Nature Blog Network Future Earth: 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

A Handel on Copenhagen

Last night, as the Copenhagen summit was struggling to conclude a deal on tackling climate change, my brother, son and I struggled through the icy streets of Cambridge to Kings College Chapel. Handel's Messiah reverberating around those majestic walls on a snowy winter's night is the closest approach to a religious experience for one whose religion is music.

But my thoughts were wandering, considering the stone masons for whom it must have been a life's work to chisel away the interior decor of vaulting colums to create the chapel in the 15th Century. Then, almost inevitably to the corridors of Copenhagen, and finding myself helplessly raging against the leaders of nations unable to subsume short-term perspectives for the longer term health of our shared planet. The words to Handel's masterpiece (penned by Charles Jennens in the 18th Century) started to assume a strange shape, with "Climate Change" replacing mention of the Deity ......

"But who may abide the day of (irreversible, man-made climate change) coming? and who shall stand when (climate change) appeareth? For (climate change) is like a refiner's fire.....

Darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people.....
(Climate change) will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land; and (climate change) will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come...

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way. And (climate change) hath laid on (itself) the iniquity of us all.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against (climate change), and against his anointed (the IPCC). Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped".

So, nothing new under the increasingly warming sun, then. Up to us now. Can we persuade our leaders to develop and enforce binding targets? Or will it end in tears and warfare? Will there be people listening to Handel in the Kings College chapel next Century? It might at least be a last refuge from the heat... those high ceilings and thick stone walls are as literally chilling to the body as the thought of "no deal" is to the mind.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The frog prince... from a croak to a chorus.

As a young Cambridge graduate, HRH the Prince of Wales was mocked for talking to plants. Well 'listen up' folks... now beleagured tropical forests are talking to him and they picked the right person. Not only does he know his stuff about organic agriculture, but he has shown real leadership in tackling the rapid deforestation of the planet.

Without political inference or interference, just using his power to convene within both private and public sectors, the prince has set in place a process that provides a viable way of slowing rainforest loss while the world struggles to establish multi-lateral mechanisms and markets for the longer-term. A gathering at St. James Palace today also showcased partnerships that are testing the mechanisms of direct payment for proven results (combined with building capability for "REDD"). Presidents of rainforest nations mingled with world bank boffins, captains of industry and NGOs both global and local, and our own Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change. Some of my takeaway points:

President Bongo of Gabon talked about the "common good" represented by remaining rainforests, but suggested that some of the wealth of developed countries could be similarly regarded as "common good" and used to help the developing countries protect forests. Fair point.

All we need to stem the tide of rainforest destruction is 18-25 billion Euro over 5 years, well deployed. Less than bonus pots available to some giants of the finance sector. This would prevent 7 gt of emissions and turn the global emmisions graph from its rising trajectory back towards less damaging levels.

The window to decide to act is becoming smaller and coming closer. Explorer Pen Halow described the scary results of the Catlin Arctic Survey announced last month. Its thinner than we think and the potential loss of the world's arctic airconditioning system throws into even sharper focus the need to protect our tropical band of climate moderating rainforest.

So how do we come up with these funds? Well, Norway is ahead of us there - already supporting the Amazon Fund and a deal with the Government of Guyana to help them become a low carbon economy. We might need a few more women involved (HRH's gathering had heads of state, chiefs representing indigenous peoples & a diversity of skills on offer but no women speakers and only a few flickers of colourful clothing amongst the black crow suits....!) We might need to highlight biodiversity ... which just seems to be an underlying assumption, following seemlessly from conserved forests, but this is not entirely the case.

Most especially, we need a real deal from the leaders gathering shortly in Copenhagen. We need agreement and action. Amidst all the hurdles of targets and timetables, it could just possibly be that this "interim financing instrument" starts to look enticing and tempting as an offering to rally around. The croaking frog has sounded the alarm and orchestrated a compelling chorus of voices to that end.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The deal with dogs

Emerging into the world this week, this hour-old beagle pup is destined to be a loved family pet. As such, she will be part of a mutually-beneficial relationship with her human family - reducing their stress levels and improving their health (see 'Dogs are good for you', elsewhere on this blog).

