Michael Ellis

Mars has been the news lately because scientists have discovered molecules on a Martian meteorite that look like they may have been made by some kind of life form. As a young boy I was quite taken with Mars. Even then it seemed like such a “guy” planet. It was easy to find in my little telescope because of its distinct color. Most of the ancients associated Mars with the darker side.

To the Babylonians Mars was Nergal, lord of the underworld. The Greeks called it Ares, the god of War. And Mars reigned over the bloodstained battlefields of the militant Romans. To them Mars was second only to Jupiter in power and importance. Presumably the planets red color suggests blood and evil. And I guess the planet is totally male, the symbol for Mars is the familiar circle with arrow pointing out and upward. This supposedly stands for a shield and spear. Freud might have disagreed with this interpretation however.

Mars fascinated the famed astronomer Percival Lowell who at the end of the last century was certain there was life on Mars. In a powerful new telescope he built he saw perfectly straight canals over 100 miles long. He noted the varying color of Mars through the year and attributed the change to the seasonal growth of vegetation. The esteemed Lowell boldly concluded that the canals were built by intelligent creatures to irrigate fields of crops. This conjures up fantastic images of Martian melons, Astral artichokes, Canal corn, God o’ War beets and Cosmic cucumbers.

Now of course we know that the color red is not from Martian blood but from iron oxide in the soil. Mars is rusty. The canals are a result of an optical illusion. Humans have a tendency to create order and patterns out of a random array of shapes. The seasonal color change is from gigantic dust storms that rage across the planet not from plants. And, with apologies to H.G. and Orsen Wells, no detectable evidence of higher life has actually been found only the suggestion that there may have once been life millions of years ago. Oh well it is still a cool planet.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Madagascar and the California Academy of Science

Madagascar and the California Academy of Science
Michael Ellis
There has been a great deal of press about the newly opened California Academy of Science. San Francisco has reason to be proud not only of the beautiful new building but also the internationally recognized scientific institute. Many people may not realize how old the organization is and how far a field the Academy’s fingers reach. For example the harbor on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands is named Academy Bay. While San Francisco was suffering from the 1906 earthquake and the disastrous fire; scientists were busy collecting specimens in the Galapagos. Their ship, the Academy, was anchored for months in that bay. The most extensive collection of plant and animal species outside of the islands themselves is here in the Bay area. 
I just returned from a month in Madagascar. Located off the eastern coast of Africa, it is just about as far away as you can be from California and still be on the Planet Earth.   This fourth largest island in the world has been separated from other landmasses for well over 150 million years. Most of its plants and animals have evolved in isolation. The organisms are so unique that Madagascar is often referred to as the Eighth Continent. It is said that had Darwin visited Madagascar instead of the Galapagos he would have been just as inspired.

Madagascar’s escalating human population with its attendant poverty, slash and burn agriculture, and cutting of trees for charcoal production is resulting in rapid deforestation, serious loss of topsoil and intense fragmentation of the little remaining wild regions. The world community has long recognized this island as one of the top biological hotspots of the planet.
For the past decade Cal Academy has been sending scientists from its various departments to study and collect specimens. In November 2006, the Academy opened the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in the capital city of Antananarivo.  Its primary focus is to coordinate the study Madagascar’s vanishing plant and invertebrate fauna and to train local biologists.  The data gathered will help the government make smart conservation decisions hopefully stemming the extinction of plants and animals from this most incredible island. This is good world work indeed. 
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective. 


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.