Strawberries :: Health Food or Poison?

If you read no further that this first sentence, do NOT eat non-organic strawberries. More on that later. First, some strawberry lore.

My early associations of strawberries are of a pile of fresh, sweet berries piled onto a crumbly homemade biscuit, sprinkled with sugar and topped with freshly whipped cream, on the lawn of my mother’s parents’ home, on their diminutive estate in Western Pennsylvania, on a warm summer evening. Once, in my tennis days, I had a small Wimbledon party, inviting a few friends to watch the match on TV while devouring fresh strawberries and cream.

Strawberries have always been a favorite pleasure of mine, long before I knew that they were regarded by ancients as an aphrodisiac, favored by Venus because of their heart shape and plenitude of seeds. Everything about strawberries speaks of idyllic summer picnics and evenings of romance. Plus, they taste really good.

Strawberries have been savored for centuries, eaten wild by the Romans, enjoyed by Native Americans and early Europeans. Garden strawberries were first cultivated in the late 18th Century, some say in France, some say in the U.S. Strawberries are not only associated with Venus, the goddess of love, but have been used through the centuries for their medicinal properties.

While strawberries are quite good for you, these delicate, finicky berries are also difficult to grow, as they are prone to many diseases. Conventionally grown berries are covered with highly toxic pesticides, but they are subjected to toxic chemicals before they are ever put in the ground. The ground they are transferred to is fumigated with horrific chemicals, and covered with a layer of toxic plastic, through which the berries emerge. Sound appetizing? Even “organic” strawberries are prepared in chemical-laced nurseries and put into fungicide-poisoned ground. There are a few exceptions, like Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm, just north of Santa Cruz, California, a pioneer in organic strawberry production. I can attest that his berries are among the best I have ever tasted.

Various fumigants have been used over the centuries, from brine, arsenic and sulfur in the 17th & 18th centuries, to the non-organic toxins used by modern farmers. Chemicals used as nerve gas in the second world war were put into service as fumigants and pesticides. The rise of industrial farming roughly coincides with the Industrial Revolution, and the dictates of Capitalism make certain that any innovations that threaten the hegemony of the chemical industry are quashed. Modern strawberry farmers, for example, are worried that if they switch to organic processes, they will lose a great deal of money, and the system is set up to make it difficult to take the kinds of risks that Jim Cochran took a quarter of a century ago on his small California farm.

Until recently, methyl bromide was used as the primary fumigant for strawberries, but was phased out after it was discovered to deplete the ozone layer. Methyl bromide, which also damages DNA, was then replaced with an even worse chemical, methyl iodide, with is more water soluble, and more likely to enter the water supply. It has also been shown to be harmful to farm workers.

California produces about 90% of the strawberries grown in the U.S., and 20% of worldwide production. By switching to organic methods, farmers risk losing money. They spend more on production, but are not able to recoup their losses by selling at a premium price, since they are unable to label berries as “organic” for the three years it takes for certification.

While “organic” strawberries are not as pure as one would like, they are treated with far fewer chemical poisons than their “conventional” rivals. They’re still delicious, and highly nutritious, containing vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. They are also free of fat, cholesterol, and contain few calories, and are a good source of manganese and potassium. Eight strawberries contain more vitamin C than your average orange.

Organic strawberries are still a great way to celebrate summer. And, this writer is convinced, they will be produced with fewer and fewer chemicals as time goes on, and more earth-friendly methods of farming are employed.

(Fifty-)Two Reasons Why You Should NOT Eat Non-organic Strawberries

Fumigants Strawberries are grown in soil that has been sprayed with noxious gases – even most “organic” strawberries. “These fumigants are linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and developmental problems in children,” says soil science expert Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network.” ( The earth is treated with the chemical, and a layer of polyethylene is placed over the soil to retain the poison (and moisture). The chemical is also used to “fumigate” wild animals’ warrens, in other words, to kill any and all wildlife that might eat the berries – and some that don’t. The fumigant of choice had been methyl bromide, but it was phased out (with some exceptions!) – globally -by 2015, because of its tendency to deplete the ozone layer. Methyl bromide was replaced by an even worse chemical, methyl iodide, but its use was much more restricted, and has been mostly phased out. Syngenta agreed to stop marketing the poison in the U.S. in 2012, but still produces the chemical and uses it around the world. ( One alternative to these fumigants is Choloropicrin, which was used as a nerve gas in WWI. It causes respiratory problems, and, ultimately, death. ( There are other fumigants on the market.

