I started this series wanting to describe only one thing about Richard Kirschman because it fascinates so many — that is, his role as creator of the now-legendary $3 Coin Project in West Marin.
The “gold” coin (actually made of brass) is a beautiful $3 souvenir that has generated more than $50,000 for good causes without anybody spending a dime. (I explained how it works in Part I and still can’t believe it.)
But that was only a gate opener. The ingenious projects that Kirschman has launched over the years have been the subject of constant delight and surprise, especially in West Marin. Many account for all Parts II through V, yet they offer only a glimpse of an imagination so fresh and original that it’s been percolatin’ well into Richard’s 80s.
Hark the Herald
So now in this final post let’s turn to Richard Kirschman not as inventor or activist but as a modern-day harbinger. Very often, he’s the guy who notices some key thing the rest of us don’t see. He questions, he investigates, he provokes. He suggests, he teases, he inspires.
And many times he sends out an alert.
In the 1980s, when it seemed smart and liberating to switch to decaf coffee, Richard was among the critically thinking few who warned consumers (in Medical Self-Care magazine) to be on the lookout for carcinogenic solvents used in most decaf processes.
In the 1990s, when fears of acid rain hit the news but experts had little to report to West Marin residents, Richard tested the water at his Dogtown property and found the pH rating to be “much more acidic than toxin rain should be,” according to experts called in by the Point Reyes Light.
And in 2011 as state biologists assured beekeepers it was safe to use antibiotics in bee colonies, Richard, who’d been keeping bees for years, sent out an alert that antibiotics not only showed up in the honey people bought at the store (this is still true) but also masked symptoms of other diseases that then spread without detection.
Hoofing the Wild Boar
One has to say, too, that when there’s a chance to slip in a laugh or two during otherwise serious events, Richard-the-spoofer takes a little gambol.
Look at the time feral pigs began to overpopulate Mount Tamalpais. Although the park service began hunting and trapping to bring the numbers down, rumors spread that the creatures weren’t the small and harmless kind at all. Rather, hikers believed, big hairy wild boars with huge tusks and ugly snouts were actually seen terrorizing the trails.
Well. How could Richard resist enlisting fellow conspirators? How could he not carve a wooden facsimile of giant boar hooves, which he attached to regular (size 11 men’s) shoes? What could stop him from taking his fellow pranksters to hike along the trails, where boars had reportedly been seen? And how could this merry team keep from stomping around in the mud until it was apparent the abominable snowpig surely ravaged the countryside?
It’s not recorded how many laughs were shared around Point Reyes when people discovered the phony wooden hoof prints. But years passed before boogie monsters would terrify the populace again.
Noosing the Eucalyptus
The reverse seemed to happen when the State Park announced that many of the tall, stately and beloved eucalyptus trees in West Marin were soon to be cut down.
Perhaps people had been numbed by protests and counter protests over perceived dangers of the eucalyptus tree — as a fire hazard, a non-indigenous exotic, a shallow-rooted (about to fall down) danger, etc. Few of these problems were true, but even when residents didn’t believe them, they seemed to be apathetic about warnings of a massive cut-down.
Until: One morning in the wee hours, Richard and Doris drove to an area on Highway 1 where eucalyptus trees were not only visible but close enough to cars passing by that each driver could see the white dotted lines they had stenciled on the trees’ trunks, along with the message, “CUT HERE.”
Just enough trees bore those markings and just enough people saw them that soon a public outcry demanded new hearings with park supervisors and county commissioners before a single tree could be felled.
The Weakly Denial
Perhaps it was Richard’s lifelong exasperation with bureaucracy in business; or his horror at the way modern corporations monetize chunks of Mother Nature; or his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: Whatever the case, in the 1970s he began writing a playful yet blistering column called The Weakly Denial that would continue for years in the Point Reyes Light and Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Most readers recognized that little bit of fibbing (“usually reliable industry sources”) combined with that little bit of fawning (celebrity names; sensational scandals) that we see quoted and gushed over in news stories all the time. Today there’s a name for bogus reporting — “alternate facts” — but at the time, the Weakly Denial delivered a satirical warning of what might be, in different forms, soon to come.
