Guns in the Redwoods

Sharps Rifle Photo: Thuringius (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why would loggers carry guns? They worked in small crews alone in the forested mountains of Mendocino County. At the time, the area was crawling with black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, and mountain lions, not to mention bands of indigenous Pomos who, even by the early 1850s, still scuffled from time to time with settlers intruding on their territory. So what firearm were they likely to keep handy? Continue Reading →

Walt Whitman Sings the Song of the Redwoods

Whitman in 1875 by Thomas Dewing [Public domain]

Though Whitman may never have “[Faced] west, from California’s shores,” as he trumpeted in one California poem, his opening stanzas resounded with authenticity. I expected the rest of the poem to be a testament to the grace and beauty of the redwood-covered hills and a condemnation of the jack-screw men intent on plundering ancient natural resources. Then I reached the line which read, “not of the past only, but of the future.” Uh-oh. Continue Reading →

Billie Holiday: Master Storyteller

Billie Holiday in Downbeat Magazine, Feb. 1947 [Public Domain]

After listening carefully to her recordings over many years, I’ve come to appreciate the amount of effort Billie Holiday invested in each song and what a skillfully crafted stylist she was. Billie Holiday was no accident of nature. She was a skillful storyteller and has many lessons to offer. Continue Reading →

Book Review: A New Ina Coolbrith Biography

Ina Coolbrith Cover

Aleta George spent ten years pouring over newspaper and journal clippings, diaries, literary works, and even Coolbrith’s scrapbook to unearth the quotes, observations and insights that provide an intimate look into the relationships and events that shaped this remarkable woman, one who actively tried to avoid such exposure. It is George’s enthusiasm and affection for Ina Coolbrith and California that gives this biography its vitality and crystal clear resonance. Continue Reading →

Nathaniel Smith: Black Pioneer of the Mendocino Coast

Trader Cabin

Even by the mid-1850s, trouble was brewing for people of color in California. There were frequent skirmishes between settlers and the local Pomo communities. Chivalry Democrats, who were pro-slavery Southern sympathizers, passed California’s own version of the Fugitive Slave Act and, by 1870, would take aim at the large Chinese population with the Chinese Exclusion Act. White workers were up in arms that jobs were allegedly going to the people of color who would work harder, longer, and for lower wages. Given that social and political backdrop, it is remarkable that Nathaniel Smith not only survived but seems to have thrived. Continue Reading →

Book Review: Chronicles of Old San Francisco

Chronicles of Old SF Book Cover

Cities are complicated creatures best understood by peeling back the layers of time and sifting through the accumulation of secrets, lost artifacts, and earlier incarnations that might otherwise go unnoticed. Chosen well and presented correctly, such exhumed history excites our curiosity and exposes our imaginations to the gamut of a city’s character and mystery. We become incapable of seeing it through the same eyes again because, no matter which direction we turn or where we look, the voices, the faces, and the stories instantly appear.

In the first part of Chronicles of Old San Francisco, Gael Chandler makes an ambitious attempt to squeeze 240 epic years into a modest 208 pages, and is surprisingly successful with her efforts. Continue Reading →

José Martí Memorial, Cuba in Miniature

José Martí Memorial, Havana

Perhaps Cuba’s most memorable patriot and National Hero, José Martí was born in Havana in 1853 and spent twenty-four years in exile. The José Martí Memorial that dominates Plaza de la Revolución in Havana’s Vedado district, aside from being the tallest structure in Havana, has a story as long and complicated as Cuba itself. Continue Reading →

William Walker: American President of Nicaragua

Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person that would emerge as one of the era’s most ambitious filibusters was a young man from Nashville, Tennessee by the name of William Walker. Early in life, Walker demonstrated remarkable ambition and brilliance, earning degrees in both law and medicine by the time he was 25. A diminutive 5’2″ in stature, he relied on a robust charisma and commanding presence to develop his following and accomplish his goals. Continue Reading →