Wednesday, October 31, 2018

After the fall

Last day of the Celtic year, While moving boxes of my medieval Celtic books to the garage, rather than do a header, I took a spectacular backflip skid down the front steps while trying to protect my knee, I sort of rode it out on my back like a skateboard champ. But later, I got  clobbered by a demented box of art supplies stashed on the highest shelf of the closet on my left arm, and again by a crate of Xmas stuff leapt off the shelf and smashed my right arm, so I just gave up. I think they were going for the jugular and carotid. Or maybe my head. I said,  sheesh! Third time’s a charm. Don’t disturb the ghosts. I didn’t get much done. Some days are like that. I may have landed on my back but now I have a big bruise on the front of my shin. I must’ve flipped like a cat, mid-air. All those years on horse, and donkeyback have taught me how to fall. No tailbones were involved but it hurts to slouch. And sitting in a chair or car seat is plain uncomfortable. My arms are sumo buff and bruised. When I go down for the count, I do it with verve and style. But I hurt in some very odd places.

My life for the past 20 years...

My life for the past 20 years, as I've known it, has come to a drastic end. A man, unable to deal with his past, depression, rage, has decided that I'm part and parcel of the problem. I need to go. Kicked out like a dog after 20 years of service. With not even a bone, let alone, severance pay. I, who have sacrificed and subsumed so much of my own life for his needs, I who have struggled to keep him afloat, to keep him clothed and fed, to keep his house a home, but all that was swept under the rug at the end of August. In a manic rage, he lost all semblance of humanity or compassion. Since Labor Day, I've been giving away, and rehoming my things, letting it all go—and living between friends' houses, sometimes sleeping rough in my car or on couches. Since then, I've lived a nomadic life hanging out by the side of the road, or in parking lots. Volunteering at the senior center. I thought this relationship was until Death do us part. I had made a promise to God that if he lived after the car accident in June of 1997, I would stick it out to the very end, no matter what. For months, we didn't know if he had brain damage, the injury was so severe, I didn't know about the ingrained depression until much later. It was hidden behind a wall of injury. Nor did I see the actor's classic narcissism dressed in dazzling bipolar raiments. I've not yet written about this separation. I've been too numb, in shock. I found out the bitter details from his friend Yehiel, that he wants to step out. See someone else. No one on the horizon though. Just grief waving her skeletal hand, saying, Come hither. Come hither. So much for the saying, if you love someone, let them go. Kick her to the curb instead.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Summer’s End

We’re fast approaching the end of the Celtic year, Samhain, or Summer’s End, which marks the half way mark, or cross-quarter day between the equinox and the solstice. The night when the boundary between this world and the otherworld are thinnest. The night of the great bonfires, where my great-grandfather ran his cattle between two fires to purify them (the other cross quarter day was Beltane)—the smoke was probably also a great pest deterrent. To be fair, the celebration of the cross-quarter days predates the arrival of the Celts, but they took to the custom like ducks to water, or sparks to flame.

In 609AD, Pope Boniface IV decreed November 1 as All Saints Day, or Allhallowmesse, thus placing a Christian spin on the Celtic celebration of Samhain. And since the festival lasted several days, we have Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day as well.

The Irish brought the vestiges of Samhain, rechristened Halloween by the church, to America, and to Scotland. In America, Halloween took off and became the secular extravaganza it is today, thanks to the candy industry, who saw a profit was to be made. During WWII, American GIs stationed in Germany, put on a Halloween festival in a castle, thus reintroducing elements of Samhain to its original Celtic homeland, and also back to Ireland as well.

We associate Halloween with zombies and characters like Frankenstein, but that story was penned during one dreary dreecht summer in Geneva by Irish lass, Mary Shelley, on a bet to produce a ghost story. Galvanizing the dead fits right into the premise of Samhain, or Halloween when the gates to the otherworld are open, the cauldron of plenty could raise the dead, and anything was possible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Photos of my mom and Sean Ritter who killed himself 11 years ago.

How beautiful my mother looks in this photo with her new fiery redhead granddaughter Tiffany, and her son Sean, who ended his life 11 years ago, today, rather than face a draconian 3 strikes prison system. He went to prison at 21, on two counts of drug possession charges. He got into a fight in a parking lot, thus breaking his parole, so he went home and shot himself in his garage rather than return to Pelican Bay.

