Saturday, January 31, 2015

"Up Helly Aa," reconstructed Fire Festival, or Imbolc in Viking drag?

Guizers with torches at Up Helly Aa celebration in Uyeasound,Shetland.  Before the 19th c., tar barrels, not torches, were used. They look a bit KKKish.
The Viking Up Helly Aa, celebrated on the last Tuesday of January in the Shetland Isles in Northern Scotland, is a "reconstructed" fire festival. I'm not convinced the festival even has Viking roots, though modern-day Shetlanders would probably avow it does. I suspect the origin is a bit more obscure, as the Vikings invaded the Shetland Islands during the 8th and 9th centuries, but—detail!—there were other people living there since the Neolithic era.

The Vikings, as we know, were not big on sharing, and 19th century Viking scholars were also not keen on sharing. When something is claimed as being authentically Viking in Celtic lands, there is often a blurring of anthropological lines. What came before, is often overlooked, because it doesn't fit current thought. So, rather than observing the overlay with a cultural substrait, we often get skewed cultural theories based solely on later invading cultures—especially in Scotland where the Viking love affair is still in full swing some six centuries later. There is only "I" in Viking. Not even poetic license can alter that.

Shetland was no terra nullius before the Vikings invaded Shetland. Long before the Shetland archipelago (Scots Gaelic: Sealtainn) was under Icelandic-Norse control, it was a Mesolithic, Neolithic, then a Celtic stronghold—for millennia. The Shetland Islands were originally settled by Neolithic Bell-Beaker peoples, then the Celts, the Picts, and the Scotti, or the Irish Celts—who also celebrated a fire festival on this date as well

Since the Neolithic era, (4000 BC), people have raised cattle and sheep, and farmed the Shetland Isles. What survives are prehistoric field systems, Bronze Age burnt mounds, Iron Age brochs, and Pictish wheelhouses. The oldest archaeological find, ca. 4000 BC, is a midden at West Voe, Sumburgh. Hard to imagine now, but much of the North Sea was dry land, Shetland was lightly wooded and the climate was warmer. Neolithic burials include stone cists, and heel-chambered cairns on the island of Vementry, Punds Water and Islesburgh. Skara Brae, Maes Howe, and Ring of Brogar, in nearby Orkney, are extraordinary Neolithic monuments.

During the Bronze Age (2000 to 600 BC), the climate deteriorated, peat bogs spread, and sea level rose. Some 300 crescent-shaped burnt mounds (possible hearths) date back to the Bronze Age. "Ireland was the chief center for the manufacture of bronze and Scotland's early settlers were energetic seamen." Even way then there was a lot of travel between the islands. For millennia, there was Irish contact in the Shetlands, whether by trade, or by theft: a bronze-gilt harness mounting was made in Ireland during the 8th or 9th c. AD, was excavated from an archaeological dig.

Possibly due to a population explosion, or increased warfare, the Iron Age in Shetland saw the rise of massive fortifications: double-walled circular towers, and dry stone brochs—sometimes called "Pictish Towers", but their construction predates the Picts. Ancestors of the Picts, maybe.

Of the 120 Iron Age broch sites, Old Scatness, and the Broch of Mousa (ca. 100 BC), are among the finest preserved examples of Iron Age fort towers. In the case of Old Scatness, the Celts, the late Iron Age Picts, then the Vikings each built atop the old fortifications. Excavations at Jarlshof, confirm archaeological evidence in Mainland, Shetland, since the Bronze Age.
By the sixth century AD, Shetland had become integrated into the mainstream of Pictish politics and life. Artefacts such as painted pebbles and carved symbol stones demonstrate a strong Pictish presence in the islands. Good examples include the ogham script of the Lunnasting Stone, and Christian cross-slabs which include fine examples such as the cross slab and the Monk’s Stone, both from Papil.... From the late 8th century, Shetland was subject to the turbulent impact of the expanding Viking world.—Visit Shetland
The Viking invasions began ca. 800 AD. The earliest archaeological evidence of Norse occupation is in the nearby Orkneys (Viking Shetland was administered as part of the Orkneys, and they were both called the Northern Isles). In 800 AD, a Pictish, or Culdee hoard of silver bowls, brooches, torcs, thimbles, chapes, and a porpoise jaw, was found beneath St. Ninian's church floor on Shetland's St. Ninian's Isle. (See St Ninian's Isle Treasure. St. Ninian AKA Apostle to the Southern Picts).
Human settlement of the island dates from circa 3000 BC and there are remains of several Neolithic burial chambers known as 'heel-shaped cairns'. Little is known of the pre-Celtic and Celtic eras, but when the Norse arrived it is likely they found a religious settlement as the name of the island derives from Papey Stóra meaning "Big island of the Papar" (Celtic monks), in distinction to Papa Little. —Wiki  (see Culdees or papar.)
In 1299 AD, the oldest Old Norse manuscript from Shetland (the Norse called it Hjaltland), was over a duel, where the isle of Papa Stour is referenced. Thorvald Thoresson, accused of corruption, was called "dominus de Papay." In early Irish literature, Shetland is referred to as Inse Catt—"the Isles of Cats." 

