Thursday, July 26, 2007

Timber! Missing tree’s company

As I drove over the hill, I saw the tree trimmer at work. One by one, he cut limbs from the tall pine. I didn’t watch the full decapitation. It was hard enough just knowing the iconic tree soon would be reduced to a stump.

It’s only a tree, Kathe, not even in your immediate neighborhood. Get over it.

But …

We knew for years that the stately old Monterey pine was fading. Later, the tree’s skeleton still stood guard over the intersection of Ardath Drive and Madison Street, reaching high into the sunset.

At the “Y” in the road, the tree had been a most visible symbol of Cambria’s extraordinary native stand of Monterey pines, the trees that blanket our hillsides nearly to the sea.

We cherish our trademark pines — especially when sunshine or moonglow glimmers through the branches, or fog weaves its ghostly fingers into the treetops.

We’re so lucky. As we go about our daily living, we get to travel through the forest. We can walk in our forest, show it off to our grandchildren and even get lost in it, emotionally or literally.

Within a few minutes, we can see sights ranging from seaside tidepools to Scott Rock. We drive along Main Street from Highway 1 into town, or along Fern or Strawberry canyons.

We hike up (and I do mean up) to the Cambria Cemetery or to Old Santa Rosa Chapel. We stroll Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and exult that it’s really ours. We spy otters or whales from Leffingwell Landing, then bicycle along the creek roads.

Sometimes we even forget to look at all that beauty. What a pity.

We also fret about the trees when weather is hot and dry, about winds, diseases, fungi, fire and more. Then when wind-driven rains deluge us, we also agonize about what the trees might do us and our homes.

Justifiably concerned, we hope to protect the forest, take care of it, properly manage it.

Some say others have overreacted in how they trimmed up brush and weeds underneath the pines. It’s all a matter of degree, I guess. One person’s mandated weed removal is another’s rape of the environment.

This is Cambria, after all. We each see our town through different binoculars.

After a while, it’s easy to think of our forest as a solitary entity. But each tree is an individual. And this tree was so prominent.

In the 1970s, crews repaved Ardath at Madison using smooth-polished beach rock. In the rain, dew or heavy fog, the rocks got wet. And slippery. Cars would suddenly and helplessly hydroplane, gliding toward oblivion.

Time and time again, the big old pine was Mother Nature’s stand-in for an emergency brake. It frequently halted sliding cars before they could tumble down the hill into what was then the home of Jerry Juhl, head writer for the “Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.”

On each rainy night, Jerry and wife Susan would mull over their options — wait for the inevitable to happen or alert the tow-truck to stand by.

The sentinel tree at the Y in the road also served as a prominent signpost. For decades, it was in just the right spot to help people find their way. Garage sales on Marine Terrace, events at Camp Ocean Pines, parties, weddings, reunions — all were proudly announced on scrawled signs or formal banners pinned briefly to “the tree.”

Brief directions told drivers which way to go … or, in at least one case, where not to go.

That sign had someone’s name at the top, above an arrow pointing to the right. The arrow was in a circle slashed with a line drawn through it. At the bottom, the sign read, “Not that way, dummy!”

The big old pine was a neighborhood landmark. And now it’s gone.

We’re seeing more and more of these losses. Trees don’t last forever, you know. One by one, other tree guys will take down the dying, the dangerous and the skeletons.

With each removal, we’ll be left with a newly opened patch of view and a vague sense that something important is missing. And we’ll be right.

E-mail Kathe Tanner at

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

BEST OF: Line of duty drew tragically close

This column first ran four years ago, on July 20, 2003. Judges in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual Better Newspapers Contest gave it the best-writing award for that year.

It was the call every journalist dreads — an assignment to cover a story about a tragedy befalling a friend or family member.

The request from The Tribune’s assistant city editor was succinct: “We’ve had a report of a structure fire six miles up San Simeon Creek Road. Can you go?”

I know what’s up there, and the knowledge hit me like a pile driver someplace between my chest bone and my belly button. It had to be on the Warren compound, a grouping of ranch houses, barns and other buildings. I’ve known the Warrens — including my “acquired brother” Bill Warren — for more than three decades.

I didn’t tell my editor about my probable ties to the call, which came Thursday afternoon (July 17, 2003), or he never would have sent me. I went, although I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought I could help the family. Maybe I was praying for a magic wand to wave.“Let it be the barn,” I whispered. “Don’t let it be Grandma Florence,” Bill’s elderly mother.