Sean was my half-brother, but raised as a cousin as my childless aunt Toddy who desperately wanted children and couldn't have any, or so she thought. After she adopted Sean, she had three kids of her own. Sean's father was a Dublin man, that's all we know. Somebody my mother met at the No Name Bar in Sausalito. Perhaps he was a sailor, a carpenter, or someone just passing through. He must've been a redhead or a strawberry blond like Sean. My mother never saw him again, but I'm sure she was reminded of him every time she saw Sean. Is the father still alive somewhere in Dublin, we wonder. What was his name? Who were his people? Did he ever know he had a son in America?

In the photo, my mother has no breasts, a cancer survivor, the implants will leak and bring back the cancer, it will grow undetected behind that wall of silicone. She will die of a heart attack after her first round of chemo October 23, 1994. This month is such a melancholy time for me, as my grandmother, and mother also died during the final days of October, also the end of the Celtic year. My grandmother died Oct 28, not quite Samhain, Summer's End, but close enough for the transition when the door to the Otherworld opens. Half way between the equinox, my mother's birthday, to the solstice, Samhain is the beginning of winter, or the dark half of the year. We will light a bonefire for them so that they may see the way forward.

My mom, Maureen Reilly, sister Kathleen (Toddy) Ritter, sons Myles, Sean, baby Tiffany & Judy Ritter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Spiderwebs and fogbows (photos)

The mad eye of the sun at dawn rising from the mist, wild geese conversing among themselves while grazing on the dew-laden first winter grass of the season.

The field was covered with myriad globe spider webs, drowned in dew, each one unique, the rising sun turned them into a vast crochet fest of dainty handkerchiefs or lace anticamassar prisms on the deep armchairs of the lake reeds. I remember how my aunts would cover their heads with lace hankies before entering the church. Ah, Sunday morning, what tangled webs we weave...

I’m in love with the monstrous globe spiders, such amazing creatures. There were so many webs, I wanted to run amok but I had to stay at right angle to the rising sun in order to see them. Just like rainbows....the closer you get, the more you change their angle, the mor elusive they become.

 I also saw a fog bow, a first. I thought I was imagining things, it was like the intense wings of an angel. I expected to see a vortex of light. Truly a Turneresque moment. No color, but an increased intensity of light. Of course, I searched for the best vantage point, and wherever I went it followed me. I realized that I was my own best vantage point. So I followed it to the old shoreline of the lake until I found what I liked. Truly a metaphor for the rest of my days....

Friday, October 5, 2018

Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival

23rd annual Poetry Flash
Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival
Stand up for the Earth

Saturday, October 13th
from 10 AM to 4:30 PM
at Civic Center Park,
Martin Luther King, Jr. Way 
in Berkeley, California.
Free to the public, bring low chairs, blankets, picnic on the grass.

Strawberry Creek walk hosted by Chris Olander begins at 10AM 
Meet at the corner of Oxford and Center streets. 
Featured readers: Iris Dunkle, Maya Khosla, Joan Gelfand,
plus eco-dance by Sharon Coleman with Barry Ebner on guitar at the grove.

Plus book signings and poetry writing and art events at River Village.


We are Nature reading (open mike sign up at noon).
1:15 PM: River of Words youth reading an awards with Robert Hass, 
1:30 PM California Poets in the Schools student reading 
with Maureen Hurley, Brennan DeFrisco, and other CPITS teachers.

2 PM: welcome
Big reading: Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Leanne Sullivan, Maya Khosla, Joan Gelfand, CS Giscombe, Tonga Eisen-Martin, Forrest Gander, Ellery Ackers, Robert Coats, Iris Dunkle, Chris Olander, Gwynn O'Gara, and more.

4:30PM closing ceremonies, grand finale.

Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival is a collaboration with Robert Hass, US Poet Laureate, 1995-1997, Poetry Flash, and the Ecology Center/Berkeley Farmers' Market, Pegasus Books, Moe's Books, East Bay Express, Poets & Writers, Berkeley Civic Arts  Commission, Zellerbach Family Foundation.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Groundcherries by any other name

CNN posted a slouchy article on the process of genetically modifying groundcherries, a species of tomatillo, for commercial harvesting. I think the headline, Groundcherries, the latest modified fruit scientists want you to try, was designed to get a rise out of readers. Anything for a few hits on Facebook. If the header didn't grab your attention, the synopsis was even lamer: They taste like pineapple, but also like vanilla. They're "tropical" but also a bit like a tomato. A bit like a tomato? they're such close cousins, they're practically Irish twins.