During the outbreak of Celtic Christianity, when "green" martyrs were seeking hermitages to commune with God, the Irish monks settled on most of the Hebrides, Orkneys and the Shetland Isles, as well as the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, the first stepping stone from Shetland to Iceland. Iceland was settled by the Norse, and Celts from the British Isles—including from Hebrides and Shetland.
During the Dark Ages, groups of outlaws and farmers took to the sea from the northernmost reaches of Europe. These seafaring marauders became known as the Vikings. Some of these outcasts among the Vikings were to achieve historical distinction indirectly through dubious means. —from The Struggle against Colonialism and Imperialism in Kalaallit Nunaat
What's interesting about the Up Helly Aa festival is that it completely obliterates any connection with the peoples of the past, other than a nod to 19th century Viking revival nostalgia. It's a wayward case of settler colonialism displacing the preexisting subculture, as a means strengthening an invader's power base to shore up national identity. This was certainly true in Iceland even though Iceland was settled by as many Irish as Vikings. So, what is Up Helly Aa?
According to John Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1818), up is used in the sense of something being at an end, and derives from the Old Norse word uppi which is still used in Faroese and Icelandic, while helly refers to a holy day or festival. The Scottish National Dictionary defines helly, probably derived from the Old Norse helgr (helgi in the dative and accusative case, meaning a holiday or festival), as "[a] series of festive days, esp. the period in which Christmas festivities are held from 25th Dec. to 5th Jan." while aa may represent a', meaning "all".  —Wiki Up Helly Aa
But the Northern Isles were once described as "Pictish in culture and speech."  Not Viking. Few Pictish placenames survive, except for the northern islands Fetlar with its stone Funzie Girt (Finn's Dyke) a Bronze Age Berlin Wall, Unst and Yell, the second largest island, with 12 brochs, and 15 early chapels—a Culdee stronghold, probably not as enticing to the Norse. The dearth of Celtic "place-names suggest that the Picts may have been forced onto poorer land."
Despite many archaeological remains, we have only a patchy understanding of those who lived in Shetland before the Viking invasions of around 800 AD. Immediately before the Vikings arrived, though, it’s clear that Shetland – like much of Scotland - was part of the Pictish culture. By the time of the Viking invasion, possibly two or three hundred years earlier, Christianity had reached the islands. —History of Shetland
The "Northern Isles were the first to be conquered by Vikings and the last to be relinquished by the Norwegian crown." The historical record is weak but Woolf (2007) suggests the Icelandic sagas proclaiming dominion over the Shetland Isles are stories concocted "to legitimise Norwegian claims to sovereignty in the region. Perhaps that is also why Imbolc underwent a transformation into Up Helly aa.

An interesting aside: according to the Icelandic sagas, Egil's saga, and the Orkneyinga saga, the Broch of Mousa was used as a refuge for runaway lovers.

I suppose if one is inventive enough, the Norse origin of some island placenames could be challenged: Vementry (Old Norse: "Vemunðarey) could also be derived from a form of Finn, as in Finn's beach: as in Ventry, (Irish: Ceann Trá—which means head beach), which is an anglicization of Fionntrá, in Dingle, Co. Kerry. St. Ninian was also known as Fionnian. M, B and F, in the genitive, take on a v sound. But I'm being linguistically silly.

Maybe it would be more fruitful to look at DNA. Shetland's genetic heritage is 60% Norwegian Y-chromosome DNA (R1a Sigurd), and 40% is ancient Briton (Celts) DNA. The most common male Y chromosomes reflect the most recent migration. Apparently the Norse married lots of local women; as Norse (matrilineal) mtDNA was 30%. However:
[in] Orkney and Shetland, Roberts reported (1985, 1990) that both island populations diverged considerably in allele frequencies from neighboring populations. Roberts concluded that the islanders of Orkney and Shetland most likely represented remnants of an aboriginal gene pool that had changed on the British mainland because of later population movements.... Of the Scottish populations, Orkney [not Shetland] evidently has the closest matrilineal links with Scandinavia. The inhabitants of the Scottish islands share two to seven times more of their lineages exclusively with Gaels than they do with Scandinavians.... mtDNA lineages can be used to identify recent migration. Viking men settled and intermarried with existing populations in Shetland... —mtDNA and the Islands of the North Atlantic
So, with all that intact ancient matrilineal Celtic Briton gene pool intact, do you think their fire customs, celebrated since time immemorial, would suddenly be forgotten and just disappear with the occupation of the Vikings—only to return as a new and improved Viking festival? Methinks this particular fire festival smacks of the neo-Romantic Viking revivalist movement: think truncated Wagner as performed by Viking mummers. (Note that Up Helly Aa iis not celebrated in Scandinavia.) 

