Apocalypse Now

September 1, 2020

We thought our world couldn’t get any smaller than it has with the covid epidemic, but lately it has shrunk even further since California has been engulfed in flames and smoke.

The pandemic has many downsides, but one upside was clear sweet air—that is until the fires. During the spring and summer I kept my bedroom windows wide open, even on colder nights. I liked to pretend that I was camping outdoors and I’d lie by the window and breathe in the fresh cool air in great inhalations. Indoors is better than out, where mosquitos might attack and you’d be wet from fog in the morning. Snug in bed I’d just pull up a blanket and breathe more deeply the covid-era air, cleansed by a dearth of gasoline-powered engine exhaust.

 It was a warm night on the Ides of August that Holly and I were awakened by flashes of lightning at 4 am. We lay there watching the display from our windows for a while as the flashes got larger and more frequent, accompanied by louder booms of thunder until we just had to arise and walk outside. Suddenly wind whipped the trees, rain and hail pounded the deck and we sought shelter back in the house. Cloudbursts continued into the day but rain didn’t amount to much. The lightning was dry.

I could smell the smoke and see the Meyers fire from Goat Rock beach
Smoke from the Meyers fire seen from atop the Coast Range
The Napa fires looking east from Santa Rosa

That spectacular storm and its thousands of lightning strikes turned our world dark in Sonoma County and the whole Bay Area, but we wouldn’t know it until a couple of days later. Cabin fever had driven me to the coast just to walk along the beach at Goat Rock. That’s when I saw the smoke from what later was called the Meyers fire, which burned right down to the ocean but took no buildings. I drove home on Coleman Valley Road, a narrow, poorly paved country road that traverses the Coastal Range. At the crest you can see the tops of those rounded hills. I saw smoke rising up in white puffs like a column of cumulus clouds. As I drove back toward town I could see the smoke from three more fires. We were surrounded.

Looking west from our house

Goodbye sweet pure air. We had been obsessed with covid numbers, now we are obsessed with the Air Quality Index. We are part of a citizen science project using PurpleAir.com, having installed our own sensor. Anyone can use the map online to see the air quality instantly in their neighborhood. Shifts in wind direction change it constantly. If it’s under 50 we feel free to go outside without a mask.  Soon it’s down to 15, but quickly climbs back up to 134. All day the number is 105, then suddenly it’s 38. The map shows that in some places the AQI is in the high 400s—Beijing numbers.

Let’s go back to life before smoke. It was a time of boredom, gardening, breathing, reading, eating, dancing, drinking, zooming, puzzle solving, post carding, early morning walks. We reveled in our garden. At the end of the day we would set up a chair somewhere in the garden just to sit and breathe in the expiration of the plants. The oxygen rich environment soothes the soul as well as the lungs.

The native pollinator garden

After 40+ years living in San Francisco’s cold foggy summers, I’m still getting used to Santa Rosa’s pleasant weather. Hot nights are rare in San Francisco; you might get one in the whole summer, which almost always falls on a night when you’re sweating at an indoor event without A/C. Santa Rosa has fog too, but it doesn’t arrive with the same gusty intensity. On hot nights we relish sitting out in the yard and watching the light change, pointing out constellations and listening to crickets. The chirping of crickets is one of my favorite things about summer in Santa Rosa. We didn’t have them where I lived in San Francisco.

When you put crickets into a search engine, what comes up first is methods to kill them. This is pretty much true when you google any insect, even as the world insect population declines disturbingly. I don’t want to kill them; I just want to understand them. 

Crickets start their nocturnal chirping in July. That’s when we know it’s really summer. By mid-August the noise is so loud it punctures my dreams. They often keep going until the end of October or whenever it gets too cold for them to survive.

I never see them although I could probably find them if I looked hard enough. But I can pinpoint the male’s location by listening for chirping. My favorite cricket this summer lived in a tangle of epilobium and I’d check on him nightly. Then one night he was gone. Perhaps he died of old age or perhaps he was eaten by a bird. Towhees roam around the garden and I suspect one of them.