As she was born, an article in the New Scientist reported on calculations that average sized-dogs have a larger "footprint" on the earth's resources than most cars. While debatable, that would rather pose a dilemma for those of us enjoying the health benefits of canine companions, while also trying to be eco-friendly and care for the planet. Time to eat the dog then? Possibly so according to Robert and Brenda Vale who did the calculations, although they do include the question mark in the title of their Guide to Sustainable Living.

Eating dog meat is a tradition in several parts of the world, either for the various properties ascribed to it, or as an emergency food, as some polar explorers attest. Occasionally the dogs have their revenge, as eating the liver of sled dogs produces the condition Hypervitaminoisis and the explorer Mertz died from this in 1913. With such a widespread practice what, apart from avoiding the liver, is the problem?

Well, its just not part of the deal. The canine-human relationship has grown up around a variety of needs based on the dog's abilities to sniff out trouble or point out game. In much of the world there is now legislation prohibiting the eating of companion & working dogs, even in Korea and parts of China.

Too late for this one in Vietnam, however. And how long will our ethics within this trusting deal survive if things get really sticky?

(P.S. Predatory cats however are a whole 'nother issue, and I'll return to that when I've plucked up the courage)

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Board(s should) walk

Why a photo of a snail on the edge of a precipice? It is a corporate snail, moving exceeding slow, looking out over the precipice and seeing nothing. It has just ventured out from a bed of lettuce and has no idea that life is not all about readily available greenery.

I spent Blog Action Day talking to a Corporate Board about biodiversity, the environment, climate change and why they are relevant to their business. The Group is a household name in the extractive sector. They have taken an interest in these critical issues, have a thoughtful Chief Executive, dynamic senior managers and some knowledgeable staff, so why my state of frustrated depression?

Seems to me that, given the speed of change on our planet, too many Board appointments are already behind the times, their experience increasingly irrelevant. Even if they do make attempts to diversify the skills available to them, new voices can falter amidst the pompous, patronising pontificating of increasingly antiquated corporate arrogance. Problem is that Boards nurture their own nests..... like the UN, they become less and less likely to rattle the branches that sustain them. They regenerate themselves, like with like. If they move out, it is onto another Board in the city.

Companies need to wake up to this if we are to tackle the ecological and economic challenges facing us now. If you are a shareholder, take a good look at the Board and ask questions. If you are a staff member consider what channels you have to propose new skills that Boards might not know they need. And if you are someone who might diversify a Board's perspective - make it known! Change the corporate climate and contribute to the challenge of climate change.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

We've stuffed up

National Poetry Day UK - many thanks to Jilly Mcnaughton for this guest post:

We've stuffed up

We've chopped down all our trees

and burnt up all our coal

Our precious green wild spaces

Have lost their heart and soul

We drive around in cars

As if it doesn't matter

As our ecosystems wither

And our climate lies in tatters

So well you might ask "who are you?"

To give advice on REDD

When to this world of doubt and fear

You have the whole world led

"Who are YOU to tell US

What our lands are worth

Or the value of the carbon stores

That lie beneath our earth?

"You want the best of both worlds

As your carbon footprint shows

So you can keep your eco-pocracy

And save your climate woes"

But what we haven't told you

What you might not quite yet see

Is that we want to help you not repeat

The same mistakes as we

What our climate talks don't get across

What our leaders dare not say

Is that we've stuffed up! Desperate! guilty!

And need you to lead the way...

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Passing the baton in the human race

Over four million years ago our ancestral "Ardi" walked (yes, walked) around in what is now Ethiopia.

Over three million years ago "Lucy" died a short distance further south.

About 20,000 years ago, further down the Rift, on the western side in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the "Ishango bone" was being used and marked by early hominids, teasing their decendents trying to interpret this early maths.

In the late 1980s, Greg Laden was tackling postgraduate research in Archaeology and Biological Anthropology in the Semiliki region of Eastern DRC. At the same time a 5 year old was running wild in this same region, where his family were working with chimps and gorillas.