According to the Smithsonian article, "Up Helly Aa was first celebrated in the 1880s. Before then, rowdy residents would take to the streets to mark the end of the Yule season by burning tar barrels." 

Up Helly Aa is a procession of 1000 guizers celebrating their Norse heritage. Guizers (dis-guisers and galoshins) are a long-standing tradition in the Celtic ream; our modern Halloween trick or treaters are guisers

The festival is stapled onto the end of Yule season (see: Burning of the clavie), but even using the old calendar, "Old Twelfth" would have fallen on Jan. 17, not the end of January, which would be Imbolc, the Fire Festival of Brigid.

A parallel story of confusion: an Irish Medieval History Facebook post notes that people erroneously assume the pagan Celtic Goddess Brigid, who represented the light half of the year, was transported into Christianity as Saint Brigid. Ancient customs and religious beliefs were not swept away with the arrival of Christianity and traditions associated with St. Brigid’s day are thought to date from the pre-Christian period. Candlemas is the Christian overlay of Imbolc.

So taking that model for cultural continuance, despite new landlords, I suspect this Shetland fire festival is an offshoot of the festival of Imbolc, and of the pan-Celtic Goddess Brigid, which was a time for a massive spring clean-up, burning old possessions and replacing them with new ones. 


Since Neolithic times, cross-quarter days, that midway point between solstice and equinox, were celebrated with fire festivals. Cross-quarter days were marked via astronomical alignments on ancient monuments: Mound of the Hostages: Hill of Tara, Howth, Newgrange, Stonehenge. The four fire festivals, Samhain (the end of the Celtic harvest year), Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh also mark the beginning of each season. Spring was the beginning of the Roman New Year.

Imbolc might derive from Old Irish í mBolc, meaning in the belly (as in pregnant—bolg — Spanish /Galician bolsa means bag); it might mean purification or, First Milk.
...which arises from the word “oimelc/oí melg” used in the 10th century Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) which some people have taken to mean “sheep’s milk”. The word “melg” meaning ‘milk’ comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE—the ancestor language of most European languages) word “melg” which means "to wipe, to rub off". Purification/ cleansing was an important aspect of many ancient festivals and “oí melg” is not milking but rubbing, as in the act of cleansing. Further evidence of cleansing comes from the Roman festival of Februalia. The Old Irish word for February is ‘febra’, ‘febrae’ from Latin ‘Februarius’ which in turn comes from ‘februa’ meaning purifications. —Irish Medieval History: February 1st or Imbolc 
Imbolc was the second of the four great fire festivals, with significance placed upon the Light of fire. The Irish word for spring, "errach” thought to be related to the word “airreach” which means hauling and dragging. In Ireland, Imbolc is referred to as the big Spring Clean. "Right up to the twentieth century, on Brigid’s eve, the house was be scrubbed from top to bottom by the women who worked into the night." 

All debris was burned (including floor rushes, beds and bedding). Bonfires galore. Oh, and Brigid is a daughter of the Dagda, and a poet. She is the patron of the hearth, healing, metal smithcraft; and inventor of poetry, keening, and beer making. Ya don't want to piss her off. Burn, baby, burn. Sláinte!
A Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a sligh as gabh do leabaidh
Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready
Brede, Brede, come to my house tonight.
Open the door for Brede and let Brede come in.
Imbolc festival in Marsden, Yorkshire. —Wiki

Brigid's the goddess of weather, for an early spring, forget the groundhog, chant this instead:
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
 
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Lá Fhéile Bríde shona dóibh go léir (Happy St. Brigid’s festival day to you all)!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Slept on my iPad


Slept on my iPad all night long.
A little known fact, it offers excellent back support
and even stranger dreams.

Monday, January 26, 2015

So, how's your day going?


