California Dreaming or Just Another Nightmare? Yosemite and the Giant Redwoods.

When my children were young, we took them on a road trip to California, driving the Pacific Highway from Los Angles to San Francisco before going east to visit Yosemite National Park. We then returned cross country to L.A. to visit Disneyland, this a thank you to the children for the terrible imposition of having to do interesting things. Although all of the information here, historical or otherwise, is written from the perspective of the present day, many of the pictures were taken during our trip.

Yosemite – The Battle for Survival.

Yosemite Falls is the highest falls in North America, and in spring quite spectacular as it drops over 2,400 ft to its base.

In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant giving Yosemite, along with the giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove to the state of California. Galen Clark, one of the first non-native people to see the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia, pushed congress to protect the area, and its preservation fell into his guardianship for the next 24 years. This was the first act of legalised conservation in North America and came 8 years before Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872.

John Muir was the first to witness and comment on the environmental problems facing Yosemite after it became a protected area. He made his first visit in 1868, and wrote extensively on a variety of issues that bothered him: the number of livestock grazing in natural meadows was troubling, particularly in the fragile upland areas; and there was extensive deforestation due to commercial logging in places where legal protection had been assured.

Meadows make up only 3% of Yosemite ecosystems, but they contain a significantly higher percentage of its species.

As has often been the case when attempting to protect natural habitats, it was a pen that brought effective conservation to the region. Muir wrote stories that focused effectively on environmental issues – and this worked as well back then as it does today – if a problem is clearly identified, whether it involves endangered animal species, or native trees standing in an exceptional landscape, a targeted approach will usually increase awareness and sway public opinion in a positive way.

Yosemite is a wilderness busy with granite rocks and cliffs, with its clear turbulent waters a dramatic feature.

With the help of Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, John Muir continued to push for greater protection and the pair were persistently critical of the poor state of conservation management in the area. Their views would eventually prove instrumental in bringing about change with the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia granted National Park status in 1890.

Muir and Johnson also advocated protection for other regions, in particular forested areas where giant sequoia were growing further into the Sierra Nevada. Eventually a number of these sites were selected for conservation, and Sequoia National Park was the result.

Unfortunately, greater legal protection didn’t solve the kind of problems that Muir had noticed and it wasn’t until he brought President Roosevelt for a visit in 1906 that things began to improve. Roosevelt, recognised the need for change and reacted  quickly, taking back control of the region from the State of California in an effort to secure better protection, and the end result. ‘Yosemite National Park’… Nicely sorted and no further issues!?

Well, not exactly…

Unfortunately, in recent years old trees in Yosemite have been dying in greater numbers than usual, and why has this grabbed the headlines?  Because such trees have become dangerous to visitors, and knowing how litigious North Americans have become is an understandable concern.  However, in wild places this is perhaps not the first problem that should spring to mind, because in wilderness areas trees left to nature will at some stage fall over, and management will always require a different approach from a city park.

The priority should be to ask why trees are dying in such large numbers in a national park, because if there’s a problem here, what  chance is there of conserving trees that do not receive such stringent protection?  Certainly it should not be assumed that trees standing outside national park boundaries only have value in terms of their worth to the timber industry.

The continuous whittling away of unprotected habitats has become a worldwide issue, because there is a misconception that the loss of natural forests can be easily remedied by simply planting more trees, but it’s not that simple; man cannot easily recreate ecosystems of the same complexity as those developed naturally over long periods of time. Much has been lost over the years with serious declines which makes it all the more important to pro-actively conserve all remaining environments of ecological significance. Just planting more trees is not the answer, better to allow natural forests to just get on with it which of course takes time. Trees should be allowed to seed and compete for their place in the future life of the forest, otherwise all we are creating is a botanical garden and not a natural habitat.

There is a simple fix for the present rate of habitat loss and that is to halt the destruction; if we are to win the battle against species loss and global climate change it will require a significant shift in attitude to turn the tide. The state of our oceans should be the first priority, but conserving old growth forests runs a close second, and acting appropriately should be beyond the meddling of politicians who think they know better, with any attempt to curtail the necessary actions required to combat global warming beyond their remit as the situation has moved beyond the point where we can allow important decisions to made by idiots. Children get it, but politicians do not; they will always put economic considerations before the environment because that’s what gets them votes; but this prioritisation will quite evidently need to be reversed if we are to remain a successful part of the system.

Today, many plant and animal species have become stressed to their limits by environmental pressures, and Yosemite’s ponderosa pines are no exception; these trees are frequently infected by a tiny beetle, but years of co-evolution has allowed them to produce a defence in the form of a pitch that seals the beetles out. Unfortunately, there are other stresses weakening the pines’ ability to protect themselves; in particular five years of drought, this the likely reason so many Ponderosa Pines are losing their battle for life.  As the trees defence mechanisms break down, natural resistance becomes compromised, and under the prevailing dry conditions, not if, but when a fire sweeps through, trees that might once have survived an intense burn, will no longer make it through.

5th June 2002: My family coming down the slippery slope on the mist trail from Vernal Fall, Yosemite; and no, this is not an allegory for a park on the slippery slope to disaster – as Yosemite is now well protected and only climate change will defeat it. Back in our world, up on this prominence there is no chance of experiencing dry conditions, as a constant spray from the fall gives everybody and everything a thorough soaking; and care is necessary because if slip you could die here.

Yosemite is one of the world’s great natural wonders, but when a single species goes into decline others living in association must surely follow. Such events are warnings that something is wrong – in this case a sudden change in climate which we ignore at our peril. Rarely in the natural world does anything decline in isolation; there is always a knock on effect, and you can’t help feeling that the dominoes are now being lined up in some of the World’s most beautiful places. We are now just waiting for the first one to go over.

The Coast Redwood and Giant Sequoia

North America contains many natural wonders, but wilderness areas to the west of the Rockies are amongst the most spectacular, and perhaps even more in need of protection today than they were in Muir’s time, because over the last 150 years so much has been lost or seriously degraded.

Much of the lands to the south and west  had originally been Mexican territory, but in 1848 this land was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. Accepting the extensive prairies of the mid-west, there was a general trend of deforestation in line with the wave of settlement, although going west in the early days didn’t necessarily mean coming over the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the coast.

Environmental problems could usually be linked to this flow of people from the east, in particular after the American Civil War which ended in 1865. Many were granted free land to the west, which had been stolen by government from native Americans and re-assigned to the new arrivals; this in part to defuse the possibility of more trouble between opposing factions on the opposite side of the country, where many people had not entirely accepted the war as over.

As people flooded in, everything that they came across became either real estate or a golden opportunity for asset strippers, and always to the detriment of natural resources. This was the starting point for ‘The American Dream’ – to go west and make something of yourself – which was usually an environmentally destructive process, because people busy trying to make it in sometimes difficult circumstances, often failed to recognise the real treasures standing before them – although not for long. To the eyes of the new arrivals magnificent trees were regarded as lumber just waiting to be converted into something far more useful – $$$$$$$$$s. It’s the American way. The truth is that conserving wild places is a relatively new idea, because people didn’t start appreciating natural environments until they had both the leisure time to do so and the means to travel.

In the face of climate change and environmental collapse some people are now beginning to wonder if this $ value approach to just about everything is paying off… but not all, many still chase the tantalising dream of trouncing nature for personal gain without the least concern for environmental consequences; but as even the stupidest amongst us are beginning to learn, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The less discerning might eat for free, before moving on, but somebody will have to pick up a very expensive tab. The fact is (and this is an actual fact rather than a made up one, for those who think facts are a matter of opinion), it is far cheaper to deal with environmental issues before they get out of hand than after, and there’s always the possibility that beyond a certain point there is no going back in any case.

My children had their uses: they could make big trees look even bigger.

It is sometimes easier to spark enthusiasm for natural environments by favouring a key species rather than the ecosystems they are part of. Without doubt most of us appreciate that natural systems exist as complex webs of life; but our minds work better if we don’t complicate the issues; and there is no doubt that concentrating attention on a single plant or animal species works really well when it comes to raising awareness. Usually an animal will be selected to grab our attention, but once in a while an exceptional plant will do just as well, and when it comes to trees it is usually their magnitude and splendour that provides the wow factor, and the awe and majesty of the giant redwoods of the Western United States seldom fails to impress.

California ‘Coast’ Redwoods.

Old growth Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoias are so impressive they have become great ambassadors for the ecosystems they are part of. Their names are often used interchangeably, but despite certain similarities of size and appearance, these are botanically distinct species.

Redwoods were once widespread in North America but today are represented by only two species, each restricted to their own particular ecological niches in northern California. Plants however are not respecters of unnatural borders and redwoods may also be found in Washington State and Oregon, although outside of California they are found in lower numbers and are not naturally occurring.

There is however a third representative, the dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostrobides, and although fossil records demonstrate that this species was once widely distributed, and until recently thought to be long extinct, living examples were discovered in the Sichuan Province of China during the mid-1940s and suddenly they were back from the dead. This is interesting, but the Dawn Redwood is a long way, both in size and location from the species under consideration here: the ‘coast’ or ‘California redwood’ Sequoia sempervirens; and the ‘giant sequoia’ Sequoiadendron giganteum, are both referred to as Redwoods, and both are quite spectacular, with each contained within a very limited range.

The San Francisco Bay area is often shrouded in sea mists and it is no surprise that redwoods once flourished here. Go North on 101 across The Golden Gate Bridge and it isn’t long before you find yourself amongst Coast Redwoods if you take the time to visit Muir Woods National Monument.

A mature California or Coast Redwood will grow taller than a giant sequoia, but they are slimmer and less bulky in form and grow naturally only in one type of habitat: the moist, humid coastal regions of Northern California where sea fogs provide the damp conditions and moderate climate they require. These Redwoods tend to grow in bands rather than stands and do not  occur naturally more than 50 miles inland.

Although most of the old growth forests are long gone, young trees now seem to be doing well, perhaps because in recent years there has been less fog, which hasn’t been entirely detrimental: with more sunlight getting to the trees there are greater opportunities for photosynthesis. But as with most living things, survival depends upon a range of circumstances: if say the  climate continues to change and the mists become much less a feature of this region, the Coast Redwood might at some stage begin to suffer. It is clear that we change the climate at our peril and can never be absolutely certain of the consequences. 

Muir Wood is made up of mostly California Redwoods of various ages and conveniently are only a short distance north of San Francisco. This is a well managed forest, but has an ambiance not dissimilar to that of a theme Park, despite there being nothing phoney about the forest itself; the reason for this is the criss-cross of boardwalks and walkways which although certainly beneficial to people with limited mobility, are something of a nightmare for those attempting to take natural pictures on a wide angle lens. However, many great pictures of redwoods have been taken elsewhere and in some locations easy access to visitors must be the priority, because people are far more likely to support what they are able to experience first-hand. Most people really do care, they just need the opportunity. 
My children break off from the misery of experiencing the natural world, so that in the future we might look back and pretend that standing inside an old tree was fun.

The Giant Sequoia is the only remaining species still living from the Subfamily Sequoioidae, it requires higher elevations than the Coast Redwood and grows along a comparatively narrow band on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Living at an altitude of between 5 and 7 thousand feet these trees rely heavily on snow melt for water, and in summer, the dry heat of the region triggers the cones, mostly at the top of the tree, to open.

 

Not all snow melt comes rapidly down rivers, any water that does not is likely to end up in groundwater and may then be taken up by the giant sequoias; however if the climate continues to warm and winter snows no longer accumulate, these trees may not survive.

Giant Sequoia grow to more than 300 feet and in doing so will attain a considerable bulk. The General Sherman, the largest tree presently standing in the world can be found in Sequoia National Park, although it is not the tallest tree living on the Planet. The General contains more than 52 thousand cubic feet of wood and weights around 2.7 millions pounds, but typically, this is a species that does not reach the dizzy heights of the coastal redwoods which can reach around 375 feet, making them the tallest trees standing anywhere on Earth.

If you happen to be in San Francisco, coast redwoods are not far away, and if you travel east for about 170 miles to Yosemite National Park it is possible view the impressive Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, which allows for a comparison of both native redwood species in a single day, although if you aren’t in a tourist inflamed rush it is perhaps better to take your time.

The bad news for redwood forests, is the same as it is for any other old growth forest that still exists along North America’s western seaboard. 95% of  everything that was once standing here has been felled, and it has happened comparatively recently and over a very short period of time. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the continued influx of settlers from the East was enormously consequential as vast swathes of forest were steadily brought down, and ecologically significant trees still being felled to the present day.

San Francisco was originally built from the timber of local redwoods, and although resins make the trees less susceptible to insect attack, the wood has a reputation for being brittle and some now consider processing them quite wasteful, claiming that it makes more sense to utilise other species more useful to forestry.

The loss of so much old growth forest is depressing, especially because giant old trees lock up such large amounts of carbon, and continue to do so even after they have fallen. Given that a coast redwood can live for 2,000 years and a Giant Sequoia for around 3,500, there’s not only a considerable amount  of carbon locked up in a redwood forest, but it remains locked up for a very long time.

This is perhaps one of the best reasons for protecting ancient redwoods wherever they remain; and if many of the younger trees were left to grow to their full potential they might also act as valuable Carbon sinks and their presence have a moderating effect on climate. For these reasons alone it is difficult to argue against the conservation of giant redwoods wherever they are growing naturally.

Jen photographing the Muir Woods – for once there’s no scrabbling into the wilds –  all can be done from a boardwalk which if nothing else, helps protect the tree roots.

It usually isn’t a good idea to plant a tree in the wrong place, but there are exceptions, and I will admit to having planted specimen coastal redwoods on the property we once owned on the North Island of New Zealand where the climate very much suits them.

Having specimens trees of different species gathered together in botanical gardens is of great value, not only to make direct comparisons, but also to preserve genetic diversity if wild populations should collapse, which is a real possibility; but it is wrong to plant trees that are invasive with seedlings growing to compete with native flora.

Along the Ornamental drive I recognise trees from the Western Seaboard of North America.

When in the U.K. this spring I took time to visit giant redwoods, red cedars and Douglas fir, all native to the west coast of North America where we now live. Most of the significant specimen trees along the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive in the New Forest – Southern England, were planted in 1859 and still have quite a bit of growing to do, but despite this, the two tallest trees in the New Forest are a pair of giant redwoods that stand majestically on either side of a grassy ride. There are many examples of giant redwoods outside of California, as they grow well wherever conditions suit them. Seedlings of both species are readily available from commercial growers, but it is worth thinking to the future, and accepting that these are trees not ideally suited to a suburban garden.

When working for the B.B.C. a television producer once suggested that I might put headphones on and using a tape recorder play my favourite music in the hope of releasing some deeply hidden artistic potential as I filmed amongst the mighty sequoias, but I never did that… Experiencing Bach’s music in a magnificent forest is agreeable, but nothing can compare to listening to the wind blowing through the canopy – it sounds as if the trees are whispering.  A romantic notion perhaps,  but maybe the old redwoods are trying to tell us something about conserving the old growth forests of the west, but if that’s the case, we haven’t heard them over the buzz of the saw, or it might just be that we still aren’t listening. 

Take care in Yosemite especially when trying to get a better picture, there have recently been several accidental falls and fatalities – it’s a wild place without unsightly barriers – so, please think safe.

 

 

 

 

 

Time Is Running Out for the Old Growth Forests of the Pacific North West.

It is commonplace for leaders in tropical regions to receive criticism for their inability to conserve natural forests, but in northern temperate regions politicians have not been made so directly accountable, and the felling of swathes of grand old trees has passed largely without comment.

West of the Rockies in the Pacific North West, there is a particular problem, especially in coastal regions where old growth forests have been felled without much concern for environmental consequences. The timber trade has played an important role in local economies since the arrival of Europeans and the resultant destruction of virgin forest has continued without pause for over 150 years, with a startling increase at the beginning of the 20th Century, as forests to the east were by then pretty much decimated.

2011: Photographing impressive old trees amongst secondary growth in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. If the felling of old growth forest had ended around a hundred years ago, the surrounding area would still have ancient trees and forests, but that didn’t happen and the trees are now gone, but the felling continues in remote places where old trees still stand.

The ecological importance of old forests in temperate regions has never been adequately considered, but given the longterm consequences of the loss it is difficult to understand why so little has been done to halt the widespread destruction. When it comes to forestry it is understandable that trees are measured by their $ value, and that makes big old trees an economic target.

However, the forests’ of the North West are important in a way that moves their significance far beyond making a fast buck, because the old growth forest here lock up more carbon than a comparable area of Amazon rainforest and this makes their rapid loss especially disturbing.

I stand  by a tree named ‘The Lonely Giant’ to demonstrate how small I am in comparison, it isn’t he biggest tree I’ve visited, but  standing tall amongst the secondary forest, it’s certainly impressive.

