Michael Ellis
Dec 15, 1994

Winter has always been a tough time for humans. Food and light are at a minimum, darkness and cold at a maximum. Our ancestors found it absolutely essential to huddle together and share what little they possessed in order just to survive. They recognized the necessity of being generous to one another in this season. They also knew that their lives and the lives of plants and animals were intimately tied to the energy from the sun. To insure that the sun would stop its descent into the southern sky and the days would increase in length, our predecessors lit great fires. These were fires to placate the sun god.

For the past 5 years at my son’s school we observe a similar rite the Advent spiral. On the floor of the large meeting room the parents make a giant spiral out of pine boughs, fir branches, holly twigs and Pyracantha. Interspersed in the greenery are ornaments, seashells, crystals, bones and other beautiful artifacts of nature.

We begin at sunset. In the darkness and cold of that large empty room all the parents gather and chant a simple song. One by one each child walks alone holding an unlit candle, is safely impaled in an apple. They slowly spiral to the center where but a single flame burns. Each one lights their own candle and places it carefully amidst the greenery and slowly walks back out, the parents still singing. And so it goes through all the kids, at the end of the ceremony the room is full of light, warmth and love.In our fragmented world full of instant subdivisions, constant migrations and mobile communities, real neighborhoods seem like an anachronism. But on this solstice through the connecting thread of children several families came together and for a moment had a center, a focus, a hearth. Our children lit their personal candle from the communal fire, acknowledging the relationship that we all have with our fellow humans. We need one another. No man and no family is an island. I wish you a joyous holiday season.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

The Class of 69

Michael Ellis

In every life come those mileposts graduations, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, new jobs and yes High School Reunions! I was born in 1951 which resulted in my graduation from high school in he hippest of all possible years 1969. In addition to its perfect mathematical symmetry and sexual overtones 69 was a year of profound national and international events, Woodstock, Peoples Park, the first moon walk, Charles Manson, Midnight Cowboy, the Concorde, the Mets in the World Series, Marcus Welby MD, President Nixon, and on a personal level. I was working very, very hard to lose my virginity and could not wait to escape from the narrow confines of East Tennessee. Last weekend I attended my 30th high school reunion. We had the largest Senior class in Oak Ridge High School’s history 650 or so.

We are definitely the demographic pig in the python. Nearly every commercial for the last three decades has been pitched toward our massive lump in the population. My mother always accused me of thinking the world revolved around me but certainly the advertising world appears to. I recently saw a billboard for a Classic Rock FM station which said “Remember saying we hoped we would die before we got old? What were we thinking?” I actually cannot imagine a more exciting time to be alive. During the past thirty years I have been enjoyed each year. Not that there weren’t some rough times but basically the ride has been good. There is no year that I wish to redo, I have no longing for the past. Part of that wonderful 60’s philosophy that I got in my gut was “to be here now” the good times are in the moment.I suspect that in the year 2029 this years senior Class will marvel at all the remarkable events that transpired during the last year of the millennium. They will believe that 1999 with its mathematical symmetry was the best of all possible years to graduate. But they will be wrong, believe me because the coolest class in history was the Class of 69.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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