In one of Richard’s reports, we learned from those ever-popular “informed sources” that film director Francis Ford Coppola had denied leasing a private ranch in Tomales Bay to film a “partially animated musical sequel to his smash-hit Apocalypse Now.” Who could not chuckle at the thought of a cartoon Marlon Brando singing “The Horror, The Horror” in the movie’s opening scene?
In another denied item, according to “whispers of progress,” a downtown block in Point Reyes would soon be transformed as a “Ghirardelli Square North” for tourists disembarking from giant Pacific Orient Line cruise ships. On their way to a shopping spree, the visitors would be greeted “Hawaiian style” by local residents dressed as Miwok Indians.
No wonder the Weakly Denial column ran for years — Richard’s images of kitschy money-makers invading Point Reyes was too funny and, to some, too promising to ignore.
Other items — unconfirmed “classified plans” to pave over the legendary Bolinas Lagoon for an RV parking lot; a four-lane highway connecting Point Reyes National Seashore to San Francisco — were always so “weakly denied” in Kirschman’s column that a few outraged readers believed every word.
When they wrote to decry Kirschman for his “sloppy reporting,” the Light‘s editors asked Richard to deny the factual basis of his own alternate facts. It was all to the benefit of readers’ funny bones, of course, and happily, it made his modern-day alert all the more urgent.
Publishers Clearing House
Today the sweepstakes competition Publishers Clearing House has a relatively quiet website on the Internet, but in B.C. (Before Computer) times, this million-dollar lottery was all the rage. TV commercials and full-page print ads showed joyful PCH agents driving up to the homes of unsuspecting winners and ringing the doorbell with gifts of champagne, flowers and of course, the big check.
True, people who entered the sweepstakes had a one-in-2.5 billion chance of winning, but to a prankster like Richard, when April Fool’s Day rolled around, why spoil the fun?
With sidekick Doris (she carrying an official-looking clipboard), he outfitted both sides of his white SUV with an official-looking sign that said PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE: PRIZE PATROL. Then the two took off to see what would happen.
I think Richard believed that because it was April 1, everybody would spot these two Dogtown dudes in a not-all-that-official vehicle and get the joke. But no. Wherever the SUV went, fans drove up right next to it, yelling and gesturing and nearly crashing alongside. In one gated community, a man ran out in his pajamas trying to flag them down.
“We were abashed at the reactions of people who hoped against hope that we were there for them,” Doris remembers. “Mostly it was funny, people waving and laughing and saying It’s me! You’re looking for me! But sometimes it was painful to see — like the guy who chased us down.”
A lot of people in West Marin still chuckle at the memory of that prank “because it was so well done!” says one resident, “and we all fell for it!” Although many wish Richard had rigged the SUV with Publishers Clearing House signs every April Fool’s Day, the fact is that for the driver and his Beautiful Assistant, one crowd-swarming incident was enough. “We never did it again,” says Doris.
The Seder Surprise
I don’t know if this is a prank, a protest, a blasphemy or a terrible secret exposed, but imagine how you would react as a guest sitting down at Richard and Doris’ next Passover seder, and you find a homemade facsimile of something holy.
Ordinarily the seder is the ceremonial dinner that celebrates a biblical story, that of God freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting the cruelest of plagues upon their oppressors.
That’s the part of the Haggadah — the seder ritual — that Richard found untenable since he was a kid. He even did the math: “In Egypt, one of the plagues — killing the first born in every family — would result in the death of about 20 million human beings. That’s the awful story behind Exodus.” But few wanted to know it. “Even suggesting such a thing is considered shocking, probably a crime.”
Yet every year at seders around the world, the Haggadah is read aloud with the plagues alluded to in a manner deemed acceptable. “This legend has now been told so often and for so long that it no longer strikes us as the atrocity it is,” he wrote in the Point Reyes Light.
“Have we been desensitized to atrocity? Just as most people today no longer pay attention to biblical passages mandating death by stoning for rebellious children and adulterers … shouldn’t we be judicious with our telling of the Exodus?”
