Pinewood Derby

Michael Ellis

The Pinewood Derby was a very big deal when I was in the Cub Scouts. You buy a kit of a block of raw wood, some wheels and then you carve out your a race car, stick on the wheels and sand and paint it and then on the big derby night you race them down an official track. Awards are given to the winner of the race and also for the best finishing job.

So I brought my kit home and started slowly hacking away on the wood with my pocketknife. It was slow going to free my image of a racecar from that hunk of wood but I was doing it. I asked my dad for a little help, that was part of the deal. He took the block of brutalized wood out of my hand and that was the last I saw of it for 2 weeks. He took in to the giant fabrication and maintenance shop that he supervised for Union Carbide Corporation. Million dollar pieces of machinery and skilled hands apparently took over. When I got it back, the car was absolutely perfect, no blemishes, a glistening white paint job with the number 54, it even had specially created titanium axles. My father had carved out a hole under the car and melted lead into it to give it additional weight to carry down the track.

On the night of the Derby he just dropped me off and headed over to the Elks Club to drink with his buddies, he’d pick me up later. Upon check-in I found out that my car was overweight and I was disqualified. I went into a corner and started quietly weeping. Greyson Strang’s dad saw me and came over and he managed to carve out enough of the lead for me to qualify.

I proceeded to win every heat and the entire derby that night at Glenwood Elementary School in 1961. I was embarrassed. I also probably would have won the best looking car, but it was clear to everyone that I hadn’t done the work.

My dad was late picking me, everyone else was long gone by the time he arrived. How did you do? he asked. I told him that he had won the Derby, the car was number 1. Nothing more was said on the long ride home.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

As the rain fell on the thirsty earth last week a wondrous marvel occurred. Delicious smells emanated, then enveloped and delighted my nose. And if you were lucky enough to be near, but not too near, lightning strikes, you could also smell the ozone created by the powerful electrical energy discharge.

Smell is our most primitive sense. It dwells in the reptilian stem or limbic part of the brain. The same place where lust, flight, aggression, and memory dwell. Odors are not processed by the higher functions of the brain and unlike all the other senses, smell is wired directly to the limbic system, it bypasses our more evolved, thinking brain. That is one reason it is so difficult for us to assign words to odors and the reason that smell is so evocative of memory.

It always rains a couple of time in August and September and these rains are usually associated with hurricanes. Last week Hurricane Linda spawned air masses that came up from the south off Baja California bringing warm, moisture-laden clouds. Another uncommon phenomenon associated with these hurricanes in the San Francisoco Bay Area is lightening. We generally only have three or four lightning days per year along the coast — that’s all. The mixture of warm air and cold air helps to create the enormous electrical potential for lightning. And as most of us know, only too well, we usually only have cool air masses meeting other cool air masses. This, of course, is due to the cold water of the Pacific Ocean here.

In 1964 two Australian researchers coined one of my favorite words – petrichor – for the scent of rain on dry earth. It comes from the Ancient Greek – petros for rock – and ichor – the blood of the gods in Greek mythology. I really enjoy the idea that we can smell the blood of the gods emerging from the earth after the first rain.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.


Michael Ellis

OK keep up with me now I only have 1 minute 55 seconds left. While out gazing at the stars the other night I noticed the characters in my favorite stellar soap opera were disappearing in the western sky. Queen Cassiopeia (seen as a distinctive W or M depending on the season) was married to King Cepheus. Well Queen Cassiopeia (a vain woman) bragged that she was prettier than the sea nymphs. Whoa this angered the sea nymphs who complained to the head guy. So Zeus sent a sea monster named Cetus (we get our term Cetacean for the whales from this mythical monster) to ravage the kingdom of Cassiopeia and Cepheus. Bummer. They checked with the Oracle at Delphi who said the only way to get rid of the monster was to sacrifice their daughter Andromeda to it. They thought about it for a while and said sure. Heh you can always get a new daughter but kingdoms that’s another story. So they chained her to a rock by the sea and waited.Meanwhile our hero tada Perseus just arrived on the scene looking for damsels in distress. Perseus had just finished slaying Medusa, the only mortal of three gorgans, women with serious hair problems. Those who looked upon Medusa were turned to stone, she was ugly. Anyway Perseus with a lot of help from his mentor, Athena managed to slay her by looking at the reflection in his highly polished brass shield. As the blood spurted out of her neck and splashed onto the ground (this is my favorite part of the story) Pegasus the winged horse sprang to life. Perseus grabbed Medusa’s Head and put it in a sack might come in handy some day and came to Andromeda. He slay the monster, rescued Andromeda and saved the Kingdom. So naturally he got to marry the girl. Well that night they had a big party. It was going well until Cassiopeia and Perseus got in an argument. Cassiopeia said there was no way Perseus was gonna marry Andromeda. He said Oh Yea? and pulled out Medusa’s head and stoned his future mother-in-law. And there she stills sits on her throne in the northern sky. There’s nothing new about Dallas, Dynasty or Falcon Crest we humans have been enthralled with the lives of the rich and famous for centuries.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Pepperwood Ranch