Ever since lightning strikes started so many fires in California it’s felt like the apocalypse here, with hot temperatures and smoky air keeping us indoors with air filters going. Now I struggle to remember our lovely covid summer. Ok, admittedly we are privileged—retired boomers who need not worry about loss of work or childcare. And we have great sympathy for folks who do. We can give money to the food bank and UndocuFund. We can mask up and stay six feet from everyone. We can stay home. On hot days I would get out early and take a walk in the neighborhood, nodding at neighbors with masks at the ready. We might do a bit of gardening in the morning but by afternoon we would come inside and work at indoor tasks until dusk. 

Twilight became my favorite part of the day—well two parts because we have twilight in the morning and in the evening. Photographers have divided the twilight into two “hours”. The Golden Hour, more like half an hour, is the period just after the sun rises in the morning and just before it sets in the evening. It’s the best time to take pictures of the landscape. Then there is the Blue Hour which only lasts about 10 minutes. And in between there are about 20 minutes which we have christened the Hazel Hour, just after the sun goes down or just before it rises. I don’t know why photographers don’t include these 20 minutes but I think they are the most special part of twilight.

I love that nautical twilight was measured for hundreds of years by sailors who called it night when they could no longer see a ship on the horizon. More recently scientists have divided twilight into three different phases measured by the angle of the sun as it dips below the Horizon. At Midsummer in Santa Rosa, astronomical twilight starts just after 3:30 in the morning, and in the evening it ends around 10:30. I’m so very aware now as September arrives that as the days get shorter twilight is coming later in the morning and earlier in the evening.

Lately it’s been too smoky to sit outside in twilight, but we are thankful that we didn’t have to evacuate and that our neighborhood did not experience PG&E’s rolling blackouts. Some people are still evacuated from their homes. This year the Northern California fires have claimed hundreds of buildings and seven lives.

They say disasters come in threes. We await the earthquake.

Women’s Equality Day 1970

The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.

In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first paycheck radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.

Big Rally Our NOW group’s poster from 1970

At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.

cigar2 copy (2) Me at the news desk “smoking” a cigar and reading the paper, wearing a sleeveless dress, a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and black-rimmed glasses

In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.

I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.

My grandmother, Gerda Wick (R), sorting cherries. Late 1930s?

When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.

flo and molly Me and Flo in about 1978. Photo by Ruth Mahaney

Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.

Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.

In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.

While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.

We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.

Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.

We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? They refused to serve us but we did take up a table during the lunch hour. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.

That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).

Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.

In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.

I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!

Epilogue: We went on to change our world.

Celebrating Lughnasa in Quarantine

August 1, 2020

The Gaelic festival Lughnasa, midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox, celebrates the first fruits of the harvest season. 

Here in Santa Rosa, at a more southern latitude, we picked our first fruits at the beginning of July—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peaches and plums. The neighbor’s Gravenstein apple tree that hangs over into our yard was ready for harvest around August 1 last year, but this year the apples were a couple of weeks early, maybe because we are in a drought, or maybe it’s just global warming. Everything is early this year.

Apple harvest here is usually celebrated at the ides of August at the Sebastopol Apple Festival, but of course all of our local gatherings have been cancelled for covid.

We will miss the Sonoma County fall fairs and expositions. The Heirloom Expo in September is one of our favorites and last year we heard a presentation about native bees by a company based in Woodinville WA that propagates bees and sells them. We bought some—mason bees and leaf cutter bees. They came in the mail with detailed instructions. Native bees don’t live in hives like honey bees. They are solitary and nest in holes, often in undisturbed ground (so don’t dig up your whole garden) and they don’t sting like honey bees.

Introducing the mason bees to our garden went well. They are kept in the refrigerator until you place them in the top drawer of their bee house, mounted on the fence facing east so the morning sun hits it. Mason bees place their eggs in the wooden straws provided and then cement them in with mud to protect them from predators. They emerge with the daffodils in spring. The male bees fly only three weeks and the females seven weeks. We were instructed to leave a patch of wet clay in the garden for their masonry work.

The leaf cutter bees came in June and, before reading directions, we put them in the refrigerator till we could let them out. Only the next day did we read the directions which warned against refrigeration. We killed our bees! But we ran to the refrigerator and dumped them all out on a plate on the deck hoping for revival. Then we watched, transfixed, as they slowly crawled out of their shells, stumbled to the edge of the plate and flew off into the garden. Most of them survived.

For us humans 2020 has been a disastrous year, but for bees in our garden—honey bees as well as native bees—it’s been a great one. 

Sending virtual hugs to all of you as we continue to shelter in place.

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