Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

27 Jul 2011

In Defence

For the past four months, I have been working as an Intern at the Project African Wilderness (PAW) trust, in their Manchester office. Established to halt and reverse the decline of species and their habitats at Mwabvi Wildlife reserve in Southern Malawi, PAW believes that the optimum use of the environment, resources and indigenous wildlife can provide mutual benefit and protection to both the reserve and its surrounding communities. For more info, see their website.

In 2004 whilst touring Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, Gaynor Asquith, the director of a UK housing and regeneration company came to understand the dilemma facing the wild spaces across the continent of Africa. She decided to invest her spare time and efforts into setting up PAW, and ever since the charity has grown in size and strength, and as a result so have animal populations at the reserve. Working here however, has taught me that successful conservation is not the glamorous image presented in National Geographic, but instead requires pushing pens, managing people and pimping yourself to the rich.

Mwabvi has shrunk in size by two thirds since its conception in the 1953, as a result of a growing population surrounding the reserve coupled with an economy based on agriculture. Land infringement was joined by an increase in poaching on the ungulate populations, and government funds were rightly directed towards one of the poorest human populations in the world. By the end of the 20th century, the future of the reserve seemed bleak. However, the work of PAW and the Mwabvi Wildlife and Community Trust has turned the fortunes of the reserve around, with an increase in protection, and a series of planned wildlife reintroductions. This is highlighted by the selection of the reserve as the site of a Black Rhino sanctuary, and the translocation of a breeding pair is due sometime next year.

In order to achieve the admirable aim of increasing the Malawian wildlife metapopulations, and secure the reserve against an almost guaranteed increase in poaching attempts, MWCT intend to construct a game-proof fence along the reserve perimeter. The route has been agreed with local landowners, village elders and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, but the long term effects of fencing in wildlife (and fencing out people) require long term consideration. Whilst this tool is now regularly employed by managers of wild spaces, certain researchers argue that barriers will exacerbate the problem of habitat fragmentation and wildlife isolation (e.g. Boone & Hobbs 2004), one of the major drivers behind the current wave of species extinction. 

In the past, fences have led to disastrous crashes in wildlife populations. In Botswana during the 1980s, a series of cattle proof fences were built to attempt to counter the spread of foot and mouth disease from wildebeest to livestock. However, the fence cut across a dry season migration route, and herds of thousands of wildebeest were separated from their ancestral watering holes, eventually dying of thirst. Truncated migration routes may also lead to undesirable feedback effects on ecosystem functioning such as reduced rates of nutrient cycling, compositional changes to less palatable species and reduced grassland productivity. The encircled animal populations are unable to travel to new pastures, and so may overpopulate the area beyond its carrying capacity. In the long-term, a fence will trap a population so that it will be unable to shift with changes in climatic range as the planet shifts in temperature. Finally, surrounding populations are separated from resources which they may depend on.

And yet, reserve managers argue that we are faced with little alternative until human population growth and land management issues are tackled. We either keep these areas separated and protected, or allow them to be converted into further agricultural land. Some even go further, arguing that these fenced in areas can act like Noah's ark, to house nature until human mismanagement is tackled, and the sins of our past mistakes are washed away. PAW takes a different approach, by facilitating education, healthcare, and business development off the back of money and opportunities presented by ecotourism. Rather than remaining an island separate from the surrounding community, it becomes a central component. The reserve is now one of the largest employers in the region, and it is hoped will continue to attempt to address the tricky relationship of man and nature.

Man and the Moon

Magritte's Le Maître d’École
I recently read a fascinating article examining the occurrence of lion attacks on Tanzanian villagers. It turns out that humans are most vulnerable to lion attacks following a full moon. As the moon wanes to a slither and appears further and further after dusk, prides who would otherwise risk detection by their prey under well-lit conditions step up their hunts. But of more interest is the insight it provides in human attitudes towards the moon.

Long associated with irrationality, insanity and feared for its power in releasing our inner wild side, the comings and goings of the full moon also benefited early human populations by providing them with a measure of time. Aristotle claimed that like the changing tides, the satellite impacted on our metal capacity since it altered the balance of water content in the brain. Whilst this has been refuted, recent studies have also shown that schizophrenic patients experience declines in metal well being, and epileptic patients suffer a greater number of fits when the moon is at its fullest.The new findings in Tanzania help to explain the influence of the moon over global cultures, given that early hunter gatherers often coexisted with large predators such as lions in Africa, tigers in Asia and wolves in Europe.