Pesticides A 2008 study by the USDA’s official site list 54 pesticide residues in strawberries. ( This is probably a conservative estimate. According to Katarina Lah of Toxipedia, “Pesticides are designed to kill and because their mode of action is not specific to one species, they often kill or harm organisms other than pests, including humans… Pesticide exposure can cause a range of neurological health effects such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced speed of response to stimuli, reduced visual ability, altered or uncontrollable mood and general behavior, and reduced motor skills…asthma, allergies, and hypersensitivity, and pesticide exposure is also linked with cancer, hormone disruption, and problems with reproduction and fetal development.” (

Some of the effects of these various pesticides:

Captan: Eye an skin irritation
Pyraclostrobin: “27 cases of acute illness among the potentially exposed workers; all illnesses were associated with off-target drift of the pyraclostrobin to an adjacent field.” (
Tetrahydrophthalimide: “Repeated inhalation by rats and mice produced effects including changes in the liver, spleen, lungs, blood composition and nervous system activity, and increased kidney and spleen weights.” (
Myclobutanil: “Workers exposed to myclobutanil have reported symptoms such as skin rash, allergic dermatitis, itchiness, nausea, heachache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, nosebleed, and eye irritation (CDPR).” (
Fludioxonil: Cancer: “currently unclassifiable” – statistically significant trend for malignant LYMPHOMAS in female mice; statistically significant increases in LIVER tumors in female rats (
Bifenthrin: “Symptoms of excessive exposure to bifenthrin are nausea, headaches, hypersensitivity for touch and sound and irritation of the skin and the eyes.” (
Malathion: Malathion is classified by US EPA as having “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential.” Also, “a 2008 study done by the University of Pittsburgh found that “cocktails of contaminants”, which are frequently found in nature, were lethal to leopard frog tadpoles.” (
Cyprodinil: “Harmful in contact with skin. May cause heritable genetic damage. May impair fertility. May cause harm to the unborn child. Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.” (
Malaoxon: “This compound is toxic by ingestion.” As in strawberries. Also – are you ready? “Symptoms of exposure to this type of compound include cholinesterase inhibition, miosis, frontal headache, increased bronchial secretion, nausea, vomiting, sweating, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, lacrimation, increased salivation, bradycardia, cyanosis and muscular twitching of the eyelids, tongue, face and neck, possibly progressing to convulsions. Other symptoms include hyperemia of the conjunctiva, dimness of vision, rhinorrhea, bronchoconstriction, cough, fasciculation, anorexia, incontinence, eye changes, weakness, dyspnea, bronchospasm, hypotension or hypertension due to asphyxia, restlessness, anxiety, dizziness, drowsiness, tremor, ataxia, depression, confusion, neuropathy (rare), coma and death from depression of respiratory or cardiovascular systems. Exposure to this type of compound may result in giddiness, nervousness, blurred vision, discomfort (tightness) in chest, papilledema, muscular weakness, loss of reflexes, loss of sphincter control, cardiac arrhythmias, various degrees of heart block and cardiac arrest. It may also result in spasm of accommodation, aching pain in and about the eye, nystagmus, delayed distal axonopathy and parethesias and paralysis of limbs. A decrease in blood pressure may occur. Respiratory failure may also occur.”

If that doesn’t scare you away, most of the above pesticides are not found in organic strawberries.