On the 23rd May 2019 Jen and I were in for a treat, visiting a group old trees in the Hidden Grove on the Sechelt Peninsula: at over 700 years of age, some of the Douglas Firs to be found here are impressive; today, few trees of this stature can be found without travelling some distance from our home on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

We started by visiting a lonesome tree that had somehow managed to avoid the saw, and still stands in the forest not far from the town of Sechelt. Our journey was undertaken mid-week and off season and things were agreeably quiet. Admittedly, going to gawk at a single tree seemed a little odd, and reminded me of a cartoon I saw in the 1970s featuring a queue of people waiting to see the last tree standing on Earth – it didn’t seem funny then, and is even less funny now – particularly in a temperate region of the developed world where people consider themselves well informed about environmental issues. Something is not quite right with old growth forest, because despite huge losses, old native trees remain inadequately protected.

Most of us will get upset when a large mammal species is threatened, but old trees growing in places other than tropical rainforest, don’t arouse the same concern, even when, as is the case for the Pacific North West, native trees are amongst the largest organisms existing on Earth. There are of course activists who tie themselves to significant trees to prevent felling, but few of us behave quite so proactively – we risk being labelled ‘tree huggers’, and that’s not a good look. Whatever our reactions, nothing can alter the fact that trees many hundreds of years old that were once an important part of human experience, are no longer standing in great numbers.

Forestry regards it as anathema to let old trees fall over and rot – it’s a waste of resources, but ecologists will confirm that this is exactly what needs to happen for the maintenance of healthy forests.

The indiscriminate felling blossomed in plain sight, a tragedy that either happened because people failed to notice, or felt powerless to do anything about it. The losses were certainly noticed in the early 1900s when there was concern throughout the North West over clear cutting without restraint; but a precedent had been set some 50 years earlier when railroad barons were gifted huge tracts of forested land to incentivise railroad building, putting much of the old growth forest into private ownership and with no legal protection the trees began to disappear.

Now, we clearly understand the importance of old growth forests to natural environments and their usefulness in locking up Carbon (some recent research suggests that older bigger trees capture more Carbon than do smaller trees); so why are big old trees still being felled? To be honest… I have no idea why anybody would do something so stupid, but the general indifference of the public at least, may be down to a general inability to distinguish between old growth and secondary forest, especially when viewed from a distance.

In the Vancouver area there appears to be no shortage of trees; the problem is that most of them are youngsters. Sometimes it is difficult to judge the age of a tree on a rocky outcrop because such trees can be stunted, but usually the virgin forest long gone and what we see today, almost without exception, is secondary forest and plantation trees that are part of a short term commercial forestry cycle.

For most of us, trees are just trees, but in ecological terms their age has significance: old growth forest provide more environmental complexity than any secondary forest can achieve, unless the latter can remain standing for hundreds of years, which isn’t the way things usually go, as most trees are now harvested in cycles that run considerably less than a hundred years.

When areas re-seed naturally, they will one day become forest, but if planted selectively by man, things usually get worse before they get better, because it takes time for trees (acted upon by natural forces) to compete and eventually sort out which will ultimately become successful. When trees are planted for commercial purposes alone their ecological value drops significantly… yet we still keep thinking  – there’s no shortage of trees, and in some cases that’s true, but many of the wooded hillside we admire are destined to have a short term existence: they’re entirely unnatural, lack diversity and create poor environments for other species. 

To those who are not much interested in environmental issues it is important to say that this is not a rant about saving every last tree in the forest; the logging of secondary forest planted specifically for cropping is necessary, and done properly it should allow the remaining old growth forest to be more easily conserved; but  unfortunately, this isn’t happening and if we continue to lose old growth at the present rate, it is with the knowledge that once gone such areas cannot be easily re-created and as each disappears, so do the many organism associated with them.

Old trees provide habits for a great many species and some become complete micro-environments in themselves.

Once the old trees have been felled close to places where we live – which mostly has already happened – but logging continues in out of the way places and less easily observed. Most of us remain clueless about the activity, with the losses having consequences to both ourselves and the natural world. If we were better informed, perhaps we would question the situation more thoroughly.

 Any time a road comes near a natural forest, big trees that have commercial value will usually be targeted; clear cutting is usually the most economical way of getting them out, and this results in the complete destruction of viable ecosystems.

This disregard for nature has resulted in the loss of many great forests in a comparatively short time, causing widespread soil erosion, problems with water quality, and changing climates not just regionally, but across the Planet; and we’ve come to accept the situation without complaint or very much thought.

Trilliums growing at the base of an old tree.

Visiting The Sechelt Heritage Hidden Groves. is for Jen and I like travelling back through time. Here a handful of ancient Douglas-fir still stand along with red cedar amongst a secondary growth of much younger trees. when left alone these species will achieve considerable age and reach an impressive girth and height. In short these are trees with the potential to grow as Donald Trump might say’ big league’, or is it ‘bigly,’ because ‘bigly’ really is a word that along with our moral judgements on big old trees, has fallen out of use. 

Beneath the canopy where we are walking the understory is lush with ferns, mosses and lichens. Close by, a maple wetland adds diversity and all is set amongst impressive rocky outcrops, but it is our arrival at a scattered stand of ancient trees that raises most interest, not just because they are majestic, but because their survival has been tenuous, and tenuous has become an all too familiar story.

In 2002 a local resident visiting the grove noticed coloured tapes in place, indicating preparations for the felling of what is now ‘The Hidden Grove’. A logging company was about to clear cut the few trees that remained here, destroying the last vestige of original native forest in the area, and at the beginning of the 21st Century this seemed extraordinary. There followed a protracted battle during which a group of local people worked diligently to keep the trees standing, involving thousands of hours of fund raising and voluntary work; but the persistent conservation effort paid off; and we are indebted to a small group of proactive people who suddenly came to the rescue, because without their efforts this majestic group of trees would no longer be standing. 

Jen photographs one of the most impressive trees in the grove – its burnt surface demonstrating that a fire has passed through at some point during its long life. These old trees have accumulated a thick layer of bark and have survived various trials by fire over the years.

This small grove of old growth Douglas Firs is comparatively small; and a resident of Sechelt told me they had survived only because the area had been too waterlogged to allow felling. I can’t find any definitive evidence that this is the case, but it does seem a reasonable explanation.

There are other stands of trees in the Sechelt area that have grown to an impressive size and those in the Hidden Forest are certainly impressive, but there are even bigger Douglas-firs in existence with girths that are nothing short of jaw dropping; however trees like this are few and far between and we must now make do with far younger trees, inferior in scale to those known to our ancestors… It is as if our destructive habits have steadily moved into line with our downgraded notions of awesome.

When an old growth forest is cut there is always a hope that the  companies involved might leave a stand of old trees to maintain the integrity of at least a small area of original forest; but this rarely happens because any tree left standing would be considered a waste of valuable timber – essentially it is a question of perspective. 

I have met commercial foresters who think that any tree left to grow old and fall over is a waste, whilst others regard a rotting tree as a valuable part of the ecosystem. Opinions aside, it’s worth remembering that estimates of tree cover are mostly done by those involved in felling them, and consequently figures are often skewed to demonstrate how much first growth forest remains. Large areas of bogland that contain stunted little trees are often incorporated into the figures; certainly these areas will not have been cut, but it is disingenuous to consider ‘bonsai trees’ first growth forest.

There is a lot of potential profit tied up in any tree that makes durable wood and grows to enormous size, especially when such a tree has been standing for five hundred years or more, locking up considerable volumes of heartwood, which greatly increases their value. Unfortunately, as the number of big old trees is reduced, quality timber becomes scarcer and increasingly sought after, and inevitably most will  and be felled unless we put the long term environmental impact over short term financial gain.

Few places in the world allow the felling of 600 hundred year old trees as a matter of course – such trees are clearly not a renewable resource in the short term. Now most of the old forests have gone from British Columbia, the new growth will not remain standing beyond a felling cycle of 60 or 70 years, a tenth of the time that would be required for a red cedar or Douglas fir to reach its full potential.

It understandable that some people will gain pleasure from seeing old tree, and certainly this was the case on April 20th 2013 when Jen and I crossed The Strait of Georgia to see an impressive grove that stands against the odds on Vancouver Island. 

I had imagined Vancouver Island would have extensive virgin forests of giant Red Cedar and Douglas Fir; and prior to European settlement this was  the case. But really, what must I have been thinking… bar a few remnants the grand old forests are gone. Only 20% of old growth forest are now thought to remain and why these are not protected isn’t clear, because forestry might easily be sustained from the 80% of productive secondary forest that remains. The fact that the old growth forest can still be cut is scandalous to some; because if this continues it is difficult to imagine how the remaining old forests can be preserved, with less than 10% existing under the protection of National Parks.

Cathedral Grove is located in a central forested region on Vancouver Island and over the years has attracted a great many visitors. This small remnant of old growth forest is made up predominantly of Douglas-fir and red cedar. The trees here are more than 800 years old and there is a striking parallel with the trees in the Hidden Grove, because not only have these trees escaped the saw, they are also survivors of a great forest fire, in this case one that passed through the region more than 350 years ago. It is nevertheless more recent attempts by lumber companies to fell them that has proven their greatest challenge. Today felling any tree close to the grove would be bad news because big trees that have grown most of their lives in forest need protection; when exposed they become vulnerable, particularly from high winds; trees growing around them will provide shelter, even when such protectors are a quarter their age or younger still.

 I take my turn supporting one of the great old trees in Cathedral Grove and I’m frightened to move incase it falls over. 

The most recent challenge to the Grove came at the turn of the Century when a section of surrounding forest was logged: this might have been expected at the end of the 19th Century when old growth forests were being felled at an extraordinary rate, but these trees were felled at the end of the 20th Century which in more enlightened times seems almost unbelievable.

Jen is dwarfed by the trees in Cathedral Grove, but the area it covers is comparatively small when compared with the secondary growth that surrounds it.

 When I first came to live in B.C. I assumed Vancouver Island’s old growth forests far too consequential to have been logged out, but that was silly, because ‘logging out’ is more or less the way things have been heading since European’s settled –  it seems to have been regarded as a fundamental right to chop down almost any big tree regardless of the environmental consequences. Ken Wu Executive Director of The Endangered Ecosystems Alliance states that since 1993 more than 250,000 hectares of old growth forest has been logged on Vancouver Island – an area more than 20 times the size of the City of Vancouver.

There is however some hope, but legislation would be required to bring change, based upon the research of a group at The University of Victoria which is calling for the greater protection of British Columbia’s naturally growing trees. The recommendation is that that 30% of the Provinces old growth forests should be protected; although deciding where to start measuring from is tricky: should it be 30% of the whole island’s remaining cover, or 30% of the natural cover that was present before European’s arrived. 170 years ago most of the land in the Pacific North West was almost entirely covered by forest; if it is 30% of what now remains, then once again it will be slim pickings for the natural world. Personally, at the rate of loss so far experienced we might consider ourselves lucky to get anything at all. The report however is unambiguous, it recommends that 30% of the original old growth forest should be conserved despite much of it having already been felled; it sounds like something from our wildest dreams, because to regrow what was originally present would require a project that runs successfully for hundreds of years. Nevertheless it is impressive that a science based group is sticking their necks out, by saying that it is necessary and should be attempted.

The City of Vancouver –  as seen from Cyprus Mountain – was built on the lumber industry. Between the City and the water is Stanley Park; there are some trees here that are more than 500 years old, but from a distance they are not discernible from the secondary forest that surrounds them. What is certain is that all of the ‘old growth’ forest in the region has gone. The trees on the mountain slope in the foreground add interest to the picture, but these are very young trees that fool many of us into thinking that things are ‘alright’.

‘Beautiful British Columbia’ is what a lot of us have written on or number plates which demonstrates a certain unwitting hypocrisy because most of the Provinces ancient native trees are afforded no protection outside of National Parks. The first Douglas-fir Pseudotsuga menziesii ever recorded was discovered on Vancouver Island by Archibald Menzies in 1791, but it was his rival David Douglas who recognised the tree’s potential as a timber resource, although the popular name is wrong – it isn’t a fir, or a spruce, or even a pine, it is a false hemlock. This is the tree that many of us will use as a Christmas tree, but when fully grown the coastal variety is the second largest tree species in North America after the giant redwoods found further south and perhaps best represented in California. An entire industry was built on felling the virgin forests West of the Rockies and sheltered coastal areas like Vancouver City grew to prominence distributing this valuable resource.

I have heard older people who have made their living from felling these incredible trees, say that  if they hadn’t chopped them down, we’d all be walking around in the dark interior of a forest… but age isn’t always a measure of wisdom… because of course we wouldn’t. Certainly a lot of trees would have been cut for commercial purposes, but there was never any obligation, or entitlement to destroy a whole natural ecosystem just to keep us out of the shade. Undoubtedly, it is more about pocketing money and less about a fear of the forest that has driven the industry to fell so much of the original forest. An unfortunate combination of greed and ignorance has brought us to this unacceptable situation and we’ve labelled it progress – who would want to get in the way of that?

If we are thinking straight it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that the preservation of old forests has enormous value because the losses have put natural ecosystems under threat, and that’s before we start worrying about the water table and climate stability – all of which are essential to our continued existence. If we continue to view the natural world as something to be destroyed purely for economic gain, then we are in for a hiding. You don’t need to be very clever to exploit natural resources to make money, but when they run out and you’ve screwed nature into the bargain, something has to change.

In future big countries with enormous resources, without exception will need to find more inventive ways to run their economies. People who make their livings by directly exploiting whatever the land has to offer are not inclined to change their approach, but this is lazy thinking and they are going to have to. Before we start considering about all the different technical ways we might lock up Carbon we should first consider the Carbon scrubbers that nature has already provided, they’re called trees and the present rate of Worldwide clearance makes no sense. People who wish to continue to mercilessly take advantage of the environment in the present climate (quite literally) have not yet touched base with the present reality. In the case of Canada (given as an example only because this is where I presently live), one future industry that continues to develop is tourism, and it seems counter productive to continue destroying the very environment that people come to see that’s moose, beavers, bears and big old trees.

Before we leave Cathedral Grove I looked out of the long drop window that stands in the car park and in the worlds of the old song noted, ‘Is that all there is?’
Stumps from the old forests are commonly seen in the few small natural areas that remain – stark reminders of how impressive the original forests must have been.

On our return to the Lower Mainland, the lack of anything that resembles old growth forest is jarring, because none remain standing – the last having been cut within living memory.

This coastal strip has a generally fertile soil and as Europeans settled in greater numbers, forests were quickly cleared for agriculture; and more recently much of this has been covered by urban development.

Where old growth stumps remain, cut notches are still present; these for boards knocked into the tree to support lumberjacks, allowing a cut to be made above the splaying area where the root system begins. Secondary growth can seen on the tops of the stumps where fallen seeds have germinated.

It seems ironic that some of the biggest trees ever to grow in British Columbia once did so on the Lower Mainland, where no old forests can be found today. But here, in the small areas of secondary forest that have been left for their ‘amenity value’ (a euphemism for ‘somewhere to smoke cannabis and empty the dog), the occasional big old rotting stump is a stark reminder of a recently lost majesty that once ran from the mountains to the sea.

If I wanted to over emphasise the size of the grand old trees that once stood, I’d get my wife to stand in the background, and take a picture on a wide angle lens… but there’s really no need to do that.
A tree nearing the end of its life in Cathedral Grove demonstrates there is no need for exaggeration.

We all have an idea of what an old growth forest should look like, but few of us have the opportunity of such an experience, because opportunities are now so few and far between.

Should you come to the North West Coast, you might be lucky enough to stand in a remnant of virgin forest, or perhaps just get to see a very old native tree… If you do, then please take a photograph as a reminder of how things used to be, because outside of National Parks there is no guarantee that the next time somebody visits, that wonderful old tree will still be standing.

Please take a look at this link:The great bear loophole. Why Old Growth is Stil Logged. We are often led to believe that forests are being protected when they are not. This problem occurring in many places around the world and it is important that we are aware of the situation; because our futures may be in jeopardy if we don’t halt the felling of old growth forests – especially in protected areas.

 

 

 

 

 

A walk on the Wild Side – Smuggler’s Cove.

I can’t remember exactly how many smuggler’s coves I’ve visited, but it’s a lot –

their appeal is irresistible. In the Caribbean they are perhaps at their most romantic; whilst in the Britain they’re the sort of places you might expect to see on an episode of Poldark. Along England’s  south west coast, where men in tricorne hats once shot unreliably at one other with flintlock pistols,  smuggler’s coves are two a penny.

Lulworth Cove has extraordinary symmetry and several quite exceptional geological features.

My favourite cove is Lulworth in Dorset, it is amongst the most beautiful of any to be found in Britain and part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. There’s even a cave close by – what could be more perfect for smugglers?

Through geological time, sand and clay deposits were scoured out by marine erosion, and this continued into the surrounding limestone until this area was  breached on the seaward side: the resultant cove formed an almost perfect circle  surrounded by chalk cliffs.

A couple I did not know discussing a fossil conifer base provided a good sense of scale.

Every old cove has history, and Lulworth is no exception. On its eastern side are the remains of a fossil forest: the stumps of 140 million year old conifers (gymnosperms) named Protocupressionoxylon purbeckensis which make up perhaps the most complete fosilised forest so far recorded.

