The Month of August


August, named for Augustus Caesar, is our eighth month. Eight is one of my favorite numbers – it is so symmetrical and turned on its side it becomes infinity. And the hot weather and long days make August my favorite month.

In my childhood the beginning of August was definitely still summer holiday with the promise of many more days for amorphous play. But as the month progressed I got more and more ready to return to school and see all my friends again. August was the true last month of the year, before the start of a new grade level and a new beginning. It is still the temporal edge between the world of play and the world of work, between the unstructured and the ordered.

August is also the month of my birthday, quiet shy retiring Leo that I am. But the night sky is the key to my love for this month. I sleep outside frequently in August, often in the mountains. The three stars – Vega, Altair and Deneb- that form the summer triangle are high overhead and easy to see. Looking at Sagittarius is looking toward the center of our Galaxy; by far the densest concentration of stars in the Milky Way. It is supposed to be an archer but actually looks exactly like a teapot.

The Perseid Meteor shower peaks on August 12th – guaranteed shooting stars, at least one per minute, often more. My favorite constellation – Scorpio – is high in the southern sky, one of the few constellations that actually looks like what it is supposed to be. It is one huge scorpion. Its brightest star is a red giant called Antares — literally “rival of Mars” because it is the same color and about the same brightness as the planet.
Antares’ magnificent red color is mirrored in the red of the earthly month. The Indian paintbrushes are in full flower, the poison oak leaves have turned a brilliant scarlet and the abundant Anna’s humming birds are flashing their brilliant hues. All hail to Caesar, hail to August.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Buckeye Trees

Buckeye trees

By Michael Ellis

A friend of mine moved into the dry foothills of the Sierra years ago. His property had oaks, Grey pines, grasslands and a stream that only flowed in the winter and spring. Depending upon the winter rains the creek would flow into April and sometimes May but then dry up. During his first summer the creek suddenly started flowing again in August. He was quite perplexed. There had been no additional rainfall, no snowmelt, but there it was – water in the creek. It flowed for a month longer and then dried up. He thought no more about it until the next year when the same exact thing happened again. That’s when he called me and asked if I had an explanation. I didn’t.

California’s climate is characterized by mild winters, hot summers, fire-adapted vegetation and a long drought period of six months. There are several ways plants can cope with the dryness. Annual plants begin growing with the winter rains; they flower and fruit quickly and then just die – leaving behind hard tough seeds to wait for next year’s rain. Many plants have tough resinous evergreen leaves that simply resist desiccation. And others survive by dropping their leaves and becoming dormant during the hot, dry summer and fall.

So for years my poor friend was driven nuts by this summer water mystery, f He would wait in dread for the water to appear again. He tried looking at every angle he could think of- barometric pressure, artesian water table, leaking septic systems, and finally in the 5th year he had his “AHA” moment.

Along his creek were many California buckeye trees. These magnificent trees leaf out early and fast in the winter, popping out with large five parted leaves. One of these full-grown trees can transpire literally thousands of gallons of water per day. During the hot dry summer all of the trees would suddenly drop their leaves. Immediately there would be a flush of ground water available, no longer being lost out the leaves and presto — the little creek would start to flow again. The mystery was solved and my friend could sleep again.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Lichen – Old Man's Beard


Several years ago I saw a pictorial essay in the Sunday paper.
The article described a drive down beautiful Highway #1 from San
Francisco to Monterey. The first photo showed numerous
wildflowers and was captioned “Queen Anne’s Lace Graces the
Highway.” The flowers in question were actually Cow Parsnips. The
second photo said “Sea Lions Rest Peacefully on the Rocks.” They
were Harbor Seals. The final photo was entitled “Spanish Moss
Hangs from Windswept Pines.” The trees were really Monterey
cypresses. And draping from the trees were lichens called Old
Man’s Beard not Spanish Moss. They were batting 0 for 3 in the
photo department. I didn’t read the article.

Real Spanish Moss is found only in the southern United States–
along the Gulf Coast, in Georgia and in Florida. It isn’t moss
and it sure isn’t Spanish. It is a bromeliad, a member of the
pineapple family. Evolutionarily-speaking it is a highly evolved
plant with true roots, stems and flowers. Spanish Moss is an
epiphyte (on plant) not a parasite; it receives all of its
nutrients from rain water.

Old Man’s Beard on the other hand is a lichen, a primitive plant
found all over the world. They can tolerate extremely harsh
conditions. Some have been even found in Antarctica living inside
rocks! Considered pioneer plants, lichens are often the first
living things to colonize new surfaces. By secreting acids
lichens break down rocks and help convert them to soil. And like
Spanish Moss they receive all of their nutrients from rain water
or fog.

A lichen is not actually a plant. It actually consists of two
primitive plants — a fungus and an algae. The mnemonic device is
“Alice Algae took a Lichen to Freddie Fungus and now they live
together in a natural relationship.” Cute.

In cross-section a lichen consists of an outer protective layer,
a photosynthetic layer (individual cells of algae surrounded by
fungus), a storage area (for minerals and water) and a lower
cortex (that provides attachment).