I’d chalk the article up to uninformed journalism, replete with bad headlines, or bad tastebuds, or both. Of course, the CNN journalist Arman Azad might not have had anything to do with the epic headline fail. Could be a wonky editor. I can't answer for their tastebuds. Vanilla? Really?

Of course, most Facebook readers lost their collective minds. If the headline hadn’t read “modified” would all the howling Facebook readers have had such an adverse knee-jerk reaction? One could almost hear all those knees smacking their owners in the chin. Don't knock out all your teeth in the process.

Groundcherries (Physalis peruviana) are not some kind of new frankenfruit. Modified does not mean inter-species spliced GMOs, no foreign fish, or alien fungus genes inserted into your tomatoes or groundcherries. People have been domesticating tomatillo species for millennia. If anything, they should be dubbed heirloom plants—even though they're considered to be weeds the world over.

Cape gooseberries, or Inca berries, Physalis peruviana, take some time to ripen.—Wiki

The CNN article nattered on about the significance of scientific development of a more compact groundcherry bush with larger fruit, and more fruit clusters. Talk about burying the lead sentence! If the CNN journalist had merely called the process “domestication” then there probably would have been no flappy Facebook furor. Talk about the five Ws of journalism gone awry. Never bury the lead.

The real problem is developing a commercially viable crop, so that Physalis peruviana can be harvested and shipped. It's just not commercially viable as is—wild grown. Harvesting, shipping, etc., is problematic, as the big rambling bush likes to flop about and lay down on the ground, and randomly drop its fruit—hence the name—groundcherries.

Cape gooseberries, Inca berries Physalis peruviana, yellow ones are the sweetest.

As to gene manipulation, any food you eat has already been modified. Call it domestication, cultivation, or breeding—whether by natural selection, farmers, monks, or scientists... Everything we eat has been modified, unless it's completely wild.

Take teosinte, or maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico, it was a tiny rock-hard grass seed. The native cultures of Mesoamerica developed it into a multi-grained maize husk about the size of a baby’s pinkie. It was still rock hard. Selective modification developed it into small hard ears of corn—capable of breaking teeth. But massive cultivation in the 16th c., and changing tastes, developed it into the sweet, tender juicy corn of today. But this process took centuries. Scientists can now tweak, or edit a plant’s own genes in a few generations in the lab.

And it's not just corn, bananas and apples—pretty much everything we eat has been manipulated. Have you ever seen a wild banana? It's all seeds and no banana pulp. Crabapples are bitter compact fruits with little flesh, and big seeds—ditto that with plums and peaches. Broccoli is a case of EXTREME plant modification on steroids. It doesn't even exist in the wild. A few tiny flower buds. I suspect cauliflower, which has been around since the 16th century, was also once a tiny posy.

Old school plant genetic manipulation was largely based on trial and error, and it took farmers and monks generations to isolate, and breed favorable genetic traits. Remember Gregor Mendel and his red and white flowering pea experiments? One red pea, and one white pea parent will equal a pink pea. Genetic manipulation is not a new concept. Well, in a lab, things are merely speeded up, genes can be tickled and tweaked to produce smaller shrubs, and more fruits. Pollen can be isolated, so there’s no outside interference, no stray genes in the family tree. And a commercially viable plant can be developed within a few years in the lab, vs. decades—or centuries—in the field.

And since most of the Facebook readers opined and shuddered over the twinned plant porn words like genetic mutation, and manipulation, without actually having read the article, I've pulled two quotes from the bottom of the article to keep us all on the same page:
"When you mutate the gene, it basically shrinks the plant like an accordion so you can make it much more compact"said Zachary Lippman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory...researchers were able to make plants that grew 50% more groundcherries on any given stem, and those fruits were larger—weighing up to 24% more than the traditional, unmodified versions.
Lippman also notes that humans have been eating genetically modified crops for millennia, selectively breeding those fruits and vegetables that had the most favorable traits. "We have been eating mutations in plants and animals since humans started to improve crops thousands of years ago," he said. "That's a random process and took thousands of years. With gene editing, you're now just making one mutation in one gene in the simplest sense."
A lone voice of sanity and reason on the Facebook thread, UC Davis grad student, Randi Jiménez, a researcher, whose field of expertise is the nightshade family, explained it best (largely to a crowd of deaf ears, or, rather, blind eyes):
For those upset about the modification, this isn't the GMO of the past that you might have in mind. Previously, genes from totally different species were inserted into a crop's genome, this technique of genetic editing, also sometimes called precision breeding, causes small mutations in the crop's own genes. In this case, scientists at Cornell induced mutations in ground cherry to make the ground cherry genes resemble tomato genes. (Tomatoes are related to ground cherries.) These mutations could and in many cases already occur naturally. This way, though, scientists can get all the preferred versions of the genes into one plant without several years of screening and breeding.
There are some 2000 species of solanum, including potatoes, tomatoes, and chiles. And there are many wild tomato species that we know nothing about, including S. peruvianum, S. cheesmanii, S. galapagense, S. chilense, and S. pimpinellifolium—and its offspring, that lone domesticated cultivar, that tasteless supermarket darling, S. lycopersicum (AKA Lycopersicon esculentum). And there are at least 90 species of the tomato-like cousin, Physalis, that are such successful hitchhikers, they are considered to be weeds the world over.