Those gut-wrenching situations happen more frequently to firefighters, ambulance crews and law-enforcement officials, especially in small towns. Soldiers, too. I don’t know how they do it. They have my profound respect.

I don’t remember much about the drive up those six hilly miles, except I was following what turned out to be the first few fire trucks going to the scene.

As soon as I rounded the corner onto the creek road, I could see the smoke. It reminded me of another day nine years earlier, when I came over a different hill and saw my own home going up in flames. Only that time, thanks to a phone alert, I knew nobody had been hurt.

This time, the worst was yet to come. As I got to the crest of the hill, I saw it. Bill Warren’s house was engulfed in flames. I parked out of the way of the oncoming hordes of fire trucks and ran up the hill.

My knees held up somehow, but my heart sank. I knew how much pride Bill had in his “treasures,” the vast collection of antiques and paintings he’d stuffed into his tiny, Cold-War-era house. He might have gone back in to get them, or to try to snuff the fire.

I reached out for Tim, Bill’s partner of more than a quarter century, and we clung together for several minutes. He told me what he knew: Bill had been on the phone talking to Tim and said, “My house is on fire.”

By the time Tim arrived, he said, the house was engulfed in flames and he couldn’t get in because the blaze was so hot. But he and Mike Johnson, Bill’s nephew who lives on the property, tried anyway.

Tim and Mike were so, so afraid that Bill was still inside the house.

With no real way to help them or anybody else, I went to work, hiding my terror behind the lens of my camera and the scribbles on my reporter’s pad. Journalists are supposed to be able to separate themselves from the pain and anguish of those they cover.

Perhaps it was easier to deal with the pain with that professional buffer zone between me and it, rather than taking it all in, head on.

But focusing on the flames was tough, knowing what might be in the rubble. My thighs, shoulders and upper arms started to shake, and I had to brace myself against a handy fire truck before I could take the photos.

I shot frame after frame, knowing all the while that readers who’ve never been at a big fire can’t begin to sense the scene from the pictures that we photographers take. There are different shades of smoke that tell experienced firefighters what’s burning. There’s the overwhelming sight of the flames and the rushing sounds of the roaring fire, crumpling walls, exploding tanks or ammunition, the muted sobs of terrified family members, the screeching of pets or livestock.

And the smell, that awful, catch-in-the-throat stench that can forever stop you from lighting a fire in a fireplace.

It takes all the senses, with full peripheral vision and more, to absorb the horror.

I kept at it. I knew Bill would want me to. All ranchers know the work never stops, no matter what. Cattle must be fed and sold, fences mended, legal matters tended to. Ranchers deal with the cycle of life and death all the time, but not this way.

The same work ethic also applies to a reporter, especially a community journalist whose primary responsibility is to a small town’s newspaper with a small staff.

Oh, Billy. Where are you?

Bill Warren was the epitome of a gentle giant, a man I looked up to in many ways. In fact, one of my favorite photos of him shows 6-foot-5-inch Bill standing beside 5-foot-1-inch me with his elbow resting on the top of my head.

He was central casting for the long, tall, lanky rancher. With his dense mustache, the inevitable logo cap and his jeans-n-boots, he fit right in at a branding, at the sales yard in Templeton or on the range.

Photos I took of Bill in 1994 show his long legs almost dragging dirt as he rode his 15-hands-high horse. He could throw a calf or a bale of hay and then turn around and tenderly scoop up a wet, tiny lamb.

When his dad, Walter Warren, was dying, Bill became the father. He carried his Walter to bed, to the bathroom. He tended his parents mornings and nights, then tended family ranchlands during the day.

Bill was the third person I met when I moved to Cambria in 1971. He took my then young sons for their first horseback ride (another photo I treasure). He took us all for what became the legendary “Uncle Billy’s Wild Jeep Ride.” He became an embedded member of our family.

In fact, just before my mother died in 1988, she said she was leaving me in good hands — those of my husband, Richard, our sons and the three “brothers” I’d acquired in Cambria. Bill was one of them.

Later, Bill’s 90-year-old mother, Florence Warren, had her family and friends, who came to grieve with her and offer her support. But that day, she could only cry out as I held her, “Why did they take my son from me? What will I do? He’s the one who takes care of me.”

A neighbor in shock said later that “Bill was the consummate caretaker. He took care of all of us.”