Ten Reasons Why You SHOULD Eat Organic Strawberries

They are really delicious.
Antioxidants Merriam-Webster defines antioxidants as “a substance (as beta-carotene or vitamin C) that inhibits oxidation or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxides, or free radicals”; free radicals may damage cells or genetic material. ( Strawberries have been shown to be one of the best sources of antioxidants. (
Vitamin C “The benefits of vitamin C may include protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease, and even skin wrinkling.” ( Enough said for now.
Improved blood sugar regulation Strawberries can reduce the negative effects of excessive intake of sugar in the bloodstream. (
Reduction of inflammation According to the Arthritis Foundation, strawberries may lower blood levels of CRP (C-reactive protein), which signals inflammation. High levels of CRP are associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Manganese Manganese helps the body utilize nutrients such as biotin, thiamin, ascorbic acid and choline. It also helps strengthen bones, maintain normal blood sugar levels, promote healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, contribute to nerve health and protect cells from damage from free radicals. (
Vitamin K Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin which helps blood clot. It is also associated with bone strengthening and cell growth. (
Folate Among the many functions of folate are: reduces blood homosteine levels; forms red blood cells; assists in cell growth and division; prevents neural tube defects. (
Pantothenic Acid Also known as Vitamin B-5, pantothenic acid is vital to important for metabolism, nervous system and energy production. It also helps create red blood cells, and has been linked to the reduction of cholesterol. (
Choline Among the benefits of choline are the manufacture of neurotransmitters, making and transporting lipids and cell communication. (

Ten MORE Reasons to Eat Organic Strawberries

Minerals! Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorous, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc, Copper, Selenium and Fluoride.

So, get to your local health food store, farm stand or farmer’s market and gorge yourself on organic strawberries. (You might want to eat other healthy foods as well…). But before you eat, ask the vendor what fumigants or pesticides (or other poisons) are used in the cultivation, growing and processing of the delectable berries. Once you know what you are eating, you’ll feel better, and be better! Enjoy.\

Paul Jimerson (@pauljimerson)

Packed with vitamins, fiber, and particularly high levels of antioxidants known as polyphenols, strawberries are a sodium-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, low-calorie food. They are among the top 20 fruits in antioxidant capacity and are a good source of manganese and potassium. Just one serving — about eight strawberries — provides more vitamin C than an orange.

California’s $2 billion strawberry industry, which produces more than 90 percent of the nation’s strawberries,
Those scientists concluded that use of the fumigant would result in acute public health risks because tests on rats and rabbits have shown that exposure to the chemical causes thyroid cancer, miscarriages and damage to the nervous system. Scientists also found it can pollute air and water.

Blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are true super foods. Naturally sweet and juicy, berries are low in sugar and high in nutrients – they are among the best foods you can eat.
Joel Fuhrman
Cherries, strawberries, and red or green grapes are great add-ons to any sexual fun

Read more:

A perfect little red heart, the strawberry is an edible Valentine. Touted as an aphrodisiac fruit since the times of ancient Rome, the strawberry was a symbol of Venus. (In the French countryside, there was once a tradition of serving newlyweds cold strawberry soup to help promote the aphrodisiac of honeymoon romance.)

aphrodisiac strawberry: the crimson symbol of venus

Strawberries:Are delicate and prone to disease, including fungal attacks that can turn them to mush during transit and storage. Millions of pounds of methyl bromide are used every year by California strawberry growers. It damages the ozone layer, so it is banned in many parts of the world. “This chemical has an uncanny ability to damage DNA, which creates a host of problems, ranging from reproductive effects to cancer and neurological damage,” explains Gina Solomon, MD, MPH, chief scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council. “Since the chemical is also highly volatile, it is easy for it to drift and affect workers and nearby communities.”

Dirty Dozen – 12 Foods You MUST Eat Organic

The heart-shaped silhouette of the strawberry is the first clue that this fruit is good for you. These potent little packages protect your heart, increase HDL (good) cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, and guard against cancer.
Packed with vitamins, fiber, and particularly high levels of antioxidants known as polyphenols, strawberries are a sodium-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, low-calorie food. They are among the top 20 fruits in antioxidant capacity and are a good source of manganese and potassium. Just one serving — about eight strawberries — provides more vitamin C than an orange.
This member of the rose family isn’t really a fruit or a berry but the enlarged receptacle of the flower. Choose medium-sized berries that are firm, plump, and deep red; once picked, they don’t ripen further. First cultivated in ancient Rome, strawberries are now the most popular berry fruit in the world. In provincial France, they were regarded as an aphrodisiac. These red gems may be good for your heart in more ways than one.