The early gasps of the 21st Century took Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute as a guest lecturer to Cambridge University, scanning the horizon for our changing planet. One of his recommendations was that we needed more under 25s in positions of decision-making as the rest of us were managing to ignore the impending crises of climate, agriculture, energy, food security and population.

Today a group of under 25s gathered in the leafy surrounds of Imperial College's Silwood Park as Masters candidates, about to commit themselves to Biodiversity & Conservation Science, Evolutionary Biology, Population and Community Ecology, Environmental Technology and more. How many of them can be persuaded out of the forests and labs, into the corridors of power? At the very least, can they be sure to communicate and inform, not only by peer-reviewed science, but also by translating it to the voting public?

One of the new postgraduates was that wild child in eastern Zaire. He and top science blogger Greg Laden are now linked by the twittering blogosphere that is spreading general knowledge on evolutionary science in all its infinite variety. I have a sense of baton passing, and renewed hope that the current crop of conservation biologists will run that extra mile. Frustration though that the last crop did not manage to stop the finishing line being brought forward and the track being made into an obstacle course.

Monday, 21 September 2009

tck tck tck tck tck tck tck tck.....

Global wake up call
on climate change. So little time and so much to lose if the countries at the climate talks in Copenhagen this December miss the opportunity to take decisive action. The ticking clock (we are at 'one minute to midnight') is waking up people around the world and especially leaders who will be making decisions on a post-Kyoto framework.

Today there are at least 2,400 events taking place on 5 continents to raise awareness. They range from the diminutive nun with a yellow tambourine at Cambridge's marketplace "flash mob" (unable to get through to Gordon Brown on the phone) to the masked man on an Australian beach giving Kevin Rudd a wake-up call. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock...
(Check twitter @tcktcktck for updates).

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Taking the Cake - a Test Match Special

If neither a fan of cricket nor social networking, skip this one (please return later for a post on land use, flowers and sacrifice).

Ah - still with me then? Enjoy the sound of leather on willow (world except China, Americas and continental Europe) or the chorus of twittering tweets (U.S. and Australia) or both (U.K and Australia)?

What a delight to listen to Stephen Fry talking with Jonathan Agnew at tea on Test Match Special today and presenting this cake to the commentary team. The picture on the left was taken at Fauna & Flora International, for whom Stephen Fry has taken on an ambassadorial role. The picture on the right was taken by Stephen with his i-phone and posted on twitter - within minutes upwards of 10,000 people had seen and commented on it and for some of these FFI's work will stay on their radar. Stephen described twitter as a fascinating communication medium - one that doesn't gum up like other channels. Falling leaves in a forest .... occasionally one catches your eye and you pick it out of the ether, examine it and comment.

My excuse for posting this on Future Earth is a muse about how long cricket will last in centuries to come. The first international tour was supposed to be in France in 1789 but was cancelled due to the French Revolution. Will the last one be in this Century - cancelled by lack of fuel to fly or water to moisten the pitch? Meanwhile, today's competition (prize a slice of fry's fruit cake delight):

* For cricketers - "what does 5-50-20/20 make"?

* For social networkers - "what is the rationale for the 2 numbers under the batsmen's names on the cake above?"

Monday, 27 July 2009

Entangled bank - wildflowers rule, UK.

An "entangled bank" in Kent stimulted Darwin's thoughts on survival of the fittest. This Sussex bank, snapped at Glyndebourne during the UK's 2 days of summer this year, has been set aside for wildflowers within a formal cultivated garden, and what a feast of diversity is there.

With the UK's 'set aside' programme biting the dust in 2007, and farmers no longer compensated for keeping land out of production, Defra has been consulting this year on how to retain the environmental benefits gained. They are favouring a voluntary rather than legislated approach through "A Campaign for the Farmed Environment’", encouraging the farming industry to promote environmental stewardship within its own parameters for good practice.

Good practice for wildflowers is not restricted to agricultual land, however. "Landlife" focuses on urban & urban fringe areas as well - providing seeds of hope perhaps for the cities of the future. Those cities will be exerting their own pressures on diminishing agricultural land though, and as the demand for global food security forces greater production pressures on our reserves of agricultural land, what will keep farmers on the side of biodiversity?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Condoms for footballers - yes, they can!

