September 11, 2001

KQED Perspective to air week of October 1

September 11, 2001

In the spring of 1945 a large international contingent from 50 countries was meeting in San Francisco. This group was gathered in the dark shadows of a world gone mad. They were charged with creating an organization that would help prevent a repeat of the most horrific human catastrophe in the history of the world. There needed to be a forum where nations could have dialogue, where the weak would have a voice and the strong could not impose their will on others with impunity. This so-called United Nations would create standards of behavior that all countries would agree to adhere to.

Just before the Conference at San Francisco began word came to the delegates that one of the giants among men; a true hero of these ominous times had died. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. Grief swept the nation and the world and the Conference searched for a fitting place of tribute. They found it just north of San Francisco in an ancient grove of redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument.

In a group of trees fittingly named the Cathedral Grove hundreds of men and women gathered to pay tribute and to honor a man who had done so much for ending global conflict and creating peace.

It is fitting that we turn to nature in times in times of pain and uncertainty. There is such solace in sitting still surrounded by beings like redwoods that have witnessed a thousand sunrises. There is some kind of immutable truth and profound peace found in the filtered light through a primeval forest. At least God must exist in a place like this. The horrors of what men can do to other men create open psychic wounds in us which nature can briefly soothe.

So go alone or with others into the quiet of nature and breath deeply in the breath of the earth, the scent of a billion years. Be silent and pray that the organization sprung from the spilled blood of millions will help the United States find justice, not just wreak revenge.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.



I have lead about a dozen safaris to Africa. At the beginning of each trip when I am orienting people about what to expect and how to behave, I always give them a warning — that several times during our trip I will demand complete and total silence. No yakking, no whirring video, no clicking cameras, no commenting on the obvious, just silence. It seems to be a trait peculiar to Western thought that we must constantly process our experiences by commenting on them, rather than just having them. On my trips I want people to take the world directly into their bones, to feel it viscerally, in the gut, not in their brain.

These quiet moments can be very powerful and later can be easily accessed. When I see a photo of a spotted hyena I can still hear the crunching of a wildebeest leg. I can feel the power of those massive jaws as they slowly but forcefully crush the heavy bone. I can smell the smell of recent death.

And I can still taste the presence of those three ponderous male elephants that slowly walked by my tent, the quiet whooshing of their massive feet through the tall grass. The low deep rumbles nearly impossible to hear emanating from their gut that I could physically feel, I could feel the hairs vibrate in my inner ear. I disappeared for a brief moment into their world.

In the Japanese art of flower arranging, Ikebana, negative or empty space is just as important as the plants. The key to success is knowing when to quit arranging. In my business I have to know when to not talk. There is information and there is knowledge. I can give you the facts on cheetahs and how they hunt but until you watch one quietly stalk a gazelle, burst to full throttle, turning this way and that in rapid pursuit, knocking the legs out from the prey, and then watching the gazelle’s last gasps, hearing its death rattle. … then you may have a gained a little knowledge about the world and you didn’t hear a word.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Years ago one of my son’s favorite books was Being Born. You know the book; the one with the incredible photographs of the developing babies floating around in embryonic fluid. Recently I found that book again and read “..then the bubble of water in which you lived popped and — WHOOSH — out came the water.” Those of us who have experienced the birth of children know that when the water breaks, a new little life is not far behind.

After finishing the book I had to do some last minute Christmas shopping, this was after the most recent rains. All along the road I kept seeing “the water breaking”. The image filled my mind. Water was spilling out everywhere, little rivulets gushing out from the hillside, down little gullies that rarely have water. A waterfall was literally jumping out of the chaparral. And I kept thinking…”the earth’s water is breaking, birth is imminent.”

And it is true. In all ways, water is life and this is particularly apparent in places where it is sporadic.
It was in the sea that life evolved. At first the minerals, nutrients, gases necessary for life simply passed directly from the ocean through the membranes of the organisms. But eventually some animals encapsulated the sea within their skins. They literally created an ocean within themselves. Fishes invaded rivers and moved far inland into fresh water and eventually became amphibians. From amphibians came reptiles, from reptiles came birds and mammals.

I saw a newt attempting to cross the road and I stopped to rescue it. As I was crossing back over the barbed wire fence, I cut myself. Not deep, but the blood was flowing. As I sucked on my hand, I tasted the salt of my own body, that ancient bloody ocean trapped so long ago. I closed my eyes and remembered another year , kissing my newborn son and tasting the salt from his recent journey. And I remembered the water breaking. Water then life. This is winter in California, this is the New Year and this is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Walt Whitman once said that a weed is a plant whose useful purposes have not yet been discovered. My dad, on the other hand, always said that anything growing in the yard that isn’t grass is a weed.

Botany professors say that weeds are plants, native or non-native, whose populations readily grow in severely disturbed sites. For botanists the key phrase is “severely disturbed sites”: i. e. lawns, landslides, gaps in a forest from a fallen tree, roadsides and abandoned ranchland. These areas are typically open and flooded with light. Many weeds are intolerant of shade and therefore cannot colonize undisturbed sites. (Muir Woods for example does not have many exotic plants on the forest floor.) Because disturbed sites are new, they are often free of competitors. Countless weed sends drift in on the wind and settle. They readily germinate, grow fast, and produce thousands of seeds.

I define a weed as not only a plant that thrives in disturbed sites but also as an alien that invades, outcompetes and drives out the native flora. Most of the weeds in North America are Eurasian in origin; they accompanied the European invasion of this continent. These plants have already spent several thousand years adapting to the severe changes that agrarian societies made in the European environment. In the New World the settlers cleared the primeval forests and plowed the native grasslands. The European weeds were pre-adapted to these “severely disturbed” conditions and took a firm hold. They have been expanding their range ever since.

California has a Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Many of our cultivated, ornamental and weedy plants come from regions of the world that have a similar climate – Australia, South Africa and, of course, the Mediterranean. Legions of these plants now dominate our landscape. Indeed many Californians cannot imagine their state without the golden hue of annual Eurasian grasses or the immense stands of blue gum eucalyptus trees.

Undeniably some of our more prolific weeds – multicolored radishes, brilliant yellow mustards, radiant ox-eyed daisies and blushing sheep sorrel – add a certain beauty to the fields. At the edge of the forest the tall stately spikes of foxglove seem to stand quietly on guard. But some of this loveliness comes at the expense of native California plants. The California Native Plant Society monitors the encroachment of weeds in our state. Many of our unusual and rare plants are losing ground to the aggressive invaders. Seven of the worst offenders are gorse, broom, pampas grass, eucalyptus, European beach grass (dune grass), artichoke thistle and tamarisk. Most of us consider a plant that was found in California before the Europeans came is a native. I am often asked how long does a plant have to be here until it is considered native. My answer “Never!”

To read a great book on successful weedy species (white Europeans among others), try Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.