Cape Town and San Francisco

Every time I visit Cape Town, South Africa I am struck by the multitude of similarities with San Francisco. Both cities are stunningly beautiful, politically liberal, have a multiethnic population and are on the cutting edge of social change. Both are geographically bound – San Francisco by water on three sides and Cape Town by the sea and an arc of the steeply rising Table Mountain. Both have good natural harbors and an island nearby which was formerly an infamous prison – Alcatraz and Robben Island respectively. Cape Town has its own Pier 39-styled shopping area called the V and A Waterfront which even has seals hauled up on its piers. Southern fur seals in this case, not California sea lions. They have the African penguin; we have the common Murre. Drive an hour or so from each place and you find fabulous wine country.

There is cold, upwelled ocean water off both cities that results in a rich marine environment with abundant fish, seals and whales right offshore. And both cities are blessed with many days of marine fog. We also share a Mediterranean-type climate – mild winters, a long growing season, and six months of drought followed by rain. Periodic fire plays a role in the local plant life in both regions. Much of the natural landscape in the Cape looks exactly like our chaparral. And speaking of vegetation there are invasive blue gum eucalyptus trees in both places and many of our favorite landscaping plants grow profusely wild in the Cape Region.

When you drive south from both cities the windy, narrow road dramatically hugs the coastline passing through attractive small commuter communities. Even the kelp beds look the same but without the otters. And finally we are 36 degrees north and Cape Town is 34 degrees south.

San Francisco already has fifteen sister cities so how about making Cape Town the next one? It is a perfect match.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


by Michael Ellis

A teacher friend of mine used to tell kids to imagine a gopher snake living for a year eating nothing but rats and mice and growing and growing and growing. Then suddenly it goes down into a burrow, rolls up into a tight ball and then flies out as a red-tailed hawk! Oh man, they groan, that would never happen. And then he tells them the miracle of butterflies and moths.

During those warm winter days in early February and I saw several Mourning Cloaks flitting around the forest floor. These medium size butterflies have rich dark brown wings bounded by a cream-colored outer edge with striking blue spots. Widely distributed in the northern hemisphere, they are found throughout Europe and Asia. Their dark color absorbs the sunlight readily, heating the insect, and hence they are one of the earliest butterflies to emerge and they can survive at the higher latitudes.

The adults feed on the sap of oak trees; the larva or caterpillar eat mostly willows. The word, caterpillar, was introduced into the English language when the Normans invaded Britain in 1066. Caterpillar is corrupted from an old French word “chat pillose,” which literally means” hairy cat.” This apparently once common name for caterpillars is no longer used in France but has been replaced by the modern French word – chenille. This word is now also used to describe soft fabric.

Half the cells of caterpillars are undifferentiated; they have no function, yet. Caterpillars are mostly gut; they eat leaves, poop, grow, shed their skin, and rest a lot. Basically acting a lot like human teenagers. Finally after the last molt they enter the pupae stage, wrap themselves up into a cocoon and chemically transform. Nearly all their cells turn into a gooey mass and then are rearranged into legs, wings, thorax, head, abdomen and then they emerge, dry their wings, fly away, eat nectar, mate and die. Incredible story and it’s easy to see why this remarkable metamorphosis has been a metaphor for so many human myths.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


By Michael Ellis

Bos taurus is the scientific name for a species that evolved on the Indian sub-continent some two million years ago. They eventually spread all the way to the British Isles, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia and diverged into three distinct genetic populations. These progenitors of all domestic cattle in the world are called aurochs and there is not one alive today.

The cave paintings in Lascaux in France are one of the earliest depictions of these powerful animals. They stood 6 feet high and weighed about half that of a rhino. They were fierce and they were respected. In ancient Persia the cow was at the center of the Zoroastrian religion. Their chief god was Mithras who is depicted standing by a bull. Mithras slew the animal and used its blood to fertilize the earth. The Hindus still venerate cows and respect them as providers of milk and labor in the fields. The Maasai believe that God gave them all the cows in the world. They do not steal them; they are simply returning them to the rightful owners.

