Diablo Winds

(KQED Perspective aired September 04)

During the fall we occasionally have hot dry winds blowing from the east. In southern California these are referred to as the Santa Ana’s because they blow out into San Pedro Channel through the Santa Ana Pass. In the San Francisco we should call them Diablo winds because they blow in from the Diablo Range of the inner coast mountains. In the Pacific Northwest they are called Chinooks, which is a Native American word that means snow eater. In Europe there are many names for hot winds that blow up from the Sahara. The Spanish call it Leveche; the Germans the foehn. To most Europeans these winds are known as the Sirocco – derived from an Arabic word that means east wind. In the Sudan this wind is called harmattan – the wind laden with blood-red dust.
But whatever you call those winds, they evoke strong, usually depressing emotions. They are allegedly full of positive ions which are supposed to negatively affect humans and their behavior. In contrast, areas full of negative ions are waterfalls and mountain tops – peaceful, relaxing places. I have read that Swiss surgeons will refuse to operate when a sirocco is blowing because they believe blood won’t clot as well. The Oakland firestorm, the Watts Riots, the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Pt. Reyes/Mt Vision fire all took place during strong hot winds. In fact Californians often refer to this kind of fall climate as Earthquake weather. Which makes no sense but there is always a sense of foreboding when those hot winds are blowing.
Raymond Chandler described it best in this passage “On nights like that [when the Santa Ana blows] every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

OK, well maybe it wasn’t that bad for you this week but things always seem to get more on edge during the Diablo’s. But soon enough the winter storms will be here and hot dry winds will be but a distant memory. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock
KQED Perspective aired May 05
By Michael Ellis

When I was in college and riding my bike to class there was always a place along my journey that smelled suddenly like Fritos. The smell of corn chips permeated the air and invariably made me hungry. I never did figure out what that smell was until many years later along the coast of Marin. My first spring here I was walking through a waste field of tall weeds when suddenly there it was – the smell of Frito Lay corn chips. There was nothing around me but very tall and full flowering poison hemlock plants!

Yes it is true. I have objectively confirmed that many times with groups along the trail. Stopping them suddenly and asking what’s that smell? They always say corn chips and are surprised to discover the true source.

Poison hemlock is a European weed introduced into the new world many years ago. It likes it here and thrives in marginal lands. It is a member of the Umbellefarie or carrot family and like many members of that group it is a biennial. The first year is spent growing a very large rosette of leaves. The second year it sends up a huge flowering stalk that can be up to 8 feet tall in good conditions. The stems and leaves are covered with obvious purple spots, the stems are hollow and the tiny flowers are white. These three characteristics separate from another weed found growing in similar places – common fennel. Fennel smells like licorice, the stems are full of pith and the flowers are yellow. Please don’t confuse these two or you may end up like Socrates.

Socrates of course was the well known Greek thinker who was put on trail for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. The authorities really just wanted him to plead guilty and go into exile but he refused. His trial was well-documented, he forced them to convict him, he refused to leave and they had to punish in the usual way. Cup of poison hemlock mixed with a pretty good load of opium and he was on his way to philosopher heaven. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Pyramid Lake

Pyramid Lake
KQED Perspective aired August 2003

By Michael Ellis

In the 1840’s Colonel John C. Fremont, also known as the Pathfinder was trying find the fabled Buenaventure River. This imaginary and hoped for waterway was thought to drain the unexplored lands of Nevada and Utah and flow west to the Pacific. This would make it very easy for settlers to get to California where those pesky Mexicans were living. Alas every drainage he followed flowed into low spots and created inland seas – the largest of which is the Great Salt Lake. Fremont correctly named this huge region the Great Basin.

In December of 1844 he was making his way down from Oregon on the east side the Sierra. “we continued our way up the hollow, intending to see what lay beyond the mountain…. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about two thousand feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.”