So, how's your day going? At least my MacBook is staying on now. At least long enough to write this. Neil accidentally shut my MacBook off (he doesn't get the idea that you can put a MacBook to sleep). My MacBook has a faulty on-off button, so I always let it sleep. I couldn't get it to power on, and then, I couldn't get it to stay on longer than 15 minutes. It shut down, cold-turkey, at least seven times in a row. As if it were sneezing. I won't mention my external back-up drive that also went on extended holiday. Probably because it no sooner mounted, then, the Mac shut down. Again. And again. And again.... Chain reaction. Ad infinitem.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Old Irish family stories emerging


We ran into my cousin Katie at the Nicasio Druid's Hall crab feed. Lovely surprise. Old Irish family stories emerging, overlapping, Buried history revealed. The mosaic of our lives. We'll visit her ranch at the foot of Black Mountain (Elephant Mountain!) Connection long time coming.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

FOREST KNOLLS CLEAN UP 2 short poems


Dusted with black mold,
salvaged art and journals from childhood
reward me with a blazing headache.

My grandmother's black church shoes
polished up with a gleam, 

50 years later, the insoles still hold
the shape of her bunioned feet.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tiki Totems

It begins as one tiny memory, and suddenly I am remembering sheaves of information. In the early 1960s, Barney West was carving a totem with a chainsaw, me sitting in the white convertible watching him work as my mom met up with some friends at one of the Sausalito houseboats. The day was harsh and Barney, dressed in shorts, and little else, was swarthy, sweat rolling off his back. She must've told him to keep an eye on me because he was cranky. He bristled. Wouldn't even talk to me. So, I sat there in the car, silent, and watched monsters unfold from the trunks of redwood trees. They glared menacingly from the shadows. Followed me home in sleep.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Making Butter


When we were kids, an after-school job at our neighbor's house was to churn butter as we watched Rin-Tin-Tin or Sea Hunt on the old black & white TV.  We were mesmerized.

In those days, TVs were a luxury item, and there were only two to four channels—that often broadcasted snow, depending upon where you lived. Reception was bad in the deep pocket valleys of Arroyo Road. The Stones lived on the Lagunitas side of Barranca Creek. I lived at the end of the canyon on the Forest Knolls side.

I remember watching Les Stone hitching himself up to the top of the tallest tree, lugging up an aluminum arial, and armloads of copper wire. Elaborate arial setups laced to the tops of tall pines worked, until the next big storm. They were like weathervanes. Long flat arial lines from the top of the Douglas fir to the house had to be maintained. A crack in the plastic cable, during a storm, and the line would short out. No TV. Just loud snow. The sound of deep space hissing.

So it was pretty exciting to be able to even watch TV. Stephanie Stone and I were horse crazy so we were partial to Lassie Come Home and Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. Rin-Tin-Tin was OK, because he looked like Ky-dog the German Shepherd—even if there were no horses.


One afternoon, it was my turn to churn the butter. I churned and tumped and churned until it felt like my arms were going to fall off. I churned my way through Rin-Tin-Tin to the 6 O'Clock News. My aching muscles were afire.

Still no butter. When I peeked into the churn, it was clotted, like snow on the TV. A loud thundercrack overhead. Lightning arced and struck the arial. Buckets of rain. In this way I found out that butter won't churn during a thunderstorm. It came down to science. Much more mesmerizing than the TV.

Multnomah Falls

Michael Horodyski Icy Jewel 7176 
An old high school friend posted a winter photo of Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge. It was so gorgeous, it took my breath away. Just thinking about how cold it must be in winter, also took my breath away.

And when we hiked up to the top of Multnomah Falls last summer, I was breathless, too, but for another reason, as my knee wasn't fully healed from surgery, so I used an old ski pole as a walking stick. It was bequeathed to me by the ski lift operator on Crystal Ridge—where we spent a stellar afternoon gazing at Mt. Rainer.

Neil kept telling me I shouldn't be hiking up to the top, but I was determined. it was a personal best moment. I'd been flattened for nearly a year and a half with this knee injury.

With the orphan ski pole, I was able to poke and prod my way up to the top of the first falls. It was muggy. Dragonflies practiced arial rolls worthy of the Red Baron. A storm was brewing somewhere. We lingered, refreshed by the waterfall mist, and lulled by the roaring water. No need for words. We counted rainbows until we were drenched and chilled to the bone.

Coming downhill from the falls was excruciating. I resorted to an odd crab walk, pivoting around the ski pole on alternate steps. I tried hopping, I dragged my injured uphill leg and sashayed. At one point I thought about sitting down and just scooting down on my butt to the parking lot. If only I had some cardboard. But a mile of road rash was daunting. I thought I'd never make it back down to the parking lot to my icepack and pain killers.