Both spiritual and supernatural outlooks have long played a role in our attitudes to nature, from reverence to hatred. Scientific discovery can help to enlighten us with regards to certain aspects, but I would discourage those of the view that it is the only way to explore our relations with nature. After all, a superstitious view of the moon may have preserved many a life when scientific evidence was not available.

19 Jul 2011

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The third episode in a three part series, “The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey” is Adam Curtis’ take on the influence of genes in determining human behaviour. A great use of juxtaposed sound, image and ideas to communicate a message on our place in the natural world. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as Curtis in believing the extent to which genes control our actions, or his narrow historical perspective, I loved his collage-esque style of presentation. The programme also addresses themes raised by previous posts and issues which fascinated me a university (Congolese Independence in “The Poisonwood Bible”, the genetic theories of Price and Hamilton, and human fascination with the Great Apes).

Huggin up the Big Monkey Man

Enough of the art politics crap, as promised in my first post, here is a video of hilarious anthropomorphosised chimps. 

As usual, no one puts our fascination with the Great Apes better than David Attenborough, when during that memorable encounter with Rwandan Mountain Gorrilas he commented as follows: “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. We’re so similar. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell, are so similar to ours that we see the world in the same way as they do.” Along with the work of Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas this footage shattered the image of a ferocious beast, instead instilling in the hearts of all that of a gentle giant. Today, we recognise that apes represent the shortest distance in an evolutionary sense between us and the rest of the natural world.

As a result of this fascination, huge amounts of money are ploughed into Great Ape conservation and research by groups such as WWF and The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Research. The brutal fact that in general no one gives a shit about insects or amphibians means that this massive funding for apes can at least be pumped towards habitat protection. Save an orang-utan and you save a large tract of rainforest, in doing so preventing the destruction of thousands of other organisms. Organisations such as the Jane Goodall Foundation now recognise that in order to address the destruction of habitats, we must also address the root causes of poverty in those communities surrounding natural spaces.Whilst I am uncomfortable with stricken locals as an afterthought, this is the credible future direction for the preservation of natural habitats, through community based conservation. Save a Chimp, Save Yourself.

Tea with Jane Wildgoose

On a rainy midsummer’s day off from work I head to north London, where on the W7 bus from Finsbury Park to Crouch End Broadway I mull over what I have signed up to. I am heading to an appointment at the Wildgoose Memorial Library, described by the website as “an ongoing accumulation of reference material that informs Jane Wildgoose’s work as an artist and writer. It is a constantly evolving work in progress: a place for meditation and consultation on universal themes of life and death.” Now I am fairly new to this non-scientific approach to examining the natural world, but like me Jane has a strong interest in curiosities and taxidermy. So it is with this in mind that I opened the wooden gate, pushed my way through the curtain of ivy, climbed the cast iron stairs and knocked on the door. 

As soon as the door opened, I let out a mental sigh of relief at the sight of a taxidermy cat umbrella stand, and a Jose Guadalupe Posada on the wall. Jane ushered me into her home where she has lived since 1981 and into the “library”, before taking my coat and setting about preparing a pot of tea. I was left to examine the fascinating displays on the shelves and in the cabinets surrounding the room. Stuffed Crows and Humming birds, along with more obscure objects such as an armadillo handbag and two dried out puffer-fish were joined by a collection of skulls. Before I could get much of a closer look Jane arrived with the tea and we began to discuss her collection and her works. Jane began as a costume and textile designer, but her desire to reflect history and context when preparing a piece of work often led her on long periods of research, resulting in projects of enormous scope. 

One such project was an installation consisting of a cabinet of Zoological curiosities and artefacts for the Yale Centre for British Art. Here, Jane assembled a piece to represent a now scattered collection of objects gathered by the Duchess of Portland throughout the 1700s. In this piece, Jane worked with the staff and collections at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University to source a range of shells, corals, insects, and fossils, based on those described in over 4,000 lots in the catalogue of the Duchess's collections published to accompany their sale following her death in 1786. Over a long collaboration working closely with the collections at the Peabody, Jane invited Senior Collection Managers Eric Lazo-Wasem (Invertebrate Zoology), Ray Pupedis (Entomology) and Susan Butts (Invertebrate Paleontology) to arrange specimens in meticulous detail to demonstrate an "evolution" of methods for displaying specimens.

As such, the team present the exhibit in numerous ways, ranging from the decorative styles of the 18th century, to the methodological approach used in museums today based on the classification system of Linnaeus. Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturæ was the first scientific attempt to classify life on earth by arranging organisms according to their physiological appearance. Whilst advances in evolutionary theory and genetics have led to drastic changes, the scientific community continue to use it to classify all of life on earth, in particular when displaying items of natural history. His ideas were just emerging at the time of the Duchess's collection, and she even hired Linnaeus's favourite pupil, Daniel Solander, to catalogue her massive collection of shells.

