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.


I have a 1 1/2-inch long automatic bio-thermometer that sits in the Magnolia tree right outside my office. When it gets to be about 78 degrees or so a high pitched buzz emanates from the tree trunk. My “thermometer” is a woodland cicada. These amazing insects spend the first several years of their life totally in the dark, underground sucking on tree roots.

In the eastern US there are cicadas that spend up to 13 or, in the case of one species, even 17 years underground! The entire population emerges simultaneously, sheds their larvae skins, pumps blood into their new adult wings and then flies around looking for love. These massive insect invasions totally freak out suburbanites. But my sympathies lie with the critters, after all who built all those houses in the forest? For thousands of years the cicadas cycled out of the earth in tremendous numbers that overwhelm their predators (primarily birds). The males fly into trees and begin singing by vibrating two special membranes. Huge aggregations gather in deafening choruses. The females are silent but are attracted to the vibrating males. After the females lay eggs into twigs, all the adults die. The eggs hatch into larvae the size of a small ant, drop to the ground and dig down for the next 17 years!

So how do these animals keep track of time while underground? No sun, no moon, no day, no night, the temperatures are moderated. A scientist at UC Davis has recently discovered that cicadas can actually count blooming cycles. When a tree flowers there is a burst of sugars and proteins that flow throughout the plant and the cicadas feeding on the juices record this event. Amazing!

Our native woodland cicada however is non-periodical; that is every single summer there are adults present. Our species stay underground for one to three years and emerge when they are ready. The ones in the East are nothing but Tree-Sucking Clock-Watchers but the West Coast species march to their own individual molting drummer, none of this group emergence stuff. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Beginning in 1989 scientists have been drilling into the Greenland ice shield. It took a while but eventually they drilled an amazing two miles down collecting ice samples that are over 110,000 years old. Astonishing data is being gleaned from careful analysis of this ice about the history of the earth’s climate.

We know that the earth has experienced a number of major ice advances and retreats in the past million years, cooling and warming, getting wetter then drier. It has always been the scientific dogma that climate change is something that happened slowly over hundreds or even thousands of years. Well apparently that model is way wrong. We now believe that the earth’s temperature can warm up by several degrees in a matter of decades. This may not seem like much but it is. A matter of a few degrees increase could mean rapidly rising sea level and since more than 90% of human inhabitants live at sea level they would be driven from their homes. Crops would fail, livestock and wild animals would perish. This is not science fiction; this has happened and could happen again.

Humans were able to evolve civilizations because we developed agricultural. Why did this happen more or less simultaneously at several diverse locations at about the same time, 8000 yrs ago? Why not earlier? We have been essentially the same beings with the same intellectual capacity for at least 100,000 yrs. What kept us in check with a limited population and no airplanes or computers? In a nutshell, it appears to be bad weather!

Yep we are apparently in the middle of the longest period of climatic stability in the last million years. So we have simply had time to develop our culture without an environmental catastrophe to throw us back to the starting line.

How long will it last? Who knows? Will human created global warming stave off the next ice age or will it accelerate it? We simply don’ t know but what seems probable is that our grand technological culture may have been a brief success in the longest period of interglacial nice weather in the history of the Earth. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Ducks and Hunting

By Michael Ellis

Every winter I spend several weekends in the northern Sacramento valley listening to, watching the behavior, and identifying the multitude of birds that are there. One of the many blessings of California is our relatively mild climate and the fact that we still enough habitat to support the millions of waterfowl and other birds who fly south to over- winter here.

Birdwatchers and nature lovers are not the only people who revel in this exhibition of natural abundance. Duck hunters as well enjoy the spectacle. Often when I take folks birding in the refuges they are upset to hear the distant sound of shotgun blasts. I inform them that we have more in common with duck hunters than they may want to admit. All of us enjoy crisp winter mornings and want to see plenty of ducks and geese.

I and other nature observers are what are termed non-consumptive users. In other words we don’t take any part of the resource and we do not need a license or permit to just watch. Hunters on the other hand must pay the state for the right to hunt. Additionally they must purchase a Duck stamp from both the Federal and State Government for the right to shoot ducks and geese. And hunters pay a 10% tax on guns and ammunition that goes directly to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. All these fees which have been collected for decades are the primary source of the revenue that purchases, supports and manages the many wildlife refuges of California and the country.

Why not levy a small tax on the purchase of binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras, film, and bird books? This money could be earmarked for the acquisition of additional lands for the enhancement of wildlife of all kinds. Most people I know would be more than happy to pay a little bit more for these products if they knew the monies were going to a worthy cause.

But until that law comes to pass you can do what I do. Even though I don’t hunt or fish anymore I still buy the licenses. And I also buy the duck stamps. These are great collector’s items and make great gifts. The artwork is superb on them. By this manner I am taxing myself and supporting the refugees. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.