Lulworth Cove as it appeared on June 1st 1995 looking towards the west where my family are on the beach having a picnic. Nothing much has changed over the years, other than we now live too far away to make a day visit.
Dark Green Fritillary feeding on chalk grassland flowers on the day of our family visit.

 

Britain’s shores are invariably beautiful and display many geological wonders, especially along the Dorset coastline, producing bays and coves that have formed over millions of years to eventually become hiding places of importance for smugglers during ‘the golden age’ of smuggling – running from the late 1600s through into the 1700s when smuggling and piracy were at their peak. Such events are viewed today in a romantic way and also retrospectively, with the actuality more disturbing than many of us could imagine: those involved were often desperate, violent men who thought nothing of murdering anybody who might threaten their illicit activities or reveal their identities. Back then life could be desperately harsh and for those living on the coastline, smuggling was a serious option as a part-time job especially for those worn down by poverty.

On  1st June 1995 my family accompanied me to Lulworth Cove when I was making a film about Dorset: back then Jen and I were younger and our children smaller and like fledgling gannets on the rocks they needed constant feeding.

Twenty four years later Jen and I would visit another smuggler’s cove, this time –without the children, as they are now able to feed themselves.

This ‘Smuggler’s Cove’ is on the Sechelt Peninsula in British Columbia and it carries that name. When ‘the golden age” was at its peak in the Atlantic region, smuggling wasn’t happening along Canada’s Pacific coast, not because of any shortage of locations – Canada has the most extensive coastline of any country in the world – but because back in the 1700s the indigenous people of the region had better things to do than tax imported goods. European settlers were in short supply and it was a while before this new wave of immigrants would sweep through bringing with them authoritarian habits, and placing taxes on anything they could get away with.

Smugglers Cove – Sechelt Peninsula. British Columbia.

We were to visit on 21st May 2019  a place that is noted for more recent smuggling events – such activities didn’t become consequential here until after the American Civil War. In the 1880s the cove was used to move Chinese railroad workers short of work in Canada, into the United States; they would pay for the privilege in the hopes of a better chance of employment. The one question that troubles me about recorded events is: did ‘King of the Smugglers’ Larry Kelly, really incorporate his version of ‘Chinese whispers’ into proceedings by tying railroad workers on a line of rope which he attacked to a block of pig iron, then threatened to push it over the side if there was any chance of discovery by U.S. customs officials – was this a bluff or did he intend to do it? Later, during the 1920s and early 30s, rum running provided further opportunities for smugglers looking to make a different sort of killing, by  running moonshine during prohibition.

Arriving at the cove by sea involves coming in through the north end of Welcome Pass, but walking in is the option that most people take. Our visit involved a drive out of Sechelt on Brooks Road to arrive at Smuggler’s Cove Marine Provincial Park in about 15 minutes. Once there we walked through three distinct habitats. Initially, shaded by trees, we passed through a small section of forest, which soon opened out onto an extensive freshwater wetland which we crossed by means of a boardwalk: without this it would have been impossible because the water level is well maintained, most likely by beavers. To be honest, I’ve seldom encountered a more impressive example unless in Maine on the opposite side of the continent. Finally we ascended into a wooded coastal area where it was possible to walk around the cove as far as it’s entrance, along the way gaining spectacular views out to sea.

The wetland area is extensive, the water levels maintained by resident beavers. We are hoping to see one when walking out as they are more likely to be active later in the day .
A Pacific Chorus Frog gets its picture taken on the boardwalk.

 

This wetland supports a wide variety of plant and animal species,  there was a lot to see and we toke our time. Insect bites weren’t too much of a problem which is different from the way things usually are in such places, especially over on the East Coast where at certain times of the year you can expect to be eaten alive by black fly and mosquito.

A Pacific Chorus Frog.

This is a colourful place,  even at noon with the sun at its highest, the sky held its azure blue intensity and  good landscape pictures were easy to achieve; usually, morning and evening light will provide the most interesting photographic images, but with the surrounding forest creating heavy foreground shadow when the sun was low, the middle of the day provided the best opportunity for taking pictures.

A Four-Spotted Skimmer.

 

Birds are certainly less active, during the heat of the day, with insects such as butterflies and dragonflies more easily captured in full sunlight. The only problem is that the warmer it gets the more active they become and most  won’t hang around long enough to have their portraits taken, although dragonflies will usually return to a favoured perch.

Bogland Blueberry Flowers.

When we come to the end of the boardwalk, the track rises through a forested region which brings us steadily closer to the rocky coastline; the path twists through dappled sunlight until eventually we arrive at a sudden reveal of Smuggler’s Cove which is down a wooded slope to our right, sheltered and surrounded almost completely on all sides by rocky outcrops. The entrance point is very narrow making this an ideal place for clandestine activities and unless you are aware of this hidden place, it is not so easily noticed from the seaward side. 

Smuggler’s Cove is interesting, but not an ideal place for a picnic.

We have become used now to the rugged nature of many beaches along the BC. coastline, where there are good opportunities to look into rock-pools, and the surrounding sea-life is amongst the most diverse to be found anywhere in the world. However walking barefoot, or just sitting on the beach is not a pleasant experience; not only are the rocks jagged, but the barnacles are razor sharp and certainly this is not a beach where you can appreciate the freedom of the sand between your toes.

There isn’t very much shade down in the cove at this time of day, it has become an amphitheatre of heat which is probably unusual so early in the year. We eat our lunch and then Jen quickly moves off to find somewhere more comfortable to sit, she selects a shady area overlooking the cove. I wander further on around the headland and under the trees, once the open sea is visible, a gentle breeze blows in which is very agreeable after the stifling heat down in the cove.

Looking up from the sea this habitat does not appear to be that varied, but high up on the rocks on the wooded coastal border, the light pours in and there is considerable diversity.

We leave this coastal area during early evening and walk back along the boardwalk and cross back across the wetland. I wasn’t expecting to see a beaver so early, but suddenly I notice one clear of the water in startling evening sunlight and unprepared for the moment I didn’t manage to grab a picture before the animal slipped quietly away into the water.

We waited and watched, but the creature had done a favourite beaver trick, disappearing beneath the water and was unlikely to emerge again until well out of site, so we moved on. We hadn’t travelled more than a hundred metres before I noticed a second: this one in the water gathering water lily buds and anything else within arms reach – it moved slowly forward cramming any floating vegetable material that it encountered into its mouth .

A busy beaver isn’t a misnomer. At this time of year when they are not felling trees to build dams or sorting their accommodation, beavers will be eating. Essentially they are nocturnal creatures, but will emerge early from their lodges during daylight hours if they feel secure from potential threats or persecution.

Sensing our presence the creature became still and remained in this state for a couple of minutes: it was one of those moments that you often get with vegetarians; deer for example will freeze in an attempt to assess danger before deciding what to do next; sometimes they will look up and stare directly at you, and if you are the sort of person who is bothered by insects and begin to windmill your arms, all will be lost; but if you refrain from moving a muscle, it is possible to be in full view of such an animal and get away with it. There is no need for camouflage clothing – I never kill anything and what I wear never smells of death which is important when observing animals that have a good sense of smell – and beavers do. I am thinking about such things as we continue through our beaver imposed age of immobility. Then, as if bored by keeping still, or perhaps, having forgotten why it had become frozen in the first place, the beaver was once again aware of the boundless, irresistibly lush, freshly washed salad that floated around it and began feeding again, this marking a change of behaviour – as it was now seemed disinclined to stop for anything.

An older man and woman who had arrived by  boat came walking along from the direction of the cove, they could see I was photographing something and stopped several metres short of where we were, then, after a short wait, walked slowly past. By then I’d taken rather more pictures of the rodent than was necessary and I thought it polite to point the creature out to them. The minor disturbance of another two people faffing about on the boardwalk didn’t appear to bother the beaver unduly,  as the animal was long past the point now where it was bothered by our unthreatening presence, and continued to relentlessly drag food into its mouth with both forepaws.

‘I’ve never seen a beaver before’ said the man, ‘it’s most unusual’. ‘We’ve seen two this evening’ I replied, which was a polite way of making the point that not seeing an animal isn’t necessarily an indication of scarcity – it may be that you just don’t notice what’s going on around you. Many people behave as if they are congenitally unobservant, and in doing so are gifted with a series of sudden interesting discoveries of the obvious –  and soon the process becomes a regular feature of their lives. It’s a bit like being religious, and by no means a bad thing… Living in a state of continual enlightenment can be very rewarding.

You don’t always see beavers, but if they are present it is usual to notice a lodge.
For a Brit, a North American robin is a colourful blackbird but it is not a top notch songster.

 Apart from a couple of robins and a red winged blackbird; this was a day when most feathered forms were avoiding the heat and remained inactive.

What you see always depends upon the prevailing conditions, but it would be difficult to come to such a delightful place without noticing something of interest no matter what  the weather was like. We had visited on a wickedly hot, blue sky day with intense colours and sparkling waters, but not an especially good one for viewing wildlife, although the privilege of being in such a beautiful place should be enough in itself, and with climates everywhere becoming increasingly unpredictable, we might in future just have to make do with that, unless of course we all suddenly wake up and start doing something about it.

 

 

 

 

The Skookumchuck Narrows – Going With the Flow on The Sunshine Coast.

My daughter thought that her mother and I could do with a break from the human clutter of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, and kindly booked us accommodation for three nights on the Sunshine Coast: a pleasant destination that lies across water to the north west of Vancouver; and we would benefit by visiting during May – arguably the best month to be anywhere that is natural in BC.

Waiting for the ferry, it’s nice to find accidental maps in the concrete of the ferry terminal – looks like we’re off to Italy which is a bit of a surprise.

Jen hasn’t been well, so this will be a pleasant break for her; I was just pleased to escape the tedious chore of fencing the garden, and it wasn’t long before we were driving through early morning sunshine on our way to Horseshoe bay just east of Vancouver. Fairly soon we were driving up onto the ferry and forty minutes later were on the Sunshine Coast – a place so different from the Lower Mainland that it is as if we’d crossed to an alternative Universe where the pace of life was completely different – not that anybody, anywhere on the West Coast seems to be in a hurry, especially when traffic lights are changing. ‘It feels a bit like Hawaii’,  Jen, says ‘but without predictably good weather’. To be honest on a cool, wet day you might wonder how this place got it’s name, but when the sun comes out, it becomes rather special.

We drive on to Sechelt, which is a gentle seaside town that most consider a great place to visit, and if you are lucky enough to live there, so much the better. Once you’re over the gravel extraction thing, that ruins the view along the beach in one direction, Sechelt seems very pleasant. The locals are friendly and usually find time to talk to visitors without any sign of resenting a sudden arrival from another world.

A dull day in Sechelt and not so bad really, but the pier that is associated with large scale local gravel extraction at one end of the beach is not an attractive feature.

We stay not far outside of the town close by Porpoise Bay Provincial Park on a bend in the Peninsula. Our accommodation is very agreeable and made all the more special by a wonderful view of both water and mountains that Jen at once recognizes as a Bob Ross painting, although this one clearly hasn’t been knocked off in half an hour.

You know how it was with Bob, he had a way with mountains, with his paintings often working well right up until the last five minutes when he would suddenly add his happy trees and their friends. Unfortunately Bob’s trees were often indifferent – people would write in and and tell him so, but he’d paint them anyway and you’d have to watch until the end of the show just to be certain that you were going to be disappointed. He’d suddenly get uncharacteristically animated and say, “Now you know me”, and off he’d go with his filbert, and the trees would go in… However, the trees we are looking at are somewhat different, framed through a large picture window they’re mostly a vivid green which Bob’s seldom were, and these were really well done, no doubt with the advantage of years of development. In contrast to a Bob painting, the whole composition was working especially well, and would continue to do so until the foreground trees grew up to wipe out the view. 

In certain lighting conditions this pleasant view of distant mountains might be revealed as a single mountain range, but as is the case with many mountains away on the horizon, this is rarely the case. One of the peaks visible to the right of the picture is Mt Louie which is just over 31 Km away. On the other hand the tip of Mt Alfred which is almost central is more than twice as far away at over 79 Km. To be honest Mt Alfred appears quite faintly and you’d recognize it as distant, but most are less easy to judge. As is often the case in our own lives – when things get farther away, we begin to think two dimensionally.

At least you do get a fair go here, which you don’t in many places – if your neighbours are in agreement, you can top some trees to maintain the value of your property, and in doing so, exert a little control over nature. We’re human and we all like do that… when we’re not extracting gravel, or ringing oil out of tar sands for profit, maybe we’ll be out shooting a moose or bringing down the occasional tree because to leave a natural resource without taking advantage of the situation is very un-Canadian. In fairness, it’s a world thing, we’re ripping the heart out of the natural world, which would be fine… if there weren’t  quite so many of us doing it.

But Jen doesn’t want to rip the heart out of anything. All she wants to do is drive around 50k north to see a natural event at the Skookumchuk Narrows where a mid-day ebb tide will create whirlpools that move along with a disruptive flow of water. Today is the 21st May 2019 and a little after mid-day will be one of the best days of the month to see an ebb tide disturbance.

When the Chinookan people used the word skookum they meant strong and powerful, and any reference to chuck meant water. So, we drive north along the inlet road that runs up the Peninsula to the Narrows, where the entrance passage into Sechelt Inlet – essentially a fjord – is restricted by a bottle neck which causes a twice daily event when tides are at their peak.

We park at the entrance to Skookumchuck Provincial Park and begin the walk in. The mossy temperate forest we encounter is for me the high point of the day, because this really is a beautiful place, once you’ve passed the information boards that tell how best to behave if you happen to meet up with a black bear or cougar: this must be unnerving for some visitors, but we carry bear spray and an air-horn and pretend we aren’t bothered by such  interesting possibilities.

The temperate forest floor is busy with ferns whilst the trees we are walking through are draped with mosses and lichens.

It is difficult to overstate how agreeable our surroundings are, although this is not the way the forest once was, and this is the case for many coastal regions that have nearly all been logged out in recent history – all the trees that we are seeing now are comparatively young.

When Europeans first saw virgin forest they saw dollar signs rather than great natural beauty and cut the old growth forest without any concerns for the environmental consequences, and this major occurrence passes today almost without comment – there are still trees here, and for most of us that’s all that matters, although the difference this has made to our Planet is considerable. I’ll discuss this further the next time I write and will confine my present comments to the Skookumchuck Narrows.

It is just over 4K through the forest to our destination. We walk along slowly – it takes just over an hour, but this is not a difficult journey, with only the slightest undulation along a well used trail.

The beauty of a stream running through the forest.

You can hear the tumult of water before you see it, which prepares you for a reveal as you come out of the wooded area onto a rocky platform on the inlet, elevated above the rapidly flowing water that will peak on both ebb and flood tides. There are others who have made the journey to watch the present event on an ebb tide. The drop in water elevation from one end to the other can be a couple of metres, with a flow that reaches as much as 16 knots (around 30 K/hr), and is certainly the most impressive tidal rapids I have seen.

Jen going with the flow at the “Skook”.

On the ebb tide we are watching eddies and currents of choppy water that start predictably in one or two areas and then move rapidly along to  form whirlpools that increase in intensity as they flow on past us.

Some distance across the country Canada offers an experience on a completely different scale: Niagara Falls. Back in January of 1987 when I took this picture I was more concerned about freezing to death than containing my enthusiasm. I understand the falls may also be seen from the United States and that there are three of them, unless of course this is all fake news and I’ve been mislead.

Back on the West Coast around 30 years later we are still at Skookumchuck Narrows, the other viewers have now gone, but we stay and watch as the water disturbance begins to subside. The whole event attracts a variety of sea life to feed in the area, but from our vantage point above water we have seen no sign of this.

Small boats and boarders do occasionally venture through, but did not while we were there; only a single boat took the chance during the hour and a half that we were viewing and certainly took a wide berth of the most active area. Personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to attempt the journey on a board as there is ample opportunity to end up in a whirlpool on what for me would be the wrong side of the surface, and it would be a long time before you get spat out at the other end of the experience.

Whirlpools form and flow as they move from right to left before us. If it was possible to make the event look more dramatic, then sadly I didn’t manage it. 

The background scar on the landscape also distracts from the event: there is some form of extraction on the opposite bank. We don’t appear to be able to escape at least some form of natural plundering on the Peninsula and if we waited long enough, a barge carrying gravel away from Sechelt might also pass through here as this is the only waterborne exit from the inlet.

On the full tide rather than the ebb, the water is said to become rougher and more choppy, but I haven’t witnessed such an event as  one visit is enough for me. The experience is interesting, but not one of the most dramatic events that nature has to offer: a video provides a little more drama than does a still which unfortunately cannot capture the power that the constriction on the water flow exerts at the Narrows.

Don’t get me wrong 200 billion gallons of water flowing through the Narrows between the Sechelt and Jervis Inlets during such a short period of time is impressive, but sometimes a picture is just not enough to capture a dramatic event – you really do have to be there. If you do decide to make the journey, then check the best days and times to do so, because observing the tides at their peaks will make all the difference to your experience.

 

 

 

Travels Around An English Spring…. Graveyards, and the Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes’ Pipe.