Five hours after I arrived at the fire, I was at my office, trying to write what I’d seen and heard, what I’d been told and what they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me. I could tell the investigators had their suspicions, but they weren’t confirming anything about Bill until forensic tests and other elements of the investigation are complete.

I like to think that when I took that assignment, and tried to tell his story, I was returning some of the caring Bill gave to me back to his family in his name.

But it’s an assignment that will haunt me, that will make me cry again and again, that will come to me in those dark-of-night dreams that leave me shaken and disoriented the next morning.

If I could turn back the clock, would I take the assignment again? Probably. Do I know why? No. Just call it my epitaph to a good man, to a good friend and my brother.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A lover of art, music, words turns the page

For those who don’t know Lee Sutter well, her retirement June 29 may seem just another loss to The Tribune’s fount of institutional knowledge. But for lots of us — especially our readers — Lee’s departure marks the end of a nearly two-decade era.

I remember well the day in 1992 when I called The Cambrian’s office to volunteer my services. I’d heard that the current editor was out of commission for a while, having removed several appendages when he ran over his foot with a lawn mower.

As an unpaid columnist for the paper since 1981, I knew the pressures News Editor Lee would be facing. I had a little spare time to contribute, and I wanted to help.

Without even taking a breath, Lee said, “That’s right. You can write hard news, too, can’t you?”

I’ve been a staff writer ever since.

Lee and I shared so much, dating back to The Cambrian’s final days at the old West Village location, when paste-up artists still used gooey glue to put the paper together.

Deadline day then was pure pandemonium, as we sprinted against the clock to get the flats out the door to San Luis Obispo for the all-important weekly date with the pressmen.

Our pressures and deadlines haven’t changed, but how we get to the end of our weekly race certainly has.

Lee and I worked side by side around the clock, covering storms and floods, fires, accidents and other catastrophes — the hard news of a weekly paper dedicated to its community.

We’ve held each other in long hugs as we sobbed because a beloved community member had died. We’ve raged together at injustice or governmental stupidity. And we’ve laughed. Oh, how we laughed.

We survived moving the entire office. We switched from ancient DOS-based computers to new Macs. We adjusted to new owners (several times).

In each case, we had to adapt in a flash. Given the nature of our business, we still had a paper to get out each week.

It didn’t matter that we had no idea, for instance, what Quark was, other than a basic form of matter or an obscure Eastern European cheese. Did we know how to use Quark software to format a computerized newspaper page? No. Did we do it? Yes. Quickly.

Lee taught me so much, as a writer, proofreader and human being.
As any former Sutter student will tell you, it’s a vast understatement to say Lee is compulsive about grammar, spelling and punctuation (especially hyphens). She’d make lists of common errors, then grill us on them. We’d often arrive for work to find corrections scrawled on Post-Its stuck to our computer monitors.

Yes, sometimes, when we’d made the same mistake for the fifth time, she’d get … well, cranky. But know what? We never forgot those particular edicts again.

My favorite Lee memories, however, are of her dedication to her work, her glee when writing about a band she loved, or seeing work by an artist she admired, or reviewing a book she’d absorbed in a single sitting.

The A&E (arts and events) pages are where her heart was and is. And her enthusiasm would glow through the newsprint into readers’ souls. (Fortunately, she’ll still be doing some arts features for The Tribune and Cambrian. Lucky us.)

Lee is a devoted friend and defender for her cadre of artistic creators, her nonprofit folks, readers in general and always for underdogs and the underprivileged.

She also has a maniacal laugh. Put Lee and cartoonist/musician/artist/inventor Art Van Rhyn in the same room and, in minutes, everybody’s guffawing.

Often, Lee would giggle and, not even knowing what had tickled her funny bone, I’d laugh and we’d be off to the races for 10 or 15 minutes.

Anybody walking through the door surely should have called for the men in white coats. But most visitors simply joined in the hilarity. Fortunately, lots of Cambrians are just as quirky as we are.

So many good memories.

I’m delighted for Lee, that she’ll have her summer and her life ahead of her while she’s young and spry enough to enjoy them. She’ll have decades filled with Live Oak fests, camping trips, jaunts with daughter Stacy, songwriting and singing, playing with the Center Street Mercantile & Blacksmith String Band and other groups, spur-of-the-minute adventures and so much more.

Go get ’em, girl. You’ve earned it. But wow, Lee, we’ll miss you.

