Bay Nature magazineFall 2022

Ask the Naturalist

Michael Ellis Says Farewell With A Squawk, a Snort and a Whistle

October 10, 2022
Michael Ellis says farewell, but is always reachable at footlooseforays.com. (Photo courtesy of Michael Ellis)

So, what is the deal with that so-called swan song and where does that expression come from anyway?—Michael, in Santa Rosa

Good question, Michael! I always wondered that as well. There is a belief rooted in ancient Greek culture that swans are silent for most of their life until right before they die and then give a final vocalization. To quote my good friend Wiki, “The swan song is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement.” One species of swan native to Eurasia is even called the mute swan, which is inaccurate because they do vocalize. But it’s not pretty; they whistle, growl, snort, and squawk.

In 1998 or so I was leading a trip out to the Farallon Islands and about halfway out a friend on that trip approached me with a question. He was thinking of starting a magazine dedicated to the natural history of the greater San Francisco Bay Area. What did I think of that idea? Well, the California Academy of Sciences had a beautiful magazine for years, Pacific Discovery, later called California Wild, that was full of delightful natural history articles, although not just about the Bay Area. But that magazine was struggling. I told my buddy that I had serious doubts that a new magazine would ever succeed in the current publishing climate. Fortunately, David Loeb ignored my advice and with the support of Malcolm Margolin started Bay Nature magazine.

I have written this column, Ask the Naturalist, for every issue beginning with the first in January 2001. It has been such a pleasure to work with the various magazine folks who have come and gone since I started. Which is actually nearly everyone on the magazine! I think John Muir Laws and I are the only contributors left from the original staff. Accolades to these fantastic folks—David Loeb, Dan Rademacher, Eric Simons, Victoria Schlesinger, and Regina Starr Ridley, who together have made the magazine so successful. 

Oh, and by the way, I’m not dying. In fact, I’m super healthy for a 71-year-old—mountain biking, Hula-Hooping, and grandfathering keep me pretty fit. We’re just making room for other writers at the magazine. I’m continuing Footloose Forays, the one-person touring company I started in 1977. After traveling around the world, bringing more than 1,000 people (yes, I counted once) with me over the years, I’m slowing down a bit, but will keep leading tours in Brazil and Tanzania. 

I have relished researching and answering the questions that you all have sent in through the years. Confession—we made up a few of them. It is essential for people to understand the basic science of our complicated world and Bay Nature does a fine job in that arena. But I also believe that it’s equally important to revel and find joy in the natural world apart from the academics. We really don’t need to know the name and workings of every single thing. Many of us, actually all of us, need a connection to the wild (or at least semi-wild) for our emotional and spiritual well-being. I sure do, but equally important, we need community. And Bay Nature has created a widespread congregation of nature nerds. Can I get an Amen? I am so thankful and full of gratitude to have been part of your lives for two decades. Finally, I trust my levity, informal tone, and “smartassness” have enhanced your reading pleasure and made your world a tiny bit easier. 

So I say, adieu—with a squawk, snort, and whistle.

About the Author

Send your questions to atn@baynature.org.Santa Rosa-based naturalist Michael Ellis leads nature trips throughout the world with Footloose Forays (footlooseforays.com).

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