Wild Napa – Western Pond Turtle Lecture

This summer I had the honor of being invited to give a presentation on western pond turtles at the Napa County Library as part of the Wild Napa lecture series, a monthly event put on collaboratively by the Napa County Resource Conservation District, the Napa County Library, and Friends of the Napa River. This is a presentation I’ve given before, but this time I was surprised when I was asked in the eleventh hour whether they could record the talk to share with the public. The result is the video I’m pleased to link to below.

Fortunately for me, after two minutes and change, I fade out into a shadowy figure. Better yet, I bring out a live western pond turtle at the end of the presentation. But with a running time of an hour and fifteen minutes, I can’t blame you if you skip to the end; unless, that is, you are trapped in an elevator, or camping on a sidewalk in line for the next Apple smartphone release or American Ninja Warrior tryouts. So no worries if you don’t watch the whole thing – I think we can all agree the promise of seeing a live turtle really only works in person.

Here’s the teaser, followed by the video:

Imagine a time in California’s history when California cuisine was truly a natural, grass-roots effort. Not the vegetarian dives, nor the seasonal menus of Chez Panisse fame, but a living-off-the-land sort of lifestyle: succulent frog legs, a seabird-egg custard, or a piping-hot bowl of terrapin soup. It’s true; at the turn of the twentieth century, the west coast’s lone native turtle – the western pond turtle (or terrapin as it was once known) – once featured prominently on menus throughout San Francisco for soups and stews.

Join wildlife biologist Matthew Bettelheim to explore the history and natural history of the western pond turtle. This trip through time will roughly follow the discovery and description of the western pond turtle by first Russian explorers and later European naturalists in the 1800s, then Native American accounts of collecting the turtle for sustenance and ceremonial purposes, and next the extensive terrapin harvest at the turn of the twentieth century centered around the San Francisco market. In addition to the colorful stories that surround the rich and as yet untold history of San Francisco’s terrapin trade, we will also examine the western pond turtle’s present struggle to persist in what little remains of its former west coast range and review the growing body of natural history data and contemporary research before peering into the future of turtle conservation.

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Vintage Views: Mount Diablo – The Great Sun-Dial

Nineteenth century appreciators trended toward the baroque when describing (or illustrating) Mount Diablo, dipping their quills in an ink mixed with equal parts of the fantastical, grandiloquent, and flamboyant to put to paper prose and pencil-lines overly purple in their embellishment. Viewed from certain vantages around the bay area, Mount Diablo’s bulk can loom over the landscape, while from others its settles into the skyline. But it is in those former instances, when the peak puffs out its chest against a cerulean sky braided with clouds, that we can best appreciate our neighborhood mountain.


In this 1878 engraving by F.S. King, one of many vintage images of Mount Diablo I’ve collected over the last few years in association with my wife and my Vintage Views: Mount Diablo project, author Benjamin Parke Avery celebrates Mount Diablo as a “great sun-dial” and a “spectre” that “looms up in the perspective of every view in all directions around it”:

Behind the Alameda hills rises the double cone of Monte Diablo, very near to the view, but separated from the hills named by the San Ramon Valley, and distant from the city easterly about thirty miles. This peak is three thousand eight hundred and fifty-six feet high. Rising from the centre of a wide basin which runs into the great valley of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and being the most elevated spot in this region, Monte Diablo looms up in the perspective of every view in all directions around it, and is one of the most familiar landmarks to the citizen of San Francisco, who sees it daily and almost hourly. Its dark blue mass lords it nobly over the brown hills of Alameda, and when it takes on its snowy cap for a few days in the rainy season it is more peculiarly prominent. It is a great sun-dial, for the stages of the coming or going day are marked in bands of shifting color upon its top. Around its base, fertile valleys swell to meet its foot-hills as if they would embrace it, and hold a score of thrifty towns. From its summit one of the most extensive and beautiful views in the Union can be obtained. The great plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, stretching from the northeast to southwest nearly three hundred and fifty miles; the rivers of the same names winding their yellow currents from north and south, meeting at the head of the upper bay; the vast bulk of the Sierra Nevada with its snowy crest, along the eastern sky, from Lassen’s Peak at one extremity to Mount Whitney at another; the isolated ” Buttes ” of Marysville in the centre of the Sacramento Valley; the line of the Coast Range from Mount St. Helena on the north, to Mount Hamilton, four thousand four hundred feet high, at the south, broken into lesser spurs around the bay; the whole scenery of the bay itself, the city, the Golden Gate, the ocean beyond, — all this magnificent panorama, in clear weather, lies spread out before the spectator on the summit of Diablo. The area included within the bounds of this view is probably not less, according to Professor Whitney, than forty thousand square miles; adding what can be seen of the ocean it is much more. It might well have been on such a commanding height as this that the enemy of mankind tempted the Saviour; and an early Spanish legend, to which the mountain owes its name, actually located here a terrifying appearance of the devil to a party of explorers. This legend would seem to indicate a belief that the mountain is of volcanic origin, as it has been said to be by some writers; but it is simply a grand mass of metamorphic sand- stone, flanked by jasper, shales, and slates, with limited coal-beds at its base and deposits of cretaceous fossils. The gap between the two peaks is eight hundred feet deep, and the north peak is nearly three hundred feet lower than its companion. From certain points of view the two peaks are brought into line and have the effect of a single perfect cone. Seen from the upper bay or river, the mountain seems to rise in this shape directly from the water’s edge, and is very imposing in its near bulk. The ascent of it from any quarter, with the ever expanding outlooks revealed, is full of picturesque charm. The nearer scenery of the foot-hills and lower flanks — embracing Graceful wavelets of harvest-land, melting into level spaces, deep gorges filled with ever- green growths, sandstone cliffs weathered into fantastic forms, and bits of charming brooks and grassy springs — is itself a treat to the lover of nature. Sunrise and sunset are the best hours for visiting the summit. At the former, the air is clearest, and one gets the widest view, besides the glorious spectacle of the great round orb flashing up above the crest of the Sierra, bringing its highest peaks of snow into sharp relief. The shadow of the peak is thrown in a pyramidal form over the whole country to the west, across the Alameda hills, the bay and peninsula of San Francisco, and into the ocean beyond, forty miles in length, — a dark bluish triangle of shade that shortens slowly as the sun rises higher and higher, that withdraws by almost imperceptible degrees from the ocean, from the peninsula and bay, from the Alameda range and San Ramon Valley, up the flanks of Diablo himself, and there at last quite disappears. At evening this spectre of the peak is reversed, falling over the San Joaquin Valley, up the Sierra, and even into the sky, at first gradually lengthening as the sun sinks lower in the west, and then losing itself in the general twilight and darkness of his disappearance. Looking seaward then, we observe the myriad lights of the city, if no fog obscures them, and on the distant Farallone Islands the flashing of the beacon set to warn mariners.

Other picturesque views of Mount Diablo and greater California that we’ve collected on behalf of the Vintage Views project are available through the (bio)accumulation Etsy storefront.

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Book Review: The Synesthesia Activity Book

Synesth_CoverThe Synesthesia Activity Book, by Dior-Ian Grey, Feaux•Afield Guides (www.feauxafieldguides.com), 2016, 41 pages, $11.95

As the popularity of adult coloring books continues to grow, so too has the niche market catering to increasingly smaller circles of consumers (like hipsters and neck-beard enthusiasts). The Synesthesia Activity Book – a trendy coloring book that marks Feaux•Afield Guides‘ recent foray into the boutique clinical neurology market – panders to the 1 in 2,000 people suspected of having synesthesia. For synesthetes – those that experience a neurological phenomenon in their everyday lives that involves an overlap or ‘cross-talk’ of the five senses (touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing) – the clockwork is orange, The Green Mile describes their daily commute, and oranges are the new black.

Simply put, synesthesia (also, synaesthesia) is a “union of the senses,” or deferring to a slightly more clinical definition, when “stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an automatic and involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” It means seeing clouds and involuntarily smelling bananas or wet dog; hearing the word ‘Kevin’ and tasting baby powder; or experiencing the calendar or days of the week in colors. Synesthesia is bath salts without the socially-awkward side effect, “user may experience flesh-eating-zombie urges.”

The list of synesthetes that have walked among us may surprise you: Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who experienced colors when speaking or reading letters and words; American composer, pianist, and bandleader Duke Ellington, who experienced colors when he made music; and former professional American road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong, who experimented with doping when faced with ordinariness. Armstrong excluded (it’s true, Lance is no more a synesthete than he is an athlete [assthlete??] – I just felt like kicking him while he’s down), the Nabokovs and Ellingtons of the world tend to share the stage with other prodigies like artist Vincent Van Gogh, physicist Richard Feynman, inventor Nikola Tesla, and singer/songwriters Tori Amos, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Kanye West.