Each year I return to Southern England from British Columbia to visit my father, and during late March and early April catch up on what an English spring has to offer. This year was a bit different though, I arrived a little later than usual to attend my step-mother’s funeral and take time with my father after the sad event.

My father lives to the west of Southampton Water close to the New Forest; and having spent a lot of time filming and taking photographs in the area, I can seldom resist the opportunity to visit places familiar to me from childhood.

Natural England have calculated that The New Forest requires around 5,000 stock animals (ponies and cattle) to maintain its character, but today that figure is likely to be nearer 13,000 animals, munching away to create a cropped green baize that is snookering the ecology of this complex environment, but I still enjoyed being out there despite a degraded habitat.

 My wife’s mother lives to the east on Portsmouth Harbour and travelling back and forth between my father’s home and hers provided a good opportunity to witness this years unusual spring as a great many wild flowers were showing much earlier than expected.

On the 6th of April we drove from Fareham out through the Meon Valley and despite the dullness of the day the views were spectacular with hedgerows full of flowering Blackthorn Prunus spinosa, producing one of the most impressive Hampshire Blackthorn seasons I have ever witnessed.

Blackthorn (also known as sloe) in bloom close by Exton in the Meon Valley.
Hawthorne leaves are a very distinctive shape, these photographed on the Forest the same day as the blackthorn flowers below; it will be some days before the Hawthorne flowers begin to show.

I often see complicated descriptions on how to differentiate Blackthorn from Hawthorne Crataegus monogyna, by comparing flowers, but the two are easily identifiable once you are aware that Hawthorne comes into flower much later in the spring than does Blackthorn, and usually after the blackthorn flowers are over. The leaves of Blackthorn always appear after the flower have opened and appear ovate. Hawthorne leaves always show before their flowers and have characteristically indented margins (see picture), and so there is really no need to complicate the issue by making comparisons between flowers. Hawthorne is the only British plant to be named after a month; and the name of May tree is an indication as to when it was once most commonly seen in flower.

By the 17th of April the Blackthorn had been in flower for some time, and only now are some leaves beginning to show.

Blackthorn and Hawthorne are frequently used for hedge laying and we were able to see a good example at Manor Farm close by the River Hamble, this before too many leaves had emerged to hide the detail. A properly laid hedge such as this will provide a structure that is impossible for stock animals to push through.

The cut to lay the hedge seems extreme, but usually such hedges survive, and more often than not, thrive.

A few days later I was back on the New Forest and quite disappointed by the amount of litter that had been scattered close by road sides, presumably thrown from passing cars. It is as if the British have no conception of how beautiful their countryside is and one of the reasons I was happy to leave the U.K. I became genuinely disturbed by the British attitude towards littering… People seem happy to live with it and I have no idea why.

Verging on the dangerous, especially where animals are grazing.

There are of course a great many well intentioned individuals trying to clear up the rubbish, but as quickly as they pick the stuff up, others are chucking it down. I am pleased to say that on my most recent visit I noticed an improvement from last year, but there was still no shortage of trash along verges, particularly at cattle grids where vehicles inevitably slow, providing a better opportunity to hurl litter out without fear of it blowing back in.

N.b Rubbish is not of course entirely a U.K. problem. I note that Canadians produce more of it per head than almost any other country, but they dump far less of it along roadsides than do the British. Canada it seems has accidentally sent quite a lot of its waste off to the Philippines, which, at the time of writing, has been piling up in boats along the docks of Manila. According to the country’s president it is no longer welcome, and might soon be returned to where it came from.

More generally The New Forest appears little changed from the way it was when I was here last spring, its natural environments remain in decline, which is almost entirely due to overgrazing: I know I have written about this before and was hoping for an improvement, but on visiting a favourite area  in the Beaulieu Marchwood area I discovered that nothing much had changed. If I was cynical I might think that somebody in authority was getting paid to claim overgrazing is not really a problem when so clearly it is; but of course I wouldn’t say that because such a thing would be unthinkable. What must be happening is that somebody with a greater understanding of New Forest management than I, is attempting something imperceptibly clever that I’ve failed to recognise. Whatever I might feel about the situation, there are many who don’t recognise the problem, in particular some of the commoners who receive subsidies to graze their stock on the Forest in what in recent years has become alarmingly high numbers.

Frog spawn in a slow flowing stream from which most of the tadpoles have developed and resting on weed beneath this gelatinous egg mass.

I noticed along my favourite little slow flowing stream that common frogs had spawned. I saw three clumps where it usually shows up early in the year. I first started noticing frog spawn here in the early 1970s, but I didn’t see any sign that toads had spawned which I would have expected, and there were no grass snakes or adders in the area, although both were once common here. The only other wild animal I noticed was a male brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni in flight, clearly on its way to somewhere far more interesting.

A broader stream once well protected from visiting stock by dense undergrowth is now a barren wasteland. I mentioned in a previous article watching a manic male adder moving rapidly through a scrubby bush here, stopping only briefly to take a look into a dartford warblers nest, but there is no chance of seeing anything like that now.

There is no cover along the edge of this stream – its banks have been broken down by stock animals visiting to drink, which is bad news for both natural diversity and water quality.

There was no sign of any ground nesting birds on the open heath… which is now almost completely lawn; and nearby oaks have been felled close by the stream. I have always understood the need for heathland management, but prefer it when habitats are as diverse as possible. I really don’t see any environmental improvements in a place I know quite well, but with only around 50 years making observations of this unique habitat I should perhaps ask myself – what do I know?

Felling oaks here might simply be a question of management; growing in such a wet area they might have been suffering from rot, but why not leave the felled trees as a natural resource?

My father and mother-in-law have a combined age of about 190 but despite this they have interests that usually get me out and about. My father likes to lunch in old pubs and my mother-in-law particularly enjoys being driven through the English countryside. We combine the two and I stop to take pictures whenever I see something interesting, although I restrict my activities to just a short distance from the car.

A Rhodesian Ridgeback in The Trusty Servant. Minstead. His owner told me that he weighs around 9 stone and he eats lions for breakfast.

This spring, I’ve eaten in a lot of old timber framed buildings, seen a lot of dogs lying on flagstone floors; and I’ve travelled through large tracts of Hampshire countryside witnessing a wide variety of  wild-flowers – many in churchyards. I have very little interest in Gods of any kind, but find myself comfortable in places such as these: it is as if time has stood still for a very long time and you can glimpse the past, even if my view is an over simplified romantic version of the truth as moats of dust float in the coloured light of stained glass windows, and old churchyards tumble with a deluge of beautiful flowers.

It is inevitable that my father and I will visit St Nicholas Church at Brockenhurst, because. I spent the best part of a year making a B.B.C. natural history film there – and the other thing – my mother is buried in the graveyard.

St Nicholas is said to be the oldest Church in the New Forest.
Peter Reeves with his dogs in the churchyard 1983.

This yard is particularly spectacular because an effort has been made to leave cutting the grass until the spring flowers are over. I was not surprised to see celandine, wood anemone and primroses at this time of year, but was too late for most of the daffodils, which was no great loss as I have a preference truly wild flowers.

Certainly  things have not changed a great deal since I filmed here through 1983; back then the real guarantee that natural history would come first and the yard remain un-mowed until the spring flowers were over was the presence of Peter Reeves who was then looking after the yard. Peter was a knowledgable naturalist and sympathetic to all the wildlife that lived here.

By the 7th April 2019 bluebells were beginning to show amongst wood anemones and celandines in the old yard.

This greater understanding of managing natural areas has been taken up by many churchyards with the tidy brigade held at bay until the bluebells have gone over; this more sympathetic environmental approach during spring is steadily catching on and preserving the beauty of a great many wildflower habitats including roadside verges.

I can’t feature every churchyard I visited, and so I’ve gone for a trio of Hampshire ‘All Saint’s’.

All Saints Dibden is tidy around the edges but much has been left uncut to benefit spring flowers.

According to a lady putting flowers on a grave in the churchyard ‘All Saints’ has just two people in the congregation for a Sunday service: a reminder that low attendance is now a common problem for many country churches around Britain. If I lived close to a very old church that was as beautiful as this one, maybe even I’d attend if I thought it would help keep the place open. So many old churches are now being sold off to become domestic dwellings and in future we might not be able to visit them so freely. This will be a great loss.

A place for primroses in All Saints chruchyard.

We go in search for history in books and on the internet but so much is still contained in beautiful old buildings like ‘All Saints’. Inside the church the incumbents are listed from 1262 to the present day.

The climate is beginning to change

and there is little it seems that we as individuals can do about it, the problem requires a worldwide and concerted effort to halt the transformations that are now occurring. In this part of the world without so many frosty mornings in early spring wild flowers have been coming into flower much earlier than they once did. Some animal species such as amphibians have behavioural queues for activities such as spawning that are often set by day length rather than temperature – this is the reason some amphibian species may be seen gathering beneath ice in preparation for spawning even when it is still very cold.  The opening of  spring flowers on the other hand is in part controlled by temperature and in northern temperate regions spring flowers have been opening earlier year by year in line with the warmer conditions. During my April stay in southern England, wood anemone, celandines and  wood violet were doing nicely and by the third week of the month bluebells were in flower with their arching racemes beginning to stand upright.

By the 17th March bluebells were well developed in woodland close to the Hamble River.

The problem with this eventuality is that nectar food sources concentrated as they are now, earlier in the spring, may mean less availability for insects later in the season with some pollinating insects experiencing a restricted choice: many insects are programmed to visit flowers at a certain time and pollinators might find their usual food source either past its best or no longer available. There will of course be a degree of adaptation to changing circumstances but this more condensed flowering period is a novelty that is increasingly becoming the norm.

Primroses Brockenhurst churchyard 7th April.

My mother-in-law during our drives through the Meon Valley and along the Hamble River was delighted to see so many early flowers, but she won’t have to rely on flowering plants for her lunch through May when the many we are presently  seeing have gone over.

My father and I in search of the missing dead.

On one of our days out we were driving out of Fareham, this a place where my father had spent most of his childhood , and  it wasn’t long before we were passing a cemetery and my father said, “The last time I was here was in the 1930s at a relatives funeral”. I at once pulled the car over. “Do you remember where the burial was?” I asked. “I think so”. he replied. and so I drove back and we started our search, but it was fruitless; if there had been a gravestone to commemorate the event, it had long since gone.

A grey day in Wickham Road Cemetary where some of my relatives are buried.

Wickham was coincidentally also our next destination, but a much better end point than the Wickham Road Cemetary’s version of a next and more final destination.  We were soon travelling to a far more agreeable place – the tea rooms in the Hampshire village of Wickham which was not so very far away, and who cares that we’d only recently managed to get through a pub lunch; certainly not my father who has never been known to refuse anything that looks like a bun or an ice cream. A jam and cream filled scone would  not to sit long on any plate within an easy reaching distance.

On a cool afternoon younger, braver people eat outside at Lilly’s, but less resilient older types choose to be on the warmer side of the wall.

When our children were small my wife and I spent endless afternoons in search of a perfect cream tea, travelling through Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight… So, we’d been here before as a family. Our most favoured tearooms usually involved a garden where we would mostly be at war with local wasps, but on this cool spring day we preferred to eat indoors, although inside or out, a cream tea in Wickham has so far never been a disappointment to me.

The second ‘All Saints’.

Once fuelled up we continued to drive on through the local area. Our final final destination would be East Meon where I have in the past also worked on film projects at All Saint’s Church.

All Saint’s at East Meon is architecturally, one of the most interesting churches in England.
Sheep grazing in All Saints churchyard 1994.

I’ve photographed sheep grazing in this yard on various occasions – by selective grazing they maintain the churchyards meadowland habitat. I have also filmed jackdaws nesting in one of the tower’s upper round windows where walking out along a beam was scary enough, but when that beam turned out to be an unattached plank which began to swing down as I moved along it, I suddenly became a cartoon character scrambling back from whence I’ had come to avoid a potentially more permanent stay down in the yard.

My stay in England then was for me a pleasant trade off. Most days I’d visit a churchyard and most days eat with my father in a local pub

One of my favourite pictures was taken on Park Hill to publicise a film with my son and I looking out over All Saints Church East Meon during the summer of 1994.

Completing the ‘All Saints Trio:

For a while I’d be thinking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave at All Saints, Minstead, which is yet another beautiful old New Forest church and as it is not very far from my father’s home we decided to make an early evening visit and then go on to the pub.

Two years ago my father sat in front of Conan Doyle’s grave with my step-mother, but this year sits alone.

Sir Arthur’s body was originally buried in the garden of his nearby family home – it is claimed upright, in line with his rather unusual beliefs. He was a spiritualist and when his old home was sold in 1955 his body was re-interred at ‘All Saints’ Minstead: this was not entirely a popular decisions as his beliefs were even more unusual than the Christian ones in death he appeared to be involuntarily joining. His body was sited  far enough away from the church so as not to offend  Christian sensibility; but we can’t be sure what Sir Arthur thought about the move; as far as we know he has not been in contact with the living to express his opinion. There is no doubt however that these beautiful surroundings are a fitting place for the man who created the world’s most famous fictional detective.

All Saints Church, Minstead.

During my childhood it did not escape my notice that my father would occasionally smoke a Sherlock Holmes pipe; and far more recently I noticed that people were leaving pipes on Conan Doyle’s grave, which to my mind were the wrong sort of pipes; and so it was I went in search of my father’s, which I considered to be the most authentic – ‘the one true pipe’. After a bit of searching I found it in the top of my father’s wardrobe and brought it with us to be photographed at the grave, much to the amusement of my father; which was far and away the best reason for doing it, because keeping him cheerful was the priority.

The ‘One True Pipe’.

Nothing is quite as it seems though: according to Conan Doyle, Holmes smoked several different types of pipe including a long stemmed cherrywood, a clay and a briar, but the ‘one true pipe’ as far as I was concerned was the curved one I’d seen in film versions of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories. With just a little research I soon discovered that a pipe with a curved stem makes it easier for an actor to speak with when held in the mouth – it is a question of balance – and it seems this form does not come directly from the original stories. It was suddenly clear that  I had preconceived ideas concerning ‘the one true pipe’ and was wrong. There is a lesson here for us all. Nevertheless, I can’t stop thinking that ‘the one true pipe’ is the most photogenic of all the possibilities… surely that’s worth considering, at least as a reason for not being entirely wrong…

In the grand scheme of things I wasn’t that concerned about the fictional use of a pipe; my main reason for being in the churchyard was, as usual, dictated by an interest in natural history. I have always been fascinated by lichens growing on gravestones and those in  ‘All Saints’ churchyard are quite spectacular.

The study of lichens to see how competitive they are might in future be used as a model to gain a better understanding of how life forms cope when living in stressful communities.

Providing a tombstone is cut from soft limestone or sandstone rather than a hard polished granite, it will in Britain’s climate provide ideal conditions for lichen growth, but this can be a slow process. Lichens exist by mutualism, they are formed by a stable symbiotic relationship between  algae and fungi which produces an organism that is very much different from its component parts.

Lichens on a tombstone or abstract art?

Living immobile on a rock through the varied extremes of the seasons is a clever trick if you can pull it off; and I will admit that for many years I thought that the birds I saw landing on stones in churchyards were providing nutrients in their droppings that would aid growth, but as lichens do not have roots and rely almost entirely upon photosynthesis for their nutrition I should probably reconsider what I have supposed without the benefit of evidence: sometimes it’s hard to let go of preconceived ideas, whether they be a doctrinal belief, authenticating pipes in fiction, or how a lichen gains its nutrition. I know for a fact that in the last case, proof will come from careful observation and science will probably have all the answers; but it is the one subject out of all those mentioned that will interest most the least.

As the light faded we finally made it to the Trusty Servant.

Our minds do not usually favour truths over a good story and so if I am going to feature lichens there is a better chance of interesting readers if I happen to mention Sherlock Holmes’ pipe.  

With regard to lichens benefiting from the presence of bird droppings: I have just found a scientific paper that shows that bird droppings do increase the growth of some lichen species and slows the growth of others.

To be honest, I probably didn’t need to travel a quarter of the way around the world and stand in an English churchyard to discover that what I think I know, isn’t really what I know at all; and if this doesn’t quite work for me, maybe I could ditch science altogether and go with a more general approach by looking at the many alternative facts, that given half a chance, will suddenly pop into my mind.

 

 

Dances With Lions.

Everybody who meets a lion in the wild has a story to tell and I am no exception – all the pictures of wild animals were taken on the Serengeti (apart from the Cape buffalo photographed at Ngorongoro Crater).

When I was a child my first sighting of a lion was on a Tate & Lyle golden treacle tin, the one that showed up on the table whenever there was steamed pudding. On the front was a picture of a male lion surrounded by a swarm of bees: this, I was told showed the lion to be the king of the jungle because nothing could bother him; but the truth is rather more shocking: the lion is dead and the bees have come from his body – this image relates to a biblical story involving Samson killing a lion – on his return to the body he noticed, as it says on the tin, that ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. I had not an inkling of this symbolism when I was a child, but it didn’t matter, there are few animals, dead or alive, more impressive than a lion, especially when you are small.