“The reality is that a lot of the organic growers want nothing to do with organic plants” because it scares them, said Mr. Rickert, who has since gone back to herding organically fed cattle at his ranch in Butte Valley. Indeed, for many organic strawberry growers, using organic stock amounts to taking a big financial risk with little chance of reward.
farmer James Rickert of Prather Ranch
pioneering California organic strawberry grower Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm (briefly profiled on Mother Jones here), who also signed the letter, used  Rickerts’ plants extensively and found them “always of excellent quality,” he told the Times.

California’s fields are stunningly productive. They yield ten times more strawberries, per acre, than strawberry farms in Michigan; twenty times more than farms in the state of New York
Finally, the plants are trucked up into the mountains along the California-Oregon border. It’s cold up there, which is crucial. Somehow the cold gets these plants primed for maximum production.
Because California’s strawberry growers don’t want to take any risk that their crop will fail. They have too much money invested — especially in prime growing areas along the coast where land is most expensive.
They inject chemicals into the soil and seal the fumes into the soil with sheets of plastic.
They’re growing in a foot-wide trough that’s been pressed into the top of each bed, lined with fabric, and filled with peat or something called coconut coir — the fibers from the outside of a coconut.
So for now, most of California’s strawberry growers are sticking with the chemicals. It’s been a key to their success in producing more strawberries, for a lower cost, than anywhere else in the world.
They’re fresh and sweet, intensely red and fragrant, and firm — not pumped up with nitrogen like most commercial strawberries.
Then, in 1981, he was poisoned. One early morning he was standing in a field wondering if the cropduster had sprayed pesticides overnight. When the sun came up, he found out in the worst way: the heat and light activated the chemical, turning it into a cloud of tear gas. The next year, he was doused by methyl bromide — as, he says, are most of the workers who lay and pull up tarps that enclose the gas in the soil. Those episodes left him feeling sick and shaky, with temporary respiratory problems.
Strawberries are far more expensive to grow per acre than most crops — about six times what broccoli costs, for example — and they’re very finicky, prone to soil diseases, mold, and other maladies.
the California Strawberry Commission. “The industry blockaded our efforts to get money to research alternatives, and spent a lot of money in Washington making sure our proposals didn’t get funded.”
In 2002, Cochran was awarded the EPA’s Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for his techniques.
only 4 percent of California strawberries are grown that way. The rest — some 34,000 acres — still rely on fumigants and pesticides
Under the 1989 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to save the ozone layer, and an amendment to the 1998 Clean Air Act, the ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide, which conventional strawberry growers depend on for sterilizing their soil to control weeds and diseases, was supposed to have been phased out by 2005….It has survived with “critical use” extensions from the EPA, based on industry claims that there are no technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical.
Methyl iodide was approved by the EPA in 2007, under the Bush Administration, despite widespread scientific reports
“Methyl iodide is a very potent mutagen and genotoxic chemical,” says Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist and public health expert at NRDC. “It damages DNA.” …If inhaled by farm workers or nearby residents, says Solomon, the gas could cause neurological damage, cancer, and fetal toxicity. Thyroid poisoning could occur if the iodine seeps into groundwater. “The science is quite clear on this chemical, and there’s a dramatic disconnect between the science and the California policy.”
“It’s surprisingly easier to grow strawberries without chemicals than the industry would lead you to believe,”
Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons

According to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 9 of the 12 most dangerous and persistent organic chemicals are pesticides.[2][3]

The first important synthetic organic pesticide was a chlorinated hydrocarboon (or organochlorine): dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT. DDT was discovered in 1939 by a Swiss chemist Paul Muller.
One of the first pesticides was sulfur, used by the Chinese in around 1000 BC to control bacteria and mold (fungus).

The first use of brining of grain with salt water followed by liming took place in the middle of the 17th century to control bunt
The California strawberry industry produces about 85% of the strawberries grown in the United States, on 37,000 acres, with a value of $1.5 billion in 2008 (ERS 2009). To control soilborne diseases and weeds, California strawberry fields have long been fumigated with methyl bromide (MB) plus chloropicrin (Pic). However, methyl bromide is being phased out as an ozone-depleting substance under the Montreal Protocol (USDS 2009), an international treaty. Currently, some California strawberries can still be treated with methyl bromide under a critical-use exemption, subject to annual review by parties to the Montreal Protocol.