I hadn't been to the falls since the early 70s, right after high school. But despite the distance of time, memory was served up correctly. I hadn't forgotten how marvelous Multnomah Falls really are—despite the thundering hordes of tourists seeking the ultimate selfie shots, midsummer. Magnificent Multnomah. Gorgeous gorge. Refreshing—a page out of memory, like the picture stenciled on the cans of Oly my grannie used to sip on hot summer days.



Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mother House at Dominican


During the summer of 1989 we held our 25th annual California Poets in the Schools conference in the Mother House at the Dominican Convent in San Rafael. It was a a big international event with guest poets from several Writers in the Schools programs, and poets from the USSR and Mexico.

Dominican Convent, San Rafael, California, circa 1908 [postcard‘ Marin County Free Library 
The Convent, dedicated on July 21, 1889 in San Rafael, California, was originally the home for nine Dominican Sisters, four postulants and one novice. The same building housed a girls' school plus high school. The Sisters also taught children at St. Raphael's School at Fifth and A Streets. The college was increased to a four-year institution and the first class of Dominican College graduated in 1922. The elementary school and high school moved to San Domenico in San Anselmo in 1965. In 1971, the College became coed, and in April 2000 Dominican changed its name to Dominican University. The Convent burned in 1990, and the Sisters elected to replace the remains with a new, more modern building. —Marin County Free Library 

The Mother House, designed by San Francisco architect Thomas J. Welsh, was an intricate and ornate four-storey affair, built of solid redwood. A grand Victorian dame replete with cupolas, bell towers and widow walks. There was gorgeous turned woodwork, hidden nooks, lace-curtained vaulted windows and Greco-Roman touches worthy of any fin de siècle grand hotel. Massive grand staircases, fine tongue and groove, intricate tile-work, wall panels of black walnut, oak and rich mahogany patterned veneers.

The Mother House was a living museum. I was attracted to the early California plein-air pastoral paintings worthy of the Hudson Impressionist School, probably hung on the walls when they were still wet. There was a rumor of a Rembrandt. It also contained the usual array of religious iconography, stained glass, and wooden shields, heavy antique claw-footed furniture, and vast carpets of Persian rugs blossoming everywhere.

I gave a presentation in the foyer on my poetry and art exchange program in the USSR. It was an uncomfortable time for me as my ex, John Oliver Simon, was also there, so I was a loose cannon. As it was, I had run off to Russia to escape John, his poetry program, and my past.  But you can't escape the past. It stays with you like a shadow. (Later, I would be a modern day Conchita—Doña Maria Concepción Argüello, California's first postulant, was a star-crossed lover who grew tired of waiting for Count Rezanov to return from the dead. But that's another story...)

John and I went to great lengths to avoid each other, like wary cats, and of course, then we'd run into each other, chest-thumping on sharp turns of empty stairwells. Face to face, filled with awkward dités, punctuated with profound silence. That weekend, fate had its way with us, rubbing our noses in our own excrement at every corner. The University’s motto, Veritas fax ardens, means “Truth Is a Flaming Torch.” Dirty laundry aside, I was on fire.

At the party we shared a slow dance, Goodbye, Sweetheart, an unchained melody, for old time's sake. A temporary truce, within the sanctuary of nuns. Everyone was hoping we'd get back together. Kathy Evans teared up and said, Are you sure it's over? You fit so perfect together. But I was one mass of raw scar tissue, unfit for any man (or woman).

At one point, in order to avoid John, I ran off to join a poetry caucus encamped on the front lawn. Tobey Kaplan laughed, and said, What are you doing here, this a GAY caucus! Sure enough, Francisco Alarcón, Fernando Castro, Patrice Veccione and others were there. But I wasn't about to leave. I needed mothering. I said, You're all poets, aren't you? And so they made room for me on the nurse-log.

The Dominican shield for the year of my birth, was a purple heart, Caritas Omnia Superat, Love Surpasses all Things. Yeah, right. I deserved a purple heart just for surviving the relationship. But I had to learn the hard way that anorexia was not a workaround for betrayal. For John's year, it was Pax Copia et Sapientia, Peace, Abundance, and Wisdom. Neither of us could find peace, and wisdom was hoarded in a future that will never come. Our cross to bear.



After the big evening poetry reading, Jorge Argueta, Celia Woloch and I sat on the wide verandah, after curfew, drinking aguaguardiente, telling ghost stories under a full moon. I thought for sure we were all going to go to hell. But the ground held. It held. The word Dominican, (domini canes) means "Hounds of the Lord." I sure didn't want them hounding me throughout all eternity.

Me & Celia Woloch on the front porch

The Dominican Mother House turned a hundred years old that summer, and it was redolent with ghosts of the past. Some of them were my relatives. I'm sure when the nuns, hard up for income, opened up the convent to educational groups, that wild poets dancing in the foyer, and drinking whiskey on the porches was not exactly what they envisioned. On the other hand, the nuns were conscripted to educate the children of the wild 49ers, a rough and ready bunch of outlaws.