Throughout my childhood I was taken to the zoo to see leopards, jaguars, lions and tigers. This wasn’t pleasurable – it was just something everybody did.

Not long after I was taken to see caged lions at the zoo, back then this was not an edifying experience as big cats were invariably kept in small enclosures surrounded by bars. The pacing creatures were dead behind the eyes, and what was left of their minds seemed damaged.

Lions featured only occasionally during my childhood and apart from a few soft toys all were caged. When safari parks began to open, living conditions improved, but most captive cats didn’t lead natural lives; my impression was that many were bored and just waiting patiently for their keepers to make a mistake.

When I grew up and began photographing wildlife, I experienced big cats both in zoos and in their natural habitats; and without doubt some of the captive animals were more dangerous than their counterparts in the wild, although for me, it was a long time before I saw them wandering free.

By my mid-twenties the closest I managed to get to a lion was when working at a television station. I stole away from my office to join the circus. A ring had been set up in one of the studios and as the lions came into their arena they passed along a flimsy wire passage and I stood at a small gap between the two as they rushed by; it was an exhilarating moment, but hardly natural, and it would be another four years before I got close to big cats in the wild after receiving the telephone call of a lifetime.

When the call came early in 1979 I was working in a high-rise building close by London’s South Bank, writing film scripts for the Government’s Central Office of Information – a job that I wasn’t very good at. I remember thinking we were all hurtling towards 1984 and my position was similar to Winston Smith’s in George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name, although in truth my role in government propaganda was fairly harmless, nevertheless I was struggling with it. This was my chance to get valuable production experience, but all I wanted to do was get away on some expedition or other, and with my limited finances that was just wishful thinking. The desire to walk out and never return was extreme and the unexpected incoming call was about to make that possible. It came from BBC Natural History Unit producer Barry Paine who had seen some of my film work and was now inviting me to join him and a small crew on a safari to Tanzania. Barry was making two wildlife documentaries on the Serengeti and was offering me the chance of a lifetime. So, I finished up my work, said goodbye to my colleagues and walked out: my lifestyle had taken a turn for the better and pretty soon I would be travelling to remote destinations to film the natural world.

In 1979 the Serengeti wasn’t the easiest place to get to from Britain, it was an expensive destination and once you’d made it to Tanzania there were still difficult roads to negotiate, especially during the rainy seasons which come twice a year, but it hardly ever rains for long. One day there might be a downpour, then things clear very quickly and this can make travelling a matter of pot luck.

After rain, routes into the Serengeti were often flooded, with some people reduced to carrying their beds from one place to another.

To the north, Kenya’s National Parks were an easier option for tourists – essentially this is a matter of travelling times – nobody wants to spend half their holiday just getting too and from their destination, but places worth seeing often take longer to get to… It’s part of what makes them special.

We would visit the Serengeti twice over the course of a year to cover both a dry and a wet season, with a total safari time measuring in months rather than weeks – the trips were well beyond anything I could afford, especially to move the equipment – back then the flight excess baggage bills alone would have covered a substantial down payment on a very nice house, but the experience of a special place is always worthwhile, especially when somebody else is paying.

We travelled from London Heathrow to Kilimanjaro Airport and then drove to the old hunting capital of Arusha, then a two day journey to Seronera Wildlife Lodge in the middle of the Serengeti: the length of the journey being entirely dependent on the state of the roads.

Ngorongoro

Moody old Cape buffalo up on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.

We had an overnight at a Lodge on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and I instantly got myself into trouble, stepping out of the vehicle and walking too close to a Cape buffalo to take a picture. Old bulls pushed out of the herd on the crater floor often come up to the rim to feed and invariably they are bad tempered.

An old buffalo taken in fading evening light was worth a picture, but not a trampling. We had heard a story about a man who had laid down when he was charged by a Cape buffalo because he had been told that the horns were too curved to do him very much damage and it worked, but not entirely – the buffalo proceeded to trample him to a pulp.

One minute the old bull was eating grass, the next, his head was up and he was moving towards me, but his intent didn’t seem convincing. A group of locals close by went suddenly quiet, I could see they were interested in my unfortunate situation as I was a good deal nearer the buffalo than any building or vehicle. There didn’t seem much else to do but stand my ground and whether this tempered the creature’s mood I will never know; I thought it more likely that this bulky animal couldn’t be bothered to relocate to where I was standing. I didn’t maintain eye contact, looking away to avoid challenging him… maybe he’d think I wasn’t even there! The standing around seemed to go on for an eternity, but outside of my world, it was probably no more than thirty seconds. Tired of looking at me, the bull snorted, waved his head a little and then went back to eating grass. The light was now almost too poor for an exposure, but I took a couple of pictures anyway and then slowly backed away. Two of the boys who had been watching, whistled through their teeth and were now cheerfully smiling at my good fortune. It was unusual for me to do something without calculating the risk, but the experience proved a positive one – a reminder that you must never take Africa for granted: despite its many wonders, a disrespected Africa can ruin your day.

My colleagues Hugh Maynard, Robin Pellew and Barry Paine looking down into the crater.

Our small team of four went off to our rooms and within an hour were ready to walk the short distance to the dinning area – this a large thatched building busy with pictures taken by photographers who had been working the area for many years.

Before we started out, Robin had heard a knocking at his door and thinking this the arrival of another member of our party he had opened it, only to find an old bull standing directly in-front of him, the animal’s horns spanning too widely to enter the room. ‘So, what did you do?’  I later asked him. ‘I just shut the door’, he replied. Shortly after this incident we were gathered together and escorted to the dining area by a very small man carrying a very big spear.

My introduction to East Africa had been a little absurd, but there wasn’t a hint of any of that in the breath taking views. In spite of an increasing human population, there are large tracts of wilderness that remain intact. The National Parks however face many problems – local people have for generations driven their stock animals across borders into conservation areas, and poachers are regular visitors. Sadly, the same old problems that have existed for generations are still around and they have been increasing in recent years.

To come across a lion on the open Plain is very special, even if he’s seems a bit bored by it all.

Barry had decided to give a new operator a chance at organising our safari, and in doing so he probably achieved a really good deal: our safari was by no means plush, but the staff were at least reliable and initially things ran very smoothly, but it soon  became clear that servicing our remote locations was going to be a problem: at one point we ran out of food and had to eat rotten meat that tasted of ammonia – for safety reasons we ate it almost burnt to a cinder. In the end, all that was available was a local maize porridge, which I would happily fill up on at any time of the day until even that ran out: the situation was less than ideal and we all came away a little thinner than we started out.

The experience was worth it though, because back then the Serengeti was mostly unbroken grassland; more recently some areas have become criss-crossed with tyre tracks, but I remember the Savannah as pristine; at no time did we see another vehicle or person who wasn’t a member of our team (apart from a couple of scientists who were working on ecology projects). The Serengeti seemed, back then, very isolated from the outside world: it was the first place I had visited so completely free from sound pollution that I was conscious of my heart beating.

Wildebeest on migration move quickly past a kopje, probably because such areas provide good cover for the predators that prey upon them.

Our Safari organiser was a South African – I’ll call him Donald (although that wasn’t his real name).  Around Donald unusual things would happened: he had for example a fairly cavalier attitude to the potential dangers of the Serengeti. On several occasions when his vehicle broke down, he would walk miles to get to the camp; and on one occasion arrived so close to nightfall, he was followed in by a gaggle of lions.

One of our camps was set at the remote Simba Kopje: the name in itself should have been a give away, but the lions that hung out there were disturbed when the camp was being set up and they moved out, but after a week or so began to return to this their favoured rocky outcrop.

We camped close by various kopjes, all were unambiguously functional and mostly adequate for our needs.

Almost any sound is enough to wake me from sleep and hyenas would occasionally do so when padding past my tent at night. These carnivores are more closely related to cats than dogs, but classified in a family of their own. We always referred to them as paddies, perhaps because of their facial similarity to Paddington Bear, or maybe it was for no better reason than they would pad about the place – I never thought to ask.

Early on, we heard there had been a recent attack on a young German who was sharing a tent with a friend. He was keen on astronomy and had been sleeping with his head outside of the tent in order to gaze up at the stars as he dropped off to sleep. One morning his friend, who slept entirely under canvas, unzipped the entrance to discover that the star gazers head had gone. Whether it is possible for a hyena to remove a human head without disturbing its associated body is open to question, but this was not an encouraging story to hear at a time when hyenas were coming close by your tent on a nightly basis. 

Spotted Hyena were frequent visitors to our camp at night, but I only attempted pictures of them during the day.

On a night to remember

I heard a hyena pad along close by the end of my tent, its proximity was unnerving, but there was worse to come. I was laying awake thinking the hyena might return when quite suddenly there was a considerable noise and several things began to go over around the camp… in particular around a tent just one down from mine. Then I heard a voice, ‘Shoo, shoo …’ it was saying, and I undid my tent flaps to see what was going on: it was the time of a full moon which made observations easier, and to my surprise Donald, who was a slight wiry man, was running about after a lioness. I soon noticed that there were several more, he’d be following one and then suddenly turning he’d run after another – it was madness. So far the cats were just trying to avoid Donland’s attentions, but how much longer they’d put up with him was anybodies guess. Everybody else in the camp appeared to have gone mute, and because Donald was now quite close to my tent I felt obliged to try and talk him back into his – it was the least I could do as I certainly had no intention of going out to help him. I began speaking in an odd, but to my mind, encouraging whisper. ‘Get back in your tent Donald – you know you have to stay in your tent’. This one way conversation continued for some time, but to no avail; Donald took absolutely no notice and continued with his hectic shooing. The light was hyper-luminous, the moon casting long black shadows across the landscape as Donald continued to participate in this strange hypnotic ‘ballet of the big cats’. Before me were all the features of a surrealist dream, the only problem – I was wide awake. It seemed extraordinary, to be thousands of miles from my usual life experiences, in an East African wilderness trying to encourage a small man not to dance with lions in the moonlight.

At night we didn’t usually wander on the kopje that was close by our tents, but with the full moon Hugh is still up there looking out over the plain at a quarter past lion.

The next day we found Douglas in the back of his Land Rover – he told us that on the previous night he had been lying on his camp bed when several young lionesses had started playing around his tent – I remember the relief that it was his tent and not mine. Donald remained calm until his tent started to lurch about, but the final straw was a front paw tearing through canvas close by his head, which quite understandably caused him to lose his cool and burst out into the moonlight and run about like a madman.

It’s one thing to sit and watch large wild animals pass 20 metres from an open ended dining tent before darkness falls, but quite another to have your tent invaded by lions at night. This situation helped us decide to move away from Simba Kopje for a while. We did however return and on our second trip we also camped again beside Simba Kopje (not the outcrop of the same name said to look like the one in Disney’s animated film ‘The Lion King’). There were always lions moving about at night moving through the various kopjes, but we never had a second break in.

It was not uncommon  for us to lie on our beds in the dark listening out for three single males that were wandering our area; we would be assessing whether they were coming in our direction or moving away. From a distance their low bellowing contact calls could be heard carrying for miles across the open plain; and there were often several minutes between vocalisations, but never was there a time when these contact calls didn’t sound close – and when they were, it was almost as terrifying as having a lion in your tent. Our cook was philosophical about the situation – telling me in all seriousness, that a bellowing lion always sounds close, but there was no need to worry until you could smell his terrible breath.

I preferred to work the expansive flat topped Kopjes rather than those that were a mass of strewn boulders – they allowed for a clearer view of what was around. I saw both baboons and hyenas moving across this one, but never were there any sudden reveals of animals I didn’t want to see.

The one thing it was unwise to do too frequently on the Serengeti was to walk about by yourself, but it was often necessary for me to do so. The crew would drop me off at a location and then drive off for a couple of hours to film something else.

Usually I would wander alone, but sometimes our guide Isiaka would accompany me; he carried an old Lee-Enfield rifle to protect us – I think from poachers rather than big animals. We knew that most poachers were well armed and we didn’t want to come across them, but as we rarely went out at night when they were most likely to be active, there were never any problems.

Walking across the Serengeti is best left to the Maasai, but when you are filming small animals it is unavoidable.

Working kopjes on foot has its dangers – but it was the only way to get good shots of insects, spiders, reptiles and rodents; which usually require a short or macro lens rather than the long lenses used to film larger animals from a vehicle.  It was particularly foolhardy to spend too much time laying down without a lookout and this may be one of the reasons why smaller creatures are such frequently overlooked subjects here.

On one occasion I was set down beside a kopje with cameraman Hugh Maynard and he at once noticed a kestrel sitting on the branch of a tree growing up between two large rocks. Hugh suggested that I should walk up into the kopje where my presence might cause the bird to take off and improve his shot. As we weren’t regularly disturbing animals this didn’t seem unreasonable, but I needed to go deep into the rocky outcrop before I could get anywhere near the bird. All was going well until I came around a corner, and directly in my path was a male lion -and  I had interrupted his lunch. That he already had food seemed the only positive thing about my situation, because I hadn’t thought to bring a plate to the party. On my arrival his head jerked suddenly up and there was no doubt that we were both surprised to see one another: his eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up. It is certainly anthropomorphic to say, but his gaze seemed quizzical, and I was hoping that he wasn’t weighing me up as a potential meal. For sometime we just looked at one another and I was careful not to break eye contact. I at least hadn’t startled him enough to make him come towards me, and I slowly began to move backwards taking care not to fall over as I felt about with each footstep. As soon as I was around a corner and out of sight, I turned and started to run as best I could in the rock strewn kopje until finally emerging onto the savannah. Hugh was standing about 20 metres from the base of the rocks. ‘Did you get your shot’, I asked, ‘Yes thanks’, he said, looking absent-mindedly through his viewfinder at something else. ‘Why were you running?’, he asked, ‘Because there’s a lion in the kopje’, I replied. There wasn’t much else to be said as he was clearly concentrating on scanning across the rocks with a long lens. Not long after Barry arrived with the Land Rover and we got in and drove around to the other side to see if there was anything else to film and when we were about halfway around, there on the rocks was the lion – he had moved now to a more exposed position. ‘F— Me! There’s a lion in the kopje’. said Hugh. ‘I already told you that’ I replied. ‘I thought you were joking’  he responded, ‘you weren’t running fast enough’.

As things stand today the lion population on the Serengeti totals around 3,000 individuals, and combined with Ngorongoro holds the largest population of lions to be found anywhere in Africa.

In most places lion populations are seriously in decline, but on the Serengeti numbers are holding, despite many external pressures. National Geographic reported that there were 100,000 lions living in Africa during the 1960s, but only 32,000 were to be found at the end of 2012, the most likely reason for this loss was people pressure.

I won’t pretend that our involvement with a couple of natural history films back in 1979 was in any way consequential in conserving the Serengeti but it may have increased awareness, and certainly the experience provided me with a personal perspective on what was then a near pristine environment.

Every 30 years or so, we worry a little more about the changes each generation exerts on nature; with our observations usually recording a steady deterioration of ecosystems and the reduction of species within them. Worldwide this deterioration is rapidly accelerating, but once in a while somewhere special like the Serengeti holds out; nevertheless, there can be no certainties about the future and it is difficult to remain optimistic when the general trend continues to run so strongly against the natural world. 

The films we were making: ‘Tree of Thorns’ and ‘Kopje: A Rock for All Seasons’ both written and narrated by Barry Paine. First transmissions on BBC 2 during 1980.

 

 

 

When In Doubt – Go To The Beach.

I presently live in British Columbia, where the car number plates say ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ – but really, it isn’t like that down on the Lower Mainland where there’s a competition to see how quickly the whole area can be covered with houses; planning isn’t an issue though because there doesn’t seem to be too much of that – it’s just one big urban sprawl of grey and drab cow dung coloured houses, which, more often than not, are oversized for the land that they stand upon – it’s ugly stuff and to add to the nastiness of the burgeoning suburbs there is now a rat problem – these creatures seem to be almost everywhere. None of this to me appears very Canadian, but I come from another place and possibly another time.

Some local residents such as this barred owl are happy to see a few extra rats on the menu.

As every inch of wild space becomes filled in with development the bird population has gone into decline and this has been noticeable in just the eight years I have lived here.

The other day, a lady in a neighbouring garden was throwing huge chunks of bread from her balcony to feed the crows, and what they didn’t manage to eat would soon make a very fine supper for the rats.

With fewer natural spaces, it would be difficult not to notice a decrease of wildlife in urban areas. There are fewer coyotes in my area than there once were which is allowing the domestic cat population to rise. Three cats now regularly show up in my garden  to hunt the few remaining song birds that come to feed; or they will sit hopefully waiting under the hummingbird feeder…. Rats, crows and cats – each of these (when increased in numbers) are voracious predators of any animals smaller than themselves, and all are well catered for in suburban areas on the Lower Mainland. It’s a depressing situation.

A monster leaving the water on Crescent Beach.

So, what do you do when facing this sadly familiar land-based situation? You go to the beach is what you do, because here the tide comes in and out, making things just a little more difficult for humans to screw up. Mind you, we still do our best: there are often signs up along the front to let people know that the local waters are polluted and seafoods should not be gathered from the shoreline -these are good signs because they discourage people who think the only use for a beach is the collection of free food; and if there is no profit to be made from molluscs on the open market there is a chance that shore birds will be able to feed on their natural food without unnecessary competition.