Well, so be it, as you would see at a Kirschman seder: There on the table sits a DIY version of the Torah, that ancient scroll so revered that it’s usually stored in the sacred ark of synagogues and taken out only as part of services.
But Richard has always thought that “the story of Exodus is included in the Torah and could be retold” through “a new improved Haggadah.” There’s nothing new with re-interpreting the text (for vegetarians, Harry Potter fans, feminists, etc., as some 4,000 Haggadot demonstrate). But Richard wanted his to include some acknowledgment and discussion of God’s perpetuation of the horrors told in the story.
So he and his editorial expert Doris set about creating a Torah for the people. It’s entirely handmade with napkin rings, copper pipe, wooden dowels and Tyvec paper (the kind used in priority-mail envelopes that can’t be torn or damaged).
With a reverence of his own, Richard has added other facts not known to many seder participants. Few know, for example, that as a child, Moses was raised in Pharoah’s household (some scholars believe that Moses and Aknaton, the son of the pharoah who ruled during this time, were the same person); or that on God’s instruction, Jewish women “borrowed” gold and jewelry from Egyptian neighbors and walked away with it to the promised land.
So the Kirschman torah is not a prank, not a protest, not a blasphemy; it’s a cultural lesson that helps us understand truths in the Bible that are rarely spoken out loud and, at Doris and Richard’s seder, give us a new perspective.
Here Comes the Colonel
Richard long ago agreed with fellow citizens that fast-food and chain-store outlets don’t belong in downtown Point Reyes. This manner of protecting the independent retail scene was never controversial in West Marin.
So when a big building on Main Street stood empty for many years, who could blame Richard for recognizing a climate ripe for poking fun? One day people walking down Main Street stopped in their tracks: Some anonymous soul had posted a big 6’x3′ sign on the unrented building that displayed the familiar KFC founder’s face.
The caption read only, “The Colonel says: Hi, Point Reyes!”
Perhaps because Richard hired a copy shop to create the sign — no banners, no formal proclamation — most people kept on walking with a chuckle or two. But many took it seriously and with some alarm before they realized that Point Reyes may be an idyllic coastal town, but you had to watch out for the prankster in the shadows.
Chemical Consciousness Quiz
Richard’s knack for poking fun has as much appeal as his talent for combining education with entertainment.
Back in 1979, when few people understood the role of additives in everything from Hershey’s Syrup to d-Con rat poison, Richard sensed that a serious essay about Bad Things in Home Products would probably bore readers to death.
How much more fun it was, then, to invite readers to test their knowledge in Mother Jones magazine, “If you think you know the difference between Cool Whip and Preparation H, here’s your chance to prove it.”
This was the “Chemical Consciousness Quiz,” a classic match-up game in which readers were asked to mate 20 products on one side of the page with 20 lists of product ingredients on the other.
Some lists were so long you’d never guess the product. Gaines Burger, a popular dog food, was composed of 25 ingredients, many of them unrecognizable, such as the Ammoniated Glycrrhizin, Calcium Pantothenate and Ethylene-diamine Dihydriodide.
Even the short lists baffled, like Preparation H, made only of Live Yeast Cell Derivative, Shark Liver Oil and Phenylmercuric Nitrate. (I paused on that one for a while: The one ingredient that seemed powerful enough to do the job was … oil from the liver of a shark?)
With its bent whimsy, the Quiz did what Richard had hoped — it entertained, it informed, and it probably scared the wits out of every consumer who read it.
Test the Test
This kind of let’s-see-what-we-think-we-know inquiry came up 40 years later when Richard learned that West Marin parents objected to a lengthy test, that public school students were required to take, called STAR (Standardized Test and Reporting Program).
The results of this week-long exam did not affect students’ records or their ability to attend college. Rather, STAR measured the AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress”) of public schools themselves.
This meant teachers were pressured to “teach the test” rather than the students. Questions were arcane (example for 9th graders: “What is the factored form of 3a²-24ab+48b²?”). Multiple choice formats favored some students (white, affluent) over others.