Football has become a common language as well as a tradeable currency. In Banda Aceh recently I was astonished to see a huge billboard with Stephen Gerrard's face writ large - a role model for high standard Premiership football, now sadly tarnished as brawling Gerrard's face sprawls across the tabloids instead. Then amidst acres of Miombo woodland in remote northern Mozambique we came across a villager peddling an ancient bicycle and a team shirt that provided common ground for a long conversation.

It also provided inspiration for a project* that resulted in 100 "Alive & Kicking" locally-made leather footballs being delivered to the enthusiastic Peles-in-the-making in villages around Niassa Reserve. These young guys were bundling up plastic bags and tying them with local twine into ball shapes. If they had had access to condoms, they could have improved on this model themselves. African ingenuity is using blown-up condoms as the basis for bounceable balls - covering them in plastic and old clothing for strength. I suppose by preventing their use for the purpose intended (and setting aside serious considerations of poverty, aids, climate etc for a moment), they are also ensuring a continuing supply of African football talent in years to come!

* A collaboration between Martin Aveling, Alive & Kicking, Sociedade de Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa (SRN), Keith and Colleen Begg, Fauna & Flora International & Fauna & Flora International Inc.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Biodiversity - what's in a name?

It seems so obvious to me. Diversity is good - healthier, stronger, allowing for rapid adaptation to new environments in an endlessly changing world. And the word 'diversity' is well understood, right? Certainly understood in relation to diversity amongst people - different cultures, genders, orientations and nationalities. It even has its own school of "diversity management" aimed at encouraging business and educational structures to retain a healthy diversity of skills and talents. Google the word and you will find it is the name of the dance troupe winning "Britain's Got Talent" this year, so the word has even percolated into the clubs and pubs of every corner of this small island. Britain gets Diversity.

So what happens when you add a descriptor - genetic diversity, cultural diversity - still understood. So what is the problem with biological diversity, or its shortened form of biodiversity? Nothing, according to the local team working to protect Aceh's forest biodiversity - even though it is a little bit difficult to translate (Keanekaragaman hayati or biodiversitas?). Nothing, according to groups like Local Action for Biodiversity, or the children celebrating International Biodiversity Day this year. It even has its own Convention. But apparently the word has a low recognition factor in the UK and we are being encouraged to use "Nature" instead. Naturally, if this will help reverse the dramatic decline in global biodiversity - which, according to a recent letter to the journal Nature *, we are not doing too well - this blog will change its nature and lexicon.

*(Published online 8 July 2009 | Nature 460, 163 (2009) | doi:10.1038/460163c)Governments fail to reduce global biodiversity decline)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Bacon chocolate (yes, read on)

What the world has been waiting for - delicious bacon and delicious chocolate in one easy bite. Well, half the world, anyway. And guess what - made in America. Vosges stress their green credentials but make no mention of palm oil, so I await their clarification before making a recommendation.

Meanwhile, how do they fare on the good taste test? On the taste buds themselves, not quite "nul points" as the chocolate is good. But even our beagle, who refutes that chocolate is poisonous to dogs (and as customs officials know, any beagle can sniff out a micron of food in a 747 at several paces) turned her nose up at this one. Fails the metaphorical "good taste" test too - does the world need to add fatty, calorific, methane-producing pork to ethically-produced chocolate? Food insecurity at its most dire?

But then, how deep is my green? Perhaps more research is needed and I suspect it will entail my tasting all the Vosges products to develop a more informed opinion.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Charles Darwin's (very own) Rose

Last year I bought three "Charles Darwin" roses & planted them hopefully in pots ready for this year's celebrations. Over the damp winter months they developed a virus; one died, but the fittest responded to TLC. Slender and delicate against the robust disease-resistant hybrids beside them, as summer took hold one presented a hopeful bud. Then, on the first day of the Cambridge Darwin Festival, this beautiful bloom emerged. Guess what? It has a broad, substantive head with overlapping layers of petals reminiscent of the crumpled, yellowing tissue in collecting boxes.