The first domestication was 8 to 10,000 years ago in northern Mesopotamia and southern Caucasus. The tamed cows were much smaller and more malleable than the wild ones. As human populations expanded due to the advent of agriculture and the further domestication of animals, these cows spread to other human groups. The European cow derived from the Mesopotamian one. The remaining populations of wild aurochs were slowly out competed by the domestic cattle, their native habitats were destroyed and many aurochs were simply hunted out by humans.

The few remaining wild aurochs into modern times were protected on royal lands in Eastern Europe; the last one – a female- was killed by a poacher in Poland in 1627.

Regardless of how you feel now about overgrazing of public lands, cows do convert plants to protein efficiently. Humans do eat a lot grass (rice, wheat, corn etc.) but in many localities these crops cannot be grown. Cows have enabled humans to not only to live in marginal places but to improve our nutritional health as well. Cows are valuable.

The word cattle itself is derived from Latin – capitale – which means funds. So whether you are a Swiss Dairy Farmer, a Texas rancher or a Maasai herdsman, your cows are your wealth and your retirement

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Alcatraz (KQED Perspective aired Oct. 6, 2000)

When the Moors invaded and conquered Spain and Portugal in the 8th century AD
they brought with them more than just superb architecture. Most of the
Spanish words that begin with al- Alhambra, Almaden, Alameda, alcohol,
algebra for example – are Arabic in origin. Al is the article “the”. To the
Moors a bucket on an irrigation wheel that scoops up water was called an “al
catraz”. The Moors thought that pelicans scooped up water in their large bill
to carry to their young in the desert. So they named the pelican – the
“alcatraz”. They don’t actually do that. To the Spanish seafarers the word
eventually came to mean not just pelicans but any seabird. The word was
further corrupted into albatross.

When the first European, Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into San Francisco Bay
in 1775, the local Costanoan Indians met him. Of course, these native peoples
already had names for all the geographic features of the area but that didn’t
stop ole Juan. His first morning in the Bay he was anchored near a tiny dense
patch of trees, so he named that place Saucelito, which means a small thicket
of willows. The first island that he visited he called Isla de Los Angeles or
Angel Island, after the Spanish tradition of naming places after the Catholic
Feast days closest to the discovery date. A nearby island he christened
Alcatraz after the thousands of pelicans and other seabirds wheeling around
it. However the island he named Alcatraz was actually the one we now call
Yerba Buena. How did this happen? Well an Englishmen sailing into the Bay
made a typographical error in 1826. Captain FW Beechey accidentally
transcribed the name Alcatraz onto a much smaller island thereby cementing
the mistake into the Royal Navy’s nautical charts. Yerba Buena Island was
perhaps named for a common native mint. So two mistakes – one a typo and the
other an observational mistake resulted in the name of the most popular
tourist attraction in the Bay. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


KQED Perspective aired July 2004

By Michael Ellis

When someone asks us naturalists to identify an insect that we don’t know, we invariably respond by stating “well, it must be some kind of beetle”. And statistically this is a pretty good answer.

In the seventeenth century a tradition developed called “natural theology”. The idea was that one should be able to determine the nature of God by observing his handiwork. And this good, intelligent design was supposed to reflect human superiority and justify our dominion over the plants and animals. Even God’s physical appearance could be deduced from looking at his favored humans. After Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection, scientists argued that nature is neither good nor bad and is certainly not established with humans in the utmost mind. And if there was an ulterior force behind the design in nature it was certainly did not center around one particular primate and therefore perhaps that God was not one worth worshipping.

The most famous story around this involved the eminent British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, a founder of modern Darwinism. He once found himself surrounded by theologians who were beseeching him to conclude the nature of the Creator from his own personal studies of the natural world. Whereupon he supposedly answered well God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Apparently that is true because there are over 350,000 different kinds of beetles there may be two million more yet to find! They may account for almost half of all animal species! Beetles (like all insects) have a hard exoskeleton, a three-part body, two compound eyes, three pairs of jointed legs, and two antennae. The group is called the Coleoptera, which literally means the sheath wings. In adult beetles, the forward pair of wings is hardened and large enough to cover the insect’s back. This shell protects not only the beetle’s body, but also its precious rear wings. The familiar ones are ladybugs, fireflies, mealworms, darkling beetles, weevils, and scarabs.

So if I ever do a chance to look into the face of God I will expect to see a nice pair of antennas and some very large eyes. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.