New York

New York
Michael Ellis

I am blessed in many ways in my life but one of the greatest is by my profession, I make a living taking folks on natural history excursions to wonderful spots on the planet, the Amazon, Africa, Antarctica. I go snorkeling, birding, river rafting, whale watching. So I am invariably asked “If this is your work, what the heck do you do for recreation??” Well I must confess that I love to vacation in New York City.

I revel in the contrast to the rest of my life. I get so energized when I am in that crush of humanity, that malestorm of trade and commerce. The home of the extreme, extremes. Believe it or not the Big Apple reminds me of the Amazon Basin. The tropical rainforests are the richest biological places on earth. I can walk the same trail over and over and see a different assemblage of birds, insects and mammals every time. The entire Amazon world is buzzing with energy. At every level from the dense underground mycelia threads underpinning the entire forest floor to 200′ high up in the canopy layer, life is at full bore. Entire worlds live and die in one tree. The cacophony of insect sounds alone can drive some folks crazy. I happen to love it. The competition for resources is intense. If a plant or animal stays still in the Amazon for very long, it is soon overwhelmed, out competed and may go extinct. New York is a human-created mirror image of the Amazon. The underground subway system roots the buildings, connects, intertwines and delivers the human protoplasm, which are the vehicles of energy. Instead of sunlight driving the eco-system, there is money and lots of it. Goods and services are exchanged at a frantic rate.

You want it? Anything. New York has it. If you want to be tested, to compete, to thrive go to the City. To quote Sinatra, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Slow down, become weak, you are soon history. Entire worlds exist in the World Trade Center and in Harlem tenements. The diversity of life on the streets is astounding. Ah New York, Oh the Amazon I love you both.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Newts

NEWTS
Michael Ellis

A friend recently mumbled something indistinct to me about the depressing rain and a newt, a good-for-nothing slimy reptile. A first I thought my liberal friend was referring to the new Speaker of the House but then I realized she was talking about the real newts. Which are actually amphibians, neither reptiles nor Republicans.

I like this kind of newt and our wet weather has created newt heaven. These gentle animals are now out in force and looking for love.

We have two common species, the California and the Rough-skinned Newt. Both have backs that are deep red-brown, almost black and an underside which is pale yellow to startling orange. This brightness advertises that newt skin contains a very powerful poison called tetradodoxin. This is same poison found in the infamous puffer fish. And small amounts can kill a horse. So please kids, no newt licking for kicks this winter.

Males are easily distinguished from females. The feet of the males are roughened which enables them to grasp the slippery female during mating. Another indication of maleness is if the area between the rear legs, the vent, is swollen. This swelling is caused by the presence of a package of sperm.

Amphibians have failed to sever their ties with water, like reptiles and mammals have, these winter rains allow them to cruise far from home looking for mates. They have an elaborate, courtship that involves much clasping, piggyback riding and the male has a special gland under his chin that inhibits female movement. The act culminates with the male walking over the top of the female and depositing his package of sperm right in front of her nose. She promptly walks over and picks it up with her vent. She stores the sperm and uses it later to fertilize her eggs when she lays them in a stream or pond.

A couple of years ago in Berkeley’s Tilden Park they actually closed a road due to the large number of newts that were getting run over by cars. Somehow I doubt if those Berkeleyites would offer the same protection to the new Newt that’s now in the news. After all what business does government have providing a safety net for its citizens.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Mushrooms

MUSHROOMS
Michael Ellis

“On moonlit nights the fairies come out and dance in the forest; where they dance in circles, mushrooms pop up. When the fairies rest they sit on mushrooms and these are the ones that are good to eat. Ahh, but toads also come out and they sit on mushrooms, these are poisonous ones– the toadstools.” At least this is how one folktale explains the mysterious appearance of mushrooms and toadstools.

There are over 700 species found along the Pacific Coast and they are beginning to pop up everywhere due to the October rains and the cooling, but not too cold, temperatures of fall.

There is something otherworldly and even a little magical about mushrooms. They seem to appear and disappear overnight. Even their names are fanciful– Witches Butter, Earthstars, Fairy Fingers, King Boletes, Black Elfin Saddles, but by far my favorite name (and I am not making this up) is Red-brown Butt Rot. Geez that sounds like some disease you could get in tropical New Guiane.

