It began with Italians singing from their balconies. In Spain, people banged pots and pans.
But residents of this leafy hamlet north of the Golden Gate Bridge have come up with their own unique way of expressing their gratitude for doctors and nurses on the front lines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. It also gives them some release from their worries and frustrations about the current plight of the planet.
“It’s practically silent for 23 hours and 55 minutes a day,” said Amy Kalish, an artist who lives in the beautiful but quiet foothills of Mt. Tamalpais. But for five minutes starting at 8 o’clock every night, she said, “we get out there with our 14-year-old son and our weird little rescue dog, and we let loose.”
The sound of her neighbors howling along in unison carries along the canyons and valleys. “It’s a beautiful, connected, cathartic feeling,” Kalish said. “We know we’re not alone.”
The “Mill Valley Howl,” as it’s come to be known, was started by a retired renewable energy consultant named Hugh Kuhn. He was inspired by the social media campaign #SolidarityAt8, which encourages people from New Delhi to New York to go outside at the same time every night and cheer on medical workers fighting the coronavirus.
In his backyard one night a week or so into the statewide stay-at-home order, Kuhn took a page from the coyotes that can often be heard baying through the night in Marin County. He howled along with his Doberman mix, Mina, and some wild turkeys perched in a nearby tree.
“Someone howled back,” he said. So the next day he posted something on the Nextdoor community social media platform, and a movement was born.
The ritual quickly spread to neighboring towns in Marin County and, in recent days, as far as Idaho, Indiana and Canada. Dozens have posted videos of themselves and their pets howling. A substitute teacher wrote a song called “Start Howlin’.” Someone in New York wrote a poem about the Howl that he titled “The Coyotes of Mill Valley.”
Some bring along kazoos, whistles, ukuleles and the occasional saxophone. But people mostly use their own voices.
“There’s something in people’s cores that this touches,” said Kuhn, who believes that in this time of global crisis, with people isolated all day in their homes, they appreciate having five minutes every night to vent. “It’s soulful.”
Not everyone appreciates the Howl. “Why don’t you ask the wildlife how they feel about all this stupid howling?!” asked Dianne Featherston.
She and others have complained that the nightly racket has freaked out their pets and kept small children awake. And some overly enthusiastic howlers were roundly scolded on Nextdoor for using it as an occasion to set off fireworks.
“My neighbor even heard some young people bragging about having ‘howling parties.’ So much for social distancing,” Featherston said.
Some detractors have suggested that singing together instead, per the Italian model, might be less likely to drive their cats to hide under the bed.
“That would be fine if we could all carry a tune,” said Paula Neff, who says her 6- and 7-year-olds, Caden and Drew — who like every other kid in California now spend their days sequestered from school and friends — look forward to 8 p.m., when they can get out and howl along with the rest of her block.
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Joyce Anastasia, who described herself as a “transformational leadership consultant,” said the Howl was “an opportunity for people to release in a very healthy way all the pent-up emotions they’re feeling and recognize that we’re all in this together.”
A number of first responders have also posted messages of appreciation: “The stress I’m holding is heavy,” Tawnya Napoli, an intensive care nurse at UC San Francisco Medical Center, wrote in a post on Nextdoor, adding that she had choked up when she got home from her shift a few nights earlier and heard her whole town howling their thanks.
Others find the Howl has touched something in them that transcends the current crisis. “I’ve been sort of feeling that Mill Valley might not be my tribe,” posted Max Pollak. “Then this started and I feel at home.”
In these digital times, Kuhn said, “we often don’t connect with the people who live within three houses of us.”
He doesn’t venture to guess how long this new custom will last. “But if it keeps some people from going crazy, it will be worth it,” he said.
“It’s just five minutes. Then everybody goes back inside their homes and hunkers down for another 24 hours.”
Scheier is a special correspondent.