Fremont was the first white man to describe Pyramid Lake, the most beautiful desert lake I have ever seen. He camped that night by a gigantic tufa tower over 400 feet high which to him resembled the great pyramids of Egypt. This magnificent body of water, shimmering in the treeless Nevada desert is where the Truckee River, draining Lake Tahoe, goes to die. It is now the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.

This peaceful group had lived off the resources of the Lake for centuries…thriving on the abundant cutthroat trout and unique cui-ui fish that grow to magnificent size there. The white settlers saw nothing of value in the stark area and granted the Indians a large reservation in 1874. That was the good news; the bad news is there was no guarantee that the Truckee River, the lifeblood of the Lake, would continue to flow. Starting in 1906 a large portion of the River has been diverted to help white farmers make the desert bloom. The lake dropped the fish and the Paiutes became endangered.

But there is some good news – a few years of good snowmelt, improved irrigation ditches and some favorable court decisions have given Pyramid Lake a reprieve and a rising lake level. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes
December 2003
By Michael Ellis

Every December for the past two decades I have made a pilgrimage to my very own Mecca. The holiday or should I say it correctly – “Holy Day” – season is not complete unless I have spent at least a couple of weekends leading trips in the northern Sacramento Valley. Immediately adjacent to the thousands of vehicles streaming along Interstate 5, are uncountable numbers of birds. They have escaped the harsh winters of the far north and are feeding, flocking, flying, and at least in the case of the ducks, finding mates.

It is easy to see a half a million birds in one day! But my winter foray is not complete until I hear the call of the sandhill cranes. These skinny, four feet tall gangly birds are one my favorites. There are 6 races of this bird in North America and in California we can see both the lesser and the Greater sandhill crane. There are 15 different kinds of cranes in the world and nearly all of them are threatened with extinction. The Japanese revere the crane as a symbol of good fortune and long life. In ancient Greece they were considered messengers from the gods and humans imitated the dance of the cranes as a tribute to Apollo.

The closest and easiest place for Bay area dwellers to see Sandhill Cranes is over near Lodi, at the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve. There can be hundreds of cranes feeding in the dry fields. It is fun to watch them dance, awkwardly leaping high into the air, flapping their wings and going nowhere. The dance is associated with breeding and reinforcing the pair bond but in the winter it is just a way to blow off steam.

But the call, ahh the call. The sound can be heard for several miles. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that is shaped like a French horn. The air sacs inside the breast of the bird act as a resonator, similar to the resonating board of a violin.

Aldo Leopard, an early conservationist, said it best “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective

Smothers Brothers Perspective

(KQED Perspective aired March 2004)

By Michael Ellis
Last month I happened to be on the same plane as Tom Smothers and that brought back a distant memory and like all memories it may or may not have happened like I remember it. But it is true because it is my memory.

I am a 17 year-old high school student living with my parents in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Vietnam War is raging. My father is a die hard Nixon Republican, my mother a southern Democrat. There are only a few kids at my school who have long hair and are called hippies. There are rumors of drugs but the social changes raging in far off San Francisco are barely reaching the remote hills of East Tennessee. My friends and I are mostly concerned with getting drunk and which girls are “easy.” Quarter mile drag racing takes place on Saturday night in one of the nearby red neck towns. Some young men have come back dead from Nam but there is mostly patriotic and pro-war sentiment in all places around me.

I am watching the Smothers Brothers comedy hour. “Mother always liked you best” says Tommy to Dick. HA HA HA. And then it happens- a sixty second photo montage of the horrors happening in Vietnam from American GIs dying in each others arms to villages being napalmed and humans burnt. It is all done to a powerful hypnotic drumbeat. At the end of it I sit stunned, unable to move. WOW. It caught one complacent teenager totally by surprise.

If I had to pinpoint a moment that I began to awaken to the remarkable energy of the times and the immorality of the Viet Nam war, it would be that night in 1968. The Smothers Brothers, especially Tom, had ongoing conflicts with the CBS censors and the show was eventually cancelled. The other day I wanted to go to up to him and say thanks, thanks for having the courage to use your show to open at least one young man’s eyes to the truth.