Nature Blog Network Future Earth: May 2009

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.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Australian Ants Rule!

I thought I was through with Ant Analogies for a while, but couldn't resist this axiom from the Antipodes -

Australia has more ant species than the entire northern hemisphere.

An international study of 1003 ant assemblages on five continents (hey - celebrate scientists cooperating!) suggests that this is due to the equable temperatures of the lower latitudes, whilst climate changes 53-54 million years ago, amongst other factors, dramatically reduced northern ant diversity.

150 years ago Darwin postulated that the greater diversity of life forms in the southern hemisphere was related to a more equable climate. Ants also thrive in drier climate conditions, so my Australian friends might be comforted to know that, as the Continent runs out of water, at least Australian ants will be O.K.

Could Bill Bailey's "Insect Nation" be proleptically prescient?

Darwin said nothing about more diverse and adaptable cricketers in the southern hemisphere but they seem to have exploited that niche as well.
(2) Future Earth is the 873rd blog to join the (bird heavy!) Nature Blog Network & is listed under the "Ecosystem" category. Be the first to visit & start Arjay's stats ticking. Please Let me know of any interesting blogs you find amongst the 872 others.

(3) Thanks again to Alex Wild for the Australian ant pic (Nothomyrmecia macrops).