My birthday falls in January, and if the weather is good I’m usually on the beach. My wife, daughter and l usually hang out somewhere on the coastline when our birthdays come around. This year mine arrived on a cool but not excessively cold day – the water was calm, but only a few ducks were bobbing on the water and apart from a single heron there were no other birds to be seen.

Surf Scoters moved slowly across the water.
A male bufflehead duck suddenly decided that he needed to be somewhere else.

We went back the day after because the weather was still pleasant and very mild for the time of year, but there was not a single duck to be seen, and on this second outing I was pushed to observe the gulls which are never my first choice for observation, but nevertheless it is interesting to watch any bird that is working the shoreline for molluscs on a rising tide.

Gulls waiting to feed on the bounty of a rising tide.

A lot of the time they scavenge along the shore for whatever can be found – easy meat that is past its best: an already broken mussel, or a recently dead crab, but the big prize – if they don’t manage to grab your pizza or ice cream (presently out of season), is a large healthy mollusc stimulated to life when the sea starts to flow in around them.

The cleverest gulls have learnt that if they bring their catch up the beach to where the sand ends and the stones begin (although some authorities believe the dropping to be random and is not selected by substrate), they can drop their packed lunch and let the force of gravity do the breaking – this they attempt repeatedly until the shell is smashed. Often it is necessary to drop a shelled creature just once to achieve a result, an activity that works best from a height – say 20 feet or more, but flying high can also be a problem because other gulls will often swoop in more quickly to claim the  exposed meal – there are always others loitering on the periphery that haven’t learnt the trick and rely entirely on larceny for their lunch.

The gull that operates a lower drop strategy may have to try several times to crack a shell open and in doing so they will expend more energy, but he or she stands a better chance of retrieving a meal before it is grabbed by a competitor because they have remained closer to their bouncing lunch-box. Success in life is all about working the percentages.

There’s a PhD here, ready and waiting for a student of zoology – that is, if it hasn’t already been done. The question is, what percentage of gulls know how to do the gravity trick, and, did they learn it by observing others; or is any part of the behaviour innate – perhaps it is a bit of both. Then there is the interesting question of whether it is more productive to be a clever gull or simply profit by being a thief? To answer such questions by observation and experimentation might also lead to a better understanding of more complicated issues – the evolution of behaviour for example. If only I had three spare years and a grant to take on the challenge.
Last year I was on the same beach in February when five young bald eagles were feasting off of a rotting fish carcass on the tide line – this too had been a competitive meal, made even more challenging by the arrival of a stupid woman who set her dog loose on the birds with the words, ‘Go and get em.’ The clueless but exuberant dog rushed forward; the eagles nonchalantly rose and the dog wondered where they had gone, this was a dog that couldn’t fly and did not have enough imagination to comprehend that other things might.  Once the birds were in the air, it was a case of out of sight out of mind and the dog just ran about sniffing unproductively at the salt wet sand. Had there been a fight – which I was rather hoping for – the dog would have been a goner and the headlines would probably have read: ‘Eagles Attack Dog On Beach’ – Women Heartbroken by Loss of Beloved Pet’. The more prosaic truth might have read, ‘Idiot Woman Encourages Stupid Dog to Chase Eagles’, or ‘Dog Duped by Unruffled Eagles Ability to Fly’… but neither of these made the news.

Despite the occasional idiot –

it is a delight to be out there on the beach, away from the urbanity of the rats, the cats and the dog poo, standing at the point where a land that has lost all sense of the natural world meets the wild; and in the calm reflection of a setting sun, this is a wonderful place to be.

 

Are we too Stupid to Save the Planet? Part 2 – Beyond Rational Thinking.

From Gambling to God.

For reasons that seem inexplicable there’s no shortage of stupidity…

It’s everywhere… In politics, in the pub, even on street corners – out there at this very moment there will be somebody carrying a placard that says, ‘The end of the world in nigh’… a person a bit like me perhaps, although my preference is to garner at least a little scientific evidence before making a startling claim.

There’s a man who stands at a road junction close to where I live, and he carries a sign that says, ‘Jesus Comes Soon’. I’ve been wanting to tell him that his wording could be better, but sadly the lights always change before I can get his attention. Incorrect use of language is not necessarily a sign of stupidity, but spending most of your waking hours at a road junction with a message from God is a whole other thing.

I could tell you I’d visited another planet, and I could go further by saying I’d photographed a light fitting in an LA restaurant to prove it. Questioning what you are prepared to believe is perhaps the best antidote to thinking stupid.

Stupid is as Stupid Does.

We all do daft things and for that reason alone we should be judged by our actions rather than our I.Qs. Social media perhaps demonstrates how to reward stupidity best. Clearly, gathering ‘likes’ from ‘like’ minded people reinforces beliefs in ill-considered opinions; and it works so well  because almost the entire world is available on line.

Even those who aspire to wallow down amongst the stupidest people on the planet can attract an appreciative audience. All that is required is an opinion, the ability to type into a computer…and then press enter. In an instant a nonsensical view is made available to a huge number of ‘like’ minded individuals… and that’s not such a good thing. Technology is there for us to make use of, and it isn’t technology’s fault that we find ourselves so frequently sinking to the depths rather than rising to a challenge.

You don’t always need to go down a small pier to discover there’s nothing at the end of it, unless perhaps you are looking for a boat ride. Thinking things through helps to avoid disappointment.

Nevertheless, for the more intelligent members of society who are operating above the lowest common denominator, it is still possible to get caught out when believing without evidence. Predicting the chances that something might happen is now fairly well understood, but many of us can still be fooled by the icing on the cake – all the sugary stuff that we just can’t resist absorbing.

Amongst the commonest of these beliefs is that we can somehow beat the odds using nothing more than our own good fortune at times when we just feel lucky. Gambling can be both thrilling and addictive, but when the odds are running against us, longterm outcomes can be disappointing and sometimes life changing. 

Do you feel lucky... or are you just out to make somebody else's day? But with a bit planning and foresight, it might not be you who has to dodge a bullet.
Do you feel lucky… or are you just out to make somebody else’s day? With a bit of planning and foresight, it might not be you who has to dodge the bullet.

Some argue that most accidents are avoidable,

especially for the brightest amongst us who think ahead and prepare accordingly; certainly insurance companies understand the odds of ‘getting things right’, because insurance depends for its success on predicting who will and who will not ‘get lucky’ – this because our genetic make ups and behaviours skew our lives towards certain outcomes which can be analysed mathematically. Most accidents are no longer regarded as random, even when the results are down to external forces. Closer to home a lot may now be predicted by looking at the genes we carry,  this just another tool for measuring when the odds are running against us.

With a rise in political correctness it has become increasingly difficult to ask questions about who is really being stupid and why; and sometimes when you get on the wrong side of the word it really does get personal. As I child I was told not to discuss religion or politics and the reason given was simple – ‘it upsets people’, but at an early age I wondered if this really mattered: when people are thinking and doing irrational things it makes sense to ask the question – why?

Sometimes a white bird isn’t a sign of spirituality it’s just a seagull after your chips.

God is right up there when it comes to asking questions and upsetting people. Those who hear voices in their heads or receive information from entities that can’t be demonstrated to exist are often thought to be suffering from mental illness, but sometimes not so much when they think God is speaking directly to them. It is difficult to understand why being religious gives you a free pass when it comes to irrational behaviour, which it must be said, cannot always be correlated directly with a person’s intelligence. Whether God exists or not is a controversial subject for some, but not liking the answers is never a good enough reason not to asking the questions.

Maybe this really is all there is and we should take time to enjoy it rather than spend too much time thinking wishfully about the other side of dead.

Influencing young minds sets beliefs systems for life – lying to children is the ultimate obscenity:

I must admit to having had an odd childhood. There were no small children living in my neighbourhood and consequently I had no regular contact with people of my own age until I went to school at the age of five. My mother did have a friend who would visit our house on Tuesday afternoons with her daughter and this was no doubt regarded as a social opportunity for us children, but all that I remember about the girl, is that without provocation, she hit me very hard over the head with an enamel bowl. It was an inauspicious introduction to other children and my first experience of being attacked by another human being.

I have only just noticed that Mr Tidridge’s influence extended to what I was prepared to wear on my head.

My best friend was and old neighbour – his name was Mr Tidridge and he had no children of his own which was unfortunate because he would have made somebody a great parent or grandfather. I called him Uncle Tid and spent most of my daytime hours in his presence – he was a man of infinite patience and taught me many things. We would spent most of our time  in the garden and I was probably four years old when this picture was taken, as I busily moved what I thought were logs, in my wheel barrow.

One day it came onto rain heavily and I remember we were standing in the doorway of an old shed when Uncle Tid said, ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’, and I was curious to know what this meant, which led him to give me a very basic outline of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Technically, his reference was off the mark, because ‘not a drop to drink’ refers to the presence of salt water. However, this mismatch between story telling and reality was harmless enough and there was no sense of indoctrination, it was simply the provision of knowledge through story telling.

It rained hard, but Mr Tidridge’s story did not put me in fear of being becalmed at sea without fresh water. But not long after I was about to go to school and there I would discover a whole new way of learning things – by indoctrination. I didn’t know the word for it back then, but I knew it was happening.

As far as I was concerned time with Uncle Tid was better spent than with children of my own age, but I’d failed to understand that being with other children was just another part of developing normal social behaviour; and when the time came I was ill prepared for the next step – going to school and meeting people of my own age.

This was for me a very different world from the one I was used to and with no previous meaningful contact with other children it was a difficult experience. To me, these little people all seemed so loud and rough, and the thing I remember above all else was that they somehow managed to make the plasticine smell of poo. I really wanted to get out of my new situation at any cost and cried every morning I was re-introduced to this new and disgusting world because there was no escape.

The small preparatory private school I attended was set up in an old Victorian property. It was a dark dismal house of horrors that still had most of its original decor and it smelt of dog – I had apparently gone back to another era; but this didn’t bother me that much because the house had one saving grace – it was full of old books and the second one that I read, quite by accident, turned out to be ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll, and at I at once found myself in a far more logical world than the one I was being forced to live in: the madness contained within its covers appeared to me to make perfect sense… I just loved it.

My version of one of Tenniel’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ illustrations breaks a few rules but remains true to the spirit of the rational madness of the story. Lewis Carroll, in the real world, was Oxford don Arthur L. Dodgson whose academic work revolved around maths and logic.

In the 1951 animated Disney version of Alice, Disney got the colour of Alice’s dress wrong, and I made a point of doing the same in my illustration, which was painted many years ago: the original John Tenniel colour illustrations of the dress were made in corn yellow. Blue might simply have been a better colour for movie illustration, but judging from the fact that Lewis Carroll’s name was mis-spelt in the front credits of the film there might be other reasons entirely. I mention these details because they are good examples of the things we often confuse with stupidity, namely ignorance and indifference and neither sit very well amongst the logical thinking of A. L. Dodgson.

Why does everybody in the Holy land look so white in the pictures? I’d ask… Where there are camels and dates the people are browner – I’d seen it in the other books… but in my Bible there was something wrong… and quite a lot else was wrong as well… but I never got a straight answer.

When I was forced to climb out from the organised madness of the rabbit hole, I returned to a more uncertain world, inhabited by a head mistress who was very religious; apart from her mother, she was the only teacher in the little school that she ran; and for some reason she was determined above all else, that I should be gifted a Bible – which unlike ‘Alice’ was a book I seldom opened; in particular the pictures representing the holy land were both insipid and unlikely – and to me everything about my bible seemed disagreeable – I just hated it, as I did the religious music, the Christmas carols and the prayers that went along with it. My life had been sabotaged by nonsense. Then, one day I was taken to a church service and saw adults that prior to this event I’d considered rational, but now here they were on their knees, heads bowed, mumbling in the direction of a carving of an almost naked man nailed to a cross. This was for me a genuinely shocking event and a real eye opener. It seemed that adults were just as unreliable as the children around me – they just hid it better. So much that was going on didn’t ring true… and I didn’t like it one bit. I was only seven years old, but the prevailing circumstances caused me to question everything I was learning, which must have been exasperating for any adult that came into contact with me. No adult was ever unkind during this time and in retrospect this seems remarkable because I must have been a precocious child, and my own experience of children of this sort has been that they are invariably awful. I was very polite and enjoyed education and for these reason alone I think  I was favoured. Certainly I hid my mistrust of some adults judgement when it came to religion, and could see no reason to believe in anything that wasn’t demonstrably true. However, I  didn’t make a big deal over things that clearly upset them: every morning I went along with saying the Lord’s prayer – with just one question on my mind – why didn’t they think this was twaddle?

As I got older I decided I would test everything that I was told by working things through from first principles, but  this wasn’t so easy, and I soon realised that I didn’t have the maths skills to do the job properly which made the uncertainty of not knowing for sure frustrating. Very soon after I discovered science, and the great advantage of science was that all the things I thought I needed to know had been tested and I was soon hooked on this more than useful way of dealing with information.

My head-mistresses inscription in the Bible I’d been given irritated me as much in childhood as it does as an adult.

Twenty-five years later I returned to visit my first school teacher and asked her directly if she was still a follower Jesus, and to my surprise she said that she wasn’t – she had stopped believing in Christianity some time previously and was now following the teachings of a Native American chief. I thought she was bats and wondered whether she was going to apologise for trying to fill my head, at a very impressionable age, with religious beliefs that she had since rejected, but it had clearly never occurred to her that the indoctrination of small children with information that she no longer believed had been an appalling act. To my mind  her lack of rational thought on the subject was clear stupidity, although I appreciate for some, this is a matter of opinion… But. is it really? I mean come on! We can’t continue to think the way people used to think in the 12th Century by following unsubstantiated views that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

I don’t think it unreasonable to ask why so many people follow horoscopes that cannot be accurately predicted; or  gamble in casinos that make no secret that the odds are stacked against their punters; and certainly it seems entirely reasonable to question why so many millions worldwide, pray to different versions of gods that rational thinkers might consider unlikely to exist. Clearly, there is a lot going on in our heads and it might be that faith, or certain types of  believing without question, are genetically selected for, because belief itself provides us with some selective advantage. Believing in a certain way without question might  indeed be making some of us feel more comfortable, but believing without evidence does not make things true and in many cases might be regarded as the most dangerous form of stupidity. When leaders claim their right to engage in conflict because ‘God is on their side’, we know there will be trouble; and when they think they’ve got evidence for ‘weapon of mass destruction’ without really checking, having God on your side gets them over the line. So often, the apparently harmless act of just believing can turn us into dangerously defective individuals.

As a child I was told that Christian belief was superior to other forms of faith – in particular any that worshipped graven images – but take a look around a few churches – in particular Roman Catholic ones and the hypocrisy is palpable. Many totems like those on the Pacific north west coast of North America are representative of spirit stories closely associated with the natural world and it is difficult to  argue that they are any less worthy of referencing belief than a devotion to a man nailed to a cross; and in my opinion their semi-abstract forms make them far more interesting.

Throughout many parts of Europe religious belief has been in decline for quite some time and the situation is also true for the United States although this to a lesser degree. The real question might be, not in asking what people really believe, but rather, how their belief is actually measured. Is it that  religious people are becoming less inclined towards belief, or is it that people who were not religious in the first place are feeling more comfortable about admitting it? 

In England during the middle ages, people were heavily penalised for not attending church, and might incur a heavy fine, but there was also the possibility of a physical punishment and in some cases death. Throughout Europe people were executed for their non-religious views, and it wasn’t so much down to ‘the not believing’, but more the consideration that they might be in league with the devil, a situation that seems almost too ridiculous to take seriously.

In Tudor times it was not uncommon to be fined for non-attendance at a church and it proved wise not to attract attention to yourself by openly questioning God because doing so could be life threatening. However, it does seem odd that with today’s level of education and understanding churches still have a place. The Roman Catholic Church has been largely discredited by repeated scandals, but when the Pope makes a statement his views still make the news, which suggests that despite a groundswell of unsavoury scandals Catholicism remains relevant to many of its followers.

There’s a lot of stuff going on that our brains are susceptible to and religious belief is high on the list.
Religious belief probably has a selective advantage, otherwise fewer people would make a habit of believing in things that aren’t likely to be true. 

Nobody can be sure there isn’t a god, but certainly there is no empirical evidence to support the idea that there is a benevolent one and any god that is looking out for an appreciative footballer giving thanks for having scored a goal whilst ignoring starving children somewhere else in the World, would seem to be no god at all. However, Dr Dean Hammer has claimed a God gene exits and labelled it VMAT2, and those who carry it are said to be more likely to believe in a greater spiritual force; the validity of this one off experiment has been disputed, but at least it opens up the possibility of further research into whether genes play a role in what we believe and how they operate. Certainly if there is a selective advantage to faith systems it makes sense to look for the mechanisms.

A religious order travelling to Seville Cathedral wearing pointy hats or capirotes during Holy Week. I’m guessing I can’t be the only one who thinks this rather spooky!

