KQED Perspective aired August 2003
By Michael Ellis
In the 1840’s Colonel John C. Fremont, also known as the Pathfinder was trying find the fabled Buenaventure River. This imaginary and hoped for waterway was thought to drain the unexplored lands of Nevada and Utah and flow west to the Pacific. This would make it very easy for settlers to get to California where those pesky Mexicans were living. Alas every drainage he followed flowed into low spots and created inland seas – the largest of which is the Great Salt Lake. Fremont correctly named this huge region the Great Basin.
In December of 1844 he was making his way down from Oregon on the east side the Sierra. “we continued our way up the hollow, intending to see what lay beyond the mountain…. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about two thousand feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.”
Fremont was the first white man to describe Pyramid Lake, the most beautiful desert lake I have ever seen. He camped that night by a gigantic tufa tower over 400 feet high which to him resembled the great pyramids of Egypt. This magnificent body of water, shimmering in the treeless Nevada desert is where the Truckee River, draining Lake Tahoe, goes to die. It is now the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.
This peaceful group had lived off the resources of the Lake for centuries…thriving on the abundant cutthroat trout and unique cui-ui fish that grow to magnificent size there. The white settlers saw nothing of value in the stark area and granted the Indians a large reservation in 1874. That was the good news; the bad news is there was no guarantee that the Truckee River, the lifeblood of the Lake, would continue to flow. Starting in 1906 a large portion of the River has been diverted to help white farmers make the desert bloom. The lake dropped the fish and the Paiutes became endangered.
But there is some good news – a few years of good snowmelt, improved irrigation ditches and some favorable court decisions have given Pyramid Lake a reprieve and a rising lake level. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.
By Michael Ellis
Every December for the past two decades I have made a pilgrimage to my very own Mecca. The holiday or should I say it correctly – “Holy Day” – season is not complete unless I have spent at least a couple of weekends leading trips in the northern Sacramento Valley. Immediately adjacent to the thousands of vehicles streaming along Interstate 5, are uncountable numbers of birds. They have escaped the harsh winters of the far north and are feeding, flocking, flying, and at least in the case of the ducks, finding mates.
It is easy to see a half a million birds in one day! But my winter foray is not complete until I hear the call of the sandhill cranes. These skinny, four feet tall gangly birds are one my favorites. There are 6 races of this bird in North America and in California we can see both the lesser and the Greater sandhill crane. There are 15 different kinds of cranes in the world and nearly all of them are threatened with extinction. The Japanese revere the crane as a symbol of good fortune and long life. In ancient Greece they were considered messengers from the gods and humans imitated the dance of the cranes as a tribute to Apollo.
The closest and easiest place for Bay area dwellers to see Sandhill Cranes is over near Lodi, at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. There can be hundreds of cranes feeding in the dry fields. It is fun to watch them dance, awkwardly leaping high into the air, flapping their wings and going nowhere. The dance is associated with breeding and reinforcing the pair bond but in the winter it is just a way to blow off steam.
But the call, ahh the call. The sound can be heard for several miles. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that is shaped like a French horn. The air sacs inside the breast of the bird act as a resonator, similar to the resonating board of a violin.
Aldo Leopard, an early conservationist, said it best “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective
(KQED Perspective aired March 2004)
By Michael Ellis
Last month I happened to be on the same plane as Tom Smothers and that brought back a distant memory and like all memories it may or may not have happened like I remember it. But it is true because it is my memory.
I am a 17 year-old high school student living with my parents in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Vietnam War is raging. My father is a die hard Nixon Republican, my mother a southern Democrat. There are only a few kids at my school who have long hair and are called hippies. There are rumors of drugs but the social changes raging in far off San Francisco are barely reaching the remote hills of East Tennessee. My friends and I are mostly concerned with getting drunk and which girls are “easy.” Quarter mile drag racing takes place on Saturday night in one of the nearby red neck towns. Some young men have come back dead from Nam but there is mostly patriotic and pro-war sentiment in all places around me.
I am watching the Smothers Brothers comedy hour. “Mother always liked you best” says Tommy to Dick. HA HA HA. And then it happens- a sixty second photo montage of the horrors happening in Vietnam from American GIs dying in each others arms to villages being napalmed and humans burnt. It is all done to a powerful hypnotic drumbeat. At the end of it I sit stunned, unable to move. WOW. It caught one complacent teenager totally by surprise.
If I had to pinpoint a moment that I began to awaken to the remarkable energy of the times and the immorality of the Viet Nam war, it would be that night in 1968. The Smothers Brothers, especially Tom, had ongoing conflicts with the CBS censors and the show was eventually cancelled. The other day I wanted to go to up to him and say thanks, thanks for having the courage to use your show to open at least one young man’s eyes to the truth.
KQED Perspective to air week of October 1
September 11, 2001
In the spring of 1945 a large international contingent from 50 countries was meeting in San Francisco. This group was gathered in the dark shadows of a world gone mad. They were charged with creating an organization that would help prevent a repeat of the most horrific human catastrophe in the history of the world. There needed to be a forum where nations could have dialogue, where the weak would have a voice and the strong could not impose their will on others with impunity. This so-called United Nations would create standards of behavior that all countries would agree to adhere to.
Just before the Conference at San Francisco began word came to the delegates that one of the giants among men; a true hero of these ominous times had died. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Grief swept the nation and the world and the Conference searched for a fitting place of tribute. They found it just north of San Francisco in an ancient grove of redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument.
In a group of trees fittingly named the Cathedral Grove hundreds of men and women gathered to pay tribute and to honor a man who had done so much for ending global conflict and creating peace.
It is fitting that we turn to nature in times in times of pain and uncertainty. There is such solace in sitting still surrounded by beings like redwoods that have witnessed a thousand sunrises. There is some kind of immutable truth and profound peace found in the filtered light through a primeval forest. At least God must exist in a place like this. The horrors of what men can do to other men create open psychic wounds in us which nature can briefly soothe.
So go alone or with others into the quiet of nature and breath deeply in the breath of the earth, the scent of a billion years. Be silent and pray that the organization sprung from the spilled blood of millions will help the United States find justice, not just wreak revenge.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.
I have lead about a dozen safaris to Africa. At the beginning of each trip when I am orienting people about what to expect and how to behave, I always give them a warning — that several times during our trip I will demand complete and total silence. No yakking, no whirring video, no clicking cameras, no commenting on the obvious, just silence. It seems to be a trait peculiar to Western thought that we must constantly process our experiences by commenting on them, rather than just having them. On my trips I want people to take the world directly into their bones, to feel it viscerally, in the gut, not in their brain.
These quiet moments can be very powerful and later can be easily accessed. When I see a photo of a spotted hyena I can still hear the crunching of a wildebeest leg. I can feel the power of those massive jaws as they slowly but forcefully crush the heavy bone. I can smell the smell of recent death.
And I can still taste the presence of those three ponderous male elephants that slowly walked by my tent, the quiet whooshing of their massive feet through the tall grass. The low deep rumbles nearly impossible to hear emanating from their gut that I could physically feel, I could feel the hairs vibrate in my inner ear. I disappeared for a brief moment into their world.
In the Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana, negative or empty space is just as important as the plants. The key to success is knowing when to quit arranging. In my business I have to know when to not talk. There is information and there is knowledge. I can give you the facts on cheetahs and how they hunt but until you watch one quietly stalk a gazelle, burst to full throttle, turning this way and that in rapid pursuit, knocking the legs out from the prey, and then watching the gazelle’s last gasps, hearing its death rattle. … then you may have a gained a little knowledge about the world and you didn’t hear a word.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.