Mushrooms produce thousands of tiny spores, that are two different kinds (x and y to mycologists but male and female for the rest of us). The wind blows them great distances. A few manage to land in favorable places and begin to grow into tiny white thread-like roots, called hypha. These spread through soil or rotten logs feeding on dead plant or even animal matter.

When a x and an y hypha meet, they fuse and exchange genetic material, underground sex has occured. The hypha continues to grow into a mass called a mycelium. And up from the mycelium sprouts the part we call a mushroom. Picking these fruiting body is no more harmful than picking an apple is to the tree. The important part, the mycelium, remains intact, underground and ready to produce more mushrooms next year.

Mushrooms replenish the soil by converting dead organic matter into the raw materials that green plants need. Mushrooms restore life by taking from the dead; they are the ultimate recyclers.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Bureaucrats

Bureaucrats
Michael Ellis

I am a naturalist and my business is taking people on nature outings. I work for myself. In cooperation with the National Park Service I’ve been leading night hikes into Muir Woods for the past ten years. The staff there has appreciated my interpretive work and outreach in conducting a special program that they didn’t have the time or energy to do. My relationship with the Muir Woods staff has been very cordial, cooperative and informal.

In last couple of years the GGNRA business office has requested that I pay an annual operating fee of $100 for a commercial use permit. Anyone who makes money off the park has to have a permit, I understand this. However this fee is exactly the same for a tour bus operator bringing 20,000 people a year into the park and a little guy like me who conducts only a handful of programs. In order to get this permit I have to carry liability insurance of nearly one half million dollars. Whoa╔ well that’s expensive but I can also understand that requirement. So I paid the hundred bucks and the thousands for the insurance.

Recently I received a letter from the Park stating that in addition to the annual fee, I now need to pay a $25 fee for each hike. Again this fee is the exactly the same for a concert promoter in Crissy Field catering to thousands of people or me strolling through the forest sharing the wonders of nature with 15 folks. Gee, my impact seems at bit less. OK, to help the federal deficit I paid the $25. But the final straw was the Park service requiring me to pay overtime for a Park Ranger to be on duty.

Remember I have done these hikes for a decade without the need for a Ranger. Suddenly it’s necessary and the additional cost is $105. That fee was the nail in the coffin for my naturalist work in Muir Woods. Now keep in mind that the Superintendent can make exceptions in special cases to some of these fees. But I have been lumped in the same category as million dollar concessionaires like MCI or Gray Line Tours. The result is a three way loss, the Federal Government will now lose my permit fees, the public will no longer benefit from a very interesting natural history event, and I will be forced out of Muir Woods. All this because of individuals in a bureaucracy that can not distinguish between the intent of regulations and what best serves the public interest.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Mowing the Yard

MOWING THE YARD
Michael Ellis

OK it’s true confession time. I hope you all appreciate how difficult this is for an environmental, eco-hippie type like me to divulge but I really enjoy mowing my yard. Now I don’t water it so I only have to mow it in the spring. Oh there’s something so male in the activity a big, vibrating machine under my total control that is loud and destructive. I get to run over helpless plants and chop their heads off. And one of the best parts of this testosterone inspired behavior is that it’s socially acceptable.

My yard looks great and the neighbors are happy.And then there are the aesthetic pleasures of mowing, the feminine side if you will. The smell of newly cut grass instantly transports me back 30 years. It was what my father got to do rather than attend church, while my mom hauled us kids off every Sunday on those beautiful summer days. I’d still rather mow than pray.

As a kid I spent hundreds of hours pushing mowers around my neighborhood yards, lost in thought and contemplation. It was almost like a Zen Buddhist walking meditation practice. I was regularly able to achieve total mindfulness through the miracle of Briggs and Stratton. And when I successfully completed each yard, I got paid a material reward for a spiritual experience.And now many years later just the sound of a lawn mower quiets my mind. And as I mow along I get pleasure by witnessing the immediate fruits of my labor, a well-mown lawn. The feedback loop is short, I see the results.

Recently I learned that while the EPA has regulated emissions from automobiles and nuclear power plants they never got around to lawn mowers. Did you know that mowing for an hour creates the same amount of air pollution as driving 50 miles in your car? Now I really feel guilty that I enjoy mowing my yard so much. It like environmental pornography, the forbidden fruit of enjoyment. Hopefully in the next year or so lawn mowers will be fitted with catalytic converters and I can continue my spiritual practice mowing guilt-free.

With a Perspective this is Michael Ellis.