Michael Ellis

That word love seems so inadequate for the wide range of human emotions. I love mangoes and I love my son. I love my father, gone now for 25 years. I love dancing and I love my ex-wife. I love my men friends. I love my mother and I love full moon nights. I love myself.

Valentines Day celebrates another kind of love, romantic love, that special love that exists between primary partners, a man and woman or a man and a man or a woman and woman. This kind of love involves sensualness, sexuality and intense attachment.

Winged Cupid, the harbinger of this particular kind of fate, is always portrayed with his bow drawn, the arrow back and he is blindfolded. Against his arrows there is no defense in heaven or earth. We are struck╔ often unaware, unsuspecting, at the wrong time. A year ago that happened to me. It was an absolutely impossible situation. Full of passion and pain. Inappropriate, improbable, unrealistic, yet I was absolutely and unequivocally sure of its truth. The arrow went deep. It drew blood and it hurt. It still hurts. I suspect it will always hurt.

In Greek mythology Cupid, the God of love and the son of Venus, falls in love with Psyche, a mortal of renowned beauty. Venus intensely jealous of Psyche, tries to thwart their love by giving her seemingly impossible tasks to accomplish. Somehow Psyche manages to complete them: her love for Cupid cannot be stopped or imprisoned. It is too powerful and finally Zeus himself grants Psyche immortality and marries her to Cupid, joining forever Love and the Soul, which is what Psyche actually means.

What a beautiful thought╔ that love often asks of us impossible things. It asks us to look beyond our puny egos, it asks us to tolerate pain and discomfort. In true love we are linked with something much bigger than ourselves or even the other person. We connect to the soul if you will, a much greater force. And perhaps through our lover, our soul mate, we can come closer to God, that is, to our true self. Happy Valentines Day.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

You know those lacey plants that hang in trees and look like long, strands of gray-green hair, you often see them next to the coast? A lot of people call that Spanish Moss. But it’s not, it is actually a kind of lichen called Old Man’s Beard or Lace Lichen. True Spanish Moss is only found in the southern United States. And believe it or not, it is actually a bromeliad, a member of the pineapple family, a highly evolved plant.

Lichens on the other hand are much more primitive. In fact lichens aren’t a plant, they are two, two, two plants in one. The green part is a kind of algae that does the photosynthesizing and makes all the food, the other component is a fungus that presumably provides structural support and helps retain nutrients and moisture.

To help remember this complex association naturalists have created a mnemonic device, Alice Algae took a lichen to Freddy Fungus and now they live together in a natural relationship. Cute, huh? Now it used to be thought that this was a mutually beneficial relationship but that’s wrong, the Alice algae can live just fine without the fungus but Freddy is apparently freeloading off of Alice.

There are many kinds of lichens and they grow nearly everywhere from the deserts and rainforests to even on the inside of rocks in desolate Antarctica valleys. There’s even a variety that grows of the back of beetles in New Guinea. They tolerate extremes of heat, cold and drought. They don’t get any nourishment from the substrate. Water and nutrients are brought in through the air. So not surprisingly lichens are very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulphur dioxide.

So one thing the maintenance workers don’t have to do is scrape the lichens off the Transamerica Building. If you have lichens growing near your house, rejoice the air around you is relatively pollution-free and that condition is unfortunately becoming more and more rare.

This Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

When I was in high school in the late 1960s in small-town Tennessee, there was an interesting ritual that occurred on weekend nights especially in the spring and summer. Some of the teenage boys had some mighty fine souped-up automobiles — 57 Chevrolet’s, GTOs, Cherry red Mustangs, and, if your daddy was rich, a Corvette stingray. The teens would drive these cars back and forth between McDonalds and Shoneys. They would circle slowly in the parking lot and then drive 2 miles to the other burger joint and circle that one. Convertible were best. Rock n roll music with a cigarette dangling from the mouth completed the James Dean look. This activity would last from nine to closing time at 1 AM.

Little did I know at the time I was witnessing a lek. A lek is a Swedish word that means, “play”. This is a term used for a certain kind of breeding system. Leks usually refer to birds but also some mammals and even fish have similar behaviors. Basically a lek is when all the males in an area gather together and display. The females are attracted to this group activity and decide which one of the fellows she will have sex with.