Knowing that genius walks among us in synesthete shoes, the normal-Normans and -Nancy’s of the world should be asking themselves, “Why should synesthetes have all the fun?” If your clockwork is as gray as your commute, why should you settle for coloring by numbers when you can number by colors? Enter The Synesthesia Activity Book, whose every page turns those fifty shades of gray into scarlet letters.

Ranging from easy to difficult, this awe-perspiring book’s activities range from the traditional draw-a-line-between-this-and-that to the more challenging complete-the-picture, all with a synesthetic twist. When you are drawing a line, you are identifying the association between a word (“chainsaw”) and it’s corresponding taste (“raw eggs”), the ‘lexical-gustatory’ (word to taste) form of synesthesia. Likewise, to complete the hidden picture, you need only read a string of numbers and apply the subsequent lines that automatically and involuntarily appear in your mind’s eye to the partial picture (a medieval wizard’s hat and sword) using the mind-boggling ‘number form’ (numbers to spatial placement) type of synesthesia. My personal favorite is the number by color page, in which a fraternity sofa magically appears out of a scribble of lines as you replace each colored dot with its corresponding number to connect the dots and reveal the hidden picture.


Despite a recent report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse concerning a surge in the abuse of pairing The Synesthesia Activity Book with Mr. Sketch Scented Markers™, a combination known as “sketching” that purportedly results in hallucinogenic episodes that put the fear and loathing in Las Vegas, Feaux•Afield Guides plans to begin shipping additional titles in early April the first chance they get, including Sticker Stencils, Scratch & Sniff Temporary Tattoos, and The Dyslexic’s Ulitmate Wrod Saerch Pzuzsel.


For a limited time, these six introductory coloring pages are available for download as .pdfs – get yours today.


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London Zoo Turtle Exhibit Explores Turtles In the Knife Kitchen

In a move meant to make manifest the real dangers turtles face in the wild today, the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo unveiled their new Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis) exhibit last year. But to tell the raw story behind this turtle’s Critically Endangered status, ZSL bypassed the traditional bucolic exhibit depicting turtles in the lowland wetlands characteristic of Vietnam in lieu of a tell-tale tableau that reveals where they more frequently end up: in a traditional Vietnamese kitchen. The resulting still life of still-live turtles shows the stark realities of the wildlife trade, tapping into the grim fate these and other Asian turtles face from overhunting for meat, not to mention traditional medicine and the pet trade.

Photo by: Ben Tapley/ZSL

The ZSL’s all-too-real exhibit takes advantage of everything and the kitchen sink to bring this restaurant kitchen to life. The only thing more macabre than the axeman’s butchering knife, pendant woks, and bubbling soup pot are the kitchen sink itself and the butcher’s block doing double duty as aquarium and basking platform.

According to Ben Tapley, team leader of the Reptile House at ZSL London Zoo,  “We’ve gone to town on the new Annam leaf turtle exhibit here at ZSL London Zoo, as we want our visitors to really understand the threats facing these animals. Providing a great habitat for these beautiful turtles, with water for them to swim in and a secluded nesting area hidden behind a carefully positioned wok, the creative exhibit tells a serious story.”

Knowing that Asian turtles like the Annam leaf turtle and Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, are close to extinction, perhaps it’s time more zoological institutions explore this morbid mode of storytelling.











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Rare Pond Species Survey Techniques Workshop 2016

RarePond2014This spring, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation and The Wildlife Project are back at it, sponsoring the Rare Pond Species Survey Techniques Workshop, March 19-20, 2016 at the Laguna Environmental Center, Santa Rosa, CA. Workshop instructors Dave Cook and Jeff Alvarez will cover aquatic survey techniques for California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), California red-legged frog (Rana draytoni), and western pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata). After-hours field trips will provide hands-on experience with all three species, including dip net sampling, spotlight surveys, and visual encounter and trapping.

Dave and Jeff, whom I’ve known for years, are experienced herpetologists who have logged inestimable hours in the field between them studying these species. Their knowledge is priceless, but the workshop worth every penny.

You can learn more about the workshop by downloading the informational flyer or visiting the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation website.

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