Labyrinth

Labyrinth
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.

Humpbacks

HUMPBACKS
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.

Grasslands

GRASSLANDS
Michael Ellis

When I am out hiking this time of year I am constantly reminded, especially as I look at the golden hills of California, how much the landscape has been altered since the Europeans first arrived in the New World. 500 years ago the sunny, baked hills above Livermore would have been greenish not yellow. Perennial bunch grasses with taproots penetrating down 18 feet took full advantage of permanent groundwater. And the plants would continue to photosynthesize throughout the extended drought of our Mediterranean climate maintaining their vibrant living color until the first invigorating rains of the autumn arrived. Grazing animals certainly existed here 20,000 years ago and impacted the grasslands. There would have been mastodons, giant ground sloths, as well as modern animals such as Tule elk, pronghorn, and black tailed deer. When the Native Americans arrived they also encouraged the grassland by periodically burning it. Grass has evolved to not only tolerate but often thrives under continued grazing and periodic fire. Agronomists suspect that some of our native grasses regularly live to 200 years and perhaps as long as 1000 years!

The most significant change in California’s biodiversity was the transformation of these bunchgrass-dominated ecosystems to the near total replacement by Eurasian annual grasses. The Spaniards brought horses, cattle, sheep, and their attendant European barnyard weeds into California in the late 1700s. These aggressive, non-native, annual grasses could germinate, flower and fruit in the short growing season and were already adapted to the heavy grazing of domesticated animals. Wherever livestock was introduced, the new grasses quickly outcompeted and replaced the perennials in an incredibly short period of time. This occurred so rapidly that there were basically no scientifically trained witnesses to record the startling conversion.

99% of the native grasses in California are gone. California’s early settlers transformed this place in so many ways – culturally, economically, ethnically – and they even gave us our golden hills.

This is Michael Ellis with the Perspective.

Huck Finn

Huck Finn
Michael Ellis

Several months ago there was a big brouhaha down in San Jose because some parents objected to the required reading of Huckleberry Finn. I believe that one of the major complaints was that the children had to read sections of the book out loud in front of their classmates. At the time I was put out with the latest interference of the PC police. Oh geez here we go again with oversensitive, whining parents, why can’t they concentrate on real issues like guns in the classroom?

Huck Finn is the American classic written by one of the finest writers in the world and sure Mark Twain used the N word but his writing was reflective of the time and taken in context it really isn’t that bad. Besides he portrayed the slaves sympathetically.

Well isn’t it funny a little more education can influence an opinion. For the last month or so I have been reading Samuel Clemens with my son. We read Tom Sawyer first. Wow, what a great adventure story. When we came first across the word, nigger. I explained it as well as I could to a nine year old, the history of slavery in this country, what white European people did to people from Africa. How the word used then and how it is used today. How Afro-americans feel about it. I was also determined to say it and not worry about it. No problem in Tom Sawyer, it is only used a handful of times.

But oh when we got to Huckleberry Finn, that was an entirely different story. The N word is used hundreds of times. At first I just read it but I soon found that reading the word out loud reinforced its power. It began to stick in my craw. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Boy is that nursery rhyme wrong. Words are very powerful and they can hurt and destroy.I now suddenly understood in a visceral way the objections parents are having in Santa Clara county. I could empathize with the young black teenager required to read that word out loud in front of his classmates. I found myself replacing that word with helper or slave or just substituting Jim╒s name. It did detract a little from the story but made me feel better. So I still think that Huckleberry Finn should be required reading for high school students but I definitely don’t think that students should have to read it out loud in class.

This is Michael Ellis with a new Perspective.

Horny Deer

HORNY DEER
Michael Ellis

The deer are getting horny this time of year or I should say “antlery”. Because deer don’t have horns they have antlers. There’s a big difference. Horns are permanent and both males and females have them╔ many of our domestic animals like goats, sheep and cattle have horns. Antlers on the other hand are borne only by the males, they are deciduous– they grow and fall off every year. Antlers are made of bone whereas horns are made from keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of.

Many of our North American hoofed mammals have antlers– moose, elk, caribou, and of course the local black-tailed mule deer. Antlers are amazing, they begin growing in early spring. A soft moss-like skin called velvet nourishes the growing bone– it provides the necessary nutrients and oxygen. By mid-summer the antlers are fully developed and the velvet is useless; the deer rub it off on small branches. You can often find these rubbing trees along streambeds; look for loose strips of bark and even bloody velvet on young willow trees.

Antlers are what biologists call secondary sexual characteristics. They have no function in the day-to-day survival of the animals. They certainly don’t help the deer find food and shelter. But they do send a very clear message- “not only am I a healthy vigorous buck capable of supporting myself but I have secured enough extra nutrients to grow an especially large set of antlers. I am one tough dude!” This message isn’t directed at female deer like one might suspect but to other bucks. In order to mate successfully a male deer must dominate other male deer. Usually all that’s necessary for dominance is a raised head, erect hairs, and a rut-snort or two but occasionally battles do happen. But these clashes rarely result in injury.

Right now the dominant bucks are in a rut now herding several females and waiting for them to come into heat. After mating, the males split. By January the bucks have shed their antlers and the cycle begins anew.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.