I will dedicate each bloom in this Darwin party year, and this one is of course for the man himself. You can follow his posts from The Beagle on twitter @cdarwin (and from his party people at the Festival on #DarwinFest). Anyone you would like to nominate for the next bloom?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A glove of novelists?

You might expect your scientific mind to be stretched at Cambridge's Darwin Festival, but conversations at the Corn Exchange the other night stimulated the soul. (O.K., O.K, "soul" not proven concept - please accept as a metaphor). A veritable soul-fest, in fact. A.S. Byatt & Ian McEwan, introduced by writers and interviewed by writers, all united in admiration for the intellectual curiousity of Charles Darwin.

Collective noun for novelists? A stimulation of novelists? An interpretation of novelists? No - I'm settling on "glove". Abiding memory of the evening was A.S. Byatt wiggling her fingers in an imaginary glove inhabiting an imaginary character.... and smiling as she toyed with where it might take them. She insisted it was not puppetry, as did McEwan who described inhabiting his characters and looking around at what they might see, how they might affect others in the vicinity. Seeking insights into the influence of Darwin on their writing, the interviewers came up short - A.S. Byatt was persuaded back into a childhood fascination for the natural world and Norse myths. McEwan pondered on life, not as fate, but as a rolling series of coincidences and crossroads (including voyeristic window into the McE extended family re. different consequences for his wife and sister of the 11 plus exam) .

Apart from commenting that neither novelist would be enjoyed by Darwin (whose taste was restricted to the light relief of pretty heroines and happy endings) both were more easily persuaded to talk about current projects. A.S. Byatt is playing with surrealism and psycho-analysis as fertile ground for contrasting characters (and also still thinking of writing her own "Norse" myth). McEwan has a physically unattractive 1980s Oxbridge scientist using intellectual brilliance to increase his relationship "fitness" and allowing him to play with the struggle that artists and moralists have with fate v. chance and "grandeur in this view of life".

Hey, we know what they are writing this summer!

AS Byatt (DBE, novelist; author of Angels and Insects and Possession) in conversation with Professor Gillian Beer (DBE, University of Cambridge, UK author of Darwin’s Plots).

Ian McEwan (novelist; author of Saturday, Enduring Love and Atonement) in conversation with Professor David Amigoni (Keele University, UK, and author of Colonies, Cults and Evolution).

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Global Allotments

Between the White Nile on the left of this image and the smaller Blue Nile on the right, irrigated agriculture spreads across the Sudanese Sahara.
Today it may be for cotton fibre, tomorrow it will likely be biofuels, the day after tomorrow it will be for food.

But not necessarily for Sudan, or even for Africa, despite the impoverishment of people and patchiness of food supply across the continent. Huge areas of agricultural land are being "secured" in advance for wealthier nations or those betting on future value as food insecurity starts to bite. Hard to swallow?

Various reports are documenting this land grab and the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates between US$20 billion and US$30 billion are being spent yearly by rich countries on agricultural land in developing countries. John Vidal in yesterday's Guardian quotes Devinder Sharma, analyst with the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in India, predicting civil unrest:

"Outsourcing food production will ensure food security for investing countries but would leave behind a trail of hunger, starvation and food scarcities for local populations," he said. "The environmental tab of highly intensive farming – devastated soils, dry aquifer, and ruined ecology from chemical infestation – will be left for the host country to pick up."

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Lyre, Lyre

Only click through to this youtube snippet if you have watched and marvelled at "Life of Birds". It is a reminder that someone, somewhere, can always improve on the original - even when the original is the amazing Australian lyre bird echoing its own demise, and the delightful Sir David Attenborough.

Now lets see if we can apply as much creativity to saving the Australian lyre bird as the clever digital manipulators have applied to this clip.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Beijing June

Ahhh, now we see why industries in and around Beijing were shut down for three months before the Olympics - but Beijingites can't see very far. The haziness in this pic is nothing to do with the state of intoxication of the photographer (who can be followed on twitter @wisebartender) .