Rather than attempting to create a carbon copy of the original collection, Jane's work re-interpreted the contexts in which natural history specimens have been collected and displayed: exploring the relationship of the Duchess with her great friend Mary Delany, the poems of Erasmus Darwin (whose grandson went on to shake up the world), and the arrangement of items of natural history. In doing so, Jane questions the superiority of scientific presentation, arguing that an artistic approach with equal weight in terms of contextual research can be just as powerful.
And here we came to the crux of my visit, when Jane reverted the questions to me. Why had I chosen to come and speak with her? For the first time, I asked myself the same question. “I am looking for a new way to engage society with their innate connection with nature. I believe that the current methods employed by many natural history museums and other institutions fail to galvanise activism with regards to the loss of biodiversity.” I went on to ask for her advice. How would she use say a stuffed Gorilla to communicate the true plight of the Great apes? She replied that I would have to answer this by myself before leading by example and with conviction. She then apologised for sounding patronising, but I was already deep in thought. 

After discussing other topics (such as why taxidermy is of such fascination given its macabre nature), I excused myself and Jane led me to the door. Back on the W7, I repeated the encounter on some scraps of paper, noting that the meeting with Jane and her fascinating collection had left me with more questions than I had arrived with, but also with a broad grin on my face.


As you read this, consider your surroundings. You will be facing a machine composed of silicone and metal, more often than not in a shelter of concrete, bricks and steel. You may be sat on a plastic chair, or reclined on polyester padding. But no doubt some of us will be leaning against, perching on, observing from an edifice of slow organic decay. What a contrast. Society can be impressively seperate from that which sustains us. Veins of craving permiate the modern household in the form of wood, even if reconstituted and rendered with glue. The enduring appeal of the texture and grain, the colour and stain harken to something beyond apperance despite cheaper more durable alternatives. This is biophilia encaptured and exposed, the intrinsic desire for a connection with nature. The innate link which we all feel could prove to be the solution to our conflicts of resource allocation within the natural world. As mentioned previously however, the unhindered harvest of our natural desires could also result in our downfall.

A ruin of wood and stone in Macclesfeild Forest

12 Jul 2011

A Meditation on Mastery

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbra Kingsolver describes the fate of an evangelical Baptist family who undertake a mission to the Belgian Congo during the late 1950s. It is my favourite novel, beautifully written, set during a tumultuous time, with fascinating characters and a poignant message. Time and time again, Kingsolver draws parallels between the failure of the missionaries to change local practice with the failure of humanity to dominate the eternal force of nature.

Soon after arriving in the Congo, Father Nathan Price and his daughter Leah attempt to cultivate the American staples of squash, pumpkin, and Alabama wonder bean, to illustrate the successes of western agriculture to the ‘natives’. One night, Mama Tataba, the hired help, piles mounds of soil over the newly sowed seeds. In a rage, Father Price hastily re-sows his seeds as before (in doing so injuring himself on the Bangala or Poisonwood Tree, forewarned by Mama Tataba). At first, the fertile soils spurs on the growth of the vegetables, much to the glee of Farther Price, who eulogises on the ways of the Lord which the native “tribes of Ham” are ignorant. And yet, “like a plague” the wet season rains arrive soon flooding the plot and wiping out the crops. It unfolds that the mounds built by Mama Tataba would have funnelled off the excess water and saved the seedlings.

The idea of Ownership and Mastery of nature is a concept crystallised by religious belief:  “And God said unto men, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the Fish of the sea, and the Fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the Earth” Genesis 1:28. This belief of mastery is thoroughly shattered though, when we are confronted with the true force of nature and its disregard for the obstacle of humankind.

After the Green Revolution of the 1960s, huge gains in crops were obtained by the industrialisation of agriculture. The application of increasingly artificial fertilisers bolstered yields whilst insecticides all but illiminated pests. It appeared for a brief while that humanity would soon escape the shackles of hunger enforced by the balance of the biosphere. Soon however, it became obvious that human ignorance of the nature of nature meant that we failed to foresee the consequential pollution of both landscapes and human health. Rachel Carlson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was the catalyst for a new movement away from our place as a detached master to an integral force within the continuum of nature. 

