The perfect bite: social reform, literature and a recovered silent movie

Chefs and foodies  speak of the elements on the plate coming together in the perfect bite! Although my tastes aren’t that refined, I recently enjoyed an equivalent experience when a particular slice of history presented itself to me in a unique blend of artistic components.

I first learned of the “Ramona” story  while accompanying my grandparents to the longest running outdoor play in the United States, the “Ramona Pageant.”

Ramona Pageant, San Jacinto

There are numerous “Ramona” streets and landmarks near my home. I went to high school on Ramona Street and my yoga class meets on the grounds where the old house referred to as the “birthplace of Ramona” used to sit–every day reminders.

It is believed that author, Helen Hunt Jackson, wrote much of her beloved “Ramona” doing research in the vicinity of the San Gabriel Mission, the site chosen for Ramona’s parents to wed. San Diego, another Mission city, holds claim as Ramona’s wedding place.

San Gabriel Mission

You may not be at all familiar with this book, but had you been living in 1884 when it was first published, its reach would have been inescapable.

California tourism was greatly encouraged by its overwhelming popularity, and as travelers arrived by rail, they flocked to see the locations and landmarks referenced in the story.

Ramona_San Gabriel

A contemporary and friend of Emily Dickinson and regarded by Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of America’s greatest poets,  Jackson was an accomplished writer prior to her most successful book, but she suffered a number of very personal and painful losses, and eventually traveled west to Colorado.

In Colorado she took on an advocacy role for Native Americans and developed a passionate pursuit of American Indian rights, in particular the Mission Indians of Southern California. 

“Ramona” tells the story of a mixed-race Scots-Native American girl who suffers racial discrimination and hardship, painting a vivid picture of unrest in Southern California after the Mexican-American War.

Was there a “real” Ramona? It gets a little tricky here, but it is believed that Jackson was certainly influenced by the Native American people she knew and her ardent passion for Indian reform.

The public regarded the book as primarily a love story, and on its own merit didn’t bring the public closer to reform measures, however, the author continued to be a very well-respected activist and reformer until her death in 1885.


The book, now free to the reading public as part of Project Gutenberg, has had more than 300 printings, been adapted four times as a film, and as previously noted, is very popular with Ramona scholars.

And speaking of those films…

In 2010 American silent film scholars finally came across the only copy of the 1928 silent movie “Ramona,” starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter, missing and presumed lost for decades.

Where has it been?

It is generally accepted that it was at least initially captured by Nazis during World War II and then taken from the Nazis by the Soviet Union. A Czechoslovakian film archivist found it in 1950 and the film remained in the Czech Republic until a recent team of American silent film scholars obtained it and brought it back to the United States.

In early June a good friend and I had the privilege of sitting in the historic San Gabriel Mission Playhouse,  just steps from where the original “Ramona house” once stood, enjoying this fantastic old silent movie accompanied by theater organist Bob Salisbury on the Playhouse Mighty 1924 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

There you have it.

Historical fiction, Southern California landmarks,  Mission era history, early California tourism, Native American rights activism, a stolen silent movie returned, and an absolutely fascinating woman, Helen Hunt Jackson.

The perfect bite!

You’re welcome to take a little walk around my neighborhood and perhaps soak up just a little bit more of the “Ramona” flavor if you’re interested. You’ll see by this video that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm and interest.

Wouldn’t this dedicated author and activist who feared her book didn’t make the impact she had hoped it would be amazed that 131 years later her work and dedication is still considered important?

There is so much more I could tell you about her, but perhaps one day you’ll find your own reasons to pick up a copy of “Ramona,” and you’ll be interested in learning more about Jackson, too.

Let me know if you do!



Darwin isn’t the only giant in our garden!

Despite the drought, or maybe it’s because of the drought, I’m spending even more time this summer in our garden than last. Most summers I’ve had an abundant vegetable garden requiring a lot of time and attention, but with severe water rationing I knew that to grow a few tomatoes and some squash would redirect water needed to save other garden areas from becoming severely parched.

It’s been challenging, but I’m not ready to concede my love of gardening to this drought. Not yet. I’m very happy when my hands are in the dirt. This fall we will have lived in our home for 42 years and I feel very personally attached to every living thing, and some have stories that make them even more special to me.

Pony tail palm

It feels like just yesterday I planted this ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) in the earth. It had lived a few years quite nicely in a plastic nursery pot, but when it started to strain against the sides it was time to let it spread its cramped roots.

I have three of these unusual beauties, and they are all going to get much larger. A ponytail palm can grow into very old specimens with over 20 feet of trunk, and trunks can branch multiple times with multiple heads of leaves.

It’s possible that at some point we may need to have them professionally relocated or even donate them to a botanical garden. Fortunately they are very slow-growing and require 50-100 years to achieve this height. I don’t think I need to worry about them right now.


My grandmother gave me a small Sago Palm “pup” at least thirty years ago. It has a very prominent presence in a far corner of our garden, and I don’t inspect it very often. But look what I found earlier this month.

Male sago palm


Sago palms are either male or female, with distinctly different reproductive organs. It takes 15 to 20 years for these characteristics to become prominent and then they don’t “flower” more than every few years. This male specimen still produces little “pups” at its base, and I plan to see if I can remove them successfully for propagation.