This morning in Beijing - we have been warned.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Crickets lovely Crickets

Taste buds tired of potato crisps or carrot sticks? Try roasted crickets or deep fried spiders - possibly a more sustainable snack on our land-strapped planet. (For recipes click through from "Biting on Bugs")

From an ancient Chinese culture that has traditionally eaten anything that moves it is encouraging to see from Jonathan Watts some signs of a home-grown NGO movement emerging to challenge the decimation of endangered wildlife in the cooking pots of the country:

"The nascent NGO conservation movement is stepping in where the authorities have had limited success by monitoring markets and restaurants, reporting sales of endangered species and trying to change the consumer culture. Among the youngest of several small groups is the Asian Turtle Rehabilitation Project, established earlier this year to save the reptiles from the soup pot. The founding members say they are trying to cross the divide between the culture in which they were raised and the global conservation concerns they have been exposed to via the internet and schooling".

Hopefully not too late for tasty, tortured, troubled turtles and their ilk.

(Photo above copyright Dr. Stephen Browne, with permission

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Michael Crichton - wish you were here.

The last episode of ER airing in UK this week brings to mind its creator Michael Crichton, who died early and unexpectedly late last year and - surprisingly perhaps - I want to recognise him as a conservation leader. I can hear the howls of electronic protest. In the latter years of his life, Crichton stirred up a hornet's nest with vocal challenges to what he saw as flawed science - see some of the reactions to his life and work on Science Blogs immediately after his death from cancer. But Crichton's success as a writer came from a thorough understanding of scientific process, combined with an ability to challenge preconception and an intuitive take on human behaviour. He listened , explored, observed - then projected ideas forwards or backwards in time, and drew us in to his speculation about what might change and how we might react.

My personal recollection of Michael Crichton derives from his exploration of the fringes of medical science as documented in "Travels". He was travelling to overcome writers block and it seemed to work as a host of bestsellers followed. One was "Congo", but his encounter with mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcanoes was 180 degrees away from the paddle-swinging grey gorillas of that book and subsequent film. We found them high up above Lake Ngezi, amidst the luxuriant greenery covering the slopes of Visoke volcano. The group was resting, belching, peering at the 6' 9" charmer in their midst, who sank down automatically to their level. He was fascinated, trying out the vocalisations, spotting the different characters, drinking in the moment. He didn't forget either. Some years later, when gorillas were surrounded by war and disturbance, he pitched in behind the IGCP in Virunga and the gorilla organisation at Tshiaberimu.

I find myself wanting to know how he would have reacted as the evidence mounts for what we are doing to our planet and what future scenarios we might anticipate or prepare for. I would have liked him to write a guest post for Future Earth, and wish he was here to ask.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Douglas, Darwin and Doubt.

What did Charles Darwin and Douglas Adams share, apart from bushy eyebrows and endless foreheads? Doubt. Questing, relentless minds, restless, voyaging natures, and legacies for humankind from their struggles for meaningful existence.

Today, May 25th, is "Towel Day" in annual memory of Douglas Adams (a towel was his recommended 'must have' for a Hitchhiker travelling the Galaxy). Douglas hit something in the global psyche with his Hitchhiker's guide, but it is for his travels closer to home that I remember him. When writing "Last Chance to See" with Mark Carwardine, Monsieur Adams bumped in to Zaire (as was) on a plane full of missionaries, whose niceness made him "want to bite them", and who were discussing their rhino horn or ivory trophies. Douglas was affected by his time with Mountain Gorillas and continued to support their conservation:

"I watched the gorilla's eyes again, wise and knowing eyes, and wondered about this business of trying to teach apes language. Our language. Why? there are many members of our own species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don't listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape could tell us?"

It was indeed Adams' Last Chance to See, but Mark Carwardine teamed up with Adams' friend Stephen Fry to give the rest of us (and celluloid posterity) a second chance (where they could find it) later this year - stay tuned and hitch up that towel for Mr. Adams today.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Ruth Padel

Ruth Padel has been elected as Oxford University's Professor of Poetry (emerging as the fittest candidate in a trial of life typical of Oxbridge intrigues, perfected over 800 years of Don-dom). Darwin's great great grandaughter has also recently published "Darwin - a life in poems" to critical acclaim by the Guardian, from whom it can be purchased. Professor Padel has pledged to bring poetry and science closer together and use her profile to help protect the environment.

