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

21 Oct 2015

Bornean Correspondence

It is great relief that I check out of the hotel where I have spent 72 hours killing time. The streets here are paved with plastic, the remains of the local market still hang on their corners, piles of waste picked through by children no older than three. The town devoid of distractions, lest that be eateries serving the same rehash of reheated Nasi Goreng, or the karaoke bars where the silent orchestra plays to a silent crowd. But why would I want to leave my air-conditioned cell, when even the air outside is filled with fug? The cocktail of leftover market produce, made pungent with ever-present humdrum humidity, is complimented by a forest fire haze. Half of Indonesia, it would seem, has been on fire since 3 months ago, and now the air is saturated with the memory of Kalimantan’s dwindling forests and peatlands.

The minivan takes me back county, back to basics and back in time. The never ending curtain call of palm oil plantations are slowly but surely replaced by rising green giants. The sight of these sentinels on the fringe of the forests elicits contrasting sensations within my chest. Somewhere close to my heart I feel hope. Hope, that my months ahead will consist of more than respiratory problems and satellite TV consumer culture. Hope that wild nature can continue to exist, and elicit and enrapture. But at the same time a duller and mounting tensing of what feels like my intestines also signals a yellow belly of fear. Fear because over the coming months I am going to have to climb up some 45 m into the canopies of those trees if I am to achieve the aims which have sent me back to the tropical rainforest that I had left behind a year ago.

A year into my PhD and the time has come to step up, and stand of the shoulders of giants in more ways than one. Hiding in a library, a lab and even a botanic garden have all served their purpose, but paper, pyrex and glass can only get you so far. 

Eden through the back door

For the past year, I have had the honour of working amongst those who have made it possible to return to the gardens of Eden. Fuelled by visionary optimism, collaboration and creativity, for the past 15 years a cohort of individuals has come together to create a spectacle of plants, but also a reflection of our place in the living world. The Eden Project is difficult to describe, even for those who work there on a daily basis, but I would place it somewhere along an axis ranging from botanical garden to ecological theme park.

As part of my PhD research, I have been examining what goes on in the soil which forms at the top of trees, and how that is influenced by the plants and insects which make the rainforest canopy their home. Rainforests are few and far between in the UK, but the tropical biome at the Eden Project, a self-contained simulation of temperature, humidity and rainfall, with the vegetation to match has allowed me to trial my tests before leaving the shores of not-so-tropical Blighty. 

The biomes of Eden became my personal playground-come-laboratory, and during the golden hours of 7-10am, before the public came to witness the spectacle, I was able to pass through the back door and set up my experiments. With the help of Eden’s green fingered horticultural team, and the acrobatic ‘sky monkeys’, I was able to recreate my own rainforest canopy, which whilst not immediately comparable to those found in nature, has allowed me to make the initial steps towards understanding the real deal.

Beyond the science, the Eden Project reignited my belief that it is possible to discuss the crisis which nature faces to the wider general public, whilst avoiding cynicism and projecting hope. The biomes provide a forum for discussion, and I myself was able to present my science and discuss its relevance on a daily basis with people from all walks of life. By focusing on the beauty and bounty which nature has to offer, and by communicating what threatens this, it is difficult to leave the place without feeling galvanised into action. Whilst saddened to walk out of the back door one last time, I certainly felt that understanding the natural world remains an achievable and important task if it is to be protected for future generations to come.