Ground cherries (Physalis peruviana) too are a member of the nightshade family, hence the tomato reference. There are nearly a hundred species of Physalis, and to further confuse things, most species the world over, are called groundcherries, regardless of the actual species. That's what happens with common names. They get borrowed. With that many species to contend with, there's bound to be some variation in flavor. But, from the field reports, the taste of vanilla or pineapple don't seem to be among them. Dulcet sweet tomato, maybe. In fact, one reader said they tasted like stinky feet.

There’s Physalis missouriensis / P. virginiana (same species? sometimes erroneously referred to as black nightshade (S. nigrum), which is often toxic), Physalis philadelphica / Physalis ixocarpa —AKA tomatillos, native to Central America and Mexico, despite its Philadelphic neo-Latin name, is from Mexico, as it was cultivated in the pre-Columbian era. There are 46 species of Physalis native to Mexico alone. Wow. Some have made their way to Arizona, and have made serious inroads in Middle America, all the way up into Canada, and the Eastern Seaboard. I like to imagine, that along with the spread of teosinte, from Nahuatl teōcintli, teōtl god + cintli dried ears of maize (Zea mays), Psysalis too hitched a ride north.
The wild tomatillo and related plants are found everywhere in the Americas except in the far north, with the highest diversity in Mexico.  In 2017, scientists reported on their discovery and analysis of a fossil tomatillo found in the Patagonian region of Argentina, dated to 52 million years B.P. The finding has pushed back the earliest appearance of the Solanaceae plant family of which the tomatillos are one genus. Tomatillos were domesticated in Mexico before the coming of Europeans, and played an important part in the culture of the Maya and the Aztecs, more important than the tomato. The tomatillo (from Nahuatl, tomatl) is also known as... tomate de cáscara, tomate de fresadilla, tomate milpero, tomate verde (green tomato), miltomate, farolito, or simply tomate (in which case the tomato is called jitomate). The specific name philadelphica dates from the 18th century. In the United States, tomatillos have been cultivated since 1863. By the middle of the 20th century, the plant was exported to India, Australia, South Africa, and Kenya.—Wiki
Physalis peruviana, Cape gooseberry, despite its South African moniker, is native to South America, specifically to the Peruvian Andes, where it is called the Inca berry, but it is now considered a common weed in many subtropical areas. I like to think of the paper lantern jacket enshrouding the unripe fruit as a little paper cape—thus bypassing the confusing South African reference.

All Physalis are native to Central, and South America. Since 90% of all Physalis species hail from Central and South America, and since only Physalis philadelphica (or Physalis ixocarpa) was exported during the 20th c., I suspect some of the global escapees might have been successful pre-Columbian hitchhikers to Micronesia and Australasia and beyond. When the wild solanum genomes are fully sequenced, we'll have a better picture of the migration range.

Tomatoes (Solanum) and chili peppers (from the Nahuatl, chīlli, Capsicum) both from the Solanaceae family, arrived from Central America to the Old World in two different directions: Spain via the Spanish conquistadors, and the Far East—to the Middle East—via the Portuguese navigators, thus causing massive confusion as to both parentage and edibility of the family of Solanaceae.
Solanum is a large and diverse genus of flowering plants, which include two food crops of high economic importance, the potato and the tomato. It also contains the nightshades and horse nettles, as well as numerous plants cultivated for their ornamental flowers and fruit. —Wiki
European black nightshade (S. nigrum), introduced to the Americas, and Australasia, is considered toxic, but fully ripened fruit and foliage are cooked and eaten in many regions. But only if you know what you're doing. Otherwise, it's curtains—as black nightshade is highly variable—avoid eating the berries unless they are a known edible strain. With survivors present. (Nota bene: S. nigrum is not
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, one of the most toxic plants from Eurasia—now naturalized the world over. In the Middle Ages women used belladonna to dilate their pupils.)
Some of the major species within the S. nigrum complex are: S. nigrum, S. americanum, S. douglasii, S. opacum, S. ptychanthum, S.retroflexum, S. sarrachoides, S. scabrum, and S. villosum.... Other species are significant food crops regionally, such as Ethiopian eggplant and gilo (S. aethiopicum), naranjilla or lulo (S. quitoense), turkey berry (S. torvum), pepino (S. muricatum), tamarillo, or "bush tomatoes" (several Australian species). —Wiki
Ripe berries of the "Red Makoi" variety of S. nigrum are edible. —Wiki