This is a chemical that was used in chemical warfare in the First World War and causes respiratory problems and, if enough is breathed in, death. Chloropicrin is classified as a Dangerous Goods Class 6.1 Toxic Substance and Chloropicrin products are also classified as a Dangerous Poison.
Chloropicrin is used to fumigate their warrens. This is a cruel & inhumane way to die. If they don’t die straight away they can suffer for days with headache, nausea, irritated eyes and skin, diarrhea, laboured breathing, bleeding around the nose and mouth and painful irritation of mucous membranes. Our native animals also get caught up, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as geckos and small mammals use these burrows too.

Montreal Protocol called for the Methyl Bromide (MB) phase-out in 1992. In 1997, a global phase-out schedule of this chemical was established by the MOP: Article 5 countries are required to freeze consumption and production of MB by 2002, reduce its use by 20% in 2005 and complete total phase-out by 2015.




Like most American kids growing up in the fifties and sixties, I watched Disney movies and fantasized about celebrities. Sex, violence, romance, adventure, machismo, the whole bit. As I got a little older, I hid my Playboy magazine under the mattress, and snuck “Facts of Life and Love” out of my parents’ bedroom. As I got a little older still, I learned to play the guitar and played in a few rock bands. My fantasies of stardom were pretty ordinary, and not yoked to old-fashioned ideas of hard work and discipline. Repressed and lonely, my fantasies were an escape from a harsh family environment. As I got a little older, I began smoking pot and writing songs on my 12-string guitar. My anger was ascendent, and I fantasized about bringing down the whole Amerikan System.

When I discovered art, I dropped out of college, and began painting in earnest. I was going to change the world through my paintings. When my interest in my own artistic output waned, I took up the idea that I would be a famous writer. Of course, I never shared my fantasies of fame with anyone, lest they think I was vain, or, worse, laughable. However, the idea of fame in some way fueled the fire of my passion for creative endeavor.

I had the chance to hang out with famous artists, and got a taste of the world of art world celebrities as an art school student in Boston in the late seventies. I thought about moving to New York City, the red hot center of the international art world, and study art history. Instead, I chose to move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and study painting. I’ve spent most of my life wondering if I made the right decision. I could have been a contender. Or so I have fantasized.

I also grew up fantasizing about California. Not so much Hollywood, but certainly fueled by Hollywood images of fabulous beach parties, carefree living, and chicks in bikinis. The Good Life. Endless Summer. Endless fun.
In 1970, I tried to run away from home on Cape Cod when I was 17, headed for the epicenter of California hippie life, Haight-Ashbury. I got as far as Elmira, New York. I didn’t make it to California until I was fifty. The Haight was closed. But I did discover and fall in love with the northern California coast.

I may never have made it to Hollywood, were it not for the fact that I moved to the Central Coast, a day’s drive from the southernmost and the northernmost points of The Golden State.

Of course, I had seen some of the grittiness of Hollywood from TV and movies, but the idea of Hollywood as some sort of home of glamour, glitz, and the Good Life still remained in my consciousness. At the ripe old age of 59, I had no illusions about what Hollywood was, but I had to see it for myself. A place of such iconic symbolism just had to be visited.

I entered Hollywood by way of Beverly Hills, which looked pretty good from the main drag. I drove and drove, looking for the epicenter of the dream capital of America. Mostly what I saw was your typical urban wasteland of ugly signs, stores, people wandering around. My traveling companion was not much help. He had lived in Hollywood many years before, and didn’t really remember the streets. So, we wandered around. I kept asking him if there wasn’t some central point, some place where all the celebrities were. We decided to visit the Capitol Records building, an iconic building for a kid growing up on Capitol 45s, seeing the building in movies and on TV, a really cool building, round, like a stack of 45s. As I came to discover after my trip, it is representative of a a style of architecture known as “Googie.” I got out of the car and snapped photos of the building and its gorgeous mural of great jazz artists. We wandered down the dirty street to the Roosevelt Hotel, where a photographer was shooting a line of cute, young, leggy Asian women. We were surrounded by bars.