The Green / Eco Wave which has infiltrated our contemporary political landscape and continues to influence policy can only be a good thing. But in my opinion we must be careful that the pendulum of human consciousness does not swing too far in the other direction. For nature continues to act as both a mother and a menace, and the naive viewpoint that progress in the field of agro-sciences should be abandoned in favour of ‘traditional’ organic farming fails to address the needs of an increasing human population. Until our growth in numbers is stemmed, we must ensure that our relationship with the natural world is considerate of its long term implications for our survival later on. We must abandon the idea of mastery, but cling to the notion of adaptation.

6 Jul 2011

The Colonies and Economies of the Hairy Forest Ant

Those of you who know me are aware that I have an interest in Ants. Whilst this admission is often met with well natured mocking, as soon as I begin to discuss the ecology of these inconspicuous creatures, people begin to question their preconceptions. Ants, along with the bees and wasps (but not the termites) belong to the order of the Hymenoptera, also known as the social insects. This is in reference to their habit of living in colonies ranging from tens to millions of individuals, although the real interest lies in the lack of "the individual". Instead, the colony consists of a majority of sterile female workers, soldiers, nurses and other caste distinctions, who will only pass on their genes by facilitating the propogation of the Queen. This behavioral trait has led some (including good old E. O. Wilson) to refer to the colony as a 'superorganism'. 

The division of labour, development of agricultural practice (facilitating the growth of a unique fungus, and milking aphids of their honey dew), and the extreme specialization to which certain castes go to (just look up honeypot ants) has captivated me ever since my first tutorial as a Freshman. This interest extended right up to when I undertook my undergraduate dissertation, those baby steps into the real world of scientific research. I decided to examine the role which ants may play in facilitating human success, in particular within the forestry industry. 

Because of their ability to form extensive networks, allowing single colonies to cover large areas, ants can play a huge role in shaping their surrounding ecosystem. The construction and burrowing involved in nest building facilitates nutrient build up and the aeration of soils, whilst the selective foraging on certain seeds can determine the balance of plant species present. Because of the sizable appetite of the omnivorous colony, they will also predate on a large number of insects. Research has shown that Formica lugubris (the hairy wood ant) protect numerous forests within its range against a variety of phytophages (tree eating species). Certain observers have even recorded "green islands" in otherwise completely defoliated woodlands, in the places where the mound nests of F. lugubris are present.

The forests of the Vosges region of France, home to Formica lugubris.

German forestry guards understood this to such an extent that in the 19th century a law was passed forbidding damage to the mound nest of the Waldameisen upon punishment of incarceration. A French myremecologist even went as far as proposing an optimum size and number of ant mounds per hectare to protect to a forest. I examined this proposal by looking at how the disturbance caused by lumber extraction might impact on the success of the mound.

Returning then, to human perceptions of the ant, it is only in the understanding of their facinating ecology that their direct economic benefit becomes evident. No longer the scrounge of a mid summer picnics, they become the habourers of the green gold locked up in our forestry stands. The economics of nature today are being examined more and more in order to attempt to weigh up options in land management. However, when our current understanding of ecosystems is so flawed, and when placing a monetary value extends to the spiritual and cultural value of a nature, this approach is questionable. But perhaps today, when money talks, this may be the one pragmatic avenue which we should take.

4 Jul 2011

La Ruta del Maya: 3. The fate of the Lacandón

Rather than crumbling to dust, Mayan culture continues to exist as a part of its inherited Mexican status. Since the arrival of the Conquistadores, Colonialists, and Missionaries, the Mayan way of life has been altered to a more “civilised” state, although it still plays a role in languages used, the clothes worn and the food eaten all over Central America. And yet, a small sub-branch of this cohort evaded the influence of outsiders as far as 1940.

The Lacandón continue to practice a culture inseparable from the rainforest, through a form of crop rotation which allows the reuse of a small cleared patch of forest for years on end. This contrasts with agriculture employed by frontier farmers, slashing and burning in order to open up the forest floor and maximise its nutrient output. This newly cleared land supports a crop of maize for 2-3 years before the soil becomes infertile and new ground must be claimed. The trend for clearing land today is further exacerbated by cattle ranching and the industrialisation of agriculture. As a result, the size of the Lacandón Rainforest is thought to have halved since the 1950s.

In 1971, President Echeveria appeared to address the problem by granting the deeds of 6143km2 of the jungle to the remaining 500 Lacandón. However, as new owners of this land, they faced pressure from lumber companies, and government representatives for further timber extraction. Families were paid 250 pesos per cubic metre of Mahogony and Tropical Cedar, ignorant of the international trading rates as high as 8000 pesos. Furthermore, as a result of this deal, other ethnic groups and campesinos who occupied this land were evicted, with little alternative but to continue to slash and burn illegally. The suffering of these working class migrants attracted the support of the Zapatistas (Leftist guerrillas see: wikipedia Zapatista page) . 
Here we see a new dimension added to the relationship between Man and Nature: Politics.