So Richard decided it might be instructive and fun to test the test. He and his teaching assistant Doris invited a group of adults to take a sample STAR test of 146 questions, ranging from science to English and from 5th to 11th-grade levels.
Perhaps predictably, the results were “right on the brink of not demonstrating AYP,” wrote a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who had joined the group. All but one participant failed the test, and among the gripes about trick questions and obscure language, you could tell this was a home-based forerunner of the TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” That is, a revealing demonstration that adults don’t remember much from school.
But Richard’s experiment with the STAR sample had its own educational value. On the one hand, it helped parents appreciate what was expected of students, so they might be less hard on their kids because of it. On the other, it offered adults an occasion to ponder the value of tests to begin with, to understand how unseen biases can make tests harder for some students, and to challenge the institutions that govern our kids so that everyone can learn something new.
STAR was discontinued in 1994 because of “controversy over portions of the test.”
Then there was that sudden and “bizarre response” by West Marin residents to sightings of what seemed to be an overabundance of wild turkeys in 2003. “Myths about the turkeys’ so-called bad habits [ruining people’s gardens, eating quail] and danger to the environment are circulating like wildfire,” Richard observed in the Point Reyes Light.
To forestall what he suspected would be the next response — mass extermination — Richard explained that of course wild turkeys were more visible: it was mating season, after all. He himself had counted 29 on his property that morning.
Rather than becoming a threat to the environment, he wrote, “these surprisingly intelligent birds are an absolute delight to watch and listen to.” They did not pose a threat to plants or quail, as some people thought. However, happily for gardeners, snails were another matter. “Wild turkeys seem to love eating snails.”
Then he offered this calm and beautifully composed reminder:
“The natural world is awash with misinformation: Bats get into your hair, lemmings rush to sea to commit suicide, and nothing grows under eucalyptus trees … So before we go off half-cocked and start killing these extraordinary birds, let’s learn to distinguish between those ‘undocumented’ life forms that are truly harmful to the environment and those that are just latecomers to which nature will gently adapt and accommodate, as it has to our roses, apple trees, honey bees, and English sparrows.”
The National Park Service did eliminate many wild turkeys from Park land, but they are still a common sight in West Marin and beyond.
Save the White Deer
Few controversies hit a more exposed nerve with Richard than the National Park Service‘s (NPS) campaign to eliminate the non-native Axis and Fallow deer — sometimes called the “White Deer” — from Point Reyes National Seashore in 2005.
NPS authorities said these deer — introduced by a hunter on his land half-a-century before — had now increased in such number that they “ran roughshod” over native Black Tail deer and Tule elk. They also spread disease, fouled the land and overpopulated the Park.
Wildlife activists like Richard (along with, by the way, anthropologist Jane Goodall, politicos Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, groups like In Defense of Animals and Earth Island Institute) vehemently protested.
They believed the Axis and Fallow deer did not pose the kind of threat that the Park described. Quite the contrary: their existence had become a valuable contribution to the eco-diversity that made Point Reyes National Seashore legendary.
As Richard wrote in a guest editorial for the Coastal Post,
The axis and fallow deer are already here — and have been for more than 50 years — long an integral part of the park — along with the cattle, the roads, 2,500,000 annual visitors, horses, and thousands of local residents … There is no way to restore this area to some pre-Columbian Garden of Eden.
This last reference pointed to what Richard and others have long considered a naive but fashionable movement to wipe out all non-native plants and animals from government land, even when little or no threat exists. Attempts to turn back the clocks by a half or full century were inexcusably short-sighted, he suggested:
By one estimate 40 percent of all species in the Point Reyes National Seashore are exotics. That’s the way it is. Some are invasive and should be resisted — scotch broom, for example. Others are so integrated into their new environment that removal efforts would probably be harmful — the European honey bee, for example.
Soon the controversy grew into a nightmare. Richard and others wrote about established methods of contraception as a humane way to control overpopulation. The Park Service nixed that method as too expensive and slow, then hired an “ungulate (hoofed mammal) extermination firm” that specialized in the “discretion and efficiency” of what surely would become a controlled massacre.