The history of Dominican University of California in traces back to 1850 when Joseph Alemany was appointed Bishop of Monterey.
As Bishop Alemany was returning [from Italy] to his new post in [Monterey] California, he stopped in Paris and expressed a desire to have a few Dominican sisters join him to teach the children of the forty-niners. Within three years, nine women (three American, one Mexican, and five Spanish) joined Sister Mary to form the Congregation of the Most Holy Name. In 1854, the Dominicans moved to Benicia.
History of Dominican University
Conchita, or Sister Dominica, was the lone Mexican sister in that congregation, she lies in a graveyard in Benicia, and someone brought dirt from Rezanov's grave so they could share the same earth as they eternally slept. California's saddest love story of unrequited love fired the imagination of Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky who wrote Juno & Avos, it inspired Bret Harte who wrote of
"the love at ne'er grows old," and Gertrude Atherton wrote a novel about the love affair. It was mentioned in many histories of California, including the works of Hubert Bancroft, and an 1885 history by Theodore Hittell. —SF Gate
We all slept in shocking random configurations in the old St. Thomas dormitories. There was a covered walkway that connected the dorms. Like stepping back in time. The buildings stank of old linseed oil, the contractors must've already been working on restoring the buildings during 1989. Someone wrote on Facebook that the convent fire began on the top floor, from an unattended air blow torch (used to blister paint). The painting contractor got the job because of his sister, who was a nun. No one was injured. Some of the Aubusson rugs, antique furniture and fine art was salvaged. But much more was lost in the fire.

So sad that the Mother House burned down the following July. We were planning on having our next annual statewide conference there in 1990, and we had no place to go. The Ann Hathaway cottage was far too small. I don't remember where we wound up holding our conference. I don't think Walker Creek was a conference center yet.

I had a relative at Dominican. Yes, a Dominican nun. She eventually became Mother Superior—but not there (I think). She died recently, at the age of 97. I don't recall her spiritual name but she was my grandfather's sister, Anna Reilly. She left the order, went back to Ireland, and then claimed several Irish holdings that should've come to our family. Not a very nice woman in the end. 

Several of my mother's cousins and relations either taught at, or attended Dominican during the early 1960s. Many teachers I knew got their teaching credentials at Dominican, it was the first college in California to grant BA degrees to women. It wasn't even coeducational until 1971.

In 1854, the Dominicans moved from Monterey to Benicia (following the state capitols, as it were). An Irish woman, Mother Louis O'Donnell (1887-1929) was responsible for moving the school, and novitiate from Benicia to San Rafael in 1889. Conchita, or Sister Dominica did not make that final journey from Benicia but she was there in the Mother House, in spirit. Irish women (Mother Jones) were instrumental in establishing public schools across America. During WWI, the convent school expanded to include the purchase of Meadowlands, the summer home of the illustrious de Young family, as well as holdings of the Buck family.

My cousin got her BA ca. 2010 from Dominican so we got to see lots of old building interiors, not all of it was destroyed, just the mothership. The Mother House was like a big ornate wedding cake to God and the sky. Sadly it's not the first Victorian that's succumbed to careless contractors with blow torches. Helluva birthday party, burning down the house like that. 

And only now, 25 years later, am I able to write about it. 

Christian Burkhardt: Almost Amish


While weeding through an old suitcase full of my grandmother's yellowed newspaper clippings, I found an article on an old friend, a neighbor I used to know a long time ago. A dark clipping of Christian Burkhardt & his horse Brandy pulling a custom racing cart along the backroads of the San Geronimo Valley—a familiar sight during the 1970s.

Christian and I used to go on long trail rides over rough  fire roads starting out from Forest Knolls. One time we went all the way to Mt. Tamalpais along the San Geronimo Ridge, to Alpine Dam, via the the Meadow Club, in his two-wheeled racing sulky prototype made from a bicycle, wire mesh, and aluminum strips drilled out with big holes (to keep the cart light).

Or sometimes we'd go up the Lagunitas fire roads near Kent Lake along Bolinas Ridge, to Bolinas Mesa, and onto what is now called the Palomarin Trail. We'd trot past Double Point, Bass Lake, Olema, etc. The miles flew by, the open air stung our cheeks, we'd pack a lunch and take off down the open road, not knowing where we'd end up.


I taught Christian the English names of plants. I pointed out a primitive plant, Equus, I'd say, pointing to Brandy's tail, horsetail fern (Equisetum). He'd reply in German: wassercandlen. His father was a famous botanist, they were born in Germany, so it made sense that Christian would know the German names of plants. English was his second language.