On the whole our brains like stories that make us feel more comfortable – having faith provides the opportunity to just believe which is far easier than formulating rational opinions. The term atheist is used to label those who don’t believe in God, but a belief in deities is a broad subject and a single word cannot cover all the bases.

If we are looking for truth, it should not be a question of believing or not believing, but rather asking why thinking rationally should need to be labelled. How in any case is it possible to claim that one supernatural God is more likely to exist than another.  The very idea that a benevolent god exists seems so unlikely it is surprising how many people find it necessary to argue that god is an illusion, but then again there are book deals, movie projects and comedy routines that indicate there is money to be made in disputing god’s existence.

Perhaps the important thing is not so much to consider the existence or non-existence of god, but rather, how the imaginary way that some people see a deity’s role in their lives affects the rest of us.

Some religious groups suggest that our dominion over the natural world is ‘all part of God’s plan’, while others claim that as we are the superior life form on the Planet, our manipulation of other species is innate, but should we follow either of these beliefs our behaviours will increasingly threaten natural environments and other life forms on the Planet. To see ourselves as above and not part of a natural system inevitably throws our continued existence into question.

If God has thoughtfully provided all of these ducks for my benefit, should I take time to enjoy them paddling by or just get on and eat them?

With or without God, our present relationship with the natural world indicates that it is necessary for us to make changes, but we continue to dither rather than behave proactively. In the face of imminent environmental disasters we do nothing because some of them haven’t quite happened yet… and we prefer to ‘hope’ that they won’t rather than ‘accept’ that most likely they will; which might be considered the ultimate demonstration of mass stupidity. The trick it seems is to pin down the essentials and then act upon them, but our minds appear to have evolved in a way that make this difficult to achieve. For some reason we prefer to try and fix things once they have gone wrong, rather than prevent them from happening in the first place.

Once we’ve seen the world through our eyes, our brains have to analyse the input and sometimes, ‘That’s All Folks’ doesn’t quite seem enough for us – surely there must be more.

Increasingly, thinking – stupidly or not – is becoming a political act, and unless science can provide a precise analysis of every situation that we face – unfavourable or not – it will be very difficult to overcome the surge of erroneous ideas that many use to support unsubstantiated beliefs. Scientific evidence is being increasingly challenged by nonsensical arguments, put forward by those gambling our futures on faith and anecdotal stories; they are attempting to impress and bewilder the ignorant amongst us by simply cherry picking what best supports their poorly thought out arguments, whilst re-engineering all of the most important questions to support the answers that their audience most wants to hear. Propagating nonsense is not necessarily a demonstration of stupidity, but if the rest of us are prepared to accept such views without recourse to the facts, then clearly it is.

We can usually discern what is and what is not real, but maybe on the really big issues we see ourselves as incapable of making a difference and consequently fall short when it comes to making good decisions.

Around the World, large numbers of  people do not appear able to move forward with rational thought based upon the evidence available because their decisions are often emotionally based. The question is, with education and reliable information so freely available, why are there so many people trying to think their way through life using faith based systems rather than thinking rationally?  

Unfortunately, the use of logic does not appear to be gaining traction at a time when essential changes in our behaviours seem essential: and the sad truth is that we may not be capable of thinking clearly enough to react appropriately to the environmental problems that we now face.

We can’t say for certain that a God didn’t create the Universe or the laws that govern its existence, but just because we don’t presently know all of the answers doesn’t mean that we should automatically jump to conclusions based on mythologies; and in any case a god working on this level would make no practical difference to our everyday lives. The possibility, that God is an interventionist and pervasive in daily outcomes also seems unlikely and not supported by any of the laws of science. The most likely possibility is that believing in sudden good fortune and divine intervention are simply illusions created by our minds, and there is a certain irony in that beliefs beneficial to our species in the past, may now prove detrimental to future success.

It might just be that the time has arrived to put magic and mystery on the back seat and allow critical thinking, based on scientific evidence, to drive us forward. For those who haven’t noticed, science has been doing this for a century or more, but increasingly we have chosen to ignore the less palatable truths that scientific discoveries have thrown up. I doubt that Jesus is coming any time soon, but major changes are on the way, and some of them might not be good; meanwhile the clock is ticking, with many of us still set on stupid time. The question is, can we learn to think more rationally, or are we stuck with what we’ve got?

 

 

 

Are We Too Stupid to Save The Planet? Part 1: The Limitations of Perception.

It’s nothing personal – lurking in every human brain is the potential for stupidity.

Most of us think, or at least hope, that there are people out there who are far stupider than we are; and the confidence this provides, helps us feel better about ourselves; which suggests perhaps that we don’t live so much in the outside World as much as inside our heads, experiencing a virtual world brought about by our brains interpretation of external stimuli. Whatever the case, few of us are critically analytical about the way we think, or question why our brains work the way they do.

It’s been a wonderful world, but can we think far enough ahead to keep it that way.

The prime function of any brain is to guide its owner through the complicated game of life, and it seems that our brains are quite good at dealing with short term minor events, but long term consequential issues often send us scurrying away to develop a wait and see policy, that more often than not, is ridiculously hopeful.

Although we have the potential to do so, we find ourselves disinclined to look ahead and think proactively about really big issues. In particular any thoughts that concern the viability of our planet and the life that lives upon it will not usually provoke actions beyond the most trivial. Some might suggest this to be a sign of stupidity as we have proven woefully incompetent at analysing problems that may have serious longterm consequences.  

We all have a certain potential for stupidity, and this might be something we just have to live with. The real problem is that ignorance can usually be remedied – but stupidity, like a dog at Christmas, is for life. 

You don’t have to be stupid to end up here, but those who are, will sometimes get there quicker.

On a day to day basis there is of course a limit to how stupid our behaviours can become before we are forced to pay the ultimate price of prematurely checking out; but, when we restrict our particular versions of stupidity to ideas rather than actions it is surprising how much leeway we give both ourselves and others, allowing us  to spread unsubstantiated views to just about anybody who will listen.

Clearly our brains are not perfect, and naturally disinclined to promote entirely rational behaviour; but nevertheless there is still a lot going on inside our heads. Most of our decisions are made by undertaking a complex series of rapid mental processes; which means that we often get things wrong, but at least we can do so very quickly.

Sense and Sense Ability.

The world about us is busy with information, but our perception of it is limited because our sensory ability is surprisingly narrow. Evolution it seems has adapted us to perceive enough of what happens around us to get by, but not so much as to overload our brains with superfluous data that won’t significantly improve our chances of survival.
This butterfly is sensing moisture and the minerals on which it is feeding through its feet. The tips of clubed antennae and compound eyes pick up sensory information in a very different way than we do and the insects nervous system will process the input in a way we may never fully comprehend. It sees the world in a way that effectively allows it to survive. and may prove better adapted to survive than we are having existed in it's present form for many milions of years longer than we have.
This malachite butterfly senses the minerals in the moisture that it is feeding on through its feet; and its clubbed antennae and compound eyes pick up information in a very different way from the way our senses do, with an interpretation that will always remain beyond our complete understanding; but  despite all of this, these beautiful insects react very effectively to their surroundings, having existed in their present form far longer than we have managed as Homo sapiens. Our species has done very well for itself, but has not yet stood the test of time.

We have been shaped by our senses,

and our behaviours limited by our sensory range which affects our brain’s perception  – because there is a lot of information out there that we are incapable of gathering. We can’t for example utilise the infrared part of the spectrum, as snakes do when sensing the thermal radiation emitted by their prey; or utilise U.V. light as bees do when they pick out guide markings on flowers when gathering food.

On some occasions it would be useful if we could echolocate like a bat, or have sense organs along our bodies as fish do, to taste our surroundings when swimming through water, but we can’t do either. Certainly our eyes do not see with the magnified detail of a hawk, and there’s no chance of smelling or hearing with the acuity of our dogs, but despite all of these sensory limitations our species has remained quite viable in the short term. But if we expect to continue, we will need to develop broader behavioural strategies to ensure our future, because the impact we are presently having on the Planet is down to our inability to change detrimental behaviours and this is beginning to let us down. In nature every species is destined to become extinct, but by the essential act of thinking, we should at least be trying to buck the trend.

.

Despite all of the information out there that we miss, our brains contribute impressively to external events by filling in the many gaps that our sensory abilities fail to perceive. Our eyes for example do not get to see everything that happens, but our brains usually make appropriate associations by logging into past experience before joining up the dots: this is particularly true when it comes to facial recognition, which has become a major feature of our social success –  what we don’t quite see, our brain smoothes over and this extraordinary ability will sometimes make us unreliable witnesses to what goes on around us.

What we think we see often falls short in the fine detail, because our brains constantly make things up to form a more complete picture and then commit this to memory; but recalling that memory will then be subjected to changes before the rejigged information is put back into storage – in essence the more times we recall an event the further it moves away from the truth. With this in mind, perhaps we should worry less about the tiny details that we miss and analyse more carefully the ones that we don’t.

Science demonstrates that our success does not rely entirely on deriving information in absolute form, and our survival has not so far depended upon knowing all of the facts; with our brains concerning themselves primarily with short term appropriate responses to each individual’s syntheses of reality. 

Our senses may not be perfect,

but the one thing we do excel at is having a generally high opinion of the achievements of our species. We should think more carefully though before allowing ourselves to become too satisfied with the length and breadth of our cleverness. The human brain is the most complex analytical organ that we have so far encountered, but with its imperfect reconstructions of the outside world we can sometimes appear a little stupid.

The most basic problem we face is that of perception.

Consider that we are floating across a lake and looking down into the water and see a number of  toads swimming this way and that in close formation – never mind that the image we see looks like something out of a digital dream populated by creatures straight out of a computer game from the 1980s.

Then the wind blows causing a series of waves to run across the surface of the water, which, rather like the toads appear too geometric  to be entirely believable, but just go with it for the sake of argument…

The sun comes out to add some sparkle to the little waves that run directly parallel to the lines of toads and the sparkle also forms at right angles, and now we should ask ourselves, are the waves really running parallel to the toads… I mean if you hadn’t seen the waves and the toads independently would you stake your live on the fact that they are?

Of course, what you may or may not see here really isn’t a measure of stupidity, but it is an indication that even at the simplest level our minds do not always recognise what is going on in the outside world. Our brains are fallible and on occasions  our interpretation totters on the edge of getting something very simple, very wrong. Such events are called optical illusions, but more properly they are optical effects, for which the brain is often responsible when it creates cognitive illusions to explain what it thinks we have seen.

My daughter was travelling in Central America with a  group of people quite unfamiliar with the area, when their driver cut power to the vehicle to demonstrate that at this particular point in the journey the vehicle was moving uphill without the power of the engine. He gave the explanation that at this place the Earth’s magnetic field ran close to the surface of the road and it was this that was drawing the vehicle up the incline. When my daughter returned in the evening to where we were staying she told me this interesting story without any sense that it was ridiculous. My reaction was unfortunate, ‘Are you stupid?’ I asked her, which didn’t go down very well as she really wanted to believe a story that had now largely been ruined by the truth, and needless to say my reaction earned me a number of bad parenting bonus points.

In retrospect I realised I had been unfair, because I had viewed the situation with the advantage of previous experience, as the very same thing had once happened to me, in another place, another time. I had the advantage of knowing that the earth’s magnetic field is a force that is spread across a huge area, but in any single place can be regarded as far weaker than even a small bar magnet, which cannot pull a large vehicle up an incline against the force of gravity. The effect is usually caused by the surrounding landscape making it appear as if something is moving uphill and is a genuine visual illusion.

 

These two pictures – taken on either side of the same road but in opposite directions (no bullet holes in one sign and a bend in the road in the other, suggest that I am not cheating) indicate that the road as it is going away provides perspective whilst taking the pictures from a standing position several feet above the road reinforces the illusion that in both directions the road is going uphill. I am not standing in a dip and the road isn’t, and in some places the landscape will amplify this illusion, which becomes extreme and stories get told.

At the time of my experience I was travelling as a cameraman and had the advantage of a spirit level on my tripod and another in my bag and I was able to demonstrated fairly quickly that our vehicle wasn’t being pulled uphill by the Earth’s magnetic field and was at once regarded as a killjoy, with none of the other passengers inclined towards a rational explanation, a response that I found rather odd. My daughter and I had experienced an illusion that could be easily demonstrated by performing a simple experiment with a blob of air in a small glass tube containing liquid. In fairness we are stupid only when we don’t learn from the first occasion something unlikely happens to us, as only stupid people fall for the same nonsense twice. All that I will add is that exposing an act of stupidity will not necessarily make you any friends.

Here are some people using their brains to think about stuff . The great thing is that nobody has any idea what’s going on in the other people’s heads despite all of them being in close proximity and sharing a similar experience. In their heads some of these people will even be thinking about somewhere or something else.

Our brain usually prioritises the recognisable and will sometimes override the recognition of certain truths –  our brains it seems are often busy with compromise, especially if we are dealing with one another when we often disguise – sometimes unwittingly – what we are really thinking or feeling for the sake of social cohesion. At such times, we are open to suggestions and the beliefs of others, when what we probably should be, is a bit more sceptical, at least inside our heads. Being part of a group can be good for our mental health, but it can also lead us away from the truth, and when that happens we tend to all get stupid together, although most of us don’t notice.

 

Clearly, the way our minds work is fundamental to our susceptibility to certain types of input. The success of advertising for example, is a clear indication that our minds are open to manipulation and young brains in particular are more plastic and vulnerable to harm from certain kinds of input, but even as we get older and more experienced the personal computing systems we carry in our heads are still open to suggestion.  A lot of the time we are just kidding ourselves, because from an evolutionary perspective, that is what has worked best for our species… Well, it has so far!

More recently with the sudden explosion of digital information, things have been moving more quickly than they ever have done before, with everything from technology to the way we receive news – which is almost continuous now, along with the speed of our social interactions, which has produced a rate of input to our brains that has not worked well for everybody; and some people are discovering that they have a better quality of life when they stop checking their mobile phones and dispense with social media altogether. Nevertheless, progress is progress and receiving information quickly is the way things happen in today’s world, but that does not alter the fact that our brains may not be adequately equipped to deal with the non-stop intensity of our modern lives and some of us are simply not keeping up. The modern age has brought with it more to consider, and consequently more mistakes are made which gives the impression that there is ‘a lot more stupidity about’.

A brain coral might remind us of a human brain in appearance and if ours could grow to such a size our computing power might be extraordinary, but there is an obvious practical limit to scull size and what we can effectively carry; and such a large brain would be expensive in terms of energy consumption. Even the fish swimming above the brain coral with its comparatively small brain, isn’t anywhere near as stupid as we once thought and the idea that fish don’t think, or feel pain is presently undergoing a serious re-evaluation. The limited memory span attributed to goldfish is certainly a mythology, although of course fish will never achieve the thinking capacity of most vertebrates.
A chickadee certainly doesn’t have a large brain, but still manages basic tool use to aid in feeding.  here holding a nut steady against a small twig.

Birds in particular appear to be very adept at working things out and for them in particular, brain size isn’t everything. Birds have much smaller brains than we do, but make very good use of them because the neurons they contain are smaller and more densely packed than is the case for mammalian brains; which might explain why so many birds demonstrate cognitive abilities that often surprise us.

Ravens are members of the crow family and surprisingly bright, which aids in their sociability.

Animals other than ourselves demonstrate varying degrees of intelligence and their close proximity to nature means that ‘stupidity’ (if we can call it that) at the most basic level will bring them closer to death. But because humans now control so thoroughly the environments they live in, and have achieved such high levels of social co-operation, the idiots amongst us usually get considerable leeway before getting penalised. We are it seems extremely tolerant of stupidity, in part because it has many facets that are difficult to quantify and when it is difficult to quantify something it is difficult to make  judgements.

Nevertheless, one might think it easy to distinguish between people who do and do not exhibit this unfortunate condition – even if today it is not politically correct to do so… although of course we all make judgements about one another in our heads. Most of us recognise a tendency in others to be a little on the dim side, but we still fail to call it when a well educated professor, brilliant in his field, finds it difficult to achieve simple practical tasks that a poorly educated streetwise kid can manage in a second… Critical thinking should not be confused with intelligence, as stupidity is clearly relative as well as complicated. 

Did I really see clouds like this, or did my brain just make them up? Sometimes taking a picture helps.

‘The Dunning-Kruger effect’

is a cognitive bias that demonstrates one of the saddest ironies of the human condition. David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that people who have the least competence at a task often have a tendency to rate their skills more highly than do people with greater competence; in effect these are people too ignorant or stupid to grasp what it means to have the skills to ‘think about things’ in the first place; and if we are happy enough to label such people ‘stupid’, the important thing to remember is that they will not have any realisation of their situation because they lack the capacity to reason with the necessary awareness to have the faintest idea of how stupid they really are. 