That did it. Suddenly rhetoric was inflamed in articles about “Bambi vs. Bambi” in the “killing fields” of Point Reyes. The NPS countered with numbing statistics and per-square-foot extrapolations and bureaucratic formulas.
Richard’s voice of reason and compassion brought much needed balance to the conversation:
“This isn’t a college debate or lawsuit. There are life and death consequences at stake here — as well as issues of morality. For example, ask yourself how comfortable it would be to explain the extermination of these animals to your children.” (Bold type added.)
Yes, exactly. Using contraception darts instead of guns would have required patience and skill, an understanding of the life these deer were leading (having had no choice in the matter, it goes without saying) and a respect for peaceful outcomes.
Instead the Park Service, having none of the above, brought in the guns and hunters; they lured the deer to areas under trees where nets could be dropped to trap them. And in the end, they slaughtered all 1,200 of them.
I find it intriguing that Richard, who considers himself a skeptic, atheist, scientist, critic and objective reasoner, always argues for the sake of compassion, humane treatment of animals, and the legacy we leave for children.
In one controversy after another, Richard is the one who cautions against the “mindless and brutal” treatments — the gassing of bees, for example; routine castration and dehorning of cattle without anesthetics; expansion of the town dump without posting a surety bond; and as we have seen, killing wild turkeys because of fear-based rumors, and slaughtering rather than managing non-native deer.
Richard is not a father and never wanted to be, yet I’m touched by his fatherly way of keeping an eye out for all of us, and for the goings-on of West Marin. It’s this kindly, curious, receptive and open-hearted manner that has certainly made him, among many other things, a generous donor to good causes so numerous I’ve listed them below. These include:
Giving through Youth, Sound Orchard, Dance Palace, Bolinas Community Center, West Marin Community Services, Stinson Beach Preschool, CLAM (Community Land Trust Association), KWMR Radio, West Marin Senior Services, Marin Humane Society, West Marin School, Bolinas-Stinson Summer Camp, Papermill Creek Children’s Center, West Marin Fund, Gallery Route One, San Geronimo Valley Community Center, West Marin Chamber of Commerce, West Marin Review, Tomales Bay Youth Center, Coastal Health Alliance, Point Reyes Disaster Council, Tomales Bay Library Association
And let’s not forget the daily donation provided by the Richard Kirschman who’s certainly a prince among dogs. Up and down Main Street in downtown Point Reyes Station, every canine head lifts as this human treat machine ambles along, pretending not to notice dog adoration everywhere. And they (the dogs) realize that when Richard reaches into his pocket, it ain’t for the bits of dull kibble you can buy in bulk at Toby’s Feed Barn. Rather, Richard is the guy who can be counted on for the oh, so delicious duck breast jerky strip, time and time again.
And if you sat at breakfast with Richard munching cereal inside his house, you’d be privileged to learn from him the names, habits, songs and origins of the many wild birds who fly onto his deck for equally premium birdseed. Remaining a bit longer, you’d hear about and maybe even see the raccoons, foxes, skunks, bobcats and other animals who seem to have adopted Richard and Doris as well.
By the way, at age 75, Richard decided to learn how to play the flute. He took lessons and practiced devotedly until age 80, when he was fluent enough to play in hospitals and senior residences around West Marin. At 83 he produced his first CD of beautifully interpreted standards with guitarist Tim Weed called For My Doris (with thanks to his wife for putting up with all the missed notes).
His second CD, Wonderful Standards of the 1920s-1930s, has just been released. It’s being used by the Alzheimer’s Association and UC Davis School of Nursing to help elderly people with memory loss.
For everyone in West Marin, a fun way to acknowledge The Richard Kirschman Model of Active Citizenry (my term) is to keep exchanging the gorgeous gold coins that he introduced years ago, and that, all by themselves (I can’t say it enough!) have raised over $50,000 for good causes.
For a sweet man with an incredibly creative mind and generous nature, Richard has pursued a fulfilled life while benefiting so many — and it’s not just the dogs awaiting him on Main Street who appreciate this.