Here's an example of her work - from "The Soho Leopard", published by Chatto & Windus, London, 2004:

The Forest, The Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup

How can I paint Winter Landscape with Temples
and Travellers, or Five-Colour Parakeet

on Blossoming Apricot Tree?

The oracle boxes are empty

and the Minister with a Brief for Charming Explanation
has signed a licence (to the army) for the forest to be cut,

ordered satin linings to his red kimono
and is drinking with the General

in what he says is the best restaurant in town,
attended by two fifteen-year old girls:

handpicked, translucent brown jade.
Black tree stumps cool on the mountain,

sawmills slide out planks a hundred an hour
and white ash blooms over the river

while the courtier treats the General
to tiger-penis soup, five hundred linu a bowl.

I'll paint the bare burnt mamillated plain,
Flame of the Forest in its white and scarlet,

jack fruits and jacaranda, the stag in the sky
and the naming of stars, the three definitions of twilight

in Yunnan province where white-handed gibbons
used to sing their love duets.

I'll paint the truth of illusion, a glossary
of atmospheric optics,

and Guanyin, Guardian of Compassion;
I'll pay particular attention to her smile.

Update 25 May - Padel resigns (shame).

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is the earth moving?

A tremor of concern and excitment shimmied along my spine with the prospect of an imminent erruption where my heart still lies in eastern DRC. This is not the Heart of Darkness for me - it is the land of bubbling friendship, glistening turquoise lakes and staggering sunsets. The area around and between the romantically-sounding Nyamulagira and Nyiragongo volcanoes sees a breakthrough erruption every few years. Nyiragongo is like an upturned bucket full of a particularly fluid melt - when it breaks through the bucket empties rapidly and previous erruptions have devastated the lakeside town of Goma.

Signs of pending erruption? Of course the wildlife on the flanks of the volcano picks up the early warnings and starts to move - but with this fast-flowing lava, not quite early enough to act as the miners' canary. There are chimps in the forested older lava aroud Tongo (separated from the mountain gorillas across the road in the older, dormant Virunga volcano range straddling the borders between Rwanda, DRC and Uganda). There are local stories of chimps screaming and rushing for safety before previous erruptions. And what do the humans do? Those with knowledge and limited options sensibly prepare for flight. Those competing for the Darwin award pack a tent and prepare to hike up to see the erruption at close quarters.

"My" erruption happened around my birthday and was a memorable treat. The hike up to near the venting summit was exhausting and we pitched our tents on unforgiving old lava, but when little blobs of the molten stuff started burning holes in the canvas during the night we somehow found the energy to move. We were not alone - and with other happy, foolish, volcanic voyeurs
we gathered together to search - fruitlessly - for the couple that had disappeared as aerial detritus descended on the area destroying vegetation and building up a lethal substrate. They emerged from the forest 2 days later, miles away, dehydrated and facing a search/recovery bill. The sights however were staggering and the earth certainly moved for me - the colours, the force, the uncontrollable beauty. But when my boots started to melt I turned tail for Goma and a dip in lake Kivu.

So how imminent is imminent? An image of the monitoring station outside my house on the road out of Goma comes to mind. A monitoring station posing as a decaying behive surrounded by a hopeful fence that was regularly raided by local impoverished opportunists for the wire of which it was constructed. Fairly regularly its keeper would wobble up the lava road on his Japanese-funded bicycle and change the paper on the seisomograph, carrying the precious recordings back for careful analysis in mission control. Mission control had a dusty desk, an open bottle of Fanta, a kettle in the corner with a circular net carefully placed over the open tin of condensed milk sustaining the recorder and occasional visitors. Presumably the 2009 equivalent is digital and streamlined - someone please send me an update. Meanwhile, I leave you with this (accurate!) gem:

"The eruption could be tomorrow, or the day after — or at any other time," said Dieudonne Wafula, the head of Goma's Volcanological Observatory.

So, watch and wait then.