Michael Ellis

I was taking a group of children to one of my favorite places in Sonoma County and as I turned into the driveway I saw a “For Sale” sign. I was dumbfounded, this must be a mistake. Surely they wouldn’t, they couldn’t, sell this piece of property, no way.

Way. The California Academy of Science has decided to sell one on the most remarkable pieces of land in the Bay area, Pepperwood Ranch, to raise some money.

I love the Cal Academy, I have been a member for years. It is one of the premier attractions in the Bay area. The organization needs money, so what’s new? All organizations always need money. But sell Pepperwood???? As a columnist for the Examiner recently said “that is like selling the Mona Lisa to fix up the Louvre!”

Seventeen years ago Insurance Executive Kenneth Bechtel donated 3100 acres of wild, beautiful land to his charitable foundation, the Belvedere Scientific Fund. They in turn turned it over to the Academy. Kenneth Bechtel’s wish was, most importantly, was to preserve the land in its wild and natural state. He also wanted it to be used for educational and research purposes. It says exactly this in the recorded deed to the property. Those were his desires and it is what his wife and son have told me that they desire. With this sale, his wishes and theirs are being ignored.

Pepperwood has 9 distinct plant communities and more plants species that the entire British Isles! Thousands of people have participated in high quality educational programs run by the Academy. And this gem is within a one hour drive of San Francisco.

Now legally the Cal Academy has the right to sell. In an understandable oversight given the recipient of the property, the Belvedere Scientfic Fund only entrusted the Academy to protect the property for ten years.

Since the announced sale of Pepperwood the Academy has been besieged with negative publicity. They have now launched a public relations campaign to try to control the damage. In a letter to the Examiner the chairman of the Board wrote that the Academy was not putting Pepperwood on the market for development.

Well I’m not sure what their definition of development is but selling 300 prime acres to erect 3 multimillion dollar homes sounds a whole lot like development to me. Kenneth Bechtell wanted this property to be protected forever. It has become a very short forever.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

The Next Millennium

Michael Ellis

I lead nature trips and invariably someone always asks for my predictions of the future. It is pretty much of a no-brainer. The population of human beings will probably increase (unless there is some catastrophic event like a world plague, a meteor strike, or a nuclear war). More people results in continued habitat destruction therefore there will be continued loss of biological diversity. The world will become a poorer and poorer place in which to live and do nature outings.

Biological systems are incredibly adaptable and so far this wondrous living, breathing planet Earth has managed to accommodate our destructive tendencies. And I do believe it will continue to function on some level. Now that level may not be that interesting to biologists – there won’t be grizzly bears, falcons, or wildebeests — but there will be cultivated crops, starlings and wharf rats. And we will survive as a species.

To see the future go to China, Indian or Upper Volta. It is not a pretty sight but I am continually amazed at the abilities of humans to adapt to an ever-changing world. At the end of the last ice age there were maybe 15 million of us scattered across the continents. That’s the number of people just in Mexico City right now. We are simply a grand experiment between ice ages ? damned successful so far.

Now if my vision of the future is too depressing for you, let us take a longer view. Our solar system has been around for about five billion years and we have another five billion before the sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel and explodes into a red giant and blows the earth to kingdomcome. So everything is temporary anyway. It just depends on your definition of temporary. It is all going to end eventually.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.