We stumbled upon the Graumann’s Chinese Theater, tripped over the gold stars embedded in the dirty sidewalks, jostled through the crowd of junkies, Spiderman and Elvis, past the over-lit store of cheap T-shirts, souvenirs. I parked between a Rolls Royce convertible and a Bentley, got some change for the meter at the hearing loss center known as Whiskey-A-Go-Go, stared blankly at the trash in the gutter. John pointed out the home for retired glam rockers, aka the Rainbow Room, and watched as passersby seemed to compete to see who could look more forbidding and hip.

Hollywood, or “Hollyweird,” as my friend calls it, is what you get when you completely lose your spiritual bearings. It is a bizarre hodgepodge of the worst of America: Ugliness, tackiness, materialism, drug addiction, faded dreams, bizarre characters, crime, a jostle of ugliness and beauty that has no coherence, no center, no reason for being.

I had a bit of a spiritual epiphany after my visit to Hollywood. I thought, if this is the end of the world, which it surely seemed to be, what was the opposite of Hollywood? And didn’t I want to strive to eliminate the Hollywood from my own tarnished soul?

Life, as they inevitably will say, is a journey, as unpredictable as New England weather. I had to write this essay in the open space of northern California, as far away from Hollyweird as I could reasonably get. Hollywood is, and will hopefully remain, a distant nightmare, not a terrifying one, but a sobering one. A few minutes at the uncrowded beach, with the fog lapping at my bare arms, should wash away the Hollywood grit that still clings to my soul.

Paul Update September 26, 2012

McHenry Library Eating Area, UCSC

Reading “Gravity’s Rainbow” and drinking a Scarlet Begonia, reputedly named for a Dead tune. The Dead exhibit is just around the corner. I’m sure you know that this UCSC library houses the Grateful Dead archives, which my brother Rand, as an archivist, has some connection to. It is a pleasant enough day: sunny and warm, and the surrounding redwoods’ towering is visible through the huge windows. There’s even a halfway decent sculpture out on the plaza. 

Every day is Armageddon, as you know, it’s just that it is happening in really, really tiny episodes. Is that boy in the green shirt and cap walking toward me the Antichrist or a Letter from my Beloved? Hard to tell. But he would deny that that’s brimstone in his pocket, mark my words, in any case.

Life continues on. So to speak. The trees are dripping. Is that laughter or sadness? I’m putting one foot in front of the other. Waiting for a Revelation of some sort. I’ll settle for an epiphany. Or even a decent thought.

Koyaanisqatsi: Philip Glass in Big Sur

I saw the film “Koyaanisqatsi” many years ago. When I heard that a remastered version was going to be shown at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, I sprang into action and ordered a ticket. Even though it meant parting with thirty bucks, I figured it was historic. Thirty years from now people may be asking, “Do you remember where you were when Koyaanisqatsi was shown in Big Sur?” Probably not. But the filmmaker, Godfrey Reggio, and legendary contemporary composer Philip Glass were going to be on hand to talk about the film prior to the showing. So it was a no-brainer.

I decided to drive down early and go to my favorite beach, Julia Pfeiffer, with the dramatic offshore rocks. The wind sent streams of sand undulating along the beach, and I ate a sandy sandwich and watched the waves before taking a walk up the shore.

I got to the library early, then drove south a little, discovering a trail leading all the way down the cliffs to the beach, an out of the way surfing destination. I walked part way down, and watched the surfers navigate some pretty gnarly looking waves.

Cars by the Henry Miller memorial Library were parked in a raggedy line just off Route One, and people were walking in the road toward to the event. A little hairy. I had an interesting talk with a New York refugee who sort of knew Philip Glass, and he told me some interesting stories about famous people, like two of the Beatles, visiting Easlen, just down the road.

Sculptures and boughs of tiny lights and candles were strewn about the woods surrounding the stage and makeshift screen, draped between two redwoods. It was a bit like time travel, with all the requisite funkiness of Big Sur in attendance. Old folding chairs were set in rows, along with a few clothed tables. Three high directors chairs and two small, high tables with a pitcher of water were bathed in blue light. Glass’s music issued from the large onstage speakers. It was past time to get started.