Graffiti in San Cristobal in reference to the conflict of the armed revolutionaries and natural habitats
Montes Azules Reserve, one of the remaining tracts of untouched Lacandón jungle is funded by Conservation International (CI), the environmental NGO with the highest turn-over globally thanks to the backing of corporate donors. The Lacandón continue to exist here, although it would seem that the fight for their cultural preservation is lost. Instead, many target tourists and their dollars by facilitating ‘eco-tourism’ and selling their traditional crafts. This pandering to a Western market infuriated the Zapatistas, who accused CI of ‘Bio-piracy’. They suggested that CI were exploiting the rainforest for one of their largest donors, the Bio-Tec conglomerate, Grupo Pulsar. However, the refusal of the Zapatistas to negotiate and increasingly desperate attempts to provoke (such as the detainment of eco-tour kayakers) means that their admirable stance of supporting indigenous Mexicans is lost amongst their propaganda.

The risk of romanticising both natural spaces and indigenous cultures, and attempting to keep them separate is an issue I will address in later posts. What is clear is that an isolationist stance towards land management which fails to consider the impacts of the wider community are bound to be fraught with difficulties. Mayan lifestyles today are a blend of globalised culture, and the preservation of natural spaces too has become a global issue.  

La Ruta del Maya: 2. City of Bones

One of these cities is that of Palenque, which flourished under K´Inich Janaab Pakal between 615-683AD. Plazas, temples and houses spread, and the size of the city grew, but as with other Mayan settlements, it fell victim to a combination of war, famine and resource depletion. In other words, it was a victim of its own success, and the surrounding natural resources failed to accommodate its growing weight. Abandoned by 900AD, in an area which receives the highest rainfall in Mexico, it was quickly reclaimed by the jungle.
I find myself here today, in the early light of the morning. A mist still clings to the shoulders of the surrounding valleys, which ring with the echoes of Howler monkeys. But rather than stand as a mausoleum to past glories, instead you are gripped by the vitality of life here. Despite occupying less than 0.5% of Mexico's land mass, these jungles contain 4300 Plant species, 450 types of butterfly, 340 bird species and 163 different mammals.
Only a small number of the 500 or so ruins at the site have been excavated, leaving the remainder hidden beneath branch and vine. It seems fitting that the original name of the settlement was ‘B’aakal’, meaning bones.  The sheer scale of these make you wonder how this was achieved without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. But perhaps more pressing is the question of what happened to the Mayan people after the collapse of the grandest civilization of Meso-America.

La Ruta del Maya: 1. Rise of the Sun God

The Mayan civilization originated in the Guatemalan highlands around 1500BC, before spreading into today’s Belize, Honduras and Mexico. Over the course of time, lifestyles shifted from nomadic encampments of hunter gatherers to a grounded agricultural subsistence. The development of corn, bean, chile and squash cultivation required a permanent water source. In the Yucatan province of Mexico, where rivers and lakes are few and far between, freshwater was extracted from copious sinkholes which dot the porous limestone landscape, known as Cenotes. These, like mirages in an otherwise hot and humid landscape, are hauntingly beautiful networks of tunnels, caves and underground rivers filled with stalagmites and stalactites. When the chambers open up to the sky they fill with brightly coloured birds, insects and plant life.

Because of their life-giving role, they became a vital part of the religious and ceremonial practice of the Maya. Moreover, their appearance as portals to an underworld meant that they became sites of ritual sacrifice. The excavation of these today continue to reveal the bones of thousands of sacrificees. The Mayan belief system reflects their intricate relationship and fascination with nature. The World Tree (represented by the silk cotton) is used as a symbol of our place in the universe; its roots are fixed in the earth whilst its branches reach into the heavens. K’inich Ahau, the Sun God is the supreme deity, who at night becomes the Jaguar, guiding the way to the underworld of the Cenotes below.

The development of these beliefs is reflected in an increasingly intricate architectural and sculptural style. In parallel, the improvements in agriculture resulted in an increase in population size. The extent to which this played a role is illustrated by the vast network of cities which sprang up, and the increasingly hierarchical organization of society. Whilst in Europe the Roman Empire was in decline, between 250-900AD, technological, artistic and scientific advances abounded with the Maya. This rise and rise resulted in the clearing of many of the wilderness which were the original inspiration of this increasingly detached civilization.