Found in the high country east of the Sierra Nevada is a well known lekking species – the sage grouse. They gather in exactly the same location year after year after year. The male puffs up his chest, makes a soft drumming sound and struts around with his tail feathers high. Females choose the good-looking ones.

One local mammal, which uses leks, is the fallow deer, which is easily seen in the Olema Valley near the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. During the fall 3 to 5 bucks gather in leks. These non-native deer use their hooves and antlers to destroy all the vegetation in an area and dig out large rutting pits into the ground. The resulting erosion is environmentally destructive but it seems to get the job done. There are too many fallow deer.

Unfortunately for the teenage me, I had to drive a Volvo sedan. This was definitely not an alpha male car but I did managed to compensate by shaking a pretty good tail feather on the dance floor. And that helped with the girls.

This is Michael Ellis with a perspective.


Michael Ellis

A friend told me about it and we had been trying to visit it but one thing and another always interfered and we never managed to. But early Sunday morning I had a few moments so I went to Grace Cathedral and found the Labyrinth. There are two of them, one outside and the other inside, identical copies of the famous one in France. I had no preconceived notions of what to expect. I just knew from my friend that you walked it and it was cool.

I didn’t have much time and parking was difficult but I rushed in and found the indoor one. I took off my shoes and started walking it. I soon realized that it would take me a while to do. I started thinking that I had parked in an illegal place and maybe my car would get towed. I hadn’t allowed enough time for this. I was supposed to be at some friends for breakfast at 8:30 and then I had a hike to lead at ten and I wasn’t really prepared╔ my mind was full of clutter and my head was ringing as I walked around the path. I was all alone in a big room but I could hear muted singing and prayer from next door. It sounded so nice. But damn it where was the center? I had to get to it and leave. Now I realized I was committed to the path, I couldn’t stop now I just couldn’t walk out across the labyrinth but I had places to go, important things to do. Then I began to slow down, realizing that this wasn’t the point of the labyrinth. I was supposed to pay attention to my walking and not let all this other stuff interfere, so I did, just watched one step in front of the other, my breathing slowed and almost immediately I found myself in the center, the light shinning on me I closed my eyes and immersed myself in this place, a wonderful peace suffused me, I bathed myself in it and then slowly walked back out knowing with my body that it didn’t really matter if my car was towed or I was a few minutes late for breakfast or all of the things I had planned in my life had not come out as I wanted, that the point was to take one conscious and mindful step at a time and the rest will take care of itself.

Rested, at peace and totally surprised at this experience I realize that 100 million Christian pilgrims can’t be wrong. The labyrinth is a powerful tool for meditation, I highly recommend it.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

About a month ago I led a couple of trips out to the waters in the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary. I have been going out to the Farallons since 1977 and it is one of my favorite places on the planet. Just offshore of 5 million people is a world of seabirds and marine mammals that few folks get an opportunity to see. And I have been lucky, nearly every year I see blue and humpback whales feeding adjacent to the Islands. But this year is exceptional. There is a pretty big group of humpbacks (12 or more) and several blue whales that seem to hanging around.

Both of these whales are endangered and it is reassuring to see them in relatively large numbers. Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived. You could fit 5 Brontosaurus in one blue whale or 25 African elephants or 1600 human beings or 2000 5th graders (note I separate 5th graders from human beings).

Humpbacks are slightly smaller, only 50′ and 50 tons! Both of these cetaceans are baleen whales that is they don’t have teeth but use fringed baleen plates that hang from the roof of the mouth to filter the ocean of small zooplankton. The preferred food is a shrimp relative commonly called krill. And right now there is apparently plenty of krill out by the Farallons.

Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of whales. During one of my trips we watched one leap nearly completely out of the water over and over again and then he or she repeatedly slapped his gigantic pectoral flippers on the surface. We were thrilled. “Just like channel 9”, someone yelled. Of course Humphrey is the most famous humpback whale, attempting to go upriver to Sacramento in 1985. He was re-spotted out by the Farallons several years ago. And it was a humpback that was the last whale killed by the Pt. Richmond Whaling station in 1969 or so. So within the collective memory of these long-lived animals, Bay area humans have been killing them.

It is easy to get excited about large animals like whales but ultimately we really need to insure that the oceans are clean enough to support the abundant growth of those little guys, the krill. Maybe I should put a Save the Krill bumper sticker on my car.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.