Finally, the moderator came out and introduced Reggio and Glass and the three seated themselves, clutching cordless mics. Reggio talked about the origins of the film and the odd name, and Glass said a few words. There was time for just one question from the audience, despite the fact that this was billed as a “Q&A.” The audience member asked if either of them had experienced the film while under the influence of mind-altering substances.

The film opens with dramatic images of natural scenes, primarily desert images, some in time-lapse. Then there are time-lapse clouds racing across the sky. Jarringly, there is a close-up of a large earth moving truck, and explosions, Earth being forever altered by Man. All the while, there is the insistent and compatible music by Glass, with its arpeggios and dramatic swells.

Sitting amid the redwoods, with the earth smells and trees towering above us, the cold lapping at exposed skin, it was an exhilarating experience. The film’s images are powerful and compelling. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check it out. Much of it is on YouTube and Hulu.

The drive home was colored by the fast-paced images of the film; the road echoed the film’s images of city streets and speeding traffic, and I didn’t want the drive home along the dark winding road by the abyss to ever end.

A Twisted Piece of Stained Glass

Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day always has a special resonance for me. I was just a child when my father gathered up a charred, twisted bit of the stained glass window from the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that was bombed on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls. As Director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, it was his job to act as a mediator between the black and white communities. As part of his job, he had worked with such luminaries as Andrew Young and Fred Shuttlesworth, and had met Dr. King. His lawyer wrote a book and devoted a chapter to my dad. I was very proud.

One of the few memories I have of his work during that time, 1961 to 1964, was traveling with my father to visit the mother of a young black boy who was shot off the back of his bicycle by a group of white teenagers driving by in a car. I can still picture the dirt yard, the small house, the large woman, little faces peering around from behind her apron. It was my first real look at poverty, and it had an indelible impact on my young mind.

For many years, that twisted fragment of stained glass graced my mother’s hutch, long after my father’s death. It was eventually given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and is a cherished object there. (My father was asked to speak at the inauguration of the Institute in 1992.)

Stained glass has been used for a thousand years to decorate churches, usually depicting the life of Christ and His disciples, an aesthetic symbol of hope and redemption. Growing up with a twisted and blackened bit of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a reminder of the violence that twists and distorts the human psyche, the distortion of racism and hatred, but also a symbol of hope. My belief was always that if people could talk and really communicate about the violence and hatred that is symbolized by that twisted clump of glass, racism could finally be eradicated. Obama appropriated the word “hope” in his campaign, and his election was, for many, symbolic of the eradication of racism. Of course, we need more than symbolism to eliminate racism, but talking about it is a start. It is my hope that we can have meaningful national conversations about racism and hatred, so that these evils can come to light and be, once and for all, a thing of the past.


Not far from my home in Capitola is a gorgeous place, The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Lately, I have been traveling there for brief hikes with a friend. It’s not old growth forest, and, in fact, was clearcut a century ago, but the towering Redwoods give some perspective on our brief, often seemingly rootless lives.

The other day, a friend and I were walking along a road in the forest, and spotted a butterfly with black wings spotted with orange and white. (I later discovered that it is a California Sister butterfly.) She said, “This is great animal medicine!” Not being versed in Native American spiritual practice, and wary of attributing significance to such events, I simply enjoyed the kismet of finding a healthy butterfly just “hanging out” in the road. “He is completely unafraid!” my friend said, noting that it was able to move, but not moving. I placed my finger next to its head, and allowed it to crawl up on my hand. My friend took some photos. She offered to give me some readings later about the significance of the butterfly.

After our healing walk amongst the welcoming redwoods, I went to a healing session with a local practitioner. He had me stand on the floor, feeling my rootedness to the Earth, “like a tree,” feeling the power of the Earth. During the session, he asked me to recall a time when I was feeling particularly good and powerful. “Building my house,” came immediately to mind. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, in 1992 I designed and built a small house in the rugged woods of central New Hampshire. He encouraged me to feel that energy, and associate a color with the feeling. “Green” was an easy choice. The profusion of evergreens, towering pines and majestic hemlocks populated the mixed New Hampshire forest, with it’s steep cliffs, huge boulders, hollows and small stream. “Green house energy.” He said I could take that energy into “building my life.” As I lay on my back, acupuncture needles embedded in my body, I felt the green house energy coursing through my body. Something shifted, and I felt freer, stronger.

I transitioned from the healing session to a writing class at a local college. I have not been able to write for the past year or so, and the class has helped me open up and begin to share some of my stories. I decided, despite the butterflies in my stomach, to read part of my recent story to the class. Apparently, they liked it, and I got some very nice feedback from class members. Another opening.

Later, when my friend showed me the Medicine Card for the butterfly, it spoke of transformation. Perhaps the grieving over all the losses of the past few years is transmuting into something less painful, more joyful, like the colorful wings of the shamanic butterfly. In any case, I feel more rooted, more powerful, and am ready to move into the world with a renewed determination to build my life.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut!

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I procured a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, and read it with interest. Apparently, not enough interest to actually finish the book, but I found it engaging. In all fairness, I rarely finish books. I blame it on ADD, but I have a hard time staying with a book until the bitter end, especially novels. I don’t remember anything about the book, and I don’t believe I ever read another Vonnegut novel. Sad for me. I’ve read about Vonnegut, and followed his career with interest, including his wonderful drawings.

A few years ago, when I was living in Northampton, Massachusetts, home of Smith College, Woodstar Café, and several people quite dear to me, I heard through the local ivy vine that Kurt Vonnegut had moved to Northampton to be near his daughter, who was enrolled at Smith. Come to think of it, I remember thinking, I had seen a guy who looked an awful lot like Kurt Vonnegut on the streets of Paradise City. I had fantasies of having coffee with him, hanging out, talking, shooting the breeze. Can you imagine anyone more interesting to chat with?

One day, as I boarded the small elevator in my apartment building, an old schoolhouse with huge walls of windows, I looked up to see, of all people, Kurt Vonnegut! I said, without hesitation, “Are you Kurt Vonnegut?” He smiled, thrust out his large hand, and said, “Yes. And you are?” I introduced myself. At that point, I ran out of things to say. Struggling to say something meaningful, I blurted out the following words, knowing, before they traveled the few feet from my mouth to his ear, that it was not good. “I haven’t read much of your work,” I needlessly confessed, “but I consider you a cultural icon.” OMG. I think by then I had left my body. Mr. Vonnegut looked down at his shoes. The few seconds of silence felt like an eternity. “Nice meeting you,” I said as we got off the elevator on the first floor. I never saw him again.

I’ve met a few famous people in my time, and have always managed to maintain a modicum of decorum, despite my excitement. Mr. Vonnegut, I’m sure, forgave and forgot me fairly quickly. But, I still want to have coffee with you, Mr. Vonnegut, wherever you are. And Happy Birthday!

Cocteau & Glass

Cocteau and Glass

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Jean Cocteau was a French novelist, playwright, stage and film director, poet, essayist, painter, set designer, and actor. And if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the First World War, Cocteau also became the unofficial spokesperson for “Les Six,” or “The Six,” a group of young composers that included Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey, Germaine Tailleferre, and Georges Auric.

In 1945 Cocteau directed his own cinematic adaptation of the classic fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” and in 1950, a modern-dress retelling of the ancient Greek myth of “Orpheus.” Decades after Cocteau’s death in 1963, the American composer Philip Glass prepared new musical accompaniments to both these classic films. In an interview Glass said:

“For me, Cocteau has always been an artist whose work was central to the ‘modern’ art movement of the 20th century. More than any artist of his time, he again and again addressed questions of art, immortality and the creative process.”

This music is from Glass’s version of Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which debuted in Gibellina, Italy on today’s date in 1994. The original soundtrack for Cocteau’s film was replaced by synchronized live performances by the singers and instrumentalists of the Philip Glass ensemble, who accompanied a screening of Cocteau’s uncut 95-minute film.

TIME magazine called this new version of “Beauty and the Beast” “an exhilarating and original ride . . . Remarkable not only in conception but also in execution, brimming with freshets of melody and surging with Wagnerian power in conjuring up a magic kingdom.”


Music Played on Today’s Program:

Philip Glass (b. 1937):
Beauty and the Beast
Philip Glass Ensemble;
Michael Riesman, cond.
Nonesuch 79347