flickr album is below. If you’ve got a shot for me to add, send it my way.

Canine Advisories

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 about the nutty prices 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 a place 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 “as-is” 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 one from 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.