Sago and ponytail palms are not palms. Sago palms are cycads, primitive plants dating back 200 million years, and the ponytail palm is a native of Mexico classified in the Asparagaceae family.


This once small Golden Barrel cactus came home with me years and years ago, a simple garden center purchase. He’s been residing with other cactus and succulents very near the backyard railroad and needed to have more breathing space.

Golden Barrel Cactus

We moved him from the backyard to the front, giving him a lot of space to grow. I didn’t measure his circumference, but let’s just say he’s bigger than a basketball!

If I had more room I’d love to mass Golden Barrel cactus. But I go to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens and walk through the cactus and succulent gardens very often, imagining what it would be like to have all of this space–and the professional landscapers to help me take care of it.


Another once quite small agave moved from plastic pot to the earth a few years ago and is now a show-stopper.

Agave durangensis

Agave durangensis forms large rosettes of up to 6 feet across. My guy is well on its way, and is probably three feet across. How do you like the jagged, sharp edges and those thorns?

Agave thorns

Agave specimens are plentiful in the garden centers right now and featured in some spectacular drought-tolerant landscaping. I love the variety, but you would need a home with lots of space.

We seem to have a habit of bringing things home that will outgrow (and possibly outlast) our ability to care for them properly.

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Our African Sulcata is almost 8 years old now and weighs somewhere around 60 pounds.  I’m guessing at his weight, but I can still lift him…awkwardly!  In captivity tortoises may not live as long as in the wild, 80 to 100 years, and even size may be affected, but they can grow up to two and half feet long and weigh 80-110 pounds or more.

Darwin joins the family
Be careful what you bring home from the pet store (2008)

We’ll be home this weekend taking care of our jumbo responsibilities. There’s a slight chance of rain and thunderstorms…wouldn’t that be delicious! I’ll also plan to exhale a little bit…I need to take care of myself so that I’m able to continue taking care of all these giants!

Enjoy your weekend, too, my friends.


A visit to the “Old West” with my favorite six and seven-year old

Summer is the perfect time to indulge in little adventures and among my favorite are times shared with granddaughters Sophia and Karina. Even though I now work with young adults, I will always think like an early elementary teacher, and summer creates the perfect space to augment or strengthen the girls’ contextual learning in advance of their late August leap into the first and third grades.


Great excuse to visit the Autry National Center of the American West, also called “The Autry Museum,” but I wondered if it would offer anything of interest to them.

When I was their age my school years and formal education were filled with the language of Manifest Destiny and Conquest, rather skewed history fueled more by images from popular culture and television westerns than actual timelines and events.


Our trusted friend Wikipedia reminds, “A western television show is a television series which takes place in the Old West and involves cowboys, cattle ranchers, miners, farmers, Native Americans, Spaniards, swords, guns and horses. It was the most popular genre of TV show in the 1950s and 1960s, when several hundred were aired.” I watched more than a few. I doubt Sophia and Karina have seen even one.


The Autry opened in 1988, the vision and direction coming from Gene Autry, ‘America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy,’ and Monte Hale, American B-Western film star and country musician. With the focus on western heritage, the museum’s holdings fulfill Autry’s mission of showing how the West “influenced America and the world.”

We enjoyed a lively conversation as the girls wondered what it would be like to leave the comfort and familiarity of home to travel by covered wagon across the country to an unknown territory. We looked at saddle bags from the Pony Express era and asked the question,  “Do you think when the first Pony Express riders left Missouri for California they could imagine that 155 years later people would be sending messages and letters without paper?”

The girls indulged my questions and attempts to stimulate thinking, but in the end, they are two little city girls. A life-sized replica of a horse still puts a smile on their face. I’m so glad they aren’t too sophisticated for that!

I treaded lightly, but couldn’t completely side-step the questions about “robbers” and the general lawlessness of the new frontier!

They can read, so it didn’t take them long to figure out that the “wild, wild west” had its violence and I learned they didn’t know the word “outlaw,” but did relate to the word “criminal. ”

We shared a lively discussion about Billy the Kid and Black Bart, but without sharing the more sensational  details there wasn’t much interest, I don’t think, and I was also relieved they were more fascinated with standing behind bars than looking right behind them. They didn’t seem to notice the enlarged archival photo of the entire Dalton Gang dead and laid out in a row following a failed bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas, 1892.

The Autry has a very extensive firearms collection highlighting the history of pistols, shotguns and rifles, and although undoubtedly there is a lot we could learn about weaponry, my learning curve is too steep to even think about trying…


…and the girls have no firsthand exposure to firearms of any kind. I looked for anything we might talk about.

One of my laugh-outloud moments came while showing them the intricate tooling on leather holsters. They could see where the pistol would fit in the holster, but what were those loops along the belt?

There weren’t any bullets in the display cases but I coaxed them towards thinking “ammunition.”  After some thinking, Karina suggested the holster loops were for “lasers,” and Sophia guessed “bombs.” There are so many things to learn in life.

Since visiting the Autry, Sophia has developed quite an appetite for reading from a great series of books that teach children about what it would have been like to live in different historical periods. If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon” is just one title in a great series of books, providing excellent learning context.

And speaking of context, I was interested in this particular display.

We quickly passed by costumes worn by John Wayne, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and then I stopped, interested in items of modern western wear once worn by Michael Jackson.

As I paused, behind me came the question, “Who’s Michael Jackson?”