The English were content to grow various solanum as poisonous garden ornamentals for a few centuries, while the Italians and Iberians began experimenting with love apples and hot chilis (sweet peppers as well as the Physalis species), in foods. Imagine Italian cooking sans noodles and tomato sauce, or Hungary without its paprika. With the introduction of tomatoes and chilis Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cuisine has never been the same. (Potatoes are another chapter in the story.)
Tomatoes were brought to Europe in the 1590s. The English botanist John Gerard was one of the first cultivators of the tomato plant. In his publication Grete Herball, he considered tomatoes as poisonous due to their levels of what would later be called tomatine, plus high acid content. Consequently, tomatoes were generally not eaten in Britain until the mid-18th century. —Wiki
Not all Physalis species have edible fruit. The tricky bit is to make sure you’re not eating a more deadly species of solanum. Solanum nigrum fruit is so highly variable and diverse, it looks a lot like several Physalis sp. Keep in mind that in general, the entire plant of any nightshade, with the exception of some species, and strains of ripe fruit, is toxic, all unripe fruit of the nightshade family is toxic—except maybe for fried green tomatoes. Just don't pig out on them, or eat them raw, as the tomatine, a glycoalkaloid, or glycospirosolane, is more concentrated in unripe tomatoes.

But solanine poisoning—from green-skinned potatoes—is the glycoalkaloid to avoid. The green color is merely chlorophyll, but green skin indicates high levels of bitter-tasting solanine and chaconine. Most of the toxins are concentrated close to the skin's surface, so peel off all that green before you eat them. When I was trekking in the Andean altiplano, I ate local black potatoes (papas negras—there are over 4000 varieties of Andean potatoes) but they were bitter as gall, and my GI tract never forgave me. Apparently I was supposed to also eat the arcilla de chaco jacket—clay, ancestor of Kaopectate, absorbs the bitterness.

The anti-inflamatory agent found in tomatoes, Lycopene, comes from the tomato's former Latin name, Lycopersicon, or wolf peach... Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous for centuries.
Wiki tells us that:
Lycopene (from the neo-Latin Lycopersicum, the tomato species) is a bright red carotene and carotenoid pigment and phytochemical found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables, such as red carrots, watermelons, papayas.
Lycopene is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that helps protect the skin... it's reputed to have healthy heart benefits, reduce osteoporosis, reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and is a powerful antioxidant useful in combating cancers including prostate cancer. (See goji, or wolfberry.)

Making Physalis peruviana a commercial crop will take some doing. The biggest hurdle is, not getting the bush to be more robust, but getting people to eat them. It took the British nearly three centuries to eat their tomatoes. I fear the CNN article will not pave the way to help develop a sustainable market.

Since lycopene is a hot item right now, despite its wolfish moniker, I suspect this will be the best publicity a goundcherry could have. It could be marketed as The Next New Thing, and an heirloom plant all in one. Whatta howl!

Howling wolf —Wiki

Monday, October 1, 2018


Strange sound on the roof.
First rain of the season.
Acrid odor of petrichor.
Portent of things to come.


Outside cat wanting in

Outside cat knocked at the door wanting in when the rains came. I kid you not. she had many things to say, of which I only understood the feed me now command. She settled in for a nice skritchy pet job, insisting on getting between me and my iPad, then she wanted back out, but balked when she saw that strange stuff was still falling from the sky. I had to toss her out. No 3 AM kitty alarm for me. She ambled off into the night grumbling.

Actually she's quite sweet, but skittish. She was a feral rescue, so she likes the front door to be open at all times. Sugar knocked at the door, as if to say, what was all that strange stuff falling from the sky? Let me in! When she wanted out, she took one look and did an about face, I had to shoo her out. No 3AM kitty want out call for me.