Christian was super smart and had many odd notions. He was part eccentric, part geek, and almost Amish. He wanted to harken back to a simpler time that never was. Christian once built an entire Model A Ford from scratch, because he could. But he wouldn't drive it. He was somewhat steampunk'd decades before it was reinvented. But then the entire family was most original in thought and manner. The saying, They broke the mold when....applied to the Burkhardts—all of them. Like the Amish people he admired, Christian wanted to be simple, he wanted to be plain. In fact, he did eventually apprentice with the Pennsylvania Amish community.

Christian Burkhardt and Brandy with his prototype buggy made of bicycle parts.

Christian lived with his parents and grannie on a house on a knoll that his father Hans had designed, made of river stone, cement, and floors with radiant heat. Hans loved the trees, and managed to build his house around them without resorting to scorched earth practices. Christian built an elaborate treehouse in a Douglas fir, with cathedral windows, electricity, a record player and a telescope (much to the dismay of Stephanie Stone's parents). That gave Christian quite a reputation. The Stones invested in bedroom curtains.

I don't know what part of Germany the Burkhardts hailed from, but Christian's grannie didn't speak a word of English and she too was pretty eccentric. I remember being shocked when Christian told me that when she was a young girl, his grannie was an ardent fan of Hitler; when he came to their village, she broke her arm falling off a chair cheering for him. It probably saved her life. 

When I was a teenager, I'd found a Nazi dagger up our hill, buried in the dirt above our spring. Our neighbor, German Consul, Old Man Latendorf must've been hiding refugee Germans in the woods. The story goes, when things got too hot, and he too went into hiding, my Irish grandfather stepped in as acting German Consul. First, my high school math teacher, Archie Williams, shook Hitler's hand after he won the Olympics gold medal with Jesse Owens, and now Grannie Burkhardt?

When we were cleaning out my grandmother's house last month, my uncle found the old Nazi dagger, but it was so rusted, he threw it out. I should've saved it, the little black and white enamel swastica was still recognizable, but I didn't have the heart to keep it. It was tainted with too much history. I wasn't expecting it to resurrect and intersect itself here in this blog. But I digress...


Western view from Mt. Barnabe toward Camp Taylor. we grew up on the other side. —Wiki

Back to our backroad explorations. Christian Burkhardt and I discovered that we could cover amazing distances in the racing sulky, much farther than if we were riding astride our own horses. Brandy, a dark mahogany bay Morgan with black points, a white sock, and a star on his forehead, could trot for hours. My horse had died a few years before, so I was truly horseless, no longer riding for Rafter L Ranches, and I welcomed the chance to travel my favorite ridges again.

On the way home from the Mt. Tam ride, we bit off way more than we could chew: we were late leaving Mt. Tam, it was so glorious at the top. A friend of mine, Dale Walsh, was working at the fire lookout, he invited us up and we spent the afternoon gazing out over the ridges of the Bay Area.

Coming back around Alpine Lake to the Meadow Club, we crossed the Fairfax-Bolinas Road, to pick up our fire road home, but took a wrong turn, and ended up on the top of Pine Mountain at sunset. Fantastic views of Mt. Wittenberg, Elephant Mountain, Big Rock RIdge. But we were on the wrong ridge that divided the middle arm of Kent Lake like a peninsula.


I told Christian we needed to veer to the right, and take what looked like a chaparral-lined goat track, but he wanted to stick to the main fire road. He said it made more sense. There was no arguing with him. He held the reins, so...off we trotted to the west. Then towards the south. Wrong way. I threw a fit and got us to turn back towards San Geronimo. But we discovered that there was a fence in the way. We lost valuable time searching for a way back though the fence as we didn't want to backtrack all the way to the Meadow Club. We were also running out of daylight.



We needed to get onto the right fire road that followed the crest of San Geronimo Ridge paralleling Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad bed). I found a portugee gate of sorts, a mend in the fence; we were able to lift the sulky over the barbed wire, and sneak Brandy through a gap in the fence. I laid my vest over the lower wires so he could see in order to step over the treacherous wire. Good thing it was a full harvest moon to light our way. Otherwise we would've had to spend the entire night on the ridge.

After the second summit, I was never so glad to see the first sure landmark, the pygmy sargent cypress forest, and the ghostly serpentine outcroppings. (The San Geronimo Ridge was either Marin Municipal Water District watershed, or privately held ranch lands in those days, now the Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve is accessible via the Bay Area Ridge Trail. See photos at the Bay Area Hiker's blog. A recent post is on Trailhiker's blog.)