Note: Send art show announcements to Lee Sutter at

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

BEST OF: A (bushy) tale of lost opportunities

I didn't know squirrels could swear. What a surprise.

The fuzzy-tailed little foragers are the bane of boardwalk managers, gardeners, farmers, ranchers ... and those who feed wild birds at home.

At Tanner Manor, husband Richard fills a variety of tubes, towers and platters with birdseed and various globes with sugar syrup. He also carries a pocket full of peanuts.

We tell him, but not too vehemently, that a truly dedicated wildlife lover shouldn't feed the critters.

But, ‘fessing up, we all enjoy watching hummingbirds zooming past to defend their feeders against anything larger than a mosquito and smaller than a breadbox. We watch flocks of little birds pushing and shoving at the feed trough, and laugh at scrub-jay antics when they're reminded it's physically impossible to simultaneously pick up three peanuts-in-the-shell in one beak.

A free lunch for squirrels

However, it never was Richard's intention to provide a Hometown Buffet for squirrels.

Oops. We forgot to tell the squirrels.

Originally, Richard thought that hanging a feeder from the roof on a long, slick wire would do it.


Following that installation, our first fluffy explorer dashed across the roof, skittered down the beam from which the feeder hung and looked puzzled.

After some abortive tries over several days, he made his move. He slowly inched over the edge of the overhang, and, clutching the board for dear life with one paw, he reached out with the other to grab the wire, which became his fireman's pole.

It was all over but the egress.

After filling up with seeds, the squirrel pondered his options. He tried several times to crawl up the wire, but kept backsliding down, clonking himself on the top of the feeder roof as he landed. Finally, the explorer set his shoulders, clenched his jaw to secure the seeds and leapt off the feeder to the deck, about 8 feet below.

We had ourselves a flying squirrel. Swell.

We tried various other feeders and schemes, none of which deterred the cagey critters for long. In the meantime, the squirrels' tunnels and burrows began undermining the bluff by our home. Landscapers clucked and fretted about the land's stability if the beasties continued to feast on seeds and dig in the dirt.

"If you find a feeder they can't get into, we won't have to poison them," they admonished. Gulp. Poison?

A better bird feeder

Then Editor Bert got a spiffy three-tube bird feeder, which he installed outside his window at The Cambrian's office. It looked almost squirrel proof, by golly, with its tightly capped, long, narrow tubes, each about 2-1/4 inches in diameter. We went right out and bought one of our own, and it seemed to work.

However, when we got back home after a vacation, Richard noticed that one of the tubes' top caps had disappeared. How strange. It had been a snug fit, tough enough for him to remove at fill-up time. We didn't think bird could dislodge the cap, unless turkey vultures have taken to attacking errant bird feeders.

Then Richard saw the culprit.

My chuckling husband reported his findings. "The squirrel had removed another cap and had wedged his body about two-thirds of the way down into one of those skinny tubes. It was a tight fit. His body completely stuffed the tube and only the tip of his tail stuck out the top.

"He was almost inhaling the seeds — I could actually watch the seed level going down."

Then the squirrel spotted Richard.

"He tried to wriggle back out, but what had slid easily into the tube was having a heck of time getting back out again," my husband reported. "His cheeks were too full, and he couldn't get enough traction to force himself out backwards. We had an empty feeder tube and a very full squirrel."

That’s when the air turned blue with squirrelly blasphemy. In the imaginary cartoon balloon over his head, the expletives were not deleted.

The critter wriggled, squirmed and twisted, to no avail. His was the classical image of a frantic, defiant little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Spewing seeds and swear words

Finally, the thoroughly disgusted squirrel spat some seeds back into the tube, a few at a time, just barely enough so he finally could tug himself free. He popped out of the tube like an animated champagne cork, and ZIP — he was gone, spewing more seeds, pure rage and profanity as he vanished.

By then, Richard was gasping for breath and bent over double, guffawing about what he'd seen. Watching a thoroughly ticked-off squirrel clearly was much better than seeing the best Marx Brothers' movie.

Yes, we're still in the market for a squirrel-foxing bird feeder. But in the meantime, we'll have lots of fun trying to translate squirrel cuss words.

This column ran in The Cambrian on Sept. 30, 2004. Since then, we have abandoned the idea of dispensing free bird seeds. The squirrels won this round. But we inadvertently visit them every time we take a walk on the Moonstone Beach Drive boardwalk. And, along the way, if we don't feed the fuzzy little rodents, we still get our ration of squirrel blasphemy.