In the Garden: Memories of manta rays


Free leftover tins from Bora Bora become planters. A nice memory, long after the cookies and the tan have been gone!

In September 2010, I was lucky enough to visit French Polynesia. I stayed on the islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora. The fanciful cuisine of the former — particularly the long-standing food truck tradition — was certainly a favorite memory. But it was only off the shores of Bora Bora that I got to scuba dive. And I do love nothing more than being underwater. Whilst immersed in the almost too perfect turquoise seas, I swam with pregnant manta rays and big fat lemon sharks. Gifts from the gods, to be sure.

I hadn’t completely forgotten about the dives, but almost two years later, they were far from my mind. And then, about a month ago, I got a message from an old dive buddy — a Frenchman who lives near Avignon.

“I was watching a documentary about mantas in French Polynesia and I saw you,” he wrote. “Did you see this documentary? I can try to capture few pictures for you if you want.”

And then it all came back.

A screen shot of me after the dive, from "Les reines du lagon."

It so happens that a French film crew was on my dive boat that September, and they were making a documentary about the manta rays in the motu. They filmed the briefing, the dive and then interviewed me afterward. Miracle of miracles, I made the final cut.

The film, “Les reines du lagon” (The queens of the lagoon”) is by Dominique Martial. Mon ami francais sent me a screen shot and some video clips. Apparently, I sound way more sophisticated in French! The parts I saw were magical. Hope I get to see the whole documentary one day.

I had saved some cookie tins from the resort in Bora Bora where we stayed while diving. They were the tastiest tropical butter cookies I’ve ever had! I poked drainage holes in the bottom of the tins, filled them with soil and then planted a trio of succulents in each.

Now, whenever i water them, I will be thinking of Bora Bora and my magical moment with mantas, en francais!

In the Garden: Pilferage and propagation


A tea cup from the sale bin at my favorite Japantown porcelain store is now home to three of my proud propagates.

Succulents come in myriad shapes, colors and textures (including the spiny cactus) and pepper the planet in locales as diverse as India, Madagascar and the California coast!

They’ve been all the decor rage for the past few years, as they are both easy on the eyes and hard to kill. Though air plants — the fiercely survivalist tillandsia — are becoming “stiff” competition, particularly as wall art, succulents are still spreading their fleshy leaves at an ambitious rate. Surpassing the simple flower pot, they are showing up as floral arrangements, wreaths and framed hangings.

It’s crazy how plants can be trendy, but then there is the infamous tale of the tulip… I can’t say I know of any fortunes that have been won or lost over these fun little flora, though the local nurseries are probably making out quite well. (Succulents regenerate themselves at an amazing rate, with hardly any work on the part of humans.)

A second life for charity shop find. Rocks compliments of Bean Hollow beach.

I’ve been busy propagating my little thick-leafed friends for some time. Some of the parent plants were purchased, while others were plucked from obliging flower pots or pinched on a hike. You pick a little plant or just a part, leave it to dry for a few weeks and then, once roots start to reach out, plant the new sucker in some soil.

Finding the right containers is almost equally as fun. I peruse secondhand stores, sale bins and my own cabinets for candidates. (What better retirement plan for a chipped mug or bowl?) Fishbowls are a present favorite.

Picked up the beady bundle of red and green this afternoon near Alamere Falls in Point Reyes. What a lovely, though busy hike!!

I recently redid a few planters, as I hadn’t given them proper drainage on my first try. Now, with a bed of rocks in the bottom and a layer of charcoal just below the sandy soil, the roots should have plenty of room to breathe.

If you’d like to totally geek out on succulents, follow the goings on of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America (CSSA), at

And if you’re curious about the tulip wars, an apropos analogy for our troubled economic times, check out “Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused” by Mike Dash.

A bright yellow succulent in its natural habitat -- the dunes at Bean Hollow State Beach.

Photos and Poetry, Cont.: For the birds


Hummingbirds remind me of my late mother. They’re small, beautiful and extremely quick — alive and abuzz with energy.

I shot this photo over the summer and have been meaning to post it ever since. It’s not the most technically superb of images, but I was proud just to have snapped a clear view of one of these little birds.

Humming Bird

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

—D.H. Lawrence

Islands in the making


While canoeing along the southern end of the Everglades this past March, I came across many little islands in the making. These islets, often in the form of one or two lonely red mangrove trees, struck me as a symbol of hope.

Despite the vast sea stretching endlessly before them, floating seed pods willed themselves into a sandbank somewhere, harnessing the powers of great tidal shifts, forming themselves a new home. In the spirit of exploration and even of the persistence of life against all odds, these lone trees turned themselves into lone islands … And where lone islands form, other life is sure to follow.

High in the treetops of narrow inlets and the tiny, well-rooted trees all around us, birds would perch and, sometimes even nest, forming silhouettes against the colors of a sky transitioning into darkness. How glorious that in five, ten or twenty years time, I may be parking my canoe on the banks of one of these “lone tree islets,” now independent islands in their own rights, and spending a night under the stars.

Spring: More than a feeling


How amazing that, hovering right over our heads on the side of a busy street, spring is making magic? For all the glorious architectural creations of bygone generations and other beautiful manmade wonders, I still think the blooming of a flower is the most amazing thing.

Snapped the photo above after taking a walking tour of my neighborhood with SF City Guides. I’ve lived in Noe Valley for less than a year, but I’ve been coming to visit for almost a decade and figured it was time to learn about the truth behind its many charms.

You can see more photos from my tour on Flickr.

Once again, I am part of a gentrifying sweep, moving an old working-class neighborhood with an appealing low skyline into the ranks of the less affordable. This reminds me of my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Cobble Hill; so do all the cute boutiques, eateries and baby strollers.

But … It was great to have my eyes opened to all the architectural details they would normally gloss over. And now I can proudly distinguish a Stick House from a Queen Anne or an Edwardian. One sad note is that Nelly Street was once Orient Street, but they changed the name during World War II. People are silly, aren’t they? But whoever Nelly was, I am sure she was happy to get her own street.

Tours by SF City Guides are free and happening all the time, all around the city (schedule). And you can catch the latest buzz about lovely Noe Valley on this fun local blog,