To download this PDF of San Geronimo Ridge, go to MCPOS
I can't remember where we came down off the ridge, but I think it was by De La Montanya's place—we called it the deer camp road (there was an old deer camp on the ridge overlooking the lake, it ran into East Sylvestris fire road and dead ended at Meadow Way in San Geronimo. Of course none of us ever knew that the names of fire roads, or that they even had names. Google hindsight is a wondrous thing.

It was far too dark to follow the ridge to Forest Knolls even under a full moon. To come down off the ridge down Tamarack, or by the Nielsen's place on Resaca Road would have been positively suicidal in the dark. By the time we reached Arroyo Road, it was well after midnight. I was so cold, I wanted to trot alongside the sulky, but I had such painful chillblains, I could barely walk. I was never so glad to get home.

We didn't know it at the time, but when we didn't return home by darkfall, the families began to worry. Christian's father, Hans had sent the sheriff out looking for us, we were gone so long. Even my grandmother was worried, and she never worried much about me coming home after dark. The horse always brought me home. Christian caught hell for being out so late—they thought we'd been injured or killed. No cellphones or GPS back in those days, let alone, access to topo maps, we really were miles from civilization.


Poor Christian was socially gauche (as most adolescent boys are). He was always the little kid who lived down the road. He used to tag along after us when we went out riding. About the only thing we had in common was a love of horses.

I used to give him rides to SF State when we were attending college there during 1974-75. He helped to pay for gas and bridge fare so I was glad for his company as it was a long commute from Forest Knolls to Stonestown.

Christian didn't know his own strength. One time he twisted the door handle right off my old '58 Volvo panel van, not realizing it was locked. But he was also a mechanical genius, so he welded on a new shank and fixed it, not quite as good as new. But close. The handle drooped a bit. I offered to teach him to drive but he steadfastly refused. He didn't want to have anything to do with combustion engines whereas I was always under the hood trying to keep the damned car running.

Christian's father Hans, a botanist, was a pioneer in the process of cloning orchids. He'd hybridize and divide the orchid buds with a scalpel and put them in test tubes filled with coconut water. The orchid clones had to be constantly agitated in order to grow. There was a riot of rare orchids blooming all throughout their house. Christian's mother, Hannah, a quiet dark-haired woman of otherworldly charm, was his lab assistant. She was probably a doctor as well. There was much I didn't know about the Burkhardts.

The Burkhardts left the San Geronimo Valley and moved to a remote valley along the Noyo River during the late 1970s or early 80s. Their nearest address was Sanctuary Station, an unscheduled freight stop on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad freight line, now California Western Railroad line. The Skunk Train took them 20 miles to Willits or to Fort Bragg for provisions, but they were self-sufficient. The fire road into Sanctuary Station and Camp Nine was impassable during the wet season. I visited Christian a few times, as an activist poet friend of mine, Mary Norbert Korte, a former Dominican nun, was their nearest neighbor, and we held several rather wild California Poets in the Schools conferences at Mary's place.

The California Western Railroad, a Mendocino County heritage railroad that parallels the convoluted narrow Highway 20 (Fort Bragg-Willits Road). The CWR runs 40 miles along the Noyo River and Pudding Creek, crossing 30 bridges and trestles, and two tunnels. Northspur, 11 miles north of Comptche, on the confluence of the North Fork of the Noyo River, is the only watering hole, about half-way from Willits. Otherwise there's not much by the way of civilization in the canyon.—Wiki

Dr. Hans Burkhardt was an environmental analyst for Mendocino County, which was in the midst of clearcutting wars, disastrous for the Noyo River canyon. Hans' efforts led to the formation of the Mendocino County Forest Advisory Committee. He wrote a booklet, “Maximizing Forest Productivity” that outlined sound forest practices to sustain a healthy vibrant industry, but corporate forest owners branded him an extremist, along with marbled murrelets, northern spotted owls, EarthFirsters and Judi Bari.

The steam and diesel-powered Skunk Train, on the California Western Railroad.   —Wiki
When I was visiting the Burkhardts, poor Hans was nearly felled by a redtail hawk who mistook his shiny bald pate for dinner. Hans managed to live to a ripe old age of 75, fighting the good fight against big lumber. He's been gone ten years now. The Mendocino woods have lost a champion.

I heard that Brandy was killed by a car...but I'm not sure if that's true or not. I imagine it happened while Christian was driving one of his custom buggies. It would've utterly devastated Christian as he absolutely doted on that horse. I envision Christian living on that homestead deep in the Noyo forest, inventing all sorts of useful and harebrained contraptions. But our madcap buggy rides was surely the stuff of dreams.