In the end the reliability of the way we think is a subject that many of us would prefer not to consider too deeply, just incase we fall short of the attributes necessary to not be too stupid. If the state of our Planet is anything to measure this by, then clearly we are failing to rise to the challenge of rational thought and must at some stage face the consequences. We are increasingly required to live, move, and consider events more quickly that we have ever done before, perhaps on a scale too broad for our brains to provide the necessary answers. Are we then too stupid to maintain our Planet in a liveable condition?… On the brink of a host of environmental catastrophes a rational thinker might say that it is certainly beginning to look as if we are, but we might also be on the brink of eliminating stupidity altogether… along with most everything else.

With thanks to Dr David Barlow for the use of his interesting picture of a human brain.

Part 2 to follow: ‘Beyond Rational Thinking’.

The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by tumultuous volcanic activity – this is still happening and is presently centred on the Big Island, Hawai’i. Mt Kilauea on the south-east side of this island remains active and has been spewing lava almost continuously since 1984. Put simply, Hawaii is moving steadily over a hot spot that lies beneath the Pacific Plate.

To the west and more central to the island is the volcanic mass of Mauna Loa which rises just short of 13,700 feet; it has erupted only twice since 1950: once in 1975 for a day, and again in 1984 for three weeks. At the moment things are quiet, but it is still considered the most active volcano of recent time, having erupted 33 times since its first historical eruption in 1833. Not far away to the north across a saddle of lava stands the sister peak of Mauna Kea – presently dormant it rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and I was fortunate enough to travel up it quite recently – this sounds impressive, but getting there is a doddle because you can drive more or less all the way. It is however the toughest road journey anywhere in the world should you choose to do it on a bicycle!

Of greater interest perhaps is that the slopes of these impressive volcanoes provide a variety of habitats entirely determined by changes in altitude. The most obvious way to experience climatic change is to travel from the equator to polar regions, which takes time and money, but there is an alternative: go to Hawai’i and ascend either Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea and experience similar changes over a much shorter distance.

A good start: photographing a green turtle on the local beach.

A few weeks ago my friend David Barlow and I did exactly this, driving from sea level to within a few feet of the summit of Mauna Kea, on the way rising through a variety of different habitat types to arrive above the tree line in a very short journey time: from a tropical beach to a stark arid landscape in a matter of hours, experiencing changes that were both marked and abrupt –  and I was able to make a visual record of species before we returned to sea level in less than twelve hours without rushing about.

The first bird of the day showed up during breakfast – a member of a flock that was picking off grass seeds on the lawn behind our apartment. Introduced from South America in the 1960s this attractive bird is now well established.

We then took a short walk to the beach and along the track saw a red cardinal in a non-native acacia tree. This bird was introduced to the islands in the late 1920’s from the Eastern States of North America; it has a formidable beak essentially for seed eater, but this colourful creature will take insects and other small animals, putting it into direct competition with native birds, or would, if there were any about! Almost nothing endemic exists at sea level apart from the occasional sea bird – a shocking situation that usually passes without comment. Few people realise the birds they see are recent introductions, and no tourist operator would break the mood by broadcasting that at lower altitudes, the most commonly seen creatures are as alien to these islands as snow at Christmas.

The yellow-billed cardinal is also common, it was introduced from South America in the early 1970s and is spreading. These birds occur mostly at lower altitudes, but have been seen more recently at around 6,000 feet where they come into contact with endemic species; this causes not only straight competition, but the possibility of spreading diseases such as bird malaria which the natives have no tolerance of.

Continuing on to the beach we came across a beautiful but nevertheless non-native tree under which a silver eye was feeding two fledgling youngsters. I know this bird well because it was often in our New Zealand garden, although it originates from the opposite end of the Pacific; the NZ version arrived from Australia sometime during the 19th Century, and this version is from Japan.

A Japanese white eye Zosterops japonicus feeding its young.

The Hawai’i white eye was introduced in the late 1920s; it is an agreeable song bird and an absolute sweetie, but like the yellow-billed cardinal, has spread to higher altitudes where it too competes with native birds. White-eyes are opportunistic feeders and as nectar makes up part of their diet this puts it in direct competition with native honeycreepers that have evolved on the Hawaiian Islands and can be found nowhere else.  Back in its homeland this is a delightful bird, but on Hawai’i it is becoming a problem.

One animal that seems to be everywhere at lower altitudes is the Indian mongoose, particularly where there is broken lava flow that provides this efficient little predator with ideal hiding places. This seems an odd choice for an introduction because the Hawaiian Islands have many delicate ecosystems that until recently were totally devoid of mammalian predators.

This less than ideal newcomer was introduced in the 1880s to take on the rat population so prevalent on sugar plantations. As rats are nocturnal and the mongoose diurnal the two seldom met, and together worked around the clock consuming Hawai’i’s native birds – in particular the ground nesters. It is claimed that the mongoose is responsible for the elimination of at least 6 native species from these Islands.

Rikki Tikki Tavi appears just about everywhere including the back of the barbecue on our deck.

I could continue working through a list of all the beautiful plants, butterflies and birds around where we are staying that are clearly non-natives, but if I did, we wouldn’t get much beyond the car park  so it has to be onward and upward. 

David and I began our drive to altitude by crossing the island using Route 200, or the Saddle Road as it is commonly known. This runs between the two volcanic masses of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and as regards native species, we saw nothing until we got to around 6,000 feet.

Along the Saddle Road in the many areas that have experienced recent lava flows, plants are now re-establishing, a situation that has been repeated itself many times on Hawai’i.

At these higher altitudes in national park areas, plants appear very different from the exotic introductions commonplace at sea level. There were similarities to my New Zealand experience, with many native plants carrying smaller, more subtle flowers that many of us ignore in preference to bigger blousier forms that are easily introduced…. But what the heck, people just love dressing up their islands the way they decorate their Christmas trees  with exotic colourful tat that makes them feel more cheerful. Perhaps if we were better informed we might be inclined to consider our native plants more sympathetically, but the chances are… we  probably wouldn’t.

Pink Knotweed Perssicaria capitatum has small flowers, but isn’t a native, having arrived from Asia.

It is tempting to suggest species evolving on islands are delicate, but the reality is, most are well adapted to their surroundings, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived.  It is only when rapid changes occur that natives are found wanting, as was the case when Homo sapiens arrived on the Islands  adaptation through natural selection simply couldn’t equip the natives quickly enough to allow them to compete successfully with the many introduced pests they encountered.

Once up on the hill a mossy forest of native trees adds something quite hopeful to the stark surrounding landscape.

Just before turning off to Moana Loa we stopped to visit Hairy Hill on the opposite side of the road. It was a gentle walk up the old cinder cone that rises just a couple of hundred feet, providing enough height to survive a more recent lava flow that obliterated the flora of the surrounding area; what remains is a reservoir for native plants and trees, and amongst them there is a pleasant ambiance to the small isolated mossy forest that exists near the top, although moss is not be a surprise here because the area is often swathed in dank mists, imbibing the open lava flow below with a certain atmosphere – and it is no wonder that such places have spiritual significance for native people.

Looking down from Pu’u Huluhulu or Hairy Hill. This is a Kapuka, an older volcanic hill surrounded by a more recent lava flow.
I was surprised when a turkey crossed my path near the top of the Hairy Hill a bird very much out of place here.

On the opposite side of the road John Burns Way leads us up towards the summit of Mauna Kea. We stopped just short of the point where the tree line changed abruptly into a high altitude desert to emerge from cloud cover into bright sunlight. I pulled the car off the road at 9,000 feet so that we might acclimatise to the altitude; but had an ulterior motive: I’d hoped to photograph native birds in the area, but this would depend entirely on finding plants carrying nectar filled flowers to attract them in, otherwise we could search all afternoon and perhaps see birds only fleetingly. There is little to be gained by chasing wildlife about – if there was nothing to draw birds in to where I could stand quietly, the chances of getting worthwhile images was slim.

Common Mullien is everywhere.

 

We start searching on foot and it is at once clear that a great many unwanted plants have been introduced here, some accidentally; and eliminating them is likely to be an ongoing problem for park authorities. In fact, the weeds are so numerous and producing such copious amounts of seed, it might be a case of ‘know your enemy’ and prioritise those that are competing most harmfully with native species.

There was no shortage of Common Mullien Verbascum thapsus, originally brought to North America by settlers from Europe for medicinal purposes. It has now reached Hawaii and doing well at altitude on Mauna Kea.

David time lapses clouds as they roll up between the two volcanic peaks; every half an hour the top of Mauna Loa is revealed then disappears again, we however remain just above the cloud-line in full sunshine.

This volcanic mass we are on is the tallest mountain on the planet, but not recognised as such because the height of a land mass is always taken from sea level to provide a standard for the measurement of altitude. However, if Mauna Kea was measured from the ocean floor it rises to around 33,000 feet and there is nothing on Earth that will match it  – apart from the peak we can see across the saddle in front of us  that of Mauna Loa, which is around a 100 feet short of the volcano we are standing on.

At the time of writing Kilauea was very busy doing its thing.

To have two such massive features on an island that takes only a couple of hours to cross is remarkable. Everest is considered the highest mountain in the world at just over 29,000 feet it is part of the Himalayas – a mountain chain that pushed up like a rucked carpet when two continents collided: 50 million years ago the India plate started crashing into the Euro Asia plate and they continue to do so; but the Hawaiian peaks are perhaps even more impressive, thrusting as they do from the ocean floor driven entirely by the dynamism of volcanic activity.

Flowers of the Mamane tree Sophora chrysophylla.

It doesn’t take long to see a yellow flower, a member of the pea family, that is similar to the kowhai flower that I know from my time in New Zealand, which demonstrates that the relatedness of some plants can be clearly followed across the Pacific region, although how this member of the Sophora family arrived in Hawai’i remains a mystery.

I set up on a mamane tree and wait to see what visits.

The blooms I set up on hung from a mamane tree, a species integral to the upland forests of Hawai’i with flowers drooping down seductively from a canopy that can reach up to 50 feet. Unfortunately, the tree’s survival on the Hawaiian Islands has not been plain sailing: prior to and during the 1980s the upland slopes of Mauna Kea were ravaged by introduced grazers, and legal action was taken against the government at both local and federal level on behalf of two bird species. The resultant court case ended with a win for the endangered birds, in particular the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), a honeycreeper that relies heavily on Mamane tree seeds for food, as do  caterpillars of the Cydia moth which also feed on the young seeds of this tree and the birds in turn feed on them. Both bird and insect must avoid the mature seed coats because they are highly toxic, although these animals have developed a degree of tolerance to the alkaloid poisons that are present.  It appears the fauna remains just ahead of the flora in this evolutionary arms race and having gained the advantage, utilise the mamane seeds as an essential part of their diet.

As for the other battle – the legal one: on paper it was clearly a win for the birds and the environment, but in reality this wasn’t absolute. Soon after the judgement sheep and feral goats that for years had been decimating the upland forests were at last being removed, but the court order was never fully complied with until another court order was made in 2013 backing the protective measure, and renewing efforts to remove the pests that were pushing the Palila bird in particular to extinction. I am not certain of how successful this has been, but we at least didn’t see any alien grazers during our visit.

A tui in our New Zealand garden making use of nectar from a kowhia tree which carries one of the earliest blooms of spring. The birds beak is curved, and has co-evolved with the kowhia flowers to aid in pollination: pollen can be clearly seen on the upper side of the beak. This bird is of the honeyeater family and quite different from the honeycreepers of Hawaii, some of which have evolved similar beaks for the same nectar feeding purpose.

This is just one of a host of conservation issues that plague delicate island environments. Conservationists and volunteers do their best, but pest problems are frequently overwhelming, and there is usually a struggle for adequate funding.

The Sophora flowers blooming on Mauna Kea are as important to the native nectar feeding birds of Hawaii as the related kowhai flowers are to the tuis and bellbirds that regularly visited the trees we had planted in our New Zealand garden. Understanding such alliances is important and may prove instrumental in both protecting and bringing associated species together.

Certainly not the most exciting looking bird, but exciting for me…. I have no interest in ticking off birds, but as most of the park areas were closed due to the volcanic activity, the chance of seeing native birds was substantially reduced.

Back on the mountain I stood in the mid-day sun waiting… and it wasn’t long before a small bird came flying in to my chosen tree, but it was soon away with a dipping up and down flight that is probably peculiar to its species. I was pretty well set up by then and hopeful of a return visit – although this was not an entirely pleasurable experience, as standing in the sun at altitude with increased levels of UV will quickly sear exposed skin.

The bird made three further visits at approximately twenty to thirty minute intervals and remained completely untroubled by my presence. The little nectar feeder spent three or four minutes feeding on groups of flowers before flying off to presumably visit other flowers in the area; certainly it flew some distance beyond a point where I could see it, which suggested that it was feeding over a fairly wide range. 

Something about this bird might suggest a non-native immature white eye, but then the curve of the bill and the short tail makes me think it is a female or immature Hawai’i ‘Amakihi (Hemignathus virens virens) – not the rarest honeycreeper on Hawai’i  but nevertheless considered a distinct species for the island. This bird is also often confused with the Hawai’i Creeper (Oreomystis mana), but the creeper is rarer and does not feed so regularly on nectar. Hopefully, I might be forgiven for an uncertain identification of a bird I don’t regularly see. Even ornitholgist sometimes have trouble identifying these ‘little brown jobs’ and it might in the end come down to movement or behaviour… but most likely somebody will know from my pictures and I will soon be better informed.
Once I get to see the curve of the birds beak more clearly I feel confident that I have observed a native bird – a honey creeper with a beak adapted to feed from flowers, but still useful enough to dig out insects.

After a couple of hours acclimatisation we had achieved all that was possible and continued on to the summit. Almost at once we were on Mars, albeit a Mars with blue skies and genuine atmosphere; but the views were not as spectacular here as the Mars-scapes I’d previously seen near the summit of Haleakala which rises to just under 10,000 feet on the neighbouring island of Maui. From our vantage point we could at least see Haleakala coming and going some 35 miles away as clouds moved across the substantial peaks of both islands. Now close to  the 14,000 foot summit David framed the view and set his time lapse in motion.

David time lapsed cloud formations behind one of the Mauna Kea Observatory Telescopes with Haleakala on the island of Maui in the background – my still is rather a poor substitute.

I finished my photography fairly quickly – because wildlife opportunities are limited at this altitude – and was just admiring the view when David arrived with a young lady he had found, he left her with me and returned to his camera— the altitude had got the better of her, although her boyfriend had fared better and decided to walk back down to the visitors centre from where they had started out. David had agreed that we would drive his girlfriend down because of her condition. I sat her on the back seat of our car amongst the gear and told her how lucky I had been to photograph a honeyeater, but she seemed disinterested, obviously she wasn’t big on wildlife and so I stopped talking, at which point she shot out of the car and began projectile vomiting in a quite spectacular manner… I must admit that I did think about taking a photograph, but refrained from doing so.

The summit of Mauna Kea is not much further away, but I never made it up there, nor any other summit on any other mountain I have visited — it’s the kind of thing that can make you throw up, and I have no idea why people feel a need to do it.

Soon back in the car she began telling me how much better she was feeling. I smiled and nodded encouragingly and at once she took a turn for the worse and did it all over again. Hopefully it wasn’t the company she was keeping… more likely, having taken a meandering walk up in 40% less oxygen than there is at sea level and going that little bit further to the summit she had developed altitude sickness. It was clear that we needed to get her to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and so David’s time lapse came to an abrupt end and I was soon driving us towards the visitors centre considerably faster than when we had made our way up – thinking all the time that a four wheel drive would have now been quite useful. The dirt road had been rutted and tricky to negotiate on the ascent and I had driven slowly to look after the vehicle, but on the way down it was a different story.

Away in the distance Kilauea has a little spew.

 We were going quite fast — why wasn’t I sliding us off of the volcano? Then, it suddenly occurred to me — the grader I had noticed parked close by the visitors centre had been doing its job at an opportune moment and the track had been graded all the way to the top.

Half way to our destination, away in the distance Kilauea had a little spew of her own – signalling that tomorrow would be another murky VOG sky day, even on the other side of the island.

Hawai’i it seemed was presently troubled by one of  it’s little volcanic phases, but sadly the island also displays a good many environmental problems concerning the preservation of its endemic species… Nevertheless, even a true story should have a happy ending – so here it is. The girl and the volcano have stopped spewing now and both are doing fine.

Up above the clouds Mauna Kea is a Mars-scape but with atmosphere, where things can get very hot and very cold, but thankfully not to Martian extremes… because really, this is a very down to Earth sort of place.

There is also a moral to this story: a little bird recently told me that we all spend too much time obsessing over how beautiful things are, rather than how beautifully things fit together. Unfortunately, the latter requires far greater imagination and understanding than does the former, and more often than not, like many a good mixing of metaphors, we sometimes find ourselves on the right volcano, but chirping up the wrong tree. 

It wasn’t a great surprise that we didn’t see a Palila, but I have at least attempted a sketch.

I started the day with a little yellow bird that doesn’t belong, but didn’t manage to finish with the Palila – the yellow-headed bird that does – it was just too hopeful. Science has informed us quite thoroughly of what this rarity requires, and in that sense the tricky work has been done, but the will to save this beauty from extinction may simply not be there. And the way things are going – in the natural world at least – happy endings are increasingly difficult to find.

 

 

Pictures don't just tell stories – they change the world