Botanists used to believe that the relationship was a mutual one-
both partners benefited equally. The algae contributed sugars,
nitrogen and other nutrients to the fungus. The fungus in return
provided the algae a swell place to live with abundant water,
minerals and protection.

Now many scientists believe that Freddie is taking advantage of
Alice. The fungus is parasitizing the algae. The algae can live
just fine without the fungus but the fungus needs the algae in
order to survive. Not quite the idyllic relationship once

Most lichens reproduce by soredia, microscopic bodies consisting
of tiny algae cells surrounded by fungus. These are formed in
special fruiting bodies and then released. Wind, water or even
animals transport these miniature lichens to new locations.

Scraping lichens off the walls is one job the maintenance workers
at the Transamerica Building do not have. In urban areas lichens
usually do not grow because of their sensitivity to air
pollution. They are especially susceptible to sulfur dioxide and
nitric oxide, two common by-products of internal combustion
engines. If you have lichens growing near your house in
Sonoma consider yourself fortunate, you breathe clean air.

After the Chernobyl nuclear accident large areas of northern
Europe were exposed to radioactive material. Reindeer moss, which
is actually lichen not moss, incorporated this fallout into its
tissues. The reindeer feed almost exclusively on these lichens.
Their flesh has become contaminated; it can not be eaten or sold.
The Laplanders who had depended upon the reindeer for centuries
suddenly found themselves out of a lifestyle. Because lichens are
so slow growing, it may be another 50 years before the reindeer
meat can be eaten again. Let’s not have any more nuclear

School Days

In the early 1980’s I realized that due to the Freedom of Information Act I could access my school records from Kindergarten all the way through High School. I could finally see my IQ score and what all those teachers had said about me. So on one of my rare visits back home to Tennessee I made the proper arrangements.

You had to review the documents in the presence of a guidance counselor. I guess this was in case you freaked out; you would have some help nearby. At 10 AM I arrived for my appointment and was ushered into the records room where I was met by “Mike Ellis, plastic vomit!” I looked up startled…”Mrs. Bond” I sputtered,” what a surprise to see you.” During my 9th grade year in Mrs. Bond’s first year as a teacher I had pretended to throw up in the back of the classroom. My cohorts in crime did a fine acting job of being totally grossed out by my actions. It was not the first time or the last I was sent to the Principals Office that year. I had made a memorable impression on my biology teacher and she was interested to see how I was doing.

As I thumbed through the quarterly reports, there was a constant theme according to the teachers – Has ability, does not apply self….tends to cutup and disrupt the class…too smart for his own good….Class clown I suggest placing in the front row… Mike could make better grades if he tried harder….

You get the idea. Turns out the dire handwringing of all those teachers wasn’t worth the paper they were written on. I have run my own business for 30 years, which requires lots of self-motivation. I work and play hard. I’m still a cut up, only now it’s part of my profession. I suspect there are tons of kids out there like me who don’t meet their teacher’s expectations but need the right garden to grow in or have vices just waiting to become virtues. Parents worry about their kids, and that’s only natural. But it’s important to have a little faith in them, and their ability to figure life out. I wasn’t particularly popular in high school and neither my grades nor, as it turned out, my IQ impressed anybody. But I’ve lived a happy, successful life that I’m proud of. You just never know how those underachievers will turn out, do you Mrs. Bonds?


There are many many things that most of us take for granted in the United States. Our democratic system of government is one of them. I get frustrated at our citizens who do not take the time to get familiar with issues and candidates and then exercise their right to vote.

I just returned from a month in Bhutan. This Himalayan Kingdom is nestled between the two giants of the Asian world. China, more properly Tibet, lies to the north and India, lies to the south. The fourth King of Bhutan whose reign began when he was 17 years old in 1972 has mostly been responsible for bringing his country from the Middle Ages into the 21st Century. This is a country that in 1960 had no schools, no paved roads, no cars, no currency and no postal system!

King Jigme Wangchuck is much loved and venerated in Bhutan. There are bumpers stickers everywhere stating boldly – We Love our King. Through his centralized power and his extraordinary vision he has been able to force changes in a country resistant to, what we would call progress. I have witnessed extraordinary transformations in the few years that I have been going to the country. The cell phone service is better in the remotest region of this mountainous country than in West Marin County.

The King has however decided it is time to end the Monarchy. He recognizes that immense power concentrated in one individual could be dangerous. There are no guarantees that his sons or grandsons will be as benevolent as he is. Therefore the country now has a Constitution and has scheduled democratic elections for February 2008. There have been mock elections held throughout the county to help prepare the folks for the historic transition.

Bhutan is a tiny nation, and most everything we think of as modern, from communications to government, is new to it. But it is a shining example of principles that we, in the supposed greatest nation on earth, would do well to reacquaint ourselves with. That too much power in too few hands is dangerous and that a successful democratic government requires